Dogs and the Selective Breeding Crisis

Though dogs are the most popular pet in the world, many people don’t realize the cruelty of the breeding industry and the issues dogs have faced because of selective breeding at the hands of humans.

Reading Time: 5 minutes

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By Rhea Malhotra

“A dog is a man’s best friend.” This saying, coined in 1789 by King Frederick of Prussia, has persisted throughout history and is particularly prevalent today. Dogs continue to be the most popular pet in the world, with as many as 70 million pet dogs in the U.S. alone. However, many of the household dogs that we all know and love are actually the result of cruel selective breeding at the hands of their so-called “best friends.”

Selective breeding is the act of breeding two parent organisms with favorable characteristics so that their offspring can have a greater chance of inheriting the desirable traits. For selective breeding to be effective, it has to be done over multiple generations, as the desired traits become more and more pronounced with each generation of offspring. This happens due to the nature of zygotes (egg cells fertilized by sperm cells to create diploids), as they get half of their DNA from the mother and half from the father. Thus, two parents with similar genotypes that express a favorable trait are more likely to have these genes expressed in their offspring when the sex cells combine. Genes also have dominant and recessive alleles, in which the presence of a dominant allele overpowers the recessive allele to express the dominant trait. Selective breeding helps to emphasize the recessive trait if it is considered favorable.

Humans have selectively bred dogs for millenia, ever since they first began domesticating their lupine ancestors. Today, we are still selectively breeding dogs for favorable traits to fit them to our liking. These favorable traits can include visual appeal, physical attributes such as speed and strength, and behavioral aspects. For instance, German shepherds make for obedient guard dogs, while tiny chihuahuas—bred solely for their physical characteristics—tend to be difficult to train. 

Selectively breeding canines mainly targets one particular group: purebred dogs. Purebred dogs, sometimes referred to as pedigree dogs because they have their breeding lineage recorded, have parents of the same breed. On the other hand, dogs with parents of different breeds are known as mixed dogs, or mutts. Though there are hybrid dogs that are intentionally bred, such as the labradoodle (combination of poodle and labrador), selective breeding mostly affects purebreds.

The issue with purebred dogs is rooted in their genetics. Selective breeding leads to inbreeding in dogs and practically thins out the already small gene pool of purebred dogs. In this case, inbreeding refers to breeding dogs that are very closely related genetically and are of the same breed themselves. Breeds are a more specific category than species, and breeding the same breed over and over again leads to less variety in the genome of the animal, especially when attempting to accentuate one particular trait. As a result, health issues caused by genetics, which are typically found in recessive traits, appear more often when two parents are very genetically similar and thus have a greater chance of passing on these recessive traits. This leads to health concerns such as increased risks of cancer, breathing issues, and neurological/behavioral discrepancies. Genetic deformities are also extremely present, especially throughout multiple generations of selective breeding. For example, the bull terrier once had a fairly normal head shape, but today it is known for its extremely round and unnatural head shape due to generations of selective breeding. Many dogs, including bulldogs and pugs, also suffer from brachycephalic obstructive airway syndrome (BOAS). This is when genetic deformities in the skull and nose make it hard for them to breathe, impacting the dog’s ability to sleep, eat, or exercise properly. Thus, purebreds are also generally more expensive to care for and live approximately four years less than most mixed dogs.

People who are seeking to buy dogs as pets are also more likely to select purebred dogs than mixed dogs. This is because purebred dogs are perceived to have “better” traits due to their intentional breeding. Many mutts were once strays before becoming rescue dogs, leading to a misconception that purebreds are easier to take care of (less behavioral and health issues), which is not true. All of this leads to the perpetuation of a cruel cycle where purebreds are more coveted for their refined traits, incentivizing breeders to selectively breed more. Puppy mills, commercial breeding facilities that mass produce dogs, do exactly this. Many dogs are kept in harsh and inhumane conditions for their entire lives as they wait to be bred into the “perfect dog.” Animals are treated as objects and cash-making devices; they aren’t given the proper care and resources they need, leading to disease, unhygienic environments, and malnourishment. If the dogs aren’t born with the desirable traits they were bred for, they are usually abandoned or killed, as it is costly for puppy mills to provide for them. Other solo-breeders, or backyard breeders, may take more care of dogs, but the result is the same: the exploitation of dogs for profit. This is particularly true when considering that purchasing a purebred from a breeder ranges in cost from $1,100 to $3,500, whereas adopting a shelter dog, 80 percent of which are mutts, may only be as expensive as $50 to $400.

The act of breeding for profit also leads to larger issues such as uncontrollable population growth. Breeders may cast out dogs that aren’t immediately adopted, and shelters don’t have enough space to house all the puppies from the puppy mill that need to be rescued. About 75 percent of the dogs in shelters are from puppy mills. It is evident that forcing dogs to breed until their traits reach purebred “perfection” not only destroys genetic diversity but also creates massive moral issues. 

The biggest issue with the selective breeding crisis in dogs is that it is very hard to stop or even hinder. Many people don’t even realize that their favorite breeds are actually the result of various genetic deformities and cruel treatment. As long as there are people seeking to purchase dogs for their favorable traits, there will always be breeders hoping to fill that demand. This is even more evident when it comes to breeding dogs for sports like dog sledding and racing, in which certain breeds’ traits have a clear advantage over others. The best way to help stop this crisis is by boycotting purebred dogs and adopting mixed or rescue dogs instead. 

National Puppy Day (March 23) is observed by many people to protest against puppy mills and the unfair treatment of dogs. In 2022, the Puppy Mill Pipeline Act was signed, preventing puppies from being sold in retail stores and thus decreasing the demand for puppy mill puppies. The struggle against dog breeding cruelty has been challenging, but through better education and increased awareness, we can hope to mitigate this crisis in the years to come