Dog Talk: Are mongrels better health-wise than purebreds?

  • Animals
  • Monday, 29 Apr 2019

Some German Shepherds have a genetic condition known as hip dysplasia, in which the hip joint is misaligned. Photo:

Pet issues tend to be hot-buttons and, when it comes to debating whether pedigrees are healthier or not than mutts, hackles go up instantly.

On the one side are the pedigree breeders who point out that ethical breeders will spot and breed out inherited health problems. They also look to preserve bloodlines and produce dogs that fulfill certain characteristics.

On the other side are the mutt lovers who point out that breeding standards are now so corrupt, that show dogs can only win contests if their owners have bred-in health problems. They also underline that unwanted pets are being killed by the millions, and that it is therefore unethical to breed.

As both sides have their fanatics, it is difficult to distinguish between evidence, hearsay, sales talk and propaganda.

Looking through a raft of papers, one big study stands out as reasonably independent. This work published in 2013 had researchers from University of California-Davis, the United States, analyse the health records of 27,254 dogs with inherited disorders.

They focused on 24 genetic disorders, including really common issues such as hip dysplasia where pets suffer from sore backs and legs, and allergic dermatitis that means pets are constantly scratching due to itchy skin.

The results weren’t black and white. Pedigrees were significantly more likely to suffer from 10 of the genetic disorders, including allergic dermatitis, bloat, cataracts and epilepsy. Mixed breeds are more likely to have a ligament problem that affects the knee. But for the other 13 genetic disorders, there was no significant difference.

In addition, researchers pointed out that inheritance is a complex subject that is studied by few experts and even these say that the science is young. In short, there are lots of controversies and areas that are yet to be explored.

So, what do Malaysian dog lovers think about the issue? And how can dog lovers make a reasonable effort that ensures they adopt or buy pups that are healthy?

Gopi Krishnan is an all breeds judge and champion Dachshund breeder with 108 champions in 25 countries to his name.

“Breeding dogs is a complicated business,” Krishnan says. “One no-no is breeding fathers and daughters, or sisters and brothers. But there is such a thing as ‘line breeding’ where basically you’re looking to breed for a particular trait.”

“So you might see a grandfather and granddaughter in a pedigree where it is not a problem but a good thing. You really need to know your genetics to know how that works.

“Basically, my advice is this. Buy direct from a breeder – you can see the parents, ask questions and get a good idea of the environment they were raised in. What you should be asking is whether the breeder is a quality or ethical breeder. That means figuring out if they’re in it for the love of animals or just hoping to make a quick buck.

“Ask how old the parents are. Ask how many litters the mum’s had. Look at the age of the pups as they should be at least 10 to 12 weeks old to go to their new homes; five and six weeks is far too young. Also, look at the breeder set-up. Are they just churning out pups or are they working to better the breed?

“Also, there are cheats, that’s in every business. Be careful, and ask around. Word of mouth will tell you who’s good and who is not."

Siew Yenn – a dog lover in Petaling Jaya, Selangor, who has been rescuing and rehoming dogs for more than 10 years – estimates that half of the pets she rehomes are pedigrees. Therefore, you can have your pedigree and adopt at the same time.

“You might see a pedigree dog that’s been bought because it’s a cute pup and who’s been dumped when it grows,” Siew Yenn says, “but as these dogs cost money, most of the time, people dump pedigrees for a reason.

“Very often it will be an inherited problem that’s already showing. Curiously, it need not actually be a big problem! It may be as little as a skin issue that’s easily cleared up but the owner either doesn’t want to pay a vet bill or just doesn’t want the hassle.

“Another fairly common problem is that the dog has a character or behavioural issue. I’ve seen dogs dumped over something as simple as being too active for the owner’s liking. That is purely due to ignorance and because of the way some breeders push for sales.

“For example, they may highlight German Shepherds are good guard dogs but downplay that these dogs have a high energy level and need to really work out their energy.

“If you want a pedigree, I think the most basic question you have to ask yourself is: what were these dogs bred for? If your lifestyle isn’t totally in tune with that reason, you shouldn’t even contemplate getting one.”

As a case in point, Siew Yenn points to her own Mastiffs. “These dogs are gorgeous but very misunderstood. They are powerful one-person dogs who are very loving and loyal to their family. However, they are bred to protect and that can backfire.

“Like, if my sister calls, I know who she is but the dog will see an intruder and protect me. That can be a problem! So, to advertise a Mastiff as a good guard dog is a dangerous simplification.”

As the subject is important, and taking a pet into the family is a 10- to 20-year commitment, it makes sense to suggest you should also read up on the subject. But be warned, it’s a minefield!

Do you have an opinion on this subject? Write your comments below.

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