149 20-20 VISION OR NIGHTMARE
20-20 VISION OR NIGHTMARE?
It's the year 2020, a century and a half after pure-bred dogs were recognised as breeds, breed clubs started and dog shows became national events. The British Small Animals Veterinary Association, BSAVA, at its annual conference, wistfully announces that the 1,001st inheritable defect had now been identified in the domestic dog, following collaboration with the canine genome project. The EKC, the Ethical Kennel Club, (formed in 2010 after media outrage following a WHICHDOG report listing harmful designs in pet dogs, an alarming increase in crippling inherited diseases and the ever-shortening lifespan of pure-bred dogs) tabled its own paper at the conference. This disturbing paper, compiled by a distinguished group of scientists and breeders, reported alarming facts: 45% of dogs in 10 different breeds not living beyond three years; 55% of young dogs in 15 breeds going blind before their first birthday; 65% of dogs in those breeds normally weighing over 50lbs being afflicted by hip dysplasia and 85% of all pure-bred dogs costing over 2,000 euros per annum at the vet.
A number of keynote speakers at this 2020 BSAVA conference presented their views on how this state of affairs arose, listing such causes as unskilled breeding within a closed gene pool in each pedigree breed, the ability of bad breeders in the past to register defective stock, harmful breed designs being uncorrected for so long by regulatory bodies, the absence of mandatory health clearances until 2009, but primarily the sheer indifference, coupled with astonishing ignorance, of far too many breeders of pure-bred dogs over the pursuit of genetic health in their dogs. Some of the older vets attending this conference could recall the late 1990s when some of the early signs of the likely scale of future problems had been identified by a few visionaries.
A Canadian delegate quoted from a report by four leading veterinary surgeons from the Ontario Veterinary College of forty years ago: "The next 100 years look rather bleak for the pure-bred dog industry unless dramatic changes are introduced. We have a problem which if not addressed and speedily rectified may destroy for all time many beautiful breeds of dog. All dog lovers share the blame for not acting..." The speaker claimed that no 'dramatic changes' were introduced in the last century by any kennel club in the world.
The conference listened in awe as the low take-up in eye tests, hip-scoring, temperament-testing and DNA-profiling at the end of the 20th century was exposed. Amazement was expressed that health surveys were not widely conducted in breeds until some 120 years after the formation of a body to oversee the best interests of pure-bred dogs, the Kennel Club. Historic breed standards were quoted which demanded dogs with: massive heads, heavy bone, loose skin, a rolling gait, haw in the eye, wrinkled skin and practically no muzzle. Again and again, delegates berated their predecessors with murmurs of 'how ever was this allowed to happen?', 'why was the BSAVA itself so supine?' and 'who has been running the pure-bred dog business for all this time?'
A happier interlude occurred when one young delegate, from a remote country practice, outlined how his lurchers were bred, sound dog to sound dog, without resort to registration, standard or club diktat. He described how his dogs lived to 18 or 19 years of age, had 0-0 hips, superb eyesight, excellent dentition and no skin diseases or allergies. Delegates gasped as he described his dogs' diet: brown bread, green tripe, udder, freshly-killed rabbit's paunch and plenty of bones. Vets, i.e. chemists, employed by dog food manufacturers, voiced their immediate disapproval of such an unscientific, untested, unsterilised, inadequate diet. The young enthusiastic culprit smiled with gentle toleration of their wrath; a happy man with happy dogs.
One speaker, whose ancestors had been prominent dog show exhibitors and judges, produced archival material to show how, in the 1990s, the obsession with judges, judging appointments, judges' seminars, judges' lists and judges' assessment, took attention away from breeding skill, breeders' knowledge, breeding records and breeding rates. The Chief Executive of the Ethical Kennel Club then outlined the revised licensed breeders' DNA-based record-keeping manual, under which obligatory health clearances, mandatory genetic advice and compulsory identification of stock had resulted in healthier progeny and vastly improved public confidence. In their first ten years, the EKC had registered over one million puppies, every one from tested parents. There was no presentation at this conference from the KC, which had lapsed into an irrevelant marginalised talking shop of dislocated committees.
On conference's second day, the archivist from the EKC gave an impressive presentation, using the rather primitive but still effective sight and sound techniques of the previous century. She highlighted the direct and indirect cruelty caused by over-zealous show breeders. Conference attendees were deeply moved when she produced on screen this account of quite deplorable conduct by Bulldog breeders of almost two hundred years ago: "Of the cruel forms of 'faking', perhaps that once in vogue to give the Bulldog the correct facial expression was one of the most dastardly. It was brought about by the aid of an appliance so contrived that it could be fitted to the head of the dog, and after being securely fastened by straps, so as to prevent any possibility of its shifting, the pad which pressed tightly against the nose, could be screwed up until sufficient pressure was obtained to force the nasal organ into the required position. The leaders, or strings, that attach the upper lip to the gums, were also severed, in order to still further accentuate the characteristic appearance so much admired by Bulldog fanciers. ”During the time the nose machine was in position, the dog's legs were strapped together, to prevent him from displacing the apparatus, and he had to remain motionless for hours at a time, except when fed or when slight exercise was given, until the nose had 'set' into the required shape."
The final session of the 2020 BSAVA conference was devoted to what had been dubbed 'The Brave New World of the Pure-bred Dog'. The registration department of the Ethical Kennel Club gave a sophisticated but commendably clear presentation on how the registration system now produced: pedigree forms embracing not just parentage and ancestry but a grading to indicate the quality of the dogs listed, temperament ratings, genetic health and litter size/mortality; denial of registration for identified carriers of defective genes, litters born in kennels not inspected by the EKC liaison officers and those exceeding over-breeding quotas. It was stressed that the mandate of the department was quality control not volume exploitation in the name of financial performance.
The dog press gave highly favourable coverage to this encouraging conference. Inevitably those elderly breed note columnists still longing for a return to the old 'free for all, anything goes, do as you like, don't bother me with moral dilemmas' days whinged and wriggled but they stood out only as beacons of beckoning oblivion. The editorials in Our Dogs and Dog World praised the collaborative efforts of geneticists, vets and breeders, working with mutual respect for the good of dogs. Dogs Today paid tribute to breeders who put the well-being of their dogs ahead of personal advancement and pecuniary rewards. The FCI, once vilified for removing recognition of those British breeds bred without regard for the health and well-being of the dog, as set out by the European Convention of 2004, increased the annual grant to the BSAVA and the EKC. The Brave New World for Pure-bred Dogs had at last arrived, both brave and new. It could be visionary - a waking dream, or a nightmare!