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Breeding and welfare

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ONE of the more surprising aspects of the furore following the programme ‘Pedigree Dogs Exposed’ broadcast on bbc 1 on August 19 was that the issues highlighted in the programme were not new. For example, the bva Animal Welfare Foundation considered some of the welfare problems associated with selective breeding of dogs and cats at its annual discussion forum in May this year (see VR, June 7, 2008, vol 162, pp 736-737); before that, in 2006, the Companion Animal Welfare Council (cawc) produced a detailed report on breeding and welfare in companion animals in general.

The cawc's report — on ‘Welfare aspects of modifications, through selective breeding or biotechnological methods, to the form, function, or behaviour of companion animals’ — was not solely concerned with dogs (it also considered cats, cage birds and fish), although it did give the example of syringomyelia in cavalier King Charles spaniels to illustrate how selection for particular traits can have unforeseen serious side effects on animal welfare. Among other things, it proposed a brief welfare code to raise awareness of the responsibility for welfare on those breeding companion animals, and of the potential risks posed by selective breeding. This stated that ‘The selection and breeding of companion animals can result in, or perpetuate, characteristics or inherited conditions that seriously affect the quality of animals' lives. No one should breed companion animals without careful regard to characteristics (anatomical, physiological and behavioural) that may put at risk the health and welfare of the offspring or the female parent.’ It also noted that, although much attention had been paid to the impact of breeding on the welfare of farmed and laboratory animals, there had been ‘surprisingly little’ interest in the subject in relation to companion animals. In making recommendations, it pointed out that more attention needed to be paid to the welfare consequences of breeding for specific traits and argued that breeders, show judges and veterinarians involved in the diagnosis of problems all had key responsibilities and roles in preventing both the perpetuation of existing problems and the emergence of new ones (see VR, May 20, 2006, vol 158, pp 674-675).

In April this year, the cawc held a workshop to consider approaches that might be taken to tackle genetic welfare problems in companion animals (see VR, June 7, 2008, vol 162, p 734); more recently, in October, it held a second workshop to assess the relative merits of different approaches. The report of its latest workshop (available at www.cawc.org.uk/reports) makes interesting reading, and also gives an indication of the scale of the task ahead. The cawc makes no bones about this. In the report of its April meeting it noted that tackling just one disease in one breed of dog presented a considerable challenge, involving concerted effort from many people and organisations. It further pointed out that ‘Multiplying this up to tackle all the potentially tractable genetic welfare problems that have arisen through selective breeding of all companion animals (given the huge range of taxa kept) presents a vast collection of Herculean tasks.’ Its latest report describes tackling genetic welfare problems as ‘a large and controversial subject’ which includes both scientific and ethical aspects.

A key conclusion of the October workshop was that an independent advisory body should be set up to consider the best ways forward to tackle genetic welfare problems in companion animals. This seems a sensible suggestion and deserves consideration; as the cawc points out, the current approach of developing diagnostic tests and breeding strategies to tackle specific problems is extremely important, but efforts are relatively uncoordinated and there needs also to be ‘higher level’ consideration of the best way forward. As the cawc also points out, any such body would need to be suitably constituted: ‘It would clearly have to consult widely and its standing and authority would rest on the quality of its composition, including its technical advisers, and its judgements.’

The October workshop considered three types of approach to tackling genetic welfare problems: breeding to reduce the prevalence or eliminate the problem within the breed; outbreeding to reduce the prevalence or eliminate the problem; and ceasing to breed at all from potential carriers. Of the three approaches, the last is potentially the most controversial, and a cost-benefit analysis in the report of the workshop gives an indication of the difficult, sometimes subjective, judgements that might have to be made. Nevertheless, the workshop felt that there were some breeds of dog whose perpetuation could not be justified (at least in their present forms) because any benefits of doing so could not outweigh the welfare costs.

If deciding which problems might be tackled in which particular way presents one Herculean task, implementing any decisions will clearly present another. It will be necessary to find practical solutions and obtain widespread agreement among those responsible for breeding animals on the best way forward, without alienating them in the process. Heavy-handed legislation is unlikely to be helpful here, although there could ultimately be a role for the animal health codes being developed under the Animal Welfare Act in helping to promote good practice. However, the scale of the task does not mean that it should not be undertaken. Advances in genetics and information technology present unprecedented opportunities for tackling genetic welfare problems in companion animals and it makes sense to ensure that efforts are coordinated and the tools available appropriately applied.

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