Staying Good While Playing God - Ethical Perspectives on Dog Breeding
World Small Animal Veterinary Association Congress Proceedings, 2017
P. Sandøe1; S. Corr2; C. Palmer3; B. Bonnett4
1Department of Veterinary and Animal Sciences and Department of Food and Resource Economics, University of Copenhagen, Copenhagen, Denmark; 2College of Medical - Veterinary and Life Sciences, University of Glasgow, Glasgow, UK; 3Department of Philosophy, Texas A&M University, College Station, TX, USA; 4B. Bonnett Consulting, Georgian Bluffs, ON, Canada

Humans have bred companion animals for many different reasons, including for particular temperaments, for example to make them good companions, or in the case of dogs, to make them suitable for certain types of work. However sometimes the breeding goals seem to serve less serious purposes.

Thus, some of the features for which dogs and cats have been bred, such as bigger eyes and flat faces, make companions more "infant-like." Other physical features, such as a sloping croup, or multiple skin folds, have no obvious relationship to a "baby-like" attractiveness, but rather are features selected by breeders and show judges, and preferred by potential dog or cat owners as a result of fads and trends of the time.

However, some of the exaggerated features that appeal to owners cause health problems for the animals; and the preference for pure breeds, while certainly creating the advantage of predictability, means that animals may develop a greater number of diseases from inbreeding.

From a number of ethical perspectives, it is problematic to selectively breed animals that tend to develop significant health or behaviour problems.1 So, what are the possible ways of tackling these problems? One approach here concentrates on the supply of animals to the companion animal market; the other focuses on demand for companion animals.

In terms of supply: there has already been some change in attitude on the part of key stakeholders such as kennel clubs, breeders, veterinary associations and animal protection societies, towards taking concerns about selective breeding and animal welfare seriously. The same is true of public authorities, particularly in Europe, where various boards and committees have been established to propose reforms for dog breeding.2,3

Breed clubs in charge of individual dog and cat pedigree breeds, and to some extent kennel clubs, have the power to change breed standards and to introduce breed restrictions obliging their members to take welfare into account. A number of such initiatives have already been taken, particularly in Europe, and these mechanisms are good as far as they go. However their effectiveness is limited by difficulties in enforcement, imports from areas or countries with less strict policies, and breeding occurring outside the influence of the leading breeding organizations.

Therefore, it is important to reduce demand for animals bred to ideal features that may risk ill health or behavioural problems. Different explanations have been proposed regarding the apparent paradox that people buy breeds of dog predisposed to diseases and other welfare problems, while at the same time caring deeply about their dogs. One line of thought is that prospective dog owners are not fully aware of the potential problems their dog may face prior to acquiring them. It is also possible that dog owners simply do not perceive the clinical signs of some inherited disorders as problems, but rather as normal, breed-specific characteristics.4 Alternatively, it could be that, when choosing a suitable breed, other characteristics of the dog may be considered more important than its health and welfare.5 Dogs with extreme physical features may possess qualities that matter to their owners to such an extent that they overshadow any health and other welfare problems faced by the dogs. That this can be the case has been documented in a recent study.6

Prospective buyers of kittens and puppies should therefore be educated, based on the best available information, about the potential effects of breeding on the subsequent welfare of the animals. Although information resources are available, much more could be done to disseminate this knowledge in a more efficient and vivid way. This could, for example, include large information campaigns involving TV advertisements and other means of mass communication; but these strategies would require financial means far outstripping the capacities of the small animal welfare NGOs currently addressing the issue.

In addition, much more research is needed into the problems caused by breeding and ways to solve them, with greater collaboration between veterinarians who treat affected animals, researchers and authorities. For example, in the UK, responsible owners of breeding animals of dog breeds where hip dysplasia is a common condition have their dogs "hip scored" under the British Veterinary Association-Kennel Club (BVA-KC) Hip Scheme, set up in 1983. To be hip scored, the dog must be at least a year old; a specific X-ray view of the hips is taken under general anaesthetic, and nine specific features are assessed by a panel of experts, who then allocate a score for each hip. The higher the score, the worse the hip — a maximum score of 53 is possible for each hip. A total score of up to 10 is suggested to indicate either normal hips, or borderline changes that are unlikely to worsen with age: the recommendation is that "ideally" only dogs with scores up to 10 be used for breeding. Similar schemes exist in other European countries, and in the USA. Prospective purchasers should therefore ask to see the hip scores of the parents, and not buy puppies from parents where scores are high, or unavailable.

However, even though there is an indication of a positive effect in countries where the schemes have been effectively followed, these schemes have not worked as well as hoped for various reasons, including that they are voluntary, and so many breeders do not have the parents screened, and some of those that do will simply not submit the radiographs for scoring if the hips look bad. Equally importantly, radiographic changes do not infallibly predict the incidence and severity of subsequent disease, which is highly influenced by environmental factors such as feeding and exercise. Thus, trying to select for healthy dogs based on phenotypic indicators has had only limited success, and most experts now agree that genetic testing is more likely to reliably identify at-risk dogs.

A rapidly increasing number of tests are being marketed for screening for genetic diseases. However, many of them are poorly validated, especially for use in controlling disease at the population level. Even so, all breeders would still have to fully engage with the process, but compliance by the majority of breeders, who are not members of breed clubs, may not be likely. If consumers are driving the market for dogs and cats, it may fall to them to demand documentation that the animals they buy are free of certain genetic diseases.

Economic incentives may also play an important role both in reducing supply and demand of purebred dogs and cats that are likely to be affected by inherited illnesses. First, it should, in theory, be possible for owners of dogs and cats to get a significant refund from the breeder of an animal that subsequently suffers from a specific inherited illness. Although this currently happens in countries such as Denmark, it is unusual elsewhere, yet this would give breeders and suppliers an incentive to breed healthier cats and dogs. Secondly, if inherited health problems lead to increased expense for veterinary treatments, this may serve to limit demand. Some insurance companies now exclude certain inherited diseases in certain breeds from being covered, for example treatment of BOAS in brachycephalic breeds; and this may increase the demand for dogs of these breeds which are documented to be less affected by BOAS.

In conclusion, there doesn't seem to be a quick fix available to solve all the problems arising from purebred pedigree breeding. However, a combination of greater awareness among potential dog and cat owners, better methods for predicting breeding-related problems, and greater pressure, including economic pressure, on breeders may serve to move things in the right direction.


1.  Companion Animal Ethics. Chichester: Universities Federation for Animal Welfare/Wiley-Blackwell.

2.  A healthier future for pedigree dogs: update report. Associate Parliamentary Group for Animal Welfare. London, The Stationary Office.

3.  Independent inquiry into dog breeding. Cambridge, UK: Patrick Bateson.

4.  Prev Vet Med. 43(3):145–158.

5.  Anim Welfare. 21(1s):81–93.

6.  PLoS One. 12(2):e0172091.


Speaker Information
(click the speaker's name to view other papers and abstracts submitted by this speaker)

Brenda N. Bonnett, DVM, PhD
B Bonnett Consulting
International Partnership for Dogs (IPFD)
Georgian Bluffs, ON, Canada

S. Corr
College of Medical - Veterinary and Life Sciences
University of Glasgow
Glasgow, UK

C. Palmer
Department of Philosophy
Texas A&M University
College Station, TX, USA

P. Sandøe
Department of Veterinary and Animal Sciences
Department of Food and Resource Economics
University of Copenhagen
Copenhagen, Denmark

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