Breeding Ethics 1

For some in the dog world, “breeding ethics” is an oxymoron. Such people are consumed by the myth of overpopulation, or enamored with the reality. It’s a cause they can champion and use it as grounds to wag their finger at other people in the same way some parents poison their children to gain themselves sympathy. They evoke the suffering of another to add emotional credibility to their position and they satiate their own ego with doses of dogoodery.

This ethic brings us wacko groups like PeTA. It also brings us less radical but equally nannying groups like certain rescue organizations. And it also has infested individual breeders. Since animals can not speak for themselves, every sort of ninny-nanny has taken up official dog whisperer duties who are convinced that their authority to speak for animals is on par with their passion for them.

It’s not hard to demand others to fit a system of ethics that you don’t have to abide by, like men lecturing women about abortions. It’s not hard to demand that others make sacrifices that you don’t have to make, like the middle class lecturing the rich about graduated taxes. Demands that require action of others with no payment in kind by yourself are so very easy, and thus so common.

Although most of us own dogs, few breed them, and even fewer seem absorbed in the ethics of doing so. You’d expect that the majority of moral demands then would come from the masses of non-breeders enforcing an ethical code on the few breeders. This is not the case.

Among that smallest group of ethically charged breeders, it seems to me that the favorite target is other breeders. Call it narcissism of minor differences, perhaps proximity breeds animosity, or if you can’t be with the one you hate, hate the one you’re with. No matter the cause, the phenomenon is real.

Now I must admit that most of this talk comes from the show breeding community. This makes sense, as they have declared themselves the keepers of the flame for all of dogdom, and for most breeds, there is no higher calling or (organization who claims such) than dog pageants. And given that there is no feedback on why you lose and others win in the ring, the animosity bred by uncertainty is aimed at other breeders vs. the stupidity of a subjective judging system that lacks any sort of feedback.

I’ve heard more hobby breeders called puppy mills than puppy millers called puppy mills. I doubt most show breeders know much about puppy mills, could name one, or have had anything to do with outing and closing down a real puppy mill. After all, they’re in the business of producing “quality” dogs sold at a premium to people who would pay for things like a show championship. This is a different world than the people who buy puppies in malls. The two don’t really talk.

And it isn’t the job of show breeders to be versed in outing puppy mills. But from their conversations, you’d swear that pointing out puppy mills (read: their competition in the show ring) is second only to “improving the breed” by winning rosettes, and that most people don’t have to extend their finger very far to point them out.

I could point to any number of posts on bulletin boards or listservs that detail the “ethics” of breeding as per the show community, but I’ve found some of the favorite breeding memes in print.

I read “Canine Reproduction and Whelping” by Myra Savant-Harris in preparation for my first litter. This book comes highly recommended by several breeders and an informal survey of breeder websites and the listservs suggests that it’s cannon in the community.

To quote:

Conscientious, careful breeders are producing thousands of puppies every year, each of whom will be lovingly and carefully placed into wonderful homes to provide years of pleasure and companionship to carefully chosen owners. Good breeders are making good breeding choices, such as:

  • Never breeding more pups than can be placed in good homes.
  • Never breeding a dog that is affected by a known genetically transmitted disease.
  • Taking back their pups for re-homing if the need arises.
  • Religiously testing their dogs for diseases prevalent within their breed.
  • Not placing pups in pet stores for selling.
  • Placing pet quality animals with spay and neuter contracts.
  • Mentoring new puppy buyers and breeders thoughtfully and patiently.

Let’s look at these tenets one by one:

Never breeding more pups than can be placed in good homes.

How can a breeder or anyone determine how many pups can be placed in good homes? This is a bullshit ethic that sounds all well and good but is entirely impractical. I have never ever ever read of a single breeder who has said “all other factors say go, but the world market for puppies is against breeding at this time and I fear there would not be enough good homes.

Sure, people who are already big time breeders (the ones everyone else calls puppy mills) might say they don’t breed a litter until they have a full waiting list for puppies, but new breeders are unlikely to have a waiting list and even hot breeders can’t dial-a-puppy to fill demand. You can’t count your puppies before they’re born, so even a waiting list doesn’t solve the problem that stems from the reality that humans have limited control in how many puppies they produce. What if you have reservations for 6 pups but your bitch only has 4, will you repeat breed during the next cycle or the one after and hope for 2?

Never breeding a dog that is affected by a known genetically transmitted disease.

Well, this one means well too, but it’s hardly straightforward. What diseases are taboo and which are allowable, because the elimination of all disease is impractical and potentially does more harm than good, and not all diseases are created equal. It’s possible to breed carrier and even affected dogs with various conditions to further a breeding program.

There’s also incredible bias against minor diseases that we have tests for versus major diseases there are no tests for, simply because a test exists. In Border Collies, Collie Eye Anomoly (CEA) is one such disease. There is a DNA test and a physical exam that can help diagnose the disease. Because the ability to diagnose is the disease is so prevalent, the fervor to stamp it out immediately is disproportionate to the actual severity of the disease.

CEA has autosomal recessive heritance with variable expression and pleomorphism. That’s a mouthful which essentially means that it’s a disease which is different in expression for carriers and affecteds but also has a wide range of incapacity in affected dogs, from little or no detriment to total blindness. Affecteds are rare and among affecteds, significant disability caused by the disease is rare.

Yet according to the Canine Inherited Disorders Database:

Because of the potential for serious eye disease with this trait, neither affected dogs, their parents, or their offspring should be used for breeding. Siblings of affected dogs should not be used either, unless eye exams before 3 months of age demonstrate that they are unaffected.

How does this compare to breeding recommendations for another common and relatively benign disease? Well, one example I’m familiar with is Panosteitis.

Panosteitis (“pano”) is a relatively common disease which causes pain and lameness in young (6 to 18 months), medium to large breed dogs. There is inflammation in the long bones of the front and hind legs (humerus, ulna, and radius of the forelimb, and the femur and tibia of the hindlimb). The cause of this disease is unknown; diet and heredity may both play a role.

The lameness will appear suddenly, for no apparent reason. It may be difficult to decide which limb is affected, as the lameness may shift from limb to limb over time. Eventually the clinical signs of this disease (pain and lameness) will go away, but some of the changes to the structure of the bones may be permanent.

The heritability of this disease is entirely unknown, it’s not even known if it is a genetic disorder vs. some other vector for disease such as a virus, bacteria, trauma, chemical ingestion, etc. All things considered, it’s also a minor disease with no treatment as it cures itself with no residual disability.

This disease is generally self-limiting; bouts of lameness usually last about 1 to 3 months and generally cease entirely by about 2 years of age. Treatment consists of drugs to alleviate pain and lameness, as well as restrictions on your dog’s activity.

In other words, this disease is growing pains for dogs. It is not crippling, certainly not permanent, the cost for diagnosis and treatment is minimal–I doubt most vets would even bother with detailed x-rays as the treatment for this disease and similar symptoms is the veterinary equivalent of chicken soup.

Despite having no proven heritability and only minor effects of disease expression and a swift and complete cure following symptoms, the CIDD’s breeding recommendation is the same as CEA and other truly serious diseases:

Dogs affected by panosteitis should not be used for breeding, even when the clinical signs of pain and lameness have gone away. Not enough is known about the inheritance of this condition to make breeding recommendations for close relatives of affected dogs.

What? Pano is clearly less of an inconvenience and threat to health than many of the “healthy” traits breeders seek out, like the smushed noses and narrow hips of a bulldog, the toothless under bites of the chinese crested, the deformed skulls of the bedlington terrier and the rough collie, or the cross-linked diseases associated with the merle gene.

The “don’t breed any disease” theory dismisses the very real potential we might face in the near future, the ability of gene therapy to target specific diseased genes and remove/replace them without losing any other genetic diversity or the collateral damage done by breeding away from those diseases.

More to come on the other traits of a good breeder according to Myra Savant-Harris and the other matrons of the dog world.

* * *
Comments and disagreements are welcome, but be sure to read the Comment Policy. If this post made you think and you'd like to read more like it, consider a donation to my 4 Border Collies' Treat and Toy Fund. They'll be glad you did. You can subscribe to the feed or enter your e-mail in the field on the left to receive notice of new content. You can also like BorderWars on Facebook for more frequent musings and curiosities.
* * *

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...
Tags: ,

About Christopher

Christopher Landauer is a fifth generation Colorado native and second generation Border Collie enthusiast. Border Collies have been the Landauer family dogs since the 1960s and Christopher got his first one as a toddler. He began his own modest breeding program with the purchase of Dublin and Celeste in 2006 and currently shares his home with their children Mercury and Gemma as well. His interest in genetics began in AP Chemistry and AP Biology and was honed at Stanford University.