Sunday 15 December 2019

The crime of breeding sick pups and kittens

Puppies should be bred for good health as well as cute looks
Puppies should be bred for good health as well as cute looks

Pete Wedderburn - Animal Doctor

In ten, or twenty, or fifty years time, we will look back at this time and wonder how on earth we felt that certain aspects of our society are tolerable, never mind acceptable. The challenge is for us today to work out which parts of our daily lives will fall into this category.

There is one particular area of the pet world that I feel is wrong. I have been talking about for some time, and this week in the UK, it became apparent that action is being taken to sort it out in our near neighbour's jurisdiction. And with luck, Ireland will follow suit in the near future.

I am talking about the age-old tradition of producing pedigree puppies that predictably go on to have health problems. The most obvious example is brachycephalic breeds of dog, where over 50% of puppies grow up to have serious difficulties breathing because of the physical design of their bodies, with flattened nostrils and narrowed breathing passages. Affected breeds include Bulldogs, French Bulldogs and Pugs. There are many other examples too. Labradors that are born with hips so badly deformed that they need to have hip replacement operations by three years of age. Pedigree cats that develop serious inherited heart disease while still young adults. There is a long list of diseases that occur because of poor breeding, or conversely, that can be prevented by careful breeding.

Up until now, there has been no come-back for new owners whose pups have grown up into adult dogs that have needed expensive veterinary treatment to allow them to live normal lives. They have been left to carry the cost themselves, even though they may have felt that the breeder of the pups ought to have realized that there was a high risk of this happening.

In the UK, this has now changed: from October, it will be a criminal offence to breed a puppy or kitten that goes on to develop inherited-type diseases that could have been prevented by more careful attention to choosing a sire and dam for the litter of pups. This new crime is already in place in Switzerland where it is called "qualzucht", which is German for "torture breeding". A breeder of ultra-flat-faced pedigree Persian cats was prosecuted under this law because the kittens went on to have health issues linked to their flat faces and pinched nostrils.

It remains to be seen how many prosecutions will be taken in the UK. The police certainly won't be seeking out possible infringements. The most likely outcome is that the owner of a dog or cat with a particularly bad case of inherited disease will insist on taking a prosecution against the person who bred their pet. And the law will be on their side, so that they should win financial compensation, while the breeder should be convicted and given a fine, or even a jail sentence.

The aim of this law is not to financially punish pet breeders, not is it to fill the jails with a new category of prisoner. Rather, the aim is to improve animal welfare by creating a deterrent that stops people from breeding dogs and cats that have a high likelihood of falling ill.

Logically, because of the risk of prosecution, pet breeders will start to choose their breeding stock more carefully, producing healthier pups and kittens. That is the whole point of the new approach.

And it's likely that prosecutions will be taken only against severe examples of the problem, at least in the early stages. For example, if both the sire and the dam of a litter of puppies suffer from severe health issues themselves, it would be irresponsible to breed from them. Yet currently, some people continue to breed from these animals, because of the financial gain from selling pups and kittens.

Further down the road, less severe cases may be prosecuted. For example, the right way to prevent inherited diseases has been well established in many breeds. A long list of health checks can be applied to the sire and dam.This may include blood tests to check for specific disease-carrying genes, x-rays to ensure that the hips and elbows are healthy, ultrasound to confirm that the heart is free from inherited diseases, or MRI scans in some breeds (such as Cavalier King Charles Spaniels) to rule out the risk of a common neurological condition which develops because the dog's skull is too small to contain the brain, and the resulting pressure on the brain causes pain and illness. In the future, if a breeder can be shown not to have taken the recommended tests, and as a result, their pups fall ill with inherited disease, a prosecution may take place.

This new law shouldn't be a concern for good animal breeders: in fact, they should welcome it. There's a high chance that they will already be using an effective breeding policy that reduces the risk of unhealthy pups and kittens. And if they are unlucky enough to accidentally produce pups or kittens with inherited illnesses, they will be protected from prosecution because they will be able to demonstrate that they did take a reasonable level of precautions to prevent the problem. It will only be flagrant abusers of the system that will be likely to get into trouble.

I hope that by the end of this century, we will look back at these times and wonder how we ever allowed the unrestricted production of unhealthy puppies and kittens.

Wexford People

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