Dogs have been domesticated by humans for a very long time. The oldest undisputed dog remains that were buried beside human remains are 14,200 years old, but researchers can’t exactly pin down when they were first domesticated. Dogs were, however, the first species to be domesticated. They descended from wolves and began their relationship with humans out of mutual benefits. Living around human camps ensured more safety and easier access to food. And for humans, having these animals around provided cleaner spaces because dogs ate the food scraps, provided extra protection from predators and even warmth during colder seasons. One of the most notable benefits for humans from this relationship, though, is wolves’ formidable sense of smell aided humans in hunting.
As the bond between humans and wolves was fortified, wolf species began to die off while the domesticated wolf evolved into an entirely new species – the dog.
Dogs with an acute sense of smell, and ones good at chasing and retrieving things, were often the most popular. These dogs would be bred with other dogs with similar traits to aid humans in hunting. Hunting is a centuries-old practice that ensured our survival. Any tool that made it easier and more effective was greatly appreciated and valued. This is how dog breeding began. Enter beagles, bloodhounds, pointers, retrievers and terriers.
The American Kennel Club recognizes 202 different dog breeds while the Fédération Cynologique Internationale, which is an international federation of a number of kennel clubs, recognizes 344 different breeds, so the exact number of varying dog breeds isn’t easy to determine. Many canine organizations will categorize dog breeds into larger branches that encompass many different breeds.
While the exact number of different dog breeds can only be guessed at, what is interesting is how much dogs can vary despite all being just one species.
Pomeranians and Great Danes seem worlds apart in terms of their physical traits. Pomeranians are stubby, fluffy things, ranging in size from four to eight pounds and five to 11 inches tall. Their tails curl daintily, they have tiny little legs and their colouring ranges from black, tan or beige to white or a mix of those hues. They have a lifespan of 12 to 16 years.
Great Danes are tall and sleek with short, silky coats and legs like stilts. They range in size from 110 to 180 pounds and stand at 28 to 31 inches tall. Their heads are boulder-like and they have floppy, goopy lips. Their colouring is extensive and their lifespan ranges from only eight to 10 years.
Temperament wise, Pomeranians are typically friendly and playful but can be aggressive and dominant when it comes to other dogs, acting sometimes like they have something to prove despite their small stature. Extroverted and attention loving, Pomeranians make up for their size with their big personalities.
Great Danes are gentle giants. They are described as being sometimes lazy but adore affection from their human companions. It seems as though the only thing that they have in common with Pomeranians is that they sometimes forget their size, leaning on things and people and often trying to lay on their humans’ laps.
Despite their differences, Pomeranians and Great Danes are definitely both still dogs. This may come as a head scratcher when members of the big cat family that seem so similar, like cheetahs and leopards for example, are categorized as entirely different species. And yet, Pomeranians, Great Danes, huskies, pugs, border collies and English bulldogs are all canis lupus familiaris. All dogs.
Breeding for a number of different physical or behavioural traits over many centuries is how we have come to have this range of breeds all within the same species.
Although eugenics is frowned upon in humans, this genetic selection has allowed humans to pick and choose what we want to see in man’s best friend and is widely accepted in the world of pets.
However, with this colourful range of qualities, there are bound to be some repercussions. Some purebred dog breeds have been known to have varying health issues linked to the attributes they were bred to embody.
Animal lovers have become increasingly aware of some of these problems and begun to consider the ethics of continuing to support the purebred dog industry because of this.
The British Veterinary Association (BVA) discourages people from purchasing some dog breeds that are more prone to health concerns, namely brachycephalic ones – aka, flat-faced dogs.
Brachycephalic means “shortened head” and these animals are categorized as having short or completely flat snouts and a wide head. Cats can also be brachycephalic.
Their large-looking eyes may be cute, but dogs like Shih Tzus and pugs have less room on their heads for their eye sockets because of their flattened faces, causing their eyes to bulge. Because their eyes protrude, it leaves them more susceptible to damage. Corneal scratches are a common problem for pugs and are very painful.
Sometimes, due to their reduced brow bone on flat-faced dogs, their eyes can also completely pop out of their sockets. This is called a proptosed eye.
Brachycephalic dog breeds also commonly suffer from dry eye, or the technical name, Keratoconjunctivitis Sicca. This is because these dogs can’t blink enough to keep their entire exposed eye moist.
The most common health concern among brachycephalic breeds is respiratory problems. Pugs, bulldogs, Shih Tzus and other flat-faced dogs are all prone to having trouble breathing, beginning sometimes very early on in life.
Sean Wensley, a former president of the British Veterinary Association, explained to Carol Off of CBC’s As It Happens the intricacies of breathing for these dogs.
“The main problem is that their normal airway structures have to fit into a much smaller, flattened space,” he said. “They are essentially squashed into that short nose and shortened skull. What that means is that the airways are twisted and contorted. So when the dog is trying to breathe from the outside into their lungs the air has to pass many obstacles. It’s difficult for them to breathe. Anyone who has spent time around these dogs will recognize that they grunt and snort a lot. When they are trying to sleep, and their sleep is often disrupted, they’ll snore a lot then as well. That makes it difficult for them to breath. We would liken it to us as humans having to spend our entire life breathing through a drinking straw. You can imagine the impact on our quality of life that that would have.”
Wensley confirmed that these health issues are just as man-made as dogs themselves.
“This is a man-made problem and that’s one of the main reasons we are so keen to raise awareness of it. We are deliberately breeding dogs for physical characteristics that we as humans find appealing like a flat-face. But more importantly, that means they are preventable problems because if we could breed for healthier shapes instead then we are going to have, in turn, healthy, happy dogs that enjoy a good quality of life, which we feel strongly ought to be the case.”
Stacy Murphy, a registered veterinary technician at the Kitchener Humane Society and a veterinarian, said another issue with brachycephalic dogs is their soft palates.
“Brachycephalic breeds have a different conformation of their hard and soft palate,” she said. “Their soft palate will sometimes flop down over the airways and cause them to have trouble breathing, and that results in reverse sneezing.”
She said there often isn’t much that can be done to fix these problems aside from complicated surgeries.
An 11-year-old purebred pug named Steve from Brussels, Ont., has experienced some of the problems that are common in brachycephalic breeds.
Ethan Nichol, who often dog sits Steve, said he has known the pug for his whole life and that his breathing problems began early on.
“He is a very friendly and affectionate dog,” said Nichol, “but riddled with physical issues. Even before he was old he could barely breathe. His hip is destroyed so he just kind of drags his back legs. He can’t eat anything. He has to have very particular food or his body rejects it. Rejects it all over the rug.”
According to Nichol, Steve’s owners were formerly pug breeders but stopped because of the further deteriorating health with every new generation of pug.
He described Steve’s breathing as being laboured and believes that, although Steve is a great dog, his breed should not exist.
“I think he’s a monster (because of his constant wheezing and difficulties simply existing), but I pity him a bit,” said Nichol.
Pugs also have a disease that is exclusive to their breed called pug dog encephalitis. The cause of this condition is not known but it is fatal. It is a neurological condition that causes depression, seizures, loss of coordination, weakness, blindness and more.
Wrinkly dogs also have health problems, in particular skin infections due to their folds becoming moist and not being cleaned properly. Bulldogs especially fall victim to smelly, infected skin rolls because they just have so much skin and so many wrinkles. This condition is called skin fold dermatitis and the symptoms display as red, irritated skin, hair loss and a foul smell in the dog’s wrinkles.
The British Veterinary Association has also noted an increase in a need for cesarean sections in English bulldogs due to the sheer size of the puppies’ heads in comparison to the dog’s pelvic canal. Wensley said this is, again, a consequence of breeding dogs to be a specific shape.
The BVA began a campaign to try to bring awareness to the suffering that brachycephalic dog breeds face and to help inform current and prospective dog owners. The campaign, called #breedtobreathe, aims to help people make better choices when it comes to choosing a dog breed to decrease the suffering faced by man’s best friend.
She added that it was unfair to use a blanket statement to cover an entire breed of dogs when many other breeds are susceptible to other health issues.
“There are lots of breeds that have issues,” said Norman. “So if you pick a different breed, let’s pick a Labrador retriever for example, they can get hip dysplasia, elbow dysplasia, skin problems, ear problems.”
In fact, there are many breeds that are prone to health issues other than brachycephalic dogs.
The German shepherd, for example, is a newer breed, with their origin dating to 1899. They were bred as working dogs and are easy to train and eager to please. They are well-known for being police dogs and have been useful in the military as well. At one time, German shepherds were almost exclusively chosen to be service dogs for the visually impaired. They were originally intended as herding dogs, hence their name.
Because of their need to be quick while working, German shepherds were also bred to have shorter hind legs and a sloping back, making agile movement easier.
“Part of the concern for German shepherds is the way that they’re bred to move,” said Murphy. “They are meant to have a high stance in the front and a low stance in the back. And that lower stance changes how they hold their muscles and bones, where a normal dog is kind of standing straight up but a German shepherd is almost slanted at the back and then curved back down. They want to be lower in the back so that they can advance on things easier. So they were bred to be a certain confirmation.”
In dog shows, judges tend to favour dogs with a sloped back and lower rear stance. So, dog owners wanted these traits as well. However, this evolutionary mutation has opened a door of health problems for these dogs.
“In the breeding, we introduced a different way that dogs are holding their bones and muscles which has lead to different wear and tear on the bones and joints,” Murphy said. “So that’s why we see more hip dysplasia in larger breed dogs, specifically German shepherds. But certainly you can see it in labs, golden retrievers, those types of dogs. With bigger dogs, there’s more weight on bigger bones, bigger muscles, bigger joints. So we tend to see a lot of things related to those aspects of dogs. We don’t necessarily always see hip dysplasia, but we often see a lot of arthritis, especially in the hips and knees. We tend to see a lot of cruciate tears. That’s the ACL ligament over the knee. They’ll be running and they’ll tear that joint and because the dog is so big, you have to repair it. You don’t really have an option not to repair it and just let it heal because there’s so much weight on those joints. So we tend to see a lot of those injuries in large dogs.”
However, dogs bred to be smaller like Shih Tzus and chihuahuas are also prone to a different set of physical problems.
“On the other hand, in littler dogs we see a lot of a condition called luxating patellas, in which the kneecap kind of jumps out of place,” said Murphy. “It’s fairly common in little dogs.”
All this suffering paired with humankind’s unconditional, unending love for dogs begs one painful question: why do humans still support an industry that hurts our best friends so much?
Humans, for the most part, don’t want their pets to suffer. As society becomes more educated on the issues that affect our non-human companions, we learn and change for the better.
An example of this is the number of veterinary offices that no longer declaw cats.
In the past, cats were declawed to avoid the destruction of furniture and prevent them from scratching people. It started off as a seemingly innocent compromise that allowed people to keep cats and still keep their furniture looking new. As more education on the effects of declawing came to light, many places begun refusing to declaw cats and some provinces banned it altogether.
As it turns out, declawing a cat is not like trimming their nails to a point that they won’t grow back but rather more like cutting off a cat’s toes at the knuckles.
The Canadian Veterinary Medical Association said the practice causes unnecessary and avoidable pain in cats.
“The CVMA views this surgery as unacceptable as it offers no advantage to the feline and the lack of scientific evidence leaves us unable to predict the likelihood of long-term behavioural and physical negative side-effects,” said Dr. Troy Bourque, a former president of the CVMA.
Cats use their claws for more than just defence and climbing. According to the Ontario SPCA’s website, cats also use their claws for stretching muscles, especially in their backs and legs as they grip onto carpets with their claws and twist about.
Without this vital stretching, cats can develop discomfort in muscles and even arthritis. Behavioural issues are also common among cats that have been declawed.
Nova Scotia made it illegal to declaw cats, doing so in 2018, making it the first Canadian province to do so. It has also been banned in many countries including the U.K. and Australia.
“I see declawing as a mutilation of an animal for no direct benefit to the animal,” said retired veterinarian Hugh Chisholm in a CBC article last year. “It’s something that’s done mostly to protect furniture.”
Similar to declawing, the docking of dogs’ tails and the cropping of their ears for esthetic purposes has been banned or heavily regulated in many countries as well. Australia and many European countries have banned both altogether with few exceptions. However, these practices are still unregulated in Canada despite the CVMA opposing all cosmetic procedures in animals.
If certain procedures that are done for mostly superficial reasons in cats are being banned to prevent suffering, it’s no surprise that many animal welfare advocates are coming forward in contempt of specific purebred dogs.
Brachycephalic dogs were bred solely for esthetic purposes. Pugs have Chinese origins, bred to be companions for wealthy families in ancient times. They were considered royal and luxurious dogs and very much a sign of status.
Although dogs like pugs and German shepherds are sought after for their appearances, many animal welfare advocates argue that this is not a good enough reason to contribute to an industry that inevitably ends up in the suffering of these dogs.
Murphy said that mutts are by far the healthiest kind of dog.
“We do tend to see less issues with mutts because they’re not bred as tightly into lines because they’re interbreeding with other breeds of dogs. So we tend to see less problems in mutts. But certainly, you can see a problem in any type of dog, but I would say mutts are more common to be on the healthier side.”
Breeding began with good intentions. Humans and dogs partnered and both gained benefits from the relationship. But what pure-breeding has grown into in terms of esthetic purposes is a whole other issue.
With the Kennel Club’s research showing that 50 per cent of pugs and bulldogs suffer from significant respiratory issues and that only seven to 15 per cent can breathe normally, it might be difficult to grasp why humans continue to breed dogs that are known to suffer.
Some organizations suggest that the only way to fully end the suffering of brachycephalic dogs is to ban the breeds. Some places have tight regulations on other types of dogs, like pit bulls, so it would not be unheard of to place regulations on other dog breeds as well. But banning breeds is difficult to enforce and historically, like with pit bulls, people will often find ways around laws and have them anyways.
Ethical breeding and educated consumers are the most likely solutions to end the suffering of purebred dogs, namely the pug. If people talk to their vets about the health issues that certain breeds face, they can make an educated decision on whether or not it’s worth it to have what some consider esthetically pleasing dogs at the risk of their pet’s health and quality of life.
As for Steve the pug, Nichol has high hopes for him in the future.
“I hope when his time comes that he gets a humongous snout and excellent lungs in doggy heaven.”