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'Designer dog' breeds are everywhere, but they might be hurting

"Designer dogs" like French bulldogs are increasingly popular in the U.S., but breeding them has led to many questions surrounding ethics.
'Designer dog' breeds are everywhere, but they might be hurting
Posted at 8:07 PM, Apr 11, 2023

National Pet Day is a holiday many Americans can take part in.

According to one industry estimate, 70% of U.S. households own a pet, with another estimate saying nearly 70 million households own at least one dog.

Recently, the American Kennel Club announced there's one particular dog breed that has taken the U.S. by storm: the French bulldog. It said Frenchies were the most popular dog in America last year, putting Labrador retrievers in the crate after 31 years on the throne.

But as certain dog breeds go in and out style, controversies around so-called "designer dogs" resurface.

The term refers to dogs that are born from crossbreeding, or selectively breeding for specific purposes or traits. The now popular Frenchies have become the lightning rod for the debate around the ethics of breeding "designer dogs" — though this is not a new trend.

Stephanie Howard-Smith is a cultural historian who's been studying pet culture across history, and is an expert on the history of pugs in particular. She points out that the idea of breeding dogs for practical purposes, like hunting, is centuries old, but something changed in the Victorian era specifically.

"Most dogs were, historically speaking, working animals: They either go to the home or they killed vermin or they were retrieval dogs or they were in hunting," Howard-Smith said. "It changes significantly in the 19th century when there's more of an emphasis on looks and less of an emphasis on utility."

Instead of referring to different dogs as "varieties" or "strains," they became "breeds" with increasingly narrow classifications. What was a blurred distinction between different populations were now fenced off into more specific groups and gene pools. 

SEE MORE: Which dog breed is the smartest?

According to the author of "The Invention of the Modern Dog," in the 1840s, dog enthusiasts recognized just two different kinds of terrier. By the end of the Victorian era in 1901, they had classified 10. Today, there are dozens.

"In 'The Invention of the Modern Dog,' you have this analogy that previously before the 19th century, dogs were like the rainbow," Howard-Smith said. "So you have yellows, and you have greens. But in between those, you also have some blurry distinctions. Whereas in the 19th century, with the advent of things like breed clubs and dog shows and breed standards, what you end up with is more something like a paint sample card where all the colors are very carefully cataloged and listed."

Over the 20th century, certain aesthetics and dog breeds went in and out of style, and these "fads" were often driven by pop culture. 

After the release of the first "Lassie" movie in the mid-1940s, data shows a rise in breed registrations for Collies. For Disney's "101 Dalmatians," re-releases of the movie and a live-action adaption in 1994 were followed by surges in demand for Dalmatians.

Animal advocates warn these surges can be followed by upticks in those same dogs ending up at shelters when owners find out they may have bitten off more than they can chew. While Scripps News couldn't find any data on this, either now or in the last century, The New York Times reported back in 1997 that local shelters were seeing a rise in unwanted Dalmatians.

But cross-breeding for specific traits and looks proved to be a whole different animal.

This is evident in the invention of the popular Labradoodle, a mix of a Labrador and a Poodle. Wally Conron created the Labradoodle in the late 1980s in hopes of getting a hypoallergenic guide dog for a client. The mix took off across the globe. 

In 2019, Conron admitted in a podcast interview that he regretted his decision, since the craze led to what he believed to be unhealthy breeding practices by "unethical, ruthless people."

"When I'm out and I see these Labradoodles, I can't help myself," Conron said. "I go over them in my mind ... I look at it thinking: Has it got hip displacement? Has it got elbow problems? Has it got any other problems I can't see?"

With selective-trait breeding, dogs can be bred to have cute ears that perk up, wide-set eyes that seem funny, or social-media friendly bodies and shapes — which leads to the rise of the French bulldog.

SEE MORE: Should Congress force the USDA to do more to protect dogs?

Frenchies have become so popular that they can be valued at up to several thousand dollars.

Dognappings of French bulldogs are quite common, sometimes even violent. The most notorious example is the kidnapping of Lady Gaga's two French bulldogs in 2021 — though according to authorities, it's unclear if they were targeted for being owned by a celebrity or if they were targeted for their breed.

But Frenchies aren't just famous for their new value. They've become notorious for a laundry list of health problems along with other brachycephalic dogs, or breeds with short snouts, like pugs or bulldogs. 

"That's particularly a thing with brachycephalic dogs because of the cuteness factor," said Alison Skipper, historian and vet. "It's been well known for a long time that for all sorts of complicated reasons, people find flat faces, childlike baby-like faces, in children and toys and dogs and other animals appealing."

Skipper specializes in studying the history of breeding and diseases in pedigree dogs. She said these types of dogs with shortened skulls also often have problems due to their brains being too big for their skulls, which can cause pain.

"And they have problems breathing potentially because of the flatness of the face and issues with excessive soft tissue at the back of their throat so that they can't breathe very well," Skipper said.

One study from the United Kingdom found the breed was significantly more likely to suffer from other health problems like ear infections, skin fold dermatitis and difficulty giving birth. The breed is one of many brachycephalic dogs that require c-sections, due to their body shape.

SEE MORE: Rover releases most popular dog names of 2022

"If you go on to things like YouTube or TikTok, there's endless material, which is dogs that are basically struggling to breathe to varying extents, which is being uploaded as entertainment — not because people are being cruel, but because they genuinely don't understand that this is a dog in distress," Skipper said. "You know, if a dog is sleeping with its head up using a toy to prop its mouth open, that's not cute. That's because it can't breathe while it's asleep unless it does that."

As certain dogs are bred to keep up with changing fads and styles, ethical questions remain over whether it's fair to these dogs in the first place if it sets up animals for unnecessary suffering. For example, the Australian Veterinary Association has specifically recommended against breeding dogs with short muzzles and known spinal problems, among other health issues.

Other countries have even waded into the legal waters around this question. Animal rights activists in Norway argued in court that chronic inbreeding and exaggerated shapes of bulldogs was causing suffering, leading to a ban that has since been appealed. 

"I often say that if someone thinks this is a simple problem, they just don't understand this," Skipper said. "I've been working in this field for a long time, and the more I learn about it, the more complicated it becomes."

There aren't easy answers when it comes to adopting or breeding dogs and pets that may be more prone to health problems. For current pet owners, remember to stay aware of health risks for your own pets to keep them healthy and happy.

"I've looked at the archives of discussion of these breeds' health back in the 19th century, and there's a surprising degree of similarity in many cases between comments that people were making then and the arguments we're still having today," Skipper said. "These dogs are popular and appealing, and they continue to be wanted — not because we don't know about their problems, but even though we do know about their problems."

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