If you’re a dog lover, chances are there are certain breeds that have an extra special place in your heart. Maybe you grew up with a pure bred, or maybe the first breed of dog you brought into your own family. Or maybe you have a soft spot for dog breeds that come from the same part of the world as you or your ancestors. There are all sort of reasons for why people have a fondness for certain types of pure bred animals. But when you stop to consider what we have learned about genetics and animal welfare, the whole process of selectively breeding dogs should raise some questions.
Of course, there’s nothing necessarily wrong with breeding animals. Breeding is how the population of domesticated animals is kept up. But when you look, for example, at what has happened to the various contemporary dog breeds, you can easily see that something peculiar is going on. Something you don’t really see in nature. Consider the differences between a pug and a great dane.
They’re both beautiful dogs, no doubt! But look how different they are! That incredible difference in size and physical attributes within a single species has been achieved through generations of extremely selective breeding.
While there are natural variations in physical qualities in different areas even within the same species, the practice of selective dog breeding has created a constellation of breeds of all manner of shapes and sizes. Often, as in the case with the pug’s compact face, certain physical qualities are deemed desirable which would never arise out of natural evolution. And sometimes, again as in the case with the pug, these cultivated mutations can cause serious health problems. These include difficulties with breathing, mobility problems, or other accidental but not unforeseeable challenges.
But it isn’t just the unexpected physical problems that are the real problem here. The real issue is genetics. In order to create that extreme degree of diversity and distinctive breed quality, all pure breeds are derived from a very small gene pool. Pure breeding is, essentially, a euphemism for in-breeding. While many of the more reputable breeders will endeavor to select the best genetic pairings they can in their breeding programs, the reality is that the whole point of pure breeding is in breeding. And this, predictably, has led to a whole range of common genetic problems for pure bred dogs. These illnesses include things like hip dysplasia, epilepsy, retinal atrophy, deafness, and entropion.
Pure Bred Genetics: An Idea Worth Preserving?
While these genetic health problems are easily predictable given what we now know about genetics, they would have been entirely unknown when the practice of pure breeding as a thing in itself was taking off. At that time, Darwin’s theory of evolution was having a heyday. The implications of evolution were being considered everywhere, though it would still be a long time until the discovery of genetics. During this period, social Darwinism (the belief that social issues and inequalities could be understood in evolutionary terms) and eugenics became extremely influential amongst the European elite. We are all familiar with the sorts of horrors which resulted from the eugenics movement. And so it is interesting that the practice of pure-breeding dogs, which is the application of eugenics in animal breeding, is still so widely practiced and celebrated. I mean really, just look at the term: pure bred. Whenever anyone talks about the purity of genetics we should pause for a second thought.
This is all the more reason to consider adoption as your first priority when looking to find a new companion for yourself or your family. Animals are not decorations, they are not playthings for us to experiment with and mold into whatever shape we like. They are living creatures, and we are responsible for their health and well-being. There are plenty of pure bred dogs who need to be adopted — many of them have been abandoned by breeders or collectors for physical defects resulting from their genetic disadvantages. We don’t need to continue supporting the practice of intentionally in-breeding domestic animals! Don’t shop, adopt!