Legislation and court cases: who’s next?

Unless you’ve been living on another planet, readers will be fully aware of the recent court case in Norway and the ruling that the breeding of English Bulldogs and Cavalier King Charles Spaniels contravenes Section 25 of the Norwegian Animal Welfare Act. The Norwegian Kennel Club is reviewing the judgement but has recommended, in the meantime, that breeding of both these breeds should be put on hold. We understand the NKK is considering an appeal, and we have not yet seen the full judgement translated into English.

This follows on from legislation in the Netherlands in 2020 which prescribes criteria for breeding of brachycephalic dogs based on their craniofacial ratio (basically, how much length of muzzle they have).

The obvious questions arising are: could we see the same thing happening in the UK and which breed(s) will be next? The answer to the first question is “quite possibly”. There are plenty of people campaigning for certain breeds to be banned and calling for more stringent legislation (and enforcement) to protect dog health and welfare. 

The 2006 Animal Welfare Act introduced a new concept for pet owners and those responsible for domestic animals, e.g. breeders: Preventing animals suffering.

Section 9 of the Animal Welfare Act places a duty of care on people to ensure they take reasonable steps in all the circumstances to meet the welfare needs of their animals to the extent required by good practice. Breeders and owners must take positive steps to ensure they care for their animals properly and in particular must provide for the five welfare needs, which are:

  • need for a suitable environment
  • need for a suitable diet
  • need to be able to exhibit normal behaviour patterns
  • need to be housed with, or apart, from other animals
  • need to be protected from pain, suffering, injury and disease

It is this last point that is of particular relevance to breeders of pedigree dogs. However, a Position Paper from the Dog Breeding Reform Group says “Current UK legislation does not, however, afford effective protection to offspring, or provide penalties for irresponsible breeding leading to suffering.” Their paper specifically mentions brachycephalic breeds “Severe problems are frequently associated, for example, with ‘brachycephaly’, the occurrence of very flat muzzles, characteristic of breeds such as Pugs, English bulldogs, French Bulldogs and Boston Terriers.” Their paper goes on to say “There appears to be considerable uncertainty as to the potential for application of AWA Section 4 to breeding decisions affecting offspring.”

The revised animal welfare regulations from 2018 include the following which specifically applies to licensed breeders: No dog may be kept for breeding if it can reasonably be expected, on the basis of its genotype, phenotype or state of health, that breeding from it could have a detrimental effect on its health or welfare or the health or welfare of its offspring.

The health issues associated with brachycephaly are well-documented but these are possibly also the breeds where Kennel Clubs and breed club communities have been most proactive in developing health schemes. The Cavalier breed which is included in the Norwegian judgement also has screening programmes (here in the UK) for heart disease and syringomyelia. The challenges with many such schemes are the take-up rate by the breed club community and the lack of reach of these to breeders outside that community (often “commercial breeders”). Arguably, the lack of pace and evidence of health improvement is what has led to the recent legislative changes.

What about Dachshunds?

The question I’ve been asked is: could Dachshunds be next on the list for court cases to ban breeding? There is no doubt that Dachshunds and other short-legged breeds could be in the spotlight for future welfare actions. The chondrodystrophic breeds have, by definition, exaggerated conformation. With that, comes some inherent health risks. Intervertebral Disc Disease (IVDD) is reported to be 10-12 times more common in Dachshunds than in “the average dog”. The usually quoted statistic is that 1 in 4 or 1 in 5 Dachshunds will suffer some degree of back disease during their life.

On that basis, it’s hard to argue that the breed doesn’t have a serious health issue that both breeders and buyers should be aware of. The devil is (as always) in the detail and it’s important to understand what’s behind the 1 in 4 statistic, especially when critics of the breed often focus on the Breed Standard as being a contributor to high IVDD prevalence.

Rowena Packer’s 2013 paper (How long and low can you get?) found that relatively longer dogs were at increased risk of IVDD. However, we did not find that same association in our owner-reported survey of 2000 dogs in 2015. Other studies have also been contradictory in their findings about conformational proportions and any association with IVDD. This should not surprise us as we also know that there are significantly different risks of IVDD between the 6 (UK) varieties of Dachshund. Our 2015 paper reported the Standard and Mini Smooth varieties having about 5 times the risk of the Standard Wire variety, for example. So, treating Dachshunds as one homogeneous breed with identical IVDD risks is clearly nonsense. Let’s also not forget that they are all bred and judged to the same Breed Standard.

All 4 of our Dachshund health surveys (2012-2021) showed one significant factor associated with increased IVDD risk. That is early neutering (under the age of 12 months in particular). A quick calculation shows that IVDD prevalence would have been reduced by a third for our 2015 and 2018 survey samples, had the neutered dogs been left entire.

Do it because you want to!

I’ve written before about the driving forces behind improving dog health (in any breed). There is a simple choice: do it because you want to (for the sake of the dogs) or do it because you’re told to (e.g. by legislation).

There is no doubt that Dachshunds could be in line for action similar to that in Norway. The behaviour and actions of individual breeders and owners are critically important if we want to safeguard our breed for the future and ensure the dogs are as healthy and long-lived as possible. We’re already seeing signs that IVDD prevalence is being reduced in the breed. This is likely a result of the evidence-based approach we’ve taken to advise buyers, owners and breeders of how to reduce IVDD risk. These include lifestyle factors such as exercise and avoiding early neutering, the implementation of a proven screening programme, and breeders selecting from dogs with a family history of good backs or using older healthy stud dogs. We have some evidence that our efforts are making a difference but we cannot be complacent.

Judges at dog shows also have a role to play by not rewarding dogs with extreme conformation (too long in the body and/or too short in the leg) and that’s part of the reason why we amended our Breed Standard last year. Exaggerated prize-winning dogs that clearly don’t fit the Breed Standard make us an easy target for our critics.

I’ll remind you of a quote from a presentation I made at the 4th International Dog Health Workshop: The challenge today is not ‘are you improving?’, rather it is ‘how fast are you improving and can you prove it?’.

And, finally: “If it’s a priority, you’ll find a way. If it isn’t, you’ll find an excuse.” (Jim Rohn, author).