The Crufts Dogs Show is the Kennel Club’s annual flagship event: an opportunity for the organisation to impress the public with its pro-health initiatives. Indeed, the Club is promoting many worthy endeavours, from the Mate Select System (an online service which allows breeders to choose breeding partners for their dogs that are as genetically ideal as possible), to a range of DNA tests that allow screening for a range of hereditary disease, and the publication of disease statistics gathered from breed surveys. There’s also the voluntary Assured Breeders Scheme, encouraging best practice in puppy production. So far, so good.
Yet this year, the most vocal public reaction to Crufts has been justifiable anger at Kennel Club indifference to the stated goal of health and welfare. There were two clear examples of this indifference, each representing a different aspect of preventable illness.
First, poor physical appearance, when Best in Breed was awarded to a German Shepherd with a bizarre, low-slung, slopey hind quarter gait that seems to be a fad currently favoured by breeders and judges. Any vet will tell you that German Shepherd dogs are plagued by hind quarter issues as they grow older, from dodgy hips, to lumbo-sacral disease to a degenerative nerve condition affecting the back legs. The deliberate distortion of the breed norm towards a slinky, scuttling rear movement is unlikely to help these issues. Crufts should only reward dogs with the healthiest physique. Does anyone outside German Shepherd circles really think this type of distorted shape should qualify?
Second, poor genetic make up. Even when pedigree dogs appear outwardly physically healthy, they often carry a tendency towards hereditary disease. The Cavalier King Charles Spaniel breed is afflicted by two serious health problems: heart valve disease (affecting 90 per cent of dogs by the age of ten) and syringomyelia, a painful brain-related disease (affecting over 70 per cent of the breed). Scientists have established that to deal with these issues, Cavaliers should not be bred until they are at least two and a half years old, after being tested for these two diseases. Yet, astonishingly, Best of Breed at Crufts was given to a dog that had been used for breeding by the age of nine months, and online records show that this was before any testing had been carried out. If the Kennel Club seriously cared about dog health, they would only agree to register Cavalier puppies from dogs that had been tested, and they certainly would not reward breeders who flouted best practice.
The Kennel Club should be exemplary in the role of working to maintain the health of pedigree dogs. Sadly, if there was a competition for “dog health and welfare organisations”, the Kennel Club might scrape through the qualification heats, but it would be a long, long way away from winning “Best In Show”.
Pete Wedderburn qualified as a vet twenty-five years ago, and now spends half his working life writing newspaper columns. @petethevet