The Crufts dog show has hit the headlines over the last week following the poisoning and death of Jagger, an Irish Setter. It’s a grim story, but it represents only a small part of the wider suffering felt by the purebred dogs who compete at Crufts.
The show has long been mired in controversy. In recent years, charities including the RSPCA and the Dog’s Trust have withdrawn their sponsorship of Crufts, citing concerns over the health of competing dogs. The centrepiece of Crufts is its conformation show, in which dogs compete based on how well they conform to established standards for their breed. Appearance is the primary factor: muzzle length, eye placement, bite position and even the length of toes are judged. This intense competition between owners has created a breeding pattern in which appearance is the first, and often only, concern. Sadly, the impact on the dogs is dire.
Modern breeding of purebreds is a meticulously planned and controlled eugenics programme, and dogs who don’t meet the standard are quickly removed from the gene pool. Only visually perfect dogs are bred, and undesirable puppies are ‘culled’. This can mean neutering the puppy, or selling it as a pet to people looking for companionship rather than pedigree. In some cases, perfectly healthy puppies may even be euthanised.
Inbreeding is common. Breeding with close relatives may yield pleasing visual characteristics, but it results in serious genetic conditions. An Imperial College study found that 10,000 pugs in the UK are so inbred that their gene pool is the equivalent of only 50 individuals. This tiny gene pool creates a genetic downward spiral through the generations of worsening inherited disease.
The Crufts Best in Show winner in 2003 was a Pekingese with the elaborate name of ‘Yakee A Dangerous Liaison’ – otherwise known as Danny. The dog’s characteristically flattened face is part of its breed standard, but often causes breathing problems. Danny had to sit on an ice pack when having his photo taken to stop him overheating. He went on to sire 18 litters.
Purebred Cavalier King Charles Spaniels are prone to a painful spine condition called Syringomyelia. The owners of one Best in Show winner with the condition were advised by vets not to breed it. Despite this, he went on to sire 26 litters.
This selective breeding is a kind of ‘unnatural selection’ that favours appearance above all else. Health concerns are outright ignored, and owners knowingly breed dogs with hereditary illnesses, even when it goes against the advice of vets. Simply put, competitive dog showing is directly responsible for a lot of unnecessary suffering.
Crufts is the largest show of its kind in the world, and has the power to define how we show dogs. It should be a celebration of all dogs. There is, after all, a lot to celebrate. But the health of dogs must be the absolute first priority in judging and breeding. Until that happens, Crufts will never be the celebration our canine companions deserve.