It doesn’t take much to convince reasonable people that human inbreeding is bad. The physical abnormalities and high infant mortality rates that are attributed to incestual reproduction are visible enough to form consensus on a taboo. Yet, we don’t seem to mind inbreeding other animals. Even our adorable household companions, dogs, are subject to a whole industry designed to mate them with their close relatives in pursuit of arbitrary characteristics. This needs to stop.
It’s not like inbreeding dogs is biologically different than inbreeding humans. The science is still the same. Offspring inherit chromosomes from both parents, and the dominant allele will be expressed over the recessive allele. But if both paired alleles are recessive, then the offspring gets that trait. For example, progressive retinal atrophy is a genetic trait that causes blindness in some dog breeds. Since it is recessive, it could be gradually eliminated if all affected dogs were mated with unaffected dogs. But breeders are pairing affected dogs with their close relatives in order to produce purebred offspring, so the disease persists.
It is important to recognize that none of these pedigree, or purebred, dogs are naturally occurring. Obviously, poodles and Dachshunds did not hunt in packs alongside primordial wolves. It was 19th century, eugenic-crazed aristocrats who created many of these breeds by mating dogs with certain traits and then compounding on those traits by inbreeding the offspring together. They did this for sport, show, convenience or just because the breed looked silly.
So, what is the problem with this? Humans genetically modify species of edible plants all the time, without objection. But purebred dogs are suffering from horrible, degenerative diseases. Their bodies are deformed and prone to dysfunction. Their life expectancies are frequently shorter than 10 years. The dogs may be blissful in their ignorance, but it’s us who have to live with a pang of guilt for promoting their deformities for our amusement.
Looking at some of the most problematic breeds highlights how extraordinarily abusive purebred genetics has become. Pugs have such short, crunched snouts that they can hardly breathe. Over 80 percent of bulldogs have to be birthed by cesarean section because their skulls are too large for the mother’s pelvis. The skeletal structure of a Dachshund is so warped that they barely clear the ground and suffer from spinal problems. A study of 88,635 dogs at the University of California Davis Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital identified 10 inherited diseases with higher prevalence in pure-breeds: aortic stenosis, atopy/allergic dermatitis, gastric dilatation volvulus, early onset cataracts, dilated cardiomyopathy, elbow dysplasia, epilepsy, hypothyroidism, intervertebral disk disease and hepatic portosystemic shunt.
At the helm of all this misery are the kennel clubs. These organizations set arbitrary standards for show dogs, and actively promote breeding arrangements that emphasize that standard. The American Kennel Club sponsors shows where dogs are judged on conformity to their breed. Spayed or neutered dogs are disqualified, as well as mixed breeds. Male dogs who win contests become “popular sires” and are bred repeatedly, further limiting the gene pool.
Kennel clubs are just the modern version of the same old problem. No matter how they spin their message, they are still promoting an environment where contestants bring ruin upon the canine genome. The human wins the money and glory. The dog gets stuck with the diseases.
We bear responsibility for creating this mess, but we also possess the power to fix it. Quit breeding pedigree dogs and quit supporting that industry. If you want a new pet, visit the countless lonely mutts wasting away in city pounds and adoption clinics. There is no reason why a purebred dog, even with a meaningless pedigree certificate, should be superior to a mutt. Genetically, the reality is quite the opposite. Mixed breeds benefit from a genetic phenomenon called hybrid vigor, where an organism is more likely to acquire superior genes if it participates in a wide and varied gene pool. Genes selected by nature are more likely to result in a healthy, functional animal than genes selected by humans for their amusement.
Dogs need to be freed from our genetic meddling. No more Frankenstein games. That’s the least we can give to an animal that gives so much to us.