Crufts is the Miss Universe of the canine world. It's the world's largest dog show and has been searching for empirically perfect specimens—cuties with beauty and brains—for more than a century. And while the competition is diverse—it even includes things like people and their pets performing choreographed dances about Roman centurions—the most coveted prize is Best In Show, a title 22,000 dogs vied for this year alone.
A Border Collie named McVan's To Russia With Love most recently took the award home. In the world of competitive dogs, that's a pretty boring name. Other competitors were named Hidalgo At Goodspice and Afterglow Maverick Sabre. Show dog owners aren't short on imagination.
So far, you'd be right in thinking Crufts is good, clean, slightly weird fun. But as it turns out, even the world's most perfect pups have problems. A study titled "Best in Show but Not Best Shape", published in this month's Veterinary Record, found over a quarter of the dogs entered into the competition were overweight.
While this might not seem like the biggest deal in the world, Dr. Peter Higgins—a Veterinarian from the University of Sydney—stresses that it's more serious than most people think. "Show dogs are supposed to be the pinnacle," he says. "If those dogs are overweight, that's just not setting a good standard."
This is an opinion shared by the scientists who carried out the study. University of Liverpool researcher, Dr Alex German, expressed concern that Crufts might be normalising canine obesity.
"This isn't a joke as many Australians seem to think," Peter told VICE, laying out the problems excess weight causes in dogs. "Extra weight puts undue pressure on their joints: their knees and hips," and in the most extreme cases, Peter has seen dogs that are almost lame. "They pretty much can't walk because their joints don't work."
Doggie hearts are also threatened by weight problems, and the effects of canine obesity weigh heavily on the cardiovascular system. "It all adds up to a shortened lifespan," Peter explains, adding that "research shows overweight dogs will live three to five years less than a normal weight dog." That's about a third of an average dog's life.
If show dog owners are dedicated enough to choreograph a five minute long canine dance routine, you'd think they'd be able to notice when their dog was facing a dangerous health problem. But the researchers disagree. The study hypothesised that dog parents, much like actual parents, are pretty blind to their child's more problematic features.
This phenomenon was identified a couple years ago by American researchers at the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention. They found a quarter of pet owners described their overweight dogs as perfectly normal.
In Australia too, canine obesity is on the up. In 2005, researchers from the University of Sydney found around eight percent of Australian dogs were obese. By 2010, Victorian vets were reporting 30 percent of their canine patients were dangerously overweight.
But are shows like Crufts responsible for all these canine John Candies? Probably not. In fact, when it comes to the health of their pups, Crufts is actually fairly diligent. According to the University of Liverpool, after their report came out, Crufts' organising body invited Dr. German to come speak about obesity at their next breed health seminar.
A more likely cause, thinks Peter the vet, is that we love our dogs too much. Unfortunately, the things we do to keep our dogs happy are usually the same things that fatten them up. "Dog owners love their dogs so much, they always want to keep them happy. But all those little treats we give our dogs can be really unhealthy," he said. In other words, we've come to see a chubby dog as a happy one, even when – in the long term – that's just not the case.
On top of all that, Peter says we probably enjoy the sight of a portly pooch a little too much. "Most people will look at a fat dog and just think 'that's pretty funny'" he said. And that's pretty hard to argue with.
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