Dwarfed dogs: Ethical considerations for breeders

If I were giving this wrap-up as an oral presentation, I’d first ask for a show of hands from everybody who believed that deliberately producing puppies with a vastly increased probability of a painful genetic disorder that results in an early death is always wrong and the sign of a bad breeder. 

Then I’d ask if more hands would go up if that painful and often deadly genetic disorder could easily be prevented. 

Or maybe I’d ask it this way: Is it our responsibility to do absolutely everything we possibly can to reduce genetic disease?

If there were hands up from breeders involved in Corgi, Basset, Sussex, Dachshund, Skye, you fill in the rest of the list… those breeders have a lot of thinking to do.

When we breed dwarfed dogs, we are producing puppies that have a one hundred percent chance of getting spinal arthritis, and they’ll do so at an extremely premature age when compared to other breeds.

When we breed dwarfed dogs, we are producing puppies that have a risk of intensely painful disc disease and spinal cord injury that is, easily, an order of magnitude greater than the risk faced by non-dwarfed breeds. Dachshunds are up to 20% of all individuals experiencing catastrophic disc failure in the prime of their lives.

When we breed dwarfed dogs, we are selecting for traits that lead to a vastly higher rate of painful arthritis in the limbs, a vastly higher rate of painful growth plate injuries, a vastly higher rate of ligament damage that can render the dog unable to do his or her job. 

You think degenerative myelopathy is the bogey man? Disc disease is MUCH more common, incredibly painful, strikes in the prime of life, and is very likely to recur even if the owner can spend the four thousand dollars to get the sharp fragments of blown-out disc picked out of the dog’s rapidly swelling and dying spinal cord AND the dog is lucky enough to recover after surgery. 

The solution to ALL these issues is very simple, cheap, and easy to implement: Stop breeding dwarfed dogs. We can either end with this generation or we can begin to interbreed with Border Collies or something so we can push the breed up to normal leg length; either would be appropriate. Each breed club could decide which approach to take, with the goal of ending the production of defective dogs.

But we can’t possibly do that! I hear people saying. The price is too high! My dogs are perfectly healthy! The height has a vital function! These dogs were bred for a reason!

Well, then, PUT YOUR HANDS DOWN. Because you DON’T actually think that genetic health is the top priority. You DON’T think that deliberately producing at-risk dogs is wrong. 

If you breed dwarfed dogs — and I could have made this series about giant dogs, or brachycephalic dogs, or any number of the mutations we cultivate as part of breed type, but dwarfed dogs are very close to my heart right now and so, as usual, I’m trying to preach to myself — YOU MUST LOOK THIS IN THE FACE.

There are no scenarios under which the deliberate breeding of dwarfed dogs is without cost. It is a genetic malformation and it makes a whole bunch of the dog defective in function. 

What I strongly suspect that dwarfed-dog breeders ACTUALLY mean is that health is the top priority AFTER the maintenance or improvement of the breed itself. So do giant-breed breeders, and Boxer breeders (cancers) and Flatcoat breeders (even worse cancers) and so on. 

That approach is valid. But you need to admit to yourself that you are doing it, and you need to be consistent about implementing it. Don’t say that So and So who is breeding Snarfblat carriers is such a terrible person if you’re pumping out dogs who have a pretty decent chance of catastrophic spinal injury. Take out the log in your own eye before you look for the fleck in someone else’s, as a very wise book says. 

So how CAN we remain ethical breeders, responsible for each puppy’s entire life, under these circumstances? How can we fulfil our commitment to puppy owners?

I think that answer, too, is simple. We remain responsible for each puppy’s entire life. And we don’t throw puppy buyers under the bus.

Prospective owners MUST be told about the unique skeletal system that they are buying. They MUST walk away from your living room with enough information that they are making a decision with their eyes wide open. I think it’s entirely appropriate to also tell them that despite these limitations their dog will most likely live a very long, healthy, and happy life. But they should never think that nothing can happen. If they know the problems that are characteristic of dwarfism, they will be much more motivated to work to prevent the issues (a careful diet to prevent hip problems, supplementation for disc health, careful conditioning to exercise, avoiding the falls and concussive events that hurt growth plates, etc.) and much more prepared to respond to the issues when and if they occur. You want a puppy buyer who knows enough about disc disease that she suspects it quickly and gets the dog to the vet in time to prevent nerve death. You want a dog owner who knows enough about achondroplasia that they are not blindsided by diagnoses, so that they can become their dog’s best advocate when decisions about care, treatment, pain relief, euthanasia decisions, and eventual necropsy are demanded of them.

Carolyn asked if breeders were willing to chip all their dogs and take them back when something happens. To that I say OH MY HECK YES. In fact, that should be standard and expected of all breeders, now that chips are so much cheaper than they were even a few years ago. I used to have to ask the puppy buyers to do it and to add me as a secondary contact, back when chips were $75-$100 each, so having it come down to a tenth that much is absolutely wonderful. I am THRILLED that Kate is chipping all of Bronte’s puppies and will remain on the record as a contact forever. I look forward to being able to do the same.

And as for taking them back when catastrophe hits, I think that is one of the MOST IMPORTANT jobs a breeder can do. Owners often feel completely powerless to face the diagnosis, prognosis, and decision making that come with an end-of-life disease. I have told puppy owners that if they get to that point and just can’t handle it, the dog can come back to me. I’ll hold their hand and the dog’s paw and, either together or with the owner separated from the process if they desire, we’ll get through those last weeks or months. I think this is something that all breeders of all breeds should be willing to do, and when you’re producing puppies with specific weaknesses you should expect to do it at one point or another. Cradle to grave is the only right way to do it. 

I know I keep harping on this phrase, but OWN YOUR DECISIONS. Be willing to look very difficult facts in the face. Be willing to admit that you’re breeding dogs with some serious potential problems, and you’re doing so deliberately even though there are alternatives that will not cause the same problems. Be willing to lay out the honest facts in front of puppy buyers.

I don’t care if you do one health test or twelve. I don’t care if you produce one litter every three years or ten litters a year. Being an ethical breeder is about being willing to pick up a trembling old fat and incontinent dog that you sold twelve years ago, and keep him on your bed on a heating pad and feed him gruel for six weeks until you and the vet decide that it’s time for him to go to heaven. It’s about crying like a fool when he goes, and burying him next to his mother, and crying more when you think about her.  Being there for your dogs and your owners is the key.


One thought on “Dwarfed dogs: Ethical considerations for breeders

  1. If *every* breeder out in the world felt that way, breeders as a whole would be looked at in a much more positive light by other animal-people than they are now. I’ve generally felt 98% of breeders (and I’m not even including puppymillers, just BYBs, showbreeders and oopsie-folks) have no right to do what they do. But if they all felt the way you do, and have the sense you seem to have, we’d all be a lot better off. It is SO rare I read/meet a person who wants to breed their dog that my immediate thought is “oh please no,” and I find your site very interesting, educational and informative. I’ve been reading off and on for a month now, and reading old posts, and I must say (not that my opinion counts for much) that I am impressed.

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