The Consequences of Breeding: What Makes a Dog Healthy?

Updated on May 20, 2019
Frida Nyberg profile image

My goal in life is to have a private facility for education about animals—domestic and exotic—as well as wildlife.

The Consequences of Inbreeding Our Dogs
The Consequences of Inbreeding Our Dogs

The Risks of Intentionally Breeding Dogs

Dogs are like family members, and everyone wants their dog to live a long and healthy life. However, what’s happening instead is that our beloved dogs are becoming sick and their life expectancies are decreasing as time goes on due to inherited health issues. This article will contain some uncomfortable truths that some may find hard to swallow. Many of the negative traits or conditions that we will discuss include:

  • Brachycephaly (short skull)
  • Excessive skin
  • Short legs
  • Abnormal angulation
  • Heavy bodies
  • Sloping backs
  • Abnormal tails
  • Protruding eyes
  • Exaggerated ears

What Is Conformation-Based Breeding?

The reason for the declining health of pet dogs is complex, but the short answer is conformation-based breeding and closed gene pools. What does this mean? It means that we breed dogs according to a breed standard (what each dog breed should look like). Judges and breeders are often behind this, pushing for the exaggeration of otherwise harmless standards to the point of harm.

The Issue of Closed Studbooks

We not only breed within these tight constraints—judging dogs based on what they look like—but this is done within a closed gene pool, meaning, after a breed has a closed studbook (a prerequisite for any breed to be recognized by major kennel clubs), no more blood may enter the gene pool.

Harmful Genes Become Concentrated

This has disastrous effects on the health of the dogs, as in some cases, the entire breed descends from less than a dozen dogs (any two individuals on opposite sides of the globe are as closely related as full siblings). This makes avoiding inbreeding impossible, as even if those two dogs don’t share a single great-great-grandparent, they are nearly genetically identical.

Inbreeding repeats harmful mutations that all living forms carry. In the case of normal breeding, such harmful mutations would be 'washed out' of the gene pool. Instead, these saturated mutations manifest in future generations as harmful genetic diseases. This is why certain breeds have particular diseases that are specific to them. They all descend from a small number of dogs that were bred to close relatives, fortifying the harmful genes in the population. Eventually, this can also lead to infertility.

The World's Most Inbred Dog Breeds

Four of the most inbred dog breeds in the world, all with an effective population size of 40 or less.
Four of the most inbred dog breeds in the world, all with an effective population size of 40 or less.

Effective Population Sizes and Bottlenecks

The "effective population size" is a representative number of how many genetically distinct animals a population contains. For example, if the effective population size is 50, even if there are tens of thousands of that breed, they are so genetically 'dense' that the diversity represents that of only 50 animals. This is much different from a normal population that is free from inbreeding and population bottlenecks.

What Is a Population Bottleneck?

A population bottleneck is when the breeding population is severely reduced, thus only allowing a very small percentage of the population’s genes to future generations. WWII caused this in many breeds and pushed them towards near-extinction, but tight breeding requirements of 'elite' dogs have been equally disastrous.

The Effective Population Size of Popular Breeds

Effective population size is not the same as foundation size, which is the number of animals the entire population descends from. Here follows a selection of popular breeds with their effective population size, all under 100:

  • Akita, American: 53.3
  • Boxer: 80.9
  • Chihuahua, short-haired: 81
  • Cocker Spaniel, English: 49.1
  • Collie, rough: 39.4
  • English Bulldog: 67.9
  • Golden Retriever: 61.3
  • Irish Setter: 27.3
  • Labrador Retriever: 81.7
  • Mastiff: 70.5
  • Miniature Pinscher: 54
  • Pekingese: 61
  • Pomeranian: 99.1
  • Shetland Sheepdog: 77.6
  • Shiba: 81.9
  • Staffordshire Bull Terrier: 97.7
  • Welsh Corgi Pembroke: 56.4
  • Whippet: 56.4
  • Yorkshire Terrier: 40.2

These breeds are thus, in effect, critically endangered, no matter how many of them there are around the world. Many of them need outcrossing with dogs outside of their breed in order for the breed to survive or be healthy.

The Natural Canine Form

The Grey Wolf, Dingo and Indian Pariah Dog displaying the natural canine form.
The Grey Wolf, Dingo and Indian Pariah Dog displaying the natural canine form.

How to Identify Poor Conformation

Everyone can learn how to identify poor conformation in dogs due to inbreeding. To learn this, we have to go back to look to the dog’s ancestor, the Grey Wolf, as well as wild dogs. Dogs that have gone feral and returned to natural selection, rather than being kept alive by humans, revert to a form very similar to other wild canines like wolves and coyotes, though they still retain some traits unique to domestic dogs (such as the sickle-shaped tail).

What Does Inbreeding Look Like?

Not all deviations from the natural form cause suffering or harm—moderately floppy ears, a different coat, slightly shorter legs, a curled tail, even a slightly shorter face or moderate wrinkles may not be totally harmful. Moderation is the key, as each one of these traits can cause harm when modified to the extreme.

The Pug's short skull causes many breathing issues.
The Pug's short skull causes many breathing issues.

Brachycephalic Breeds

The short face is the most commonly criticized type of extreme conformation in dogs as it causes obvious issues for the affected dog. The proper term for a short skull is 'brachycephaly'.

Breeding for Looks

The reason behind breeding for short faces is two-fold, and it’s pretty interesting and ironic when you think about it.

  1. First, there is the 'baby face' aspect. We want dogs to look more human and more baby-like because it makes them cuter and strikes our parental instinct to nurture. This is why almost all toy companion dogs have short faces and domed skulls, to some extent.
  2. The other side of it is to make dogs look tough and mean. Big, tough guard dogs are bred for thick, heavy, wide and short faces. These characteristics are thought to make them look 'stronger'. While in reality, no dog has a bite force more powerful than the comparatively slender wolf.

English and French Bulldog Health Issues

English and French Bulldogs are the only breeds that have been the victim of both points mentioned above. First, in Victorian times, they were supposed to look 'mean' and 'tough'. In modern times, these dogs went from having a reputation similar to pit bulls or the Rottweiler today, to being viewed as 'cute'.

An important thing to remember about brachycephaly is that it is only the skull that is shortened. The soft tissue is not. The teeth are not smaller either. Thus, the skull has to fit the same breathing apparatus, soft tissue and teeth in a much smaller area (with disastrous results).

It is my opinion that every single person who wants to buy one of these dogs should look at many brachycephalic dog skulls. They should observe the crowded teeth on the living dogs and see videos of the dogs struggling to breathe, eat and sleep.

Try to Breathe Like a Brachycephalic

Do a quick experiment with yourself:

  1. Squeeze your nostrils shut with your fingers.
  2. Start breathing. You’ll soon be forced to breathe with your mouth.
  3. Hear that rattling sound? That is what these dogs go through every moment of their lives.
  4. Now, try to go running.

Even then, it’s just your nostrils. These dogs are deformed from the nostrils down to chest area. Dogs also cool down by breathing (humans cool off by sweating all over our body). This is why the 'brachy' breeds are at much greater risk of dying due to heat stroke.

The empty space to the left shows where the rest of the dog's face is supposed to be.
The empty space to the left shows where the rest of the dog's face is supposed to be. | Source

Brachycephalic Breed Health Issues

Addressing Brachycephalic Health Issues

How do we solve this? Breeding dogs with a longer nose, like they used to be, is a start. While it is a clear improvement to have a 2 to 5-centimeter nose, rather than no nose, even dogs with moderate muzzles, like a Boxer or Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, can still have severe breathing problems.

Distressed breathing in a dog is indicated by mouth breathing (while at rest in a comfortable temperature), 'heaving' of the chest and head (from the dog trying to suck in air) and snoring and rattling sounds while breathing. Sadly, what we see as a 'happy smile', is sometimes actually the sign of a dog struggling to breathe.

Extremely short faces may also hurt a dog’s ability to communicate, and many dogs are put off or easily provoked by brachycephalic dogs because of this. Brachys are also forced to sniff other dogs very closely, possibly making the other dog uncomfortable.

Breeds that may suffer from breathing problems due to their skull shape include the:

  • English Bulldog (and their offshoots, like the Olde English Bulldogge)
  • French Bulldog
  • Pug
  • Pekingese
  • Japanese Chin
  • King Charles/English Toy Spaniel
  • Cavalier King Charles Spaniel
  • Pomeranian
  • Chihuahua
  • Griffon Bruxellois/Belge
  • Petit Brabançon
  • Boxer
  • American Bully
  • American Bulldog (Johnson-type)

Different forms of extreme skin excess in the face.
Different forms of extreme skin excess in the face. | Source

Excessive Skin

Heavy wrinkles that touch and create folds are a breeding ground for bacteria and fungus. These folds have to be cleaned regularly, but the dog doesn’t always like this as it can be very uncomfortable. If the dog has short, sharp hairs, like a Shar-Pei, it also means that the sharp hairs are chafing the skin. Look closely at these wrinkly dogs—they often have red, irritated skin in the folds; this is especially visible if they have lighter hair and skin.

How comfortable it is for these dogs to live their lives inside of a bag of wrinkles? The dogs can’t, of course, complain since they don’t know any better. It has been shown time and time again that brachycephalic dogs that have gone through surgery to fix what breeding did to them experienced vast improvements in their quality of life. I wonder how removing excess skin and wrinkles might improve these breeds' lives?

Issues With Excess Skin

Heavy wrinkling in the face also exacerbates breathing problems or can even create breathing problems in a dog with a normal skull since the heavy skin pushes the nostrils shut. Excessive face skin that hangs rather than wrinkles also adds to drooping eyelids. Drooping eyelids allow filth and contamination to enter the eye sockets and may even obstruct the dog’s vision.

Ectropion and Entropion of the Eyes

Skin can affect a dog’s eyes in two ways by causing ectropion and entropion.

  • Ectropion is when the dog’s eyelids turn out, thus exposing the eye socket.
  • Entropion is when the eyelids curl inwards, causing the hair to scrape the eyeball. This is especially common in dogs like the Shar-Pei and Chow Chow.

Lip Conformation Issues

Exaggerated lip conformation causes the dog’s lips to turn out and collect dust and dry out. In the Neapolitan Mastiff, this even prevents the dog from opening its mouth to cool itself. Instead of panting with a fully exposed mouth and tongue, only a little 'window' remains for the dog to stick its tongue out.

Communication Issues

Heavy skin in the face also hurts a dog’s ability to communicate, as they can no longer create most facial expressions. In the case of the Shar-Pei, there is even evidence to support the fact that the wrinkles themselves are tied to the devastating disease called Shar-Pei fever.

Breeds that may suffer from excessive skin include the:

  • Shar-Pei
  • English Bulldog
  • French Bulldog
  • Pug
  • English Mastiff
  • Neapolitan Mastiff
  • Dogue de Bordeaux/French Mastiff
  • Chow Chow
  • Basset Hound
  • Bloodhound
  • Great Dane
  • Bracco Italiano
  • Fila Brasileiro
  • Korean Mastiff
  • Spanish Mastiff
  • Saint Bernard

The Dachshund is prone to back issues.
The Dachshund is prone to back issues. | Source

Short Legs

Extremely short legs can create locomotion issues and painful back problems as the dog’s proportions (length and height) are abnormal due to over-angulation, which can cause joint problems. They also put the dog so close to the ground that they can scrape their belly and genitals, which is especially bad for hunting dogs.

Breeds that suffer from extremely short legs include the:

  • Dachshund
  • Welsh Corgi
  • Basset Hound

The American Bully are prone to abnormal angulation.
The American Bully are prone to abnormal angulation. | Source

Abnormal Angulation

Angulation refers to both front and hind legs. Hind legs can either be too straight, which is common in mastiffs, bulldogs and Asian Spitzes, or over-angulated, which is common in German Shepherds and show-bred Greyhounds (this does not include other sighthounds).

German Shepherds

Modern German Shepherds have arguably the worst case of hindlimb angulation of all dogs. (This is not related to hip or elbow dysplasia, which is an inherited condition.) Everyone notices the backs of this breed and often forgets about looking at the dog’s hocks. Some show dogs practically walk on their pasterns like humans or bears. Like with the short legs, this can cause severe locomotion problems and pain later in life. Front legs can be affected by having too steep of an angle between the paw and leg, thus pushing most of the dog’s weight down the wrist.

Bulldogs and American Bullies

The other severe form of abnormal angulation (aside from a German Shepherd’s hocks) is marked by extremely wide-set front legs. This is most common in English Bulldogs and American Bullies.

Some of these extreme dog breeds have started to resemble reptilian proto-mammals like Moschops—so extreme is their conformation. There is no reasonable way these heavily built dogs can go through life without pain or move like a normal canine. The fact that these dogs are also always extremely heavy only adds insult to injury, as all that weight is pushing on their shoulders.

Breeds that may suffer from abnormal angulation include the:

  • German Shepherd
  • Shar-Pei
  • English Bulldog
  • French Bulldog
  • American Bully
  • Pekingese

Keep in mind that these breeds are the worst offenders. Moderately abnormal angulation—legs being too straight or not straight enough—is common in many breeds.

In addition to its extremely heavy build, this dog is obese.
In addition to its extremely heavy build, this dog is obese. | Source

Heavy Bodies

An extremely heavy body limits the dog from being able to exercise and use its body in a normal way. In some, like English and French Bulldogs, it often prevents them from being able to swim or mate without assistance. If the dog is also short from front to back, like the aforementioned breeds, they may have trouble cleaning their own backside.

Shortened Life Expectancy

Extremely large, heavy dogs also live shorter lives on average. Their extreme size puts a toll on their hearts and other organs, giving them an average lifespan of 6–8 years rather than a normal dog’s lifespan, which is twice that.

Another thing which adds to the short lifespan is how the weight wears down their bones, forcing owners to put their beloved dogs down when their quality of life is no longer defensible.

Breeds that may suffer from extremely heavy bodies include the:

  • English Bulldog
  • French Bulldog
  • American Bully
  • Great Dane
  • English Mastiff
  • Bull Mastiff
  • Dogue de Bordeaux/French Mastiff

A German Shepherd with a sloping back.
A German Shepherd with a sloping back. | Source

Sloping Backs

This is a problem almost exclusive to only one breed. While some breeds like the Boxer and Dobermann have started to be idealized in a more 'triangular' silhouette in the show ring lately, no other breed looks anything like the German Shepherd. This, in combination with the often awful rear angulation, puts some German Shepherds in wheelchairs or ends their lives prematurely. This is a dog that is supposed to be a supreme herding, police and military dog.

Source

Abnormal Tails

There are two forms of tails that may harm a dog’s well-being: double curl tails and corkscrew tails.

Double Curl Tails

Double curl tails only occur in one breed, the Pug. It is a tail so tightly curled that the mutation that causes it can affect other parts of the spine, causing kinks and curves in the dog’s back.

Corkscrew Tails

The corkscrew or inverted tail occurs only in English and French Bulldogs. It is a tail so malformed and surrounded by excessive skin, it creates a 'pocket' where dead hair can remain and bacteria and fungus can thrive.

Needless to say, this lack of a normal tail also diminishes the dog’s ability to communicate properly.

Several breeds demonstrate abnormal eye protrusion.
Several breeds demonstrate abnormal eye protrusion. | Source

Protruding Eyes

The issue with protruding eyes is obvious: it makes the dog’s eyes vulnerable to injury, and in extreme cases, an eye can even fall out of the socket entirely.

Especially bad is when the dog’s eyes protrude more than the nose. Dogs' brains are programmed to understand that their nose is about a decimeter or so in front of their eyes. Thus, when they stick their nose on things, their eyes are highly vulnerable. Protruding eyes can also be so large that they prevent the dog from closing its eyes properly.

Breeds that may suffer from protruding eyes include the:

  • Pug
  • Pekingese
  • Boston Terrier
  • Japanese Chin
  • Chihuahua
  • Pomeranian
  • French Bulldog
  • King Charles/English Toy Spaniel

The Basset Hound—a dog so far removed from the canine form it is hard to recognize as its own species.
The Basset Hound—a dog so far removed from the canine form it is hard to recognize as its own species. | Source

Exaggerated Ears

I once counted dog breeds by drooping vs. prick ears, and the drooping-eared dogs far outnumbered the prick/normal ears. There is no reason to think that ears like those on terriers, bulldogs and even retrievers harm the dog in any way, though.

Extreme ears are rare and reserved to dogs like the Basset Hound, Bloodhound and Cocker Spaniel. These extremely long ears can shut humidity and heat inside the ear canal and cause infections. This is why keeping them clean is very important.

Note: Spaniel ears are normally not as long as Basset ears, but the extra hair helps 'compensate' for that.

Breeds that may suffer from exaggerated ears include the:

  • Basset Hound
  • Bloodhound (and many more scent hounds)
  • American Cocker Spaniel
  • English Cocker Spaniel
  • English Springer Spaniel
  • Sussex Spaniel
  • Field Spaniel
  • Cavalier King Charles Spaniel
  • King Charles/English Toy Spaniel

A brachycephalic breed with abnormal conformation compared to a dog with a normal skull shape.
A brachycephalic breed with abnormal conformation compared to a dog with a normal skull shape. | Source

Why It Is Time for a Change

We know better now. 150 years of molding dogs like clay into the most absurd shapes possible within gene pools tighter than a royal house is more than enough. We all love our dogs. We want our dogs to live long lives, free from unnecessary discomfort and pain. There is an alternative!

I assure you that the healthier alternative is just as much fun to own as the 'cartoonish' dogs you perhaps first fell for. In fact, probably more fun, as you are far less likely to have to face heartbreak. Respect the canine for what it is—don't use it as your clay or plaything—and start improving the health of dogs today by making an informed choice before getting your next dog.

More Purebred Health Issues

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

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