Dogs may be considered humanity’s best friend, but truth be told, humans are not always the best friends of dogs when it comes to putting their interests first in the process of selective breeding. Here, we profile some admittedly interesting, yet disturbing examples of breeding gone perhaps too far, ranging from facial deformation that was seen as desirable to accidental doubling of canine cancer rates. Worst of all, unhealthy breed show standards can mean enormous veterinary bills.
10. English Bulldog
Iconic, yet considered a case of selective breeding to the extreme, English Bulldogs face a panoply of health problems, stemming from their history of bullfighting and, later, much more breeding for show. Considered exceptionally disease-prone among dogs, English Bulldogs have a squished head, health issues of all types, and live an average of eight years, compared to the average canine lifespan of 13 years. The ancestor of the English Bulldog was not the pig-like and beloved caricature of a dog it now is. In the 1800s, the ancestors of modern English Bulldogs, the Old English Bulldog, were ferocious, lankier beasts that might recall the modern dogs colloquially called pit bulls, but were much fiercer.
These bulldogs were used in the unethical sport bullbaiting, banned in 1935 in Britain under the Cruelty to Animals Act. Bulldogs would latch onto the faces of bulls, often mouths or eyes and attempt to hold them fast, inflicting further pain and injury after bulls had been pestered and enraged. While the modern English Bulldog is considered ugly to the point of charm and a symbol of British resolve, a multitude of problems lie below the surface. With selective breeding, the aggression is gone and while lovable, modern bulldogs have all manner of breathing problems, are exceptionally prone to exhaustion, collapse, and heat stroke (as well as dental problems), and start aging after just 5 to 6 years.
9. German Shepherd
Famous as the breed of Rin Tin Tin, known for their use in police work, armed forces, guarding and guiding, as well as being notorious as the concentration camp attack dogs used by Nazis, German Shepherds are also becoming more and more prone to serious physical disability. The low, sloping back, large size and propensity for vigorous physical activity makes them prone to serious complications. This tragic decline of what was generally a fine dog can be attributed to extreme aesthetic preferences and utilitarian, rather than health focuses in breeding.
German Shepherds used to be slimmer, typically dog shaped and athletic animals bred for working. With time, show standards created pressure for the dogs to be heavier set, while an extreme sloping back was the trait considered desirable, to be targeted through breed development. With their great popularity came great cost in the form of an out of scale level of vulnerability to obesity and musculoskeletal conditions, especially the infamous hip dysplasia, arthritis, and inappropriate aggression. German Shepherds have not only developed an exaggerated shape, they have also been made larger. These findings were published in the journal Canine Genetics and Epidemiology.
What happens when you build a bridge to be longer than its strength ideally allows? Such a bridge may collapse, and the musculoskeletal engineering of the Dachshund poses exactly this problem. Originally bred for hunting small, often burrowing quarry, the Dachshund, whose name means “Badger dog” in German, are remarkably prone to serious back problems given their elongated build coupled with ever-so-short legs. So-called “Sausage Dogs” frequently suffer from the awful condition known as intervertebral disc disease.
The Dachshund is a breed so beset with spinal problems that a full 25% of Daschunds born will fall prey to the ravages of spinal disc maladies. Ruptured discs, disc prolapses, slippage of discs, hernias, protrusions, extrusions and displacement are among the ways in which disc damage can manifest in the Dachshund. The results? Potentially catastrophic. Spinal cord pressure results, leading to pain, paralysis, and related permanent damage. Surgery can provide relief, but often, euthanasia is the end result of intervertebral disc disease in the large fraction of Daschunds afflicted.
7. Golden Retriever
There are only a few dogs as universally loved and well known as the Golden Retriever. It is sturdy, fun, adventurous, and exceptionally loving and friendly. Trusted as a children’s dog and only rarely implicated in bites, the Golden Retriever has a lot going for it. The breed was originally bred for practical purposes, originating in Scotland in the 1800s as an obedient and loyal gundog with no problem going in the water to retrieve ducks, as well as bringing back upland game birds. Since then, the Golden Retriever has been bred into British, American and Canadian subtypes.
The problem is, 61% of Golden Retrievers face death from cancer. This is twice the rate of the average dog breed. Golden Retrievers die more frequently from cancer than any other cause, with hemangiosarcoma the leading cancer type (the next most common forms being lymphosarcoma, mast cell tumors, and osteosarcoma). Hip and elbow dysplasia are also common enough to warrant screening prior to sale. Additional problems include a variety of atrophy related diseases of the eye, cataracts, and a propensity to develop heart disease in the form of subvalvular aortic stenosis.
6. Cavalier King Charles Spaniel
While elegant and poised, the royally monikered Cavalier King Charles Spaniel faces a terribly awkward physiological problem. Cavalier King Charles Spaniels are categorized as toy dogs, but their brains are huge, approaching the size of a large dog like a retriever. Put simply, their skulls are not large enough for their big brains. At the same time, spinal cord damage occurs from insufficient upper vertebral space. Known as Chiari-like Malformation, this spine and skull deformity, worsened by breeding for a short-skulled, snub-nosed build since the late 1600s contributes greatly to development of syringomyelia, which is extraordinarily common in King Charles Spaniels.
Normally rare conditions among dogs, Chiari-like Malformation and syringomyelia occur in an extraordinary number of these spaniels. A remarkable 95% are thought to suffer from Chiari-like Malformation, while syringomyelia affects about 50% of Cavalier King Charles Spaniels. The consequences are as catastrophic as the conditions sound. Brain tissue compresses into the hole at the rear of the skull. This interferes with cerebrospinal fluid flow, triggering fluid pocket formation. The results can be permanent spinal damage with associated neurological dysfunction.
As a brachycephalic breed, the Pug defines exaggerated form in canine breeding. Overbred, the tiny mastiff-like dog faces a slew of medical challenges from an early age. A truly distasteful breed-specific condition known as Pug Dog Encephalitis (PDE) affects this wrinkly faced and tough toy dog. The disease, alternately named necrotizing meningoencephalitis (NME), ravages some Pugs as a genetic disorder of the brain. The deadly condition attacks the central nervous system with intense inflammatory action. Less serious but still worth noting is the propensity of the Pug’s wrinkled face to get inflamed due to dirt accumulation and dermatitis.
A grotesque problem posing a risk to Pugs is ability of their eyes to bulge and ultimately pop from their sockets from even seemingly insignificant impacts to the head from overly vigorous activity or conflict with other dogs. If this were all not enough, Pugs are prone to patellar luxation, keratoconjunctivitis sicca, hemivertebra and canine hip dysplasia. Despite their shortcomings and challenges, Pugs tough it out. These little mastiff descendants first recorded in China are the strongest-built toy dog and can live up to 15 years. It’s a Pug’s life.
4. Yorkshire Terrier
Yorkshire Terriers, affectionately called “Yorkies,” are among the world’s smallest dogs, developed in Yorkshire, England in the 18th century as rat catchers. In fact, an individual “matchbox Yorkie” named Sylvia was the smallest adult dog in world history. At the tiny terrier’s time of death at the age of two years in 1945, Sylvia was only 2.5 inches at shoulder height and 3.5 inches long, nose to tail. The diminutive dogs are not without their problems, being overly shrunk.
The threat of tracheal collapse is unusually high in Yorkshire Terriers, posing at an increased risk of death by being unable to breathe given their fragility associated with extreme shrinkage. Believed to be genetic, the symptoms of tracheal collapse cause significant long-term disability and may lead to death. Tracheal collapse causes the dog’s cartilage rings to get soft, leading to harsh, dry coughing, which can be worsened by fluid buildup in the lungs, coupled with generalized difficulty in breathing. Even while resting, Yorkies affected by this disease may make breathing noise disproportionate to their tiny size, sadly getting even worse in hot or humid weather, or if the animal experiences excitement or displeasure.
3. Shar Pei
The Shar Pei is a most peculiar breed of dog. The Chinese breed’s name translates to “sand skin.” The skin is folded, giving the appearance of giant wrinkles all over the dog’s body. However, the unusual skin of this ancient breed can bring a host of contemporary problems. First of all, the Shar Pei has skin that is inherently sensitive. It is easily irritated by environmental changes and allergy prone, while fleas can readily inflict significant damage should they target this dog. Most serious is the biomechanical challenge the Shar Pei faces in having such an “oversized” coat.
The dog’s folded, wavy skin can continuously rub together, while moisture, chafing, and the possibility of fungal growth rank highly among the problems faced by the heavily-bred Shar Pei. Contact with water can worsen the condition of Shar Pei skin, while skin conditions and related infections get more present with age. Originally a fighter and a guardian, the Shar Pei is a sort of “exotic pet” in modern times while still being simply a dog.
Hailing from Croatia and made famous through the movie 101 Dalmations, the iconic Dalmatian is a dog loved for its spotted appearance and playful reputation. Yet, that genetic coding for the spotted coat is also linked to a tragically common spate of deafness cases. Canine congenital sensorineural deafness, or CCSD reaches its peak occurrence rate among all dog breeds in the Dalmatian. Eight percent of Dalmatians are completely deaf, whilst between 22 and 24% of Dalmatians get dealt the mixed hand of being deaf in one ear. As a polygenetic trait, the deafness can be transmitted down any bloodline of the breed. Completely deaf dogs are often euthanized, while dogs with any deafness should not be used for breeding.
While there is a higher risk of accidents and training difficulties in deaf dogs, they make good pets with extra care and certainly do not need to be euthanized — just not bred. Deafness in Dalmatians appears to be linked to genetic problems affecting pigment-producing and holding cells known as melanocytes. Genetic mutations depleting this pigment give Dalmatians their characteristic coat but can apparently lead to a lack of inner ear functionality, which the pigment serves to maintain. Favoring of dogs without a large dark spot due to breed standards appears to have made this condition more common.
1. Great Dane
Great Danes are huge dogs, and with the breeding of such an exaggerated canine size comes some problems of scale. The body of such a large dog brings a significant burden on the Great Dane’s organ system. A German, not Danish Breed, the Great Dane received its name due to international tensions but was developed partially from English Mastiffs and Irish Wolfhounds, then bred into its present form in Germany since the 1600s. The “German Mastiff,” as it is also known, was used to hunt large and imposing game such as bears and wild boar by royalty and used at night as “Kammerhunden,” or “Chamber dogs,” to protect princes from villainous attacks.
But Great Danes are just too big. With their huge, mastiff-like bulk but slender, sight hound-like legs, an unnatural burden is borne by their legs. Bone degeneration and joint failure partway through their adult life is common, while the Great Dane lifespan is definitely not long, only 8 to 10 years on average. If that were not enough, Great Danes often suffer from a digestive disorder known as bloat, which can prove fatal. Furthermore, these dogs don’t just grow huge, they often grow cancer and are easily beset by heart disease affecting their overworked cardiovascular system. Not so great.