A Terrible Beauty

An obsessive focus on show-ring looks is crippling, sometimes fatally, America's purebred dogs

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Four years ago, Amanda and Bob Metzger of Exton, Pennsylvania, saw an ad for golden retriever puppies in the local newspaper and went to have a look. "Once we saw them," says Amanda, "we fell in love. We couldn't have left the place without one." They decided on a dog they named Jake -- but being careful consumers, the Metzgers made sure the breeders had a solid reputation, insisted on an American Kennel Club certification of Jake's pedigree and got assurances that his parents were free of health problems before they handed over $325 for their dog.

Their troubles started three months later. Jake began to limp on his left front leg; the vet diagnosed osteochondritis, an inherited bone condition, and had to operate. The bill came to $650. Six months later, Jake went lame again, and X rays showed severe dysplasia, a hereditary weakness of the joints, in both hips. A $750 operation relieved his pain, but even with a dose of aspirin almost daily, Jake still walks stiffly. On top of that, he has severe & allergies, dry skin and a poor coat. He has recently started having seizures as well. "He's a medical mess," says Amanda Metzger. "It just breaks my heart because he wants to play like a puppy, but he can't."

It would be tempting to put Jake's problems down to plain bad luck -- but in fact the odds were against him from the start. While most golden retrievers are healthier than Jake, a shocking 60% of them end up with the dysplasia that may yet cripple him, according to the University of Pennsylvania's School of Veterinary Medicine. Many are born with an undescended testicle, another hereditary condition vets say can cause the gland to become cancerous.

Yet even if they had chosen another breed, the Metzgers would have been taking a chance. The appalling truth is that as many as 25% of the 20 million purebred dogs in America -- 1 in 4 animals -- are afflicted with a serious genetic problem. German shepherds, for example, run an even higher risk of hip dysplasia than do golden retrievers. Labrador retrievers are prone to dwarfing. At least 70% of collies suffer from genetic eye trouble, and 10% eventually go blind. Dalmatians are often deaf. Cocker spaniels tend to have bad tempers. Great Danes have weak hearts. English bulldogs have such enormous heads that pups often have to be delivered by cesarean section. Newfoundlands can drop dead from cardiac arrests. Chinese Shar-Peis, the wrinkly dogs that don't seem to fit into their skin, have congenital skin disorders. And Irish setters, laments veterinarian Michael Fox, a vice president of the Humane Society of the U.S., "are so dumb they can't find their way to the end of the leash."

The list goes on and on, running to more than 300 separate genetic disorders that subject dogs to enormous pain, roil the emotional life of their owners and, estimates Dr. William Schall, a genetic specialist at Michigan State University, cost almost $1 billion in vet bills and lost revenues from stillborn pups, which cannot be sold.

Bad genes are a universal hazard of life, of course; practically every species suffers from inherited diseases. But golden retrievers and other purebreds are not like most other animals. They are in a very real sense artificial, molded over thousands of years through selective breeding to satisfy human needs. For most of that time, those needs have largely been companionship and labor, and dogs have prospered.

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