Everyone's a dog person these days. Whereas cats were once the internet’s cute meme of choice, doggos and puppers now reign supreme. You’re not a bougie inner city couple if you don’t co-own a tiny, impossibly proportioned variation on a bulldog who you refer to as your “fur baby”. It’s easier than ever to become a dog parent, too—the RSPCA recently made headlines for putting its shelter dogs on clearance sale for $29.
Unfortunately, the trendiness of dogs—and particularly designer dog breeds—poses problems. In 2016, veterinarians at the University of Sydney published a study examining how Australians are increasingly buying smaller “brachycephalic” dog breeds like pugs and bulldogs, with a greater tendency towards breathing disorders. You’ll be familiar with these breeds: short legs, squashed faces. Big bulgy eyes. Very memey. And, as the research highlights, much more prone to breathing problems.
While it feels good to shame people for spending $1000 on an Instagrammable pet predisposed to severe health issues, the situation is more complicated than it seems. Researchers have also suggested that Australians are buying smaller dog breeds out of necessity. Tiny dogs simply suit our increasingly urban lifestyles; we’re no longer living in the sprawling suburbs, and we no longer have huge backyards. We actually do need our pets to be small and cafe-friendly. And in response, breeders are designing them that way.
So how do you make ethical choices when buying a designer dog?
The small dog dilemma
For most Australians a small dog will make more sense than a larger one. Australian National Kennel Council statistics show that Australian dog owners are moving from suburbs to cities and swapping blue heelers and sheepdogs for staffies and bulldogs: the popularity of shorter and smaller dog breeds has increased gradually over a 28 year period.
All that doesn’t mean we can totally excuse our preference for pugs that can’t breathe or walk properly, though. The same Australian National Kennel Council data has been used to project an increase in certain diseases associated with smaller dogs. While larger breeds are susceptible to issues like hip dysplasia, smaller breeds are prone to breathing and skin problems. And neither breeders nor buyers seem bothered.
“I think since we started breeding animals there has been a tendency for some to select for form over function. There has been a documented increased in demand for and ownership of brachycepahlic breeds [flatter faced breeds] in both dogs and cats. Brachycephalism is associated with brachycephalic obstructive airway syndrome, which is a health and welfare problem,” explains Dr Anne Fawcett, a lecturer at the Sydney School of Veterinary Science and vet at Sydney Animal Hospitals.
“It can cause significant suffering for animals. For example, dogs and cats with extreme brachycephalism can have severe respiratory compromise. Breathing is a life sustaining activity we engage in every minute of the day. Having a restricted ability to breath affects every activity—from eating to sleeping to exercise.”
What can pet buyers do?
There’s plenty that prospective Australian dog owners can do to support an ethical dog breeding industry. The first step is avoiding puppy mills (check out the RSPCA Smart Puppy Buyer’s Guide), and the second step is admitting the truth: an Instagrammable dog may not be a happy dog. Stay away from pedigree dogs, particularly the trendy ones with exaggerated cutesy features that inhibit their quality of life, and consider paying a visit to your local animal shelter.
“I would recommend people to adopt a dog instead of buying a dog in the first place,” says University of Sydney animal disease researcher Dr Kendy Teng. “There are many small sized dogs in pounds and shelters—even if they are less likely to be purebred, it has shown that mixed-breed dogs are healthier than purebred dogs by many studies.”
There are broader ethical concerns to consider, too. Why are you buying a dog anyway? Can you guarantee your pet a happy life?
“Consider your lifestyle and time,” adds Fawcett. “If you travel a lot, or you're out for extended periods, that impacts on animals you live with. Can you meet the welfare needs of the species, breed and individual? Also consider costs. Veterinary care should be factored in. Pet insurance can be really helpful.”
What can breeders do?
If you've got your heart set on a pedigree dog, at least take as many steps as possible to find a responsible breeder. The dog breeding industry is massive and powerful and, to some extent, regulated. Teng says it’s totally possible for a dog breeder to act ethically.
“There are genetic testings for some specific diseases,” she says. “A responsible breeder would make sure that the sire and dam are free of these genetic diseases if the specific breed is predisposed to them. Also, as breed standards determine how different breeds of dogs should look like and some of the body appearances written in the breed standards are linked with some diseases, these part of breed standards should be considered to be modified to ensure better health of these dogs.”
But it’s worth noting that the entire industry is fundamentally flawed. Both large and small pedigree dog breeds are prone to health issues, which tend to compound when breeders are forced to re-engineer their dogs to cope with the very problems that they have created. Bulldogs, for example, have been selectively bred to have such large heads that they can no longer be birthed naturally, and must be delivered by caesarean section. To compensate, the same breeders are now trying to selectively design bulldogs with wider pelvises. It's
“Is it possible to breed small cute dogs without these kinds of health issues? The phrasing of the question is part of the problem,” says Fawcett.
“We should be asking, instead, what features are compatible with the best animal welfare? I do think there are highly ethical animal breeders out there and I engage with a number of them. But I also strongly believe in giving shelter and pound animals a second chance—rather than creating designer dogs to meet the needs of people. Animals have interests too.”