This article is from
Creation 41(3):22–25, July 2019

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Sick, suffering monsters and the eugenicists who created them

Purebred dogs pay the price



Many people love purebred dogs. The distinctive features of each breed and their predictable temperaments draw many people to pay a high price to own one. But how did we come to value such features, and is this desired ‘purity’ better for the health of the dog?

Domestic dogs have been around for thousands of years, and distinct ‘types’ of dogs go far back in history, when people began selectively breeding their dogs for desirable characteristics, mostly related to the type of work the dog was supposed to do—like hunting, guarding, or herding livestock. As dogs particularly suited to their jobs were bred, some types began to take on a distinctive appearance. Some of this was due to mutations (affecting coat colour, size, facial shape, etc.). By identifying useful traits and then allowing dogs that carried the trait to inbreed with closely-related dogs, the traits were emphasized. This was the origin of dog ‘breeds’.

However, most modern dog breeds as we think of them are relatively young. In the 1800s, Victorians were fascinated by the new scientific knowledge that was becoming available regarding plant and animal breeding. “The Victorian catalogues contain lists of literally thousands of varieties of apples and other fruit. The widely shared fascination with selective breeding of plants and animals was often driven by commercial considerations but also by a delight in generating novel and extraordinary forms.”1

This led people to breed new types of dogs, and to more tightly define existing breeds. The Kennel Club was formed to register these new varieties of dog and to track their breeding. A closed stud book was created for each breed, thus limiting forever the members of that breed to the descendants of only those specific animals.

Around the same time, inspired by the new wave of evolutionary thinking, an idea called ‘eugenics’ was invented by Charles Darwin’s cousin, Francis Galton (see below). Eugenics was the idea that breeding the ‘purest’ individuals—whether animals or humans, and however one wished to define ‘purest’—would result in better offspring. On the flipside, undesirable individuals would be prevented from mating and thus tainting the future bloodline of a given species. Critically, these ideas developed before much was known about genetics.

We have written before about how eugenic ideas resulted in human rights abuses against those deemed ‘feebleminded’ or otherwise undesirable, and how it has fallen out of favour among most scientists today.2 Surprisingly, however, eugenics still forms the basis of the thinking around modern purebred dogs, sometimes with horrific results for the dogs.3

The ‘prettiest’ dogs are the ‘best’

The Kennel Club developed a ‘breed standard’ for each dog, a written description of the appearance of the ideal individual of the breed. But the language of the breed standard is interpreted differently according to the ‘fashion’ of the day, and over time this has led to exaggeration in several breeds. For instance, the American Kennel Club’s breed standard for the English bulldog states that it should have a “massive short-faced head”. How massive? “The circumference of the skull in front of the ears should measure at least the height of the dog at the shoulders” (notice—that’s a lower limit, with no upper—the sort of description that lends itself to extreme breeding).4 This massive head is so important to the breed that the standard mentions it twice. The result? Over 90% of bulldog puppies must be delivered via caesarean section.5

Purebred boxer
Francis Galton, the father of eugenics
French bulldog puppy

What about other features? “The eyes, seen from the front, should be situated low down in the skull, as far from the ears as possible … . They should be quite in front of the head, as wide apart as possible, provided their outer corners are within the outline of the cheeks when viewed from the front.” The ears should be “as far from the eyes as possible”. “The face … should be extremely short, the muzzle being very short”. “The head and face should be covered with heavy wrinkles” (all italics added).4

When we compare the English bulldog of today with the representations of bulldogs in paintings from the 1800s (see below), we can see that the standard has been interpreted to increasingly exaggerate its features.

When breeders decided certain features were desirable, they applied artificial selection. Bulldogs with shorter noses, for example, were more likely to be bred. Unlike natural selection, however, nothing about a shorter nose was beneficial to the animal or its functioning; it was purely cosmetic. That meant that undesirable side effects were not weeded out. Darwin used artificial selection as an example of how natural selection works in the wild, but on longer timescales. But the only thing revealed by artificial selection is that we now know most changes are bad for the animal. Worse, by focusing on visible traits, breeders have discovered that invisible mutations are often carried along with the ‘desirable’ traits.

Only the ‘best’ animals are bred

A dog breed already has an artificially limited gene pool, because to get purebred pups, one must breed an English bulldog with an English bulldog, even though they could crossbreed with any dog from any other breed, or even with wolves. But the gene pool is made even smaller when dogs that have characteristics deemed undesirable, like the ‘wrong’ coloured nose, are not bred. The wrong coloured nose then doesn’t show up in the next generation, but neither do any of the dog’s other genes.

Image from page 34 of The Dog Book : A Popular History of the Dog, with Practical Information as to Care and Management of House, Kennel, and Exhibition Dogs; and Descriptions of all the important breeds (1906).
An Olde English Bulldogge also known as a Leavitt Bulldog

Conversely, the ‘best’ individuals are bred—a lot. Popular studs can father dozens of litters of puppies—having a far bigger genetic impact than they would normally. This, combined with the elimination of ‘less desirable’ dogs from the gene pool, lessens genetic diversity across the breed. In the worst-case scenario, one award-winning stud can pass a disease across a whole breed. This may have happened in the case of juvenile renal disease in boxers. One dog, Gucci, was rated ‘Top Sire’ in 2007, and sired 894 puppies (up to the date of production of a documentary that mentioned him).6 Gucci’s grandfather is linked to all but two cases of juvenile kidney disease in boxers, and Gucci is linked to almost half. This is a recessive genetic condition—only occurring if a given dog has two copies of a faulty gene. It wouldn’t be a big problem in a species with normal genetic diversity, in which closely related animals weren’t mating. But until very recently it was common to engage in extreme inbreeding—like using a stud with one of his own female offspring—ensuring that many dogs are either carriers of the mutation or have the disease.

Sick ‘pure’ dogs preferred to healthy ‘mongrels’

Eugenic thinking values ‘purity’, which can lead to the irrational preference of sickly animals deemed ‘pure’, over healthier mutts. One clear example concerns the Low (aka Normal) Uric Acid (LUA) Dalmatian.

Dalmatians lost the normal gene for uric acid metabolism as an accidental byproduct of breeding. When uric acid builds up, it causes gout in humans. In Dalmatians, it can cause bladder stones that are deadly if untreated. So every ‘purebred’ Dalmatian must be fed a special diet and monitored closely for bladder stones. However, the gene was bred back into a line of dogs by crossing a Dalmatian with an English Pointer in 1973. The initial puppies didn’t look especially like Dalmatians, but by crossing back with purebred Dalmatians, the result was dogs that looked exactly like Dalmatians (see below), sharing 99.98% of their DNA with purebred Dalmatians, but with normal uric acid levels. These ‘LUA Dalmatians’ should obviously be preferred over their sick counterparts. But they are considered ‘mongrels’ by some, even though the Kennel Club took the nearly unprecedented step of accepting LUA Dalmatians as true Dalmatians.

Incidentally, this move away from outdated thinking about ‘purity’ towards a perspective that values the health of the animals is an encouraging sign and the best way to ensure the breed’s future. If this thinking takes hold, it could mean a drastic reduction in suffering and disease across the pedigree dog population. It would also mean a total departure from the outdated eugenic thinking that was not even questioned within breeding circles just a few decades ago. So, far from being the problem, a growing number of breeders are an integral part of the solution to saving the dogs they love.

Dalmatians are very active and intelligent dogs who need lots of exercise, love company, and are prone to high uric acid levels causing life-threatening bladderstones.

Are purebred dogs ethical?

While the Dalmatian example shows promise, other cases are more complex. Some breeds no longer have the genetic diversity to fix the problems bad breeding practices have created, and others have been transformed into monstrous caricatures of their former selves, like many of the short-muzzled breeds that have trouble breathing, mating, and giving birth.

Some call for the abolition of breeds that suffer problems from a gene pool so depleted that outcrossing is the only fix for the health problems. The argument is simple: if we actually love these animals, we won’t keep bringing sick, suffering animals into the world.

Some are creating new breeds like the Leavitt bulldog (photo above) which are attractive as well as healthy and athletic. Better yet, new ideas about breeding are based on the best current genetic understanding, with the goal to keep the breed healthy.

Another option is crossbreeding animals. A crossbred dog often avoids the health complications of its purebred parents and has a fairly predictable appearance and temperament. An example of this would be the schnoodle, a cross between a schnauzer and a poodle.

It is important to remember that dog breeds were created by humans, and humans were responsible for the breeding practices that inadvertently introduced all manner of conditions into these breeds, such that dogs suffer unnecessarily.

As Christians, we should seek to be responsible stewards of creation, which includes considering the welfare of animals under our care. If you are considering buying a new puppy, do your research and make sure you get a healthy dog from a reputable breeder, or adopt a shelter dog. Be aware of the advantages and disadvantages of purebred versus ‘mongrel’ animals and don’t shy away from a healthy mutt just because it doesn’t have a long pedigree.

Posted on homepage: 13 May 2020

References and notes

  1. Bateson, P. Independent Inquiry into Dog Breeding, University of Cambridge, p. 7, 2010; dogbreedinginquiry.com. Return to text.
  2. Grigg, R., Eugenics … death of the defenceless, Creation 28(1):18–22, 2005. Return to text.
  3. Cosner, L., Parade of mutants—pedigree dogs and artificial selection, Creation 32(3):28–32, 2010. Return to text.
  4. “Official standard of the Bulldog”, American Kennel Club, akc.org. Return to text.
  5. Brulliard, K., Why breeding bulldogs is borderline inhumane, Washington Post, 2 Aug 2016; washingtonpost.com. Return to text.
  6. Harrison, J., Pedigree Dogs Exposed: Three Years On, accessed 24 Oct 2018; vimeo.com. Return to text.