Updated 28 October 2013

Time to phase out pedigree pets

It’s not their fault, but pedigree pets are a luxury the planet can’t afford. By Olivia Rose-Innes

 I adore Siamese cats. With their otherworldly blue gaze, ancient Egyptian air and strident voices, they’re like the eccentric royals of the feline world. I’d miss them if they weren’t around.

But however special I think they are, I also don’t think we should be deliberately breeding more of them, when there are so many strays (just as special in their own way) – as well as all the wild animals struggling to survive on the dwindling natural resources allotted to them.

While many precious species are teetering on the brink of extinction, populations of domesticated animals – those we’ve found most useful for food, medical experimentation, entertainment or companionship – are shooting up.

Overpopulation of pet and other domesticated species is a function of human overpopulation: the more of us there are, the greater the demand for companion animals and the greater the need for resources to feed and care for them. Our frighteningly swollen population of 7.2 billion is accompanied by around one billion dogs and cats. Many of these are loved and cared for by their doting owners, but many lead hard lives as strays. Millions are unnecessarily euthanased each year.

The world cannot sustain more high-maintenance pampered pets (not to mention their high-maintenance pampered owners); equally, we don’t need more desperate uncared-for animals eking out an existence on the streets of our spreading cities. The responsibility for both lies entirely with us.

Like other domesticated species, pets as we know them now came into being because humans chose and bred them for specific characteristics. And this brings us to the other argument against the pedigreed, dogs especially. The characteristics of many breeds have become increasingly exaggerated over years of inbreeding and deliberately selecting for distinctive features: a basset hound today is a much more doleful-looking and elongated version of its forefathers, even from as recently as a hundred years ago.   

The result is an increased risk of genetic faults being expressed in an animal, which can have seriously negative impacts on their health and quality of life. Such problems are rife and well-recognised in dog-breeding circles. Nearly all Cavalier King Charles Spaniels, for example, develop heart problems, and many suffer from an agonising condition where their brains grow too big for their small skulls. Bulldogs and other breeds with shortened snouts frequently suffer respiratory problems, while joint and limb problems are common in large dogs*. 

Not all pedigree pets are genetically blighted, and there are reputable breeders for whom the health of their animals is paramount. Breeders and pedigree pet owners would also argue that it is precisely because these specially bred animals have been selected for specific characteristics that you have a better idea what to expect when you acquire them, which improves the odds of a successful pet-owner bond. Each potential owner is looking for a pet that suits their lifestyle and family situation; a known breed gives greater assurance that a dog will be good with children, for instance, or an excellent guard dog – whereas a mongrel is anyone’s guess. It’s also clearer how big a puppy will get.

There are millions of cases of happy humans and their beloved non-human best friends, pedigree and pavement specials alike, the world over. We’ve been living together for centuries, and long may we continue to do so; the benefits on both sides (although especially on the human side in terms of mental health) are undeniable. But let us continue to do so in a way befitting not centuries past but rather this century: with the focus less on superficial appearances and more on the welfare of ourselves and those with whom we share this finite planet.

*For a thorough and particularly damning indictment of pedigree dog breeding, watch Pedigree Dogs Exposed – this controversial BBC documentary lead to an investigation by the RSPCA, among other animal welfare bodies. Not for sensitive viewers.

Image of Siamese cat: Shutterstock




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