STEPHEN CAUCHI, August 30, 2009 . The Age
An expose on the dark side of dog breeding is expected to incite outrage.
AUSTRALIAN pedigree dog breeders are bracing themselves for the fallout from revelations of appalling health problems in pure-bred dogs caused by modern breeding practices.
Australia’s main body for pedigree dogs, the Australian National Kennel Council, has appointed a public relations officer to deal with media interest from a BBC documentary, Pedigree Dogs Exposed, scheduled to show on ABC1 on September 10.
Following last year’s UK screening of the documentary – billed ”the greatest animal welfare scandal of our time” – the BBC and RSPCA pulled out of Britain’s prestigious Crufts dog show, held in March this year, citing health concerns of several breeds.
Former RSPCA state president Hugh Wirth said the documentary ”forced the issue [in the UK] and it will force the issue here”.
The documentary shows graphic footage of dogs suffering walking, breathing, mating and birthing difficulties and high rates of diseases including cancer and heart disease. It blames breeders who try to achieve an unnatural appearance in their dogs to win dog shows.
In one disturbing scene, a Cavalier King Charles spaniel writhes in permanent agony due to syringomyelia, a condition where the brain becomes too large for the skull. In another, a boxer is shown having an epileptic fit.
Other troubled dogs shown in the program include bulldogs, Pekingese, Rhodesian ridgebacks, pugs, basset hounds, labradors, golden retrievers and West Highland terriers.
Pedigree dogs are bred to standards originally set up in the 19th century by the British Kennel Club. Cross-breds are far healthier because cross-breeding widens the gene pool.
The documentary blames dog shows run by the kennel club as driving the demand for unnatural appearance, fed by breeders who are prepared to mate siblings and parent and child to achieve a certain look.
Since the documentary, UK show rules have been changed to state ”more clearly than ever” that judges should only ”reward those dogs that are healthy representatives of their breed”.
But dog breeders in Australia say most breeders are responsible dog lovers who want to produce healthy pets.
Peter Higgins, the spokesman appointed by the Australian National Kennel Council to deal with public interest in the documentary, accused it of being ”one-sided”.
”To say it’s as common as they say it is, it’s just not right. What responsible breeders do is try to minimise that – they spend money and years of hard work trying to get rid of their diseases, not make them more so.
”These people love their dog, they love their breed and they want to do the best thing for it, not the worst.”
Dr Higgins said ”backyard breeders” and ”fly-by-night” people were the problem. He said the overwhelming majority of registered breeders – those who belonged to the kennel council through state organisations such as Dogs Victoria – were responsible and ”trying to do the right thing”.
Dr Wirth, however, said the documentary was justified even though ”a minority of breeders” were responsible for poorly bred dogs.
”You’ve got the irresponsible, who don’t know anything, who kid themselves they know a lot and are trying to destroy a breed because of their own stupidity. I made a huge amount of money [as a vet] trying to correct the poor unfortunate dogs with inherited defects.”
Dr Wirth said there were examples where local dog shows also rewarded improper breeding. ”I can give you chapter and verse where judges had been persuaded for whatever reason to reward things that don’t meet the standard,” he said.
Dr Wirth said the irresponsible minority ”get away with it because the state authorities claim not to be able to control them. I am talking about Dogs Victoria … It’s a dereliction of duty, as far as I am concerned.”
Dogs Victoria president Peter Frost, a breeder of Irish setters and judge at dog shows, said most irresponsible breeders didn’t come under the umbrella of Dogs Victoria.
”We have a code of ethics, which says: ‘I am breeding to improve the dog.’ The vast majority of breeders are ethically responsible and adhere to the code of practice. Most people, whether they’re breeders or judges, are responsible.
”It would horrify me if I sold a puppy to somebody and it had a bad disease or a bad temperament or something diabolically wrong with it,” Mr Frost said. ”I’d be ashamed and I’d be horrified if I put a family through unnecessary pain.”
Mr Frost said educating buyers was the best solution.
A spokeswoman for RSPCA Australia, Lisa Chalk, also urged buyers to research the breed they wanted to buy and insist on health checks.
She said the problem of improperly bred dogs was ”definitely an issue but the extent of the issue in Australia we don’t know. We don’t have the statistics.”
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