This year I broke my 18 year vow never to go back to Crufts. I wanted to see if health was improving, especially on brachy day, but I also went to help the team at Cavaliers are Special. The tireless team there were handing over their 30,000-strong petition asking for the KC, not unreasonably, to introduce mandatory health tests for heart disease (MVD) and syringomyelia (SM). Where a breed is afflicted by such lethal and widespread disease it is indefensible not to act. The KC say they want to leave it to breeders’ discretion but that clearly isn’t working.
We handed the petition to Bill Lambert and explained that the thousands of comments in the petition were a must read because they show so clearly the absolute distress and anguish faced by owners watching their dogs suffer. Bill accepted the petition and said some platitudes about how interested the KC are in health and welfare but that they still thought mandatory tests weren’t the way forward. It seems an odd thing to say when Denmark has recently reported a 73% reduction in the risk of MVD after introducing mandatory testing and in the UK the life expectancy of Cavaliers is going down.
OK, so let’s assume for a moment that the breed clubs are the right people to safeguard the health and welfare of these dogs. It must be safe to assume that puppy liaison people and the breed club’s own health representative would be following heart protocols and giving the best advice to prospective puppy buyers. Ah, but hang on, later that day, having been assured that morning that Cavalier health was a priority for the KC we saw which dog had won best of breed.
A long time ago veterinary specialist cardiologists, you know, those people actually qualified to comment on health protocols, came up with a way to reduce MVD. They recommend that no dog should be bred before the age of 2.5 years, should be heart clear and both the dogs’ parents should be heart clear at the age of 5 years. The dog that won BoB this year had literally just turned 2.5. According the KC website he has already sired 7 litters, 23 puppies in the UK, the first time being just after his first birthday. To add insult to ludicrous injury the second litter he sired was born to the bitch belonging to the breed club’s own health representative. It seems pretty clear that these people are not overly keen on safeguarding their own dogs’ health, let alone that of the entire breed.
So what of the brachys? Any of you following my thoughts in the last 20 years will be well aware of what I think of extremes of body shape, the epitome of that being the brachycephalics. These are the breeds of dogs with no face to speak of like English and French bulldogs, pugs, Pekes and Japanese chins to name but a few.
These breeds endure many problems including eye, dental and skin disease, joint problems and spinal disease caused by the unnatural tail conformation some of them have. But as many of you know their biggest cause of suffering is their airways. The short faces have left these dogs with relatively huge tongues, long soft palates, deformed noses – inside and out – and tiny, straw-like windpipes. All of this leaves the vast majority of these dogs with breathing difficulties. If any of you have seen the ‘cute and hilarious’ videos of these dogs trying desperately to sleep sitting up you may be horrified to learn that this is because they simply can’t breathe at all when they lay down. In fact some of them learn to sleep with hollow toys and chews propping their mouths open. There are few words that can describe the horror of what we have done to these dogs. Please don’t share and perpetuate these videos on social media.
The dogs’ lack of nose also means they can’t cool themselves properly and many suffer from heat exhaustion and can collapse even at quite low temperatures or after mild exercise.
As I wandered into the hall where the brachys were a non-vet friend who was with me immediately remarked on the smell in the room. It was the smell of skin disease, immediately recognisable to any vet. The next thing we noticed was that the room was very cold and lots of people had their winter coats on. As it turned out, later reported in the Times, the organisers had turned the heating off in there to keep the dogs cool enough not to collapse in the show ring. Despite this, almost half the English bulldogs’ crates had electric fans whirring away to be on the safe side. How can we possibly defend this situation?
As if these dogs are not afflicted enough there is an alarming trend in the show world for fat animals. The level of obesity I saw that day was shocking. And we have to remember that all these dogs have won at high level shows to even qualify for Crufts. It seems that more decent vet checks are needed at way more shows. The extra fat around the neck of these animals make a compromised airway even worse.
The Kennel Club always says that show dogs are a tiny proportion of the population. What they continue to deny is the HUGE effect the show world and massively popular programmes like Crufts have on the puppy buying public. Every winner will become in high demand to breed from and the genetic fallout from these dogs is enormous. Many show breeders constantly point the finger at eastern European imports and puppy farmers but they are simply producing the dogs that the show world supplies the demand for. The dogs that judges choose create a ripple that becomes a devastating tidal wave of diseased animals. If the qualifiers and winners are not as healthy as they can possibly be what hope do the pet-buying public have?
I left that evening as emotionally drained and distraught as I did all those years ago when I vowed I’d never go back. The hotel I was staying in didn’t allow dogs and it made me wonder where all these dogs are. Some hotels do take them but I realised that many were simply left in cages in the car or van overnight. The day of the show they sit for hours in crates, bored and alone in many cases. The level of grooming and preening for the dogs afflicted with the most unnatural coats in the world is staggering. Hairbands, talc, shampoo, clothes to stay clean, cushions to hold them still while they are coiffed. As I watched Best in Show, a parade of abnormality as usual, my disquiet continued to grow. The winner was lifted proudly onto the podium for his photo to be taken. His handler constantly re-adjusted his feet every time he tried to move to a more comfortable standing position. Even worse, as the dog tried to pant to cool down his tongue was pushed back into his mouth and his mouth clamped shut to ensure the best position for the photographers.
To me none of these things are the actions of your everyday dog-loving pet owner. We love to watch our dogs run, explore, play and get dirty. We don’t care if their markings are correct or their legs are the right length. We don’t care if a judge thinks they are beautiful because we KNOW they are beautiful. They fill our lives with joy, not rosettes, accolades and money. For me Crufts remains not the number 1 dog show in the world but a place where humans softly abuse the animals in their care in a distorted, one-sided relationship in which only the humans win and dogs everywhere lose.