Tiktok is full of videos of “funny” pugs roncI walk. These dogs have become incredibly popular over the past few decades. This is indicated by a study published in the journal Canine Medicine and Genetics, which concludes that these animals have difficulty breathing and health problems so serious that they “can no longer be considered a typical dog from a health perspective.” The pugslike other popular and viral breeds on social networks, are victims of selective breeding for aesthetic purposes.
“It makes us very sad to see dogs struggling to breathe, walk, play, or live a normal, happy life because they have been bred to look a certain way, whether for profit or to win a show,” say from the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Selective breeding has increasingly focused on the appearance and popularity of certain breeds, without taking into account functionality, health or longevity, according to the Federation of Veterinarians of Europe (FVE) and the European Federation of Veterinary Associations for Companion Animals.
The goal of selective breeding is to produce offspring with specific characteristics. “It has been done since we began to interact with dogs,” says Paula Pérez Fraga, a veterinarian with a master’s degree in companion animal behavioral medicine and a doctoral student in the animal behavior group. Family Dog Project at the Department of Ethology, University of Budapest.
About 15,000 years ago this type of breeding was done “for behavioral purposes.” Research published in the journal Science indicates that before the 19th century, dogs They were selected mainly for functions such as hunting, guarding and herding. “Humans encouraged the reproduction of those individuals who were more sociable and had fewer fears, so that the offspring were more docile and easier to handle,” says Fraga. Over time, they selected the dogs “for certain vocalizations that could be advantageous to us—barking—or for their ability to communicate better with us from a distance.”
But in the 19th century the emphasis of selective breeding was placed on morphology, as well as temperament. In this way “the concept of dogs as purely companion animals was born.” Since that time, priority has been given to the appearance that pet owners consider “aesthetically pleasing”, which has conditioned the size, color or length of dogs’ hair. This is explained by Rowena Packer, professor of companion animal welfare and behavior sciences at the Royal Veterinary College, in the United Kingdom: “This has led to the proliferation of several hundred dog breeds internationally, with the dog being the “species of mammal with the greatest phenotypic diversity on the planet.” The International Cynological Federation recognizes 356 breeds.
The health impact of selective breeding
Selective breeding can be extremely useful for humans if done correctly, according to Packer. Allows animals to perform specific tasks, such as police dogs, herding dogs, or those that assist people with disabilities. Sources from the Royal Canine Society of Spain highlight another great advantage: that of reducing or eradicating heritable diseases in certain breeds: “Such is the case of conditions such as hip dysplasia or progressive retinal atrophy, which are increasingly less prevalent thanks to use of veterinary scientific tools by responsible breeders.”
However, in many other cases, selective breeding has had a negative impact on the dogs’ health. To begin with, Packer refers to problems related to “endogamy.” “In an attempt to fix certain genetic traits in a population, breeders ‘close’ the gene pool of their breed so that outside genetics (the genes of dogs of other breeds) can no longer enter it,” she explains.
Within this restricted gene pool, some breeders select closely related individuals for matings. For example, mothers with sons, fathers with daughters, brothers or grandparents with grandchildren. The expert highlights that “this further reduces genetic diversity and increases the likelihood that offspring will be affected by genetic health conditions such as deafness.”
There are many hereditary diseases that have a higher than normal prevalence in specific dog breeds that they garner millions of visits in social networks. Michael Aherne, clinical assistant professor of cardiology at the University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine, explains that this is the case for dilated cardiomyopathy andn doberman pinschers, Degenerative mitral valve disease in Cavalier King Charles Spaniels, arrhythmogenic right ventricular cardiomyopathy in boxers, hip dysplasia in labrador retrievers either subvalvular aortic stenosis in golden retrievers. “The list of examples is practically endless, and almost all breed individuals are at increased risk for one disease or another,” she says.
The price of dogs being ‘cute’
Added to the problems related to inbreeding are other problems derived from the selection of aesthetic traits that are desirable for humans but harmful for dogs. Packer explains that the starting point is usually genetic mutations that arise naturally, such as brachycephaly – characterized by an abnormally flattened face – or chondrodystrophy – abnormally shortened legs.
Because many humans find these characteristics attractive, “rather than avoiding these mutations, they have proliferated them and often exaggerated them to some of the extreme forms we see today.” While brachycephaly typically affects popular flat-faced breeds such as pugs and the bulldogschondrodystrophy occurs in breeds with long backs and short legs such as dachshund —better known as dogs sausage—.
In the case of brachycephalic breed dogs, selective breeding for aesthetic purposes has caused them to have shorter skulls compared to other breeds. This is explained by Aherne, who highlights that the soft tissues of the nose and throat have not been reduced to adapt to that smaller skull. Something that can cause “significant problems by obstructing your upper airways.”
Besides that these dogs may have difficulty breathing, sometimes experience eye problems – due to their bulging eyeballs -, dental diseases – due to lack of space in the mouth for teeth – and problems giving birth naturally. Due to their large heads and small hips, puppies can become stuck in the birth canal.
Chondrodystrophy usually affects some dogs sausage. This condition, according to Packer, causes approximately a quarter of this breed to have a slipped disc in their back, “causing extreme pain, weakness, and often paralysis.” “These disorders often require surgery to reduce suffering, which can cost many thousands of euros and even so does not guarantee that the dogs will have a good quality of life,” comments the expert.
The manifestation of many diseases can be significantly influenced by other factors, such as diet, environment or exercise. “If you know that your dog has or could be predisposed to a certain disease, you can implement some measures to prevent a serious manifestation of it,” says Aherne, who advises visiting the veterinarian routinely.
All these problems have led some countries to prevent the selective breeding of some dogs. The Netherlands have banned the possession of some brachycephalic dogs and Norway of cavalier king charles spaniels. In Spain, article 27 of the animal welfare law prohibits “carrying out genetic selection actions or practices that lead to serious problems or alterations in the animal’s health.”
So, is it advisable to avoid acquiring a dog that is the result of selective breeding for aesthetic purposes? “Strictly speaking from an animal health perspective, yes, it is advisable to avoid acquiring selectively bred dogs, as most purebred pets are at risk of various hereditary diseases and dogs that are not purebred are going to have a reduced risk,” says Aherne. However, he believes that, in practical terms, selective breeding for aesthetic purposes is unlikely to disappear anytime soon. In addition to the fact that multiple breeders make a living from it, “many dog lovers have their favorite breeds and want them to continue.”
When aesthetics endanger cats
Some cats are also victims of selective breeding for aesthetic purposes. As has happened with dogs, since the 19th century attempts have been made to preserve “apparently desirable traits,” according to some research. Especially those associated with coat color and length, body size and shape, or eye color and shape.
Some popular breeds with flat faces, such as lPersian cats and British shorthairsare at greater risk of experiencing difficulty breathing. A study published in Scientific Reports indicates that Persian cats and others with short snouts can also suffer from dental problems, such as malocclusion, which occurs when the teeth do not align correctly and can cause pain and difficulty eating. Eye conditions are also common in Persians due to their large eye sockets.
Furthermore, research published in Frontiers in Veterinary Science indicates that selective breeding of cats may have affected their ability to communicate effectively through facial expressions. “Our preference for having characteristics that we find beautiful or similar to expressions we recognize in humans (such as tenderness, vulnerability, or an appearance of bad mood) may have unintentionally altered your ability to express yourself and communicate clearly.”says Lauren Finka, a specialist in feline behavior and well-being and one of the authors of the study.
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