Since my last post, which gave a mention to the famous British dog show Crufts, it became the centre of media attention. Therefore, I thought a blog post was in order to reflection on the story which caused such outrage.
As the German Shepherd Dog Cruaghaire Catoria was heralded the winner of her breed, social media went into overdrive at the sight of her, “who did not look like a healthy free-moving dog,” according to the Crufts’ TV Commentator Jessica Holm. This prompted the Kennel Club to axe much of the “soon to air” footage, which caused another surge of complaints. The abnormal plunging curved back we saw on Cruaghaire Catoria is the sought after “look” that impresses show judges. However, it is one that has had huge health repercussions for the German Shepherd Dog in recent years. Furthermore, it is just one example of how breeders have dramatically manipulated the evolution of dogs.
Hip dysplasia, week legs, arthritis and flatfeet are far more common in show dogs than their work counterparts. The human selection of desirable traits imposed by competition judges and fostered by breeders is endangering numerous varieties for little more than pomp and ceremony.
“What real people see as a deformity is seen as a sign of beauty by the breeders,” Beverley Cuddy, the Editor of Dogs Today Magazine told me. “In the last fifteen to twenty years we’ve seen the shape and movement of the German Shepherd Dog change dramatically. This one example is just the tip of the iceberg, honestly other dogs fare far worse,” she emphasised.
Take the family favourite the British Bulldog, like a range of dogs a flattened face is a “must have” trait, but one that has brutally deformed its head. His shortened nose and narrowed nostrils cause problems breathing, exercising, eating, sensitivity to heat and general discomfort. His jaw structure affects the development of his teeth and the distortion of his head and nose also has consequences on the position of his eyes. This can lead to various painful eye conditions. The super-curly tail that is fashionable is blamed for injuring the spinal cord and bone; and as if that’s not enough it can also make him incontinent and his hind legs unstable.
According to a qualified veterinarian surgeon these abnormalities are quite typical. All too frequently Bulldogs are being wheeled into their operating theatres for corrective surgery. The most high profile example is Lewis Hamilton’s Bulldog Roscoe. At the end of last year Roscoe underwent major throat surgery, removing tonsils and succules pouches of the inner ear, just to help him breath normally.
An increasing number of breeds are ending up on the operating table. These poor dogs are suffering from the unnatural traits they have inherited for no other reason than to fit the ideals of the show judge. With the sudden advance of genetic engineering technologies that could give people control over our genetic destiny, is this a timely warning signal? Could we be next
The arrival of the headline grabbing Crispr (short for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats) technology means that specific DNA letters, which form our genes, can be edited with unprecedented ease, speed and affordability. However, this powerful tool cuts both ways. It could be used to banish life-threatening diseases, including cancers, but it could also be used to enhance humans and create “designer babies.” And like show dogs who have the ideal thrust upon them, any modifications to reproductive cells will be automatically passed on to future generations.
The recent Crufts furore makes it very apparent that meddling with evolution in pursuit of the ideal can have far-reaching social, ethical and health consequences. As geneticists accumulate the tools to edit our genetic faults, just how far reaching they become needs to be robustly discussed outside the scientific community before any ideals are thrust upon us.