Monday, December 20, 2010

Purebred Problems: Practically Redundant?

Clients often ask me whether it's true that mixed-breed dogs tend to be healthier than purebreds.

I don't think I needed to complete that notorious, horrific Cornell undergrad Genetics course to be able to answer this question. But perhaps fate led me to endure hundreds of hours in a lab meticulously counting mutated fruit flies just so I could eventually state an empirical truth to prospective purebred dog buyers.

Here is that empirical truth: in general, dogs produced from genetically dissimilar dogs (mutts, mixed breeds) are not going to display or generate anywhere near the number of predictable ailments as purebred dogs who are bred to other purebred dogs.

Veterinarians know this, they experience it daily, and it's one reason why the majority of vets I know have mixed breed dogs. If a mechanic repeatedly saw the same make and model of car coming in for costly repair of the same problems, you can bet he would never buy that car himself, or recommend his close friends and family purchase it. (This is why I want a shirt that says: "Veterinarians don't let friends buy purebred dogs." Hey... Christmas is days away!)

One of the nice things about having worked in a Midwest academic vet hospital, a huge West Coast urban hospital, a tiny East Coast rural practice and an animal shelter is that I feel I've observed the gamut. And from my experience seeing thousands of appointments, I have drawn 3 conclusions regarding purebred animals:

1.) Purebred dogs are everywhere. They are being deliberately churned out nonstop. As fast as we are spaying and neutering, as fast as kill shelters are euthanizing, and as fast as veterinarians and advocates are educating... purebred, inbred, overbred dogs are being deliberately produced, bought and sold.

2.) The veterinary profession as a whole is doing little if anything to publicly discourage the unbridled inbreeding, overbreeding and buying of purebred dogs, even though it contributes hugely and unnecessarily to companion animal illness in this country. I have, however, heard plenty of veterinarians state that these dogs are "good for business."

3.) The term "responsible breeder" is a relative one at best. To make my point clearer, I have conveniently broken breeder/buyer irresponsibility down medical-style (i.e., with the same gradation system used for heart murmurs, where Grade VI = loudest.) Yes, I went there.

Grade VI: BLIND INTERNET PURCHASE. A man purchases his first dog ever, an English bulldog with multiple inherited defects, from a Missouri puppy mill (but the internet said it was the secret headquarters of world-class Russian champion show dog breeders). NO. ONE. EVER. THINKS. PUPPY. CAME. FROM. A. PUPPY. MILL. BUT. IT. DID. He convinces his neighbor to buy female from same place (its littermate, incidentally) and has them mated. The artificially-resuscitated-at-birth puppies are sold without shots or deworming before they're even old enough to be weaned. Half the puppies later die of parvovirus.

Grade V: PET SHOP. Breeder mass-produces puppies in a giant, inhumane puppy mill, where breeding mothers are condemned to spend their lives crowded in spaces the size of shoeboxes. They are then "shot out back" or dumped when their fertility declines. The puppies are shipped off like Fed Ex packages to mall pet stores across the country. NO. ONE. EVER. THINKS. PUPPY. CAME. FROM. A. PUPPY. MILL. BUT. IT. DID. A girl at the mall shopping for designer jeans and Lady Gaga cd's impulsively buys one of the puppies. She drops it at the already over-filled local shelter when it is ordered out of her college dorm room.

Grade IV: DROVE TO THE MIDWEST AND PICKED IT UP SOMEWHERE. Private person who probably doesn't own a full-on puppy mill still deceitfully sells dogs to people who are never welcome to see their facility/dogs. If they do see the dogs, it's "just the mother and father." NO. ONE. EVER. THINKS. PUPPY. CAME. FROM. A. PUPPY. MILL. BUT. IT. DID. Puppies may have shots and deworming, but not uncommonly have other parasites, inbred disorders, or may not be purebred at all. Breeder tells buyer that the puppy's incessant diarrhea is from stress and not to worry about it. The breeder becomes completely unreachable when genetic problems are diagnosed at the first puppy exam or when the purebred dachshund that arrives via plane is an obvious dachshund-chihuahua mix.

Grade III: MY AUNT'S DOGS HAVE PUPPIES EVERY YEAR. Person or family purchases and/or otherwise acquires dogs of the same breed, keeps them at their home or property, and watches the dogs breed. Enjoys having dogs, enjoys the money they make from selling dogs, but knows knows little or nothing about inherited disorders or breed facts. May breed multiple breeds. If two different kinds of purebreds accidentally breed with each other, they can potentially sell the offspring for even more money by simply combining the names of the two dogs, i.e. yorkie-poos, labradoodles, or, if you've seen Dumb and Dumber, bull-shihts. Gives first shots and first dewormings themselves, sells the puppies without a vet check via word of mouth or the local newspaper. May give reproductively capable animals away after breeding but does not spay/neuter them first. Consequently, these animals may be subsequently bred by the enchanted person who just got a purebred dog for free.

Grade II: LOCAL NEWSPAPER. Somewhat more serious breeder who has a working knowledge of a breed's history, uses, characteristics and inherited disorders. Has years of experience working with the breed and may be involved in showing dogs. Although most genetic diseases do not appear until after puppyhood, breeder has a veterinarian check the puppies to sign off that they do not currently have evidence of illness or genetic disorders. Gives shots and deworms prior to sale. Still brings genetically afflicted animals into the world, but the owner gets a refund and/or a replacement puppy if this happens by the first exam. Purchaser usually has no idea that a healthy puppy can still turn into a trainwreck moneypit down the line.

Grade I: HAVE YOU SEEN THE MOVIE "BEST IN SHOW?" Professional breeder who is obsessed with a certain dog breed. Has veterinarian(s) check breeding animals for problems to which they are predisposed (even though at breeding age these problems probably haven't even developed yet). May invest in OFA registries, artificial insemination and breed registries, etc. Life revolves around the dog breed, highly selective matings and sales. Breeding animals no longer used may be spayed/neutered and adopted to homes. This type of breeder proudly believes his or her dogs have an appearance, personality or working trait which makes them superior to other puppies. (Appearance superiority means the dog looks exactly or almost exactly like thousands of other people's dogs. Personality superiority means the dog will have the same or nearly the same personality as thousands of other people's dogs. A superior working trait might mean that the dog, which is probably being purchased as a plain old home companion, will spend hours each day bored on a couch when its intensified instincts would prefer it to be herding, chewing, retrieving, digging, swimming or attacking other animals.) These breeders may actually win the favor of some veterinarians, unless they contradict the veterinarian on health issues or repeatedly insist on augmenting medical advice. Their expert breeding still produces dogs more prone to disease than mutts. Their breeding and sale of intact animals still contributes to animal overpopulation, the number one cause of dog death in the country.

When I steer people away from breeding and purchasing purebred dogs, it's not just because approximately 1.7 million dogs are already killed in shelters each year. It's not just because mutts make just as good if not better companions than purebred dogs. And it's not just because I've seen thousands of little souls trapped in defective bodies they didn't ask for. I also steer people away from breeding and buying because I empathize with clients. I don't enjoy seeing well-meaning people misguided, duped, frustrated, upset, or faced with problems they didn't expect and can't afford to properly manage. Especially when the overwhelming majority of them falsely believed they were making an investment and getting something "better" when they bought a purebred dog. Do I think purebred dogs should be universally outlawed? No. Do I think 90% of people who buy into this country's rampant breeding and obsession with purebreds would be just as happy if not happier with an adopted mutt? Yes, absolutely.

I'll add that a pet insurance company in Seattle recently released its findings on the most expensive dogs based on veterinary visits/insurance claims submitted since August 2000. The medical ultra-high-maintenance list, printed in Veterinary Practice News, included: English Bulldog, Bernese Mountain Dog, Rottweiler, Great Dane and the French Bulldog. Mixed breed was not on the list, and it never will be.

You might be asking...what about purebred cats? Intentional cat breeding is less rampant, but creates the same problems. I'll never forget the time a woman began crying uncontrollably in my exam room because her purebred Burmese cat (anything ending in -ese tends towards poor immunity and/or inherited disease in my experience) had unresolved diarrhea for years on end. She had visited numerous vets, ruled out every parasitic and dietary cause, acquired an entire shopping bag full of medications and alternative supplements, and she had never once seen improvement. Following her bawling breakdown, I looked this woman in the face and told her to stop buying purebred cats.

Here are just a few of my most recent anecdotes :

1.) A man told me he paid $600 for a purebred "American Staffordshire Terrier" puppy. It was no different or better than any of the pit bull puppies sitting in shelters across the country in terms of appearance or personality, and it had Demodectic mange (an ailment associated with a genetically weaker immune system). 3 months later, the Demodex improved but was not completely resolved, as this condition can take months upon months to clear. At this point, the client told me he'd "had it" and wanted to "get rid of" the puppy. The breeder did not return any calls after he heard the diagnosis and was asked to cover cost of treatment.

2.) Another man told me he paid  $5000 for a "purebred" dog known as a "pocket pit", which is supposedly slightly smaller than a "regular" pit bull. Interestingly enough, at 4 months the dog looked no different than every other pit bull puppy I see. Keep in mind that of the approximately 1.7 million dogs killed in shelters, between 50 and 60% are estimated to be "pitbulls" of various sizes.

3.) At their first vaccine appointment, I cautioned the owner of two sphinx kittens that the breed was prone to skin infections and immune problems. One kitten returned the next day with a vaccine-induced cellulitis. It returned two more times for other ailments before the second vaccine appointment just 3 weeks later.

Let's end this post with a game for veterinarians (or really bored non-veterinarians): the game is called... "I name the condition, you name a dog breed that comes to mind."

Keratoconjunctivitis sicca (aka dry eye)
Intravertebral disk disease
Recurrent hotspots, lymphoma
Gastric dilitation and volvulus (aka bloat)
Cancer (wait, that's every purebred dog's predisposition)
Luxating patellas, defensive biting
Recurrent ear infections
Shar Pei ears (think carefully now)
Dilated cardiomyopathy
Perianal fistula, hip dysplasia, pannus
Dermatitis, dying under anesthesia
Inexplicable howling, running away from home

If your thought was aligned with mine more than 7 times, consider relaying mutt adoption information to your clients from this day forward, if you don't already.

I'll leave you with a compelling photo of two wonderful, beautiful rescues. People constantly ask me what kind of dogs they are and where I "managed to find them." They both sat in shelters for weeks to months and narrowly escaped euthanasia before I adopted them. Look at the little white one (the Ethical Veterinarian mascot)...I'm sure I could tell most people she was a "pocket pit" and they wouldn't know the difference.

Bring on the mutts!

Thursday, December 9, 2010

AVMA Revises Veterinarian's Oath to Emphasize Animal Welfare

Rumor has it leaders at the American Veterinary Medical Association started reading Ethical Veterinarian and became terribly intimidated!

For the first time in its 56 year history, the famous(ly lacking) Veterinarian's Oath will finally claim a veterinary obligation to promote animal welfare. To the average person, this may seem like strange cause for celebration, since the term animal welfare would seem to denote the whole purpose of the veterinary profession. However, animal advocates know it's a small victory; parts of the veterinary profession have long viewed a concern for the non-medical treatment of animals (a huge part of animal welfare) as a potential threat to animal industries with whom they are allied.

Despite the AVMA Council on Veterinary Service's recommendation to reaffirm the old Veterinarian's Oath without changes, the Executive Board recently followed the Animal Welfare Committee's advice instead. It approved changing a section of the oath to the following:

"Being admitted to the profession of veterinary medicine, I solemnly swear to use my scientific knowledge and skills for the benefit of society through the protection of animal health AND WELFARE, THE PREVENTION AND relief of animal suffering, the conservation of animal resources, the promotion of public health, and the advancement of medical knowledge."

I'm obviously delighted that the AVMA is finally acknowledging that animal welfare should be a priority within the profession. I'm also impressed that the Animal Welfare Committee has pointed out its own "reactive, rather than proactive, approach to protecting animal welfare." Admitting this weakness is laudable and a great starting point for improvement.

However, I do have some other sentiments.

First off, it's unfortunate that this amending of the oath comes so embarrassingly late. Late like wishing someone a happy belated 30th birthday the day before their 70th birthday. It is also happening right after non-veterinary animal advocacy groups swept through the country, putting state animal welfare laws in place and banning horrendous practices that the AVMA had just condoned. In the years that it has taken the veterinary profession to reach this point of labelling itself committed to animal welfare, animal advocacy groups have been busy revolutionizing public awareness of animal welfare, putting forth cogent arguments regarding animal welfare and leading animal welfare reforms.

If we back up a little and look at the big picture, philosophers, ethicists and lawmakers have been discussing the treatment of animals for centuries. For decades, American animal activists have been productively laboring to win better treatment for animals. Other intellectuals and professionals in society are not afraid to discuss concepts like animal rights, speciesism, and nonhuman family members. Mainstream culture is even beginning to embrace these ideas. And yet, our national veterinary professional organization has just finished debating whether or not to formally pledge itself to "animal welfare," a conservative term that has been used in public policy since the 1800's.

And even with the oath's new reference to animal welfare, we can't forget that many of the AVMA's positions still stand in direct opposition to animal wellbeing. Changing words doesn't mean it will change its policies. After all, the AVMA still condones declawing and gestation stalls, among other things. What is it going to do about these positions now?  I hope it alters them, rather than persisting in its delusions that these practices are somehow aligned with animal welfare. But I wouldn't bet on it. I'd be more inclined to believe the AVMA is changing the oath so it can stake a better claim at being an "animal welfare" authority next time it goes toe to toe against the animal advocacy movement.

Even if it is becoming genuine about animal welfare, we must recognize that the AVMA Animal Welfare Committee's interpretation of "animal welfare" is undeniably biased in favor of industry, despite its repeated assertions to the contrary. In a recent presentation on its animal welfare approaches, an AVMA Animal Welfare rep stated, "Animal (and human) welfare requires consideration of:..." and among just a few factors listed were, "producer concerns and economics" and "consumer expectations." Producer concerns, economics and ever-becoming-more-vile consumer expectations are not the determinants of whether or not an animal is experiencing wellbeing. Nor can the word "human welfare" be used interchageably with "human interests" As long as the AVMA is letting economic factors (you know how much I love that photo) play so heavily into its judgement, it is never going to make significant changes for animals. The AVMA will, however, have a stockpile of lame excuses and rationalizations for allowing animal abuse to continue.

All in all, the AVMA still has a long way to go, and I certainly still do not regard it as any kind of visionary animal protection organization. In all honesty, it is a business organization that advocates for veterinarian livelihood moreso than animal wellbeing. For this reason, we should not expect it to be a serious player in fostering change for animals, though I do have fantastical ideas that it will one day become a serious player.

For now, let's just take a moment to be happy that the oath has become more animal-friendly and that at least some leaders in the AVMA seem motivated toward a degree of change. At this moment, the AVMA's oath revision is analagous to a 4 year old kid stating his first word ever as "pasketti" instead of "spaghetti." It's unbelievably late, and it doesn't technically mean anything. But it gets a smile of out me, because perhaps we're getting somewhere.

Here is just a parting reminder.