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Who is regulating fertility clinics?
  1. Josh Loeb

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In recent years there has been an explosion in the number of UK clinics offering canine fertility treatments. This prompts a simple question: Why?

The answer would appear obvious. The growing popularity of brachycephalic breeds such as French bulldogs (which frequently prove themselves unable to mate naturally, and which almost always require caesareans in order to give birth) has created a niche to be filled. Start-up costs are low, and there are big profits to be made.

There is an obvious economic logic behind the rise of the canine fertility clinic

Demand for puppies in the UK outstrips domestic supply, with a ‘deficit’ of hundreds of thousands of puppies a year, according to the Dogs Trust. There is, therefore, an obvious economic logic behind the rise of these fertility clinics. Indeed, one might even go as far as to argue that, for as long as a puppy deficit exists in this country, the more canine fertility clinics that are created, the better.

Yet the phenomenon will no doubt strike many vets as an unwelcome development, because, in truth, the problems associated with French and English bulldogs go beyond fertility. The real issue concerns suboptimal body conformation, which makes it increasingly impossible for them to breed without human assistance.

Whereas the NHS offers treatments such as artificial insemination (AI) and in vitro fertilisation to women as a kind of ‘last resort’ in certain circumstances – and around one baby in every four is now born via caesarean in the UK – AI and caesareans have become the norm for certain breeds of dog. Is this desirable?

Although many canine fertility clinics are not owned by vets, vets are presumably involved in various aspects of this now booming industry. Why have they so far been relatively quiet about the ethical implications?

There are concerns, too, about regulation (or lack thereof). Unlike businesses that breed and sell dogs, those offering canine AI and ultrasound scans are not generally regulated unless they offer services, such as caesareans and progesterone testing, that involve acts of veterinary surgery. Perhaps there is a need for tougher oversight here?

As we report this week (see p 141), this journal uncovered evidence that some specialist canine fertility clinics have been advertising canine surgical AI – even though this is banned. It is known to be particularly painful for the bitch because, as gestation advances, pressure is put on the surgical wound.

There is no evidence that either of the two clinics identified by Vet Record has actually performed the procedure since it was banned, and both pledged to remove references to it from their websites. But the mere fact that it has been advertised raises the question, who is checking up on such matters? Similarly, the Breeding and Sale of Dogs Act limits the number of litters a bitch should have, while in England a bitch may not legally be mated if she has had two litters delivered by caesarean. The Kennel Club has its own (more stringent) rules on maximum numbers of litters and caesareans. There is no suggestion that any canine fertility clinics have flouted these rules, but again, who’s checking?

Furthermore, AI and caesareans for brachycephalic bitches could be potentially unlawful in England. Schedule 6 of the Animal Welfare (Licensing of Activities Involving Animals) (England) Regulations 2018 states: ‘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.’

Looking internationally, Switzerland has already convicted some breeders of flat-faced pedigree cats for ‘torture breeding’ after a law was created in that country in recognition of the fact that such breeds suffer from distorted body shapes that lead to a higher incidence of certain illnesses.

Perhaps it’s time the UK created its own laws to better regulate the canine fertility industry?

At the very least, there needs to be greater attention paid by the profession to how these clinics are conducting themselves and whether, in some cases, they should be considered not as veterinary but rather as ‘pseudoveterinary’ clinics.

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