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The purebred paradox

The veterinary profession’s twisted take on purebred pets

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Purebreds are overrepresented in popular culture. Though a few of the Hollywood elite may proudly promenade their “rescue mutts” as they shop Rodeo Drive, most lay claim to full-blooded epitomes of dogdom. Heck, even Taylor Swift parades her #ScottishFold through Manhattan streets, á la @ParisHilton. Not even cats are immune.

We all know what this means. It amounts to more genetic diseases, more pathology in practice, and more zebras to work up. It also comes down to a whole lot more gut-wrenching exam room experiences. What’s more, we all know that each purebred animal we examine typically represents the apex of a triangle comprised of suffering at its USDA-inspected base.

Which also translates to one thing all veterinarians require: job security.

I’d be lying if I didn’t cop to thinking impure thoughts whenever I see a bouncing baby Frenchie peeking out of a carrier across the reception desk. Quite apart from the cute overkill and the irresistible puppy breath fumes that emanate from that malformed face, the very presence of a purebred pup has a way of saying, “Income otw!”

Can you blame me?

If you do, I’d urge you examine the state of our profession more closely as you ponder the economic and cultural fundamentals of modern veterinary practice.

The financial reality

Most general practices rely heavily on the treatment of chronic conditions typically associated with genetic diseases. Think about all those allergic skin diseases, spinal maladies, respiratory ailments, orthopedic disorders, ophthalmic afflictions, cancers, and cardiac conditions (among many others). They bring the lion’s share of pathology into our working lives.

Would you have as many active patients if all our pets were just three generations removed from purebreds? What would your workplace look like if all your pets looked like muttly dingo proto-dogs?

Just ask a specialist: Where would you be without your purebred patients? It’s true! If we waved a wand and eliminated purebreds, the economics of our profession would be instantly turned upside down. We’d see record unemployment among generalists and utter panic within specialty circles.

The feline model

Here’s a reality check that proves the point: Our profession recently undertook a study that delved into the disproportionality we observe in feline versus canine healthcare spending. Regardless of their income class, our clients consistently visited us less and spent less on their cats.

I attended the unveiling of this study at a conference, at which a lengthy list of worthy reasons was offered to explain the discrepancy. None included one of the reasons I find most obvious: Cats tend to present for trauma, parasites, and infectious diseases. These typically acute issues are more prevalent among free-roaming cats—pets who are inherently less likely to be considered family members and present less anyway. The balance of our domesticated felines is mostly domestic shorthairs, cats who suffer from chronic genetic conditions way less often.

In veterinary terms cats live largely uneventful lives, and it seems obvious that their genetic health goes a long way toward explaining why they often seem to win the game of veterinary keepaway. I’m convinced it’s a big reason why we’re forced to live without the income cats might otherwise generate.

Which raises the scary question: What would our profession look like if our canine population suffered from genetic diseases as seldom as our cats did?

Another inconvenient truth

We talk a big game about eliminating puppy mills, lambast irresponsible breeding, and decry genetic diseases among purebreds, but the unfortunate reality is that our economic status quo depends on them. Nonetheless, it’s not about the money for most of us. After all, we adore our purebreds every bit as dearly as our clients do.

Think about it: Our Instagram posts are overrepresented by purebred patients like that gorgeous merle great Dane and that previously mentioned Frenchie pup (both on my personal feed recently). Not only are we attracted to them ourselves, but we also know that good marketing means appealing to our purebred-addled clientele, too.

All of which feeds what I view as a cultural contagion. Sure, it’s only human to harbor an attraction to familiar characteristics and repetitive patterns in anything, much less in puppies, but here’s the thing: We know we’re tacitly endorsing an industry that suffers animal welfare issues. What’s worse, we also know that our purebred passions promote healthcare-related suffering, too.

“Our Instagram posts are overrepresented by purebred patients like that gorgeous merle Great Dane and that Frenchie pup (both on my personal feed this week). Not only are we attracted to them ourselves, but we also know that good marketing means appealing to our purebred-addled clientele, too. All of which feeds what I view as a cultural contagion.”

Not that I’m immune. I’ve owned five Frenchies over the past 15 years (no longer on this earth and it’s no wonder) and I currently keep one pug-like thing and two Mals. I, too, know a thing or two about our human affinity for purebreds and the cognitive dissonance that goes along with it.

Enter Dr. Pete Wedderburn, a colleague I’ve kept correspondence with for many years. Dr. Wedderburn writes a popular column across the pond in the U.K. After alerting me to an article titled “Put Down That Pug,” he asked me why it seemed so hard to get veterinarians on board with the notion that clients should be actively discouraged not just from buying or breeding purebreds, but also from owning them too.

You’ll never get the U.S. veterinary population to buy in, I told him. Not only are we too obsessed with our purebreds to appreciate the role they play in the economics of our profession, those who do pay more attention to these things (big pharma, big pet food, et al) would mount substantial opposition if we ever did make headway here. No one wants to see animal healthcare economics take a turn to the south, much less an about face.

Yet who’s better poised to make a difference? Last I checked we’re the only profession expressly tasked with alleviating animal suffering as its prime directive. But even with a front row seat to what’s indisputably an animal welfare crisis, we persist in what can reasonably be characterized as a blithe disregard for animal suffering.

We can and should do better. But that means we’ll have to find a way to afford it. Dentists did it when fluorinated water changed their paradigm. Can we?

Dr. Patty Khuly owns a small animal practice in Miami and is a passionate blogger at drpattykhuly.com. Columnists’ opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Veterinary Practice News.

18 thoughts on “The purebred paradox

  1. I totally disagree. I have always bought purebred dogs. What you are saying is incorrect. You may get a pure bred dog with problems. It is all about the breeder. I have found breeders in the show world in Alaska extremely conscientious with line breeding. Many of the “designer dogs” can be a nightmare. An Australian Shepard bred to a Labrador can lead to a highly unmanageable pet. Many of the good aspect on one dog mated to another breed who carries that same strong characteristic is bad breeding or a mistake. If people would take the time to investigate the type of dog that fits their lifestyle would remove a world of grief for animal shelters. You are overlooking puppy syndrome. People who are too stupid to realize all puppies are cute yet fail to realize they need to be looked after, need health care and get old and die can take many years of commitment. If we could put everyone through a course that wants a puppy to realized what it is like to care and commit through a pets life I think many would reconsider. Dogs age much quicker than we do. To me the joy of the years a pet gives me requires payback when they are old, frail and in pain.

    If a breeder can’t offer you bloodlines that you can research hips, eyes, lifespan and will stay by your side through the pets entire life, look elsewhere. If they are a good breeder they will take a dog back and re-home them for you. If you don’t care shame on you.

    1. line breeding by default means in breeding. you are suffering from extreme cognitive dissonance. i’d call you a monkeybrain, but monkeys aren’t that selfish or evil.

      1. UC Davis has done plenty of research on diversity and has testing available for several breeds. Line breeding does NOT necessary equal inbreeding when looking at the actual genes. In fact, there are many cases where a line breeding on paper (looking at pedigree only) would appear to be a very close breeding however, COI is not predictive or accurate. Many of these close breeding are actually Category 10 breeding which means completely genetically unrelated. If interested, BetterBred has valuable info to assist conscientious breeders preserve the health and diversity of purebred dogs. There are plenty of excellent breeders (myself included) that breed for the WHOLE picture, health, diversity, conformation, temperament and working ability.

        1. I have been involved in my breed (scotties) in rescue and breeding for over 20 years. In that time, I have rescued at least 350 scotties, the vast majority from commercial breeders sold through Petland and recently, facebook/internet sites. Most of them have some type of health issue and rarely do they live beyond 10.
          My own dogs, tested for ALL available health tests (genetic and eyes, heart, thyroid, etc) are sometimes linebred. The end result? Average lifespan is 14! Health issues – ask my vet and those who have purchased my puppies- I have NEVER produced allergies, demodex, eye, heart, or any other issues. Ever. If I did, I would pay the bills for their care.
          It is the SOURCE *NOT THE FACT THAT THEY ARE PUREBRED* at least, in my breed, that makes a difference.

          1. I can’t believe we are hearing the same propaganda from Dr. Kuhly again. She was on this soap box several years ago, joining in the devastating POLITICAL attacks against breeders by The Kennel Club in the UK, which played out at the world’s largest dog show, Crufts. It was ugly to watch the nihilistic Animal Rights people gain a giant foothold in the fancy in the UK. The title of DVM seems to make her opinions carry weight, regardless of knowledge and understanding of the goals, skills and ethics of so many of our EXCELLENT breeders. Health, temperament, working ability in my breed (PBGV) comes before money and ribbons. We are lucky where I live, we have a super expert on canine reproduction, literally wrote the book – recently published – on all aspects of dog breeding. She shares her knowledge, she is our family vet, I have to drive 50 miles one way for a visit, worth the trip. Our purebreds live long lives – 21, 17, 15, and now we have an old girl of 16 who runs with the younger girls half her age. We’ve had mutts, and they were not healthier than our numerous purebreds (collies, beagles, doxies, bassets and 25 years of PBGVs). Yeah, I’m ranting. This is almost a rerun of the column Dr. Kuhly wrote a few years ago. That piece resulted in a firestorm of negative replies. I wonder why this was necessary again.

  2. Jennifer – you didn’t really address the issue presented this article except tangentially by using the “good breeder/bad breeder” argument. Yes, consumers fall prey to cute puppies and make unwise purchases, often from puppy mills. Yes, there are the silly “my dog is cute and so is yours, let’s have puppies!” people. Yes, there are breeders who favor color or coat and ignore bloodlines. But it’s deeper than that.

    This article is about the genetic flaws inherent in many purebreds. Full disclosure – I have been involved in Afghan Hound rescue for 30 years.

    I don’t care how much attention is paid to behavioral characteristics, hips, eyes or lifespan; a brachycephalic breed is defined by a physical attribute which contributes to respiratory issues and as a result, susceptibility to chronic skin and digestive problems (TCM explains this connection). Wrinkled skin is a hallmark of certain breeds and leaves the door open to chronic skin infections. These are the nagging, hard-to-solve conditions that send the pet owning public back to the vet again and again for treatment and is the point of this article. What role SHOULD Vets play in the continuing pursuit of dog and cat breeds who increasing have trouble functioning as their species were intended. The profession has a huge body of first hand experience with these breeds. What responsibility do they have to speak out? Would consumers, if informed about the potential cost, still find that Frenchie irresistible? Or would they chose to believe it “won’t happen to them” and make the purchase anyway?

    I personally appreciate the candor of this article. It isn’t often that the source of an income is questioned so forthrightly. It also calls out the tangled relationships between Vets, Big Pharma and Big Pet Food. These are tough issues with which only the best Vets will grapple. I hope that this article will challenge the profession to think about their role in animal welfare beyond medical treatment. Too many, I suspect, will find this article of only passing interest and then move on the next case of chronic whatever or chat with the pet food rep pushing by-product laden food at good markups.

  3. Shameful!! VPN I am appalled that you would publish this article. As a veterinary professional myself, the LAST thing we should be thinking about is if we are breeding enough pure bred dogs to have income coming into our practice. This DVM must not have much of a conscious!! There are 10s of thousands of dogs euthanized every day due to overbreeding, puppy mills, and back yard breeders. THIS is what we as the veterinary profession need to be focusing on!! Those who think this thought process is normal are very backward. Don’t forget the oath we take! And continued unnecessary breeding in my mind is doing harm to the entire canine population. Think of the big picture people. Shame on this DVM and shame on you VPN!

    1. Tens of thousands of dogs euthanized every day due to over breeding? If we have pet overpopulation, why are we importing tens of thousands of dogs from other countries?

      1. Thank you for pointing out the elephant in the room. Imports with parasites new to us, health issues like the Korean canine influenza, etc.
        Oh,and the other elephant? Irresponsible owners.

  4. I used to spend a lot of time in the office of a busy practice that catered to breeders of purebred dogs, tho they accepted any dog as a client. Occasionally (being curious about this very issue) I would tally what came into the waiting room on a typical busy day.

    My observation was that about 80% of the clientele were mutts, and that the mutts tended to have more-serious health issues than the purebreds.

    Also, the mutts were more-generally ill-behaved than the purebreds.

  5. This myth proposed by this vet was debunked by scientific studies in the 1950s. Mixed breeds demonstrated more than 29 different genetic diseases than did the purebred dogs who were sponsored by a kennel club. The reason the purebred dog owners and breeders sponsored scientific studies to eliminate genetic issues. No one does that for the mixed breeds. This myth was pushed by the big bucks HSUS group whose interest is in pushing the mixed breed dog for monetary reasons.
    “A new study by researchers at the University of California, Davis, indicates that mixed breeds don’t necessarily have an advantage when it comes to inherited canine disorders.” UC Davis press release
    “A new study on the prevalence of inherited disorders among American mixed breed and purebred dogs has negated the common assumption that a mixed breed dog is always healthier than a purebred dog.” (Quickfall 2013)

    “It has been publicly discussed for years that hereditary disorders would be a direct consequence of the strict selective breeding of pedigree dogs and that for this reason the purebreds would have a much greater risk of developing hereditary disorders than mixed breed dogs. According to the latest research by Bellumori and his group, this assumption does not seem to hold. Indeed many diseases seem to be as common in mixed breed as in pedigree dogs” (Moller)
    “A new study on the prevalence of inherited disorders among American mixed breed and purebred dogs has negated the common assumption that a mixed breed dog is always healthier than a purebred dog” (Quickfall 2013).

  6. Thank you for pointing out the elephant in the room. Imports with parasites new to us, health issues like the Korean canine influenza, etc.
    Oh,and the other elephant? Irresponsible owners.

  7. Dear Dr. Khuly,

    Knowledgeable, responsible owners and breeders of purebred dogs are quite diligent in giving their business to the finest veterinarians who are up-to-date on inherited disorders, advances in canine reproduction, the pros and cons of spay/neuter, and current vaccination protocols. Word is passed quickly among dedicated dog owners that “Dr. XYZ” is either appears to be inadequately informed about these important topics and/or is disrespectful to purebred dog owners and breeders.

    I have moved many times in recent years, and one of my priorities when arriving in a new location is to identify a vet that I can respect and trust to care for my dog. Who do I ask? Purebred dog owners and breeders, particularly those who utilize genetic health screening protocols, who are lifelong learners, and who are involved in dog showing and performance events.

    Fortunately, I have been warned away from vets who are suspected of lacking knowledge and/or who express disdain for purebred dogs and dog breeders.

    If excellent owners and breeders of healthy purebred dogs are not giving a veterinarian their business, and consequently the veterinarian sees primarily deficient dogs, perhaps that veterinarian should reexamine his or her skill set and attitude.

  8. sad when a vet does not know that a scottish fold is a cat not a dog LOL ignore this nonsense and find a vet that appreciates your love for your breed and helps you better that breed

  9. Three points:

    1) Dr. Khuly is an odd person to speak out strongly against purebred dog breeding on health grounds. She is an ardent supporter of pit bull breeders. She has for years been a very aggressive lobbyist to protect the “right” to own, breed, and sell pit bulls. The average pit bull has good structural health and good fertility, but their well-established aggression toward their own species is a temperament deformity every bit as crippling and deadly – to itself and to others – as the facial deformity of the brachy breeds. And that aggression turns into real-world shortened lifespans as an enormous number of pit bulls die as young adults for being unwanted, ownerless and too violent to be rehomed.

    2) She does not mention exactly where people are supposed to obtain dogs in her purebred-free future. She fails to offer an alternative to purebred dogs. She vaguely mentions “muttly dingo proto-dogs” as an example of healthy dogs. This is not a practical solution. Dingo proto-dogs are the result of completely random, uncontrolled breeding. They do not exist in the US today. This is not an answer to ‘Where do I get a dog for my life?” I suspect that Dr. Khuly’s answer would be “Save a life – adopt!” That’s very convenient for a pit bull breeding advocate who adamantly rejects breed-specific legislation that would stem the tide of pit bulls currently drowning shelters. It fails to address the fact that shelter and rescue dogs are all products of purebred breeding – there are very few oops litters of actual mutts in the US today.

    3) She fails to mention the other new income generators for vet practices – behavior issues and the rise of extremely strong, highly predatory and aggressive breeds which send other animals into the vet for emergency care. Every vet practice in my area is now hiring vet behaviorists and opening a behavior department to deal with – and cash in on – the new and quite shocking population of ‘rescue’ dogs coming from ‘no kill’ rescue groups and shelters which refused to triage and euthanize clinically anxious, asocial, aggressive and dangerous dogs. And the explosion of pit bull breeding, protected by lobbyists like Dr. Khuly, has sent thousands of animals into very expensive vet care and extended rehab, after they encountered powerful dogs of breeds developed to fixate on, confront, attack and kill other animals without regard for normal social behaviors. Yet vet practices routinely ‘partner’ with rescue groups and pit bull rescues in particular to encourage the spread of these dogs. Forget the ethics of promoting breeding French Bulldogs, where’s the ethics in promoting the adoption of miserable, dangerous dogs? Both actions create more money for the vet by creating more misery for the owners and the dogs.

  10. You can have your dingo type mutt but the fact is that I would not own a dog at all if that’s the only ones in existence. 90% of our time is spent looking at a dog as we are visual creatures so why would I not want a dog that pleases ME? There are plenty of purebreds I would not want either but others think they are the greatest. Stop setting yourself up as the breeding and owning police!

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