A Terrible Beauty

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

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"It's a competitive world, and money talks," says one Havanese breeder. "For many people, winning dog shows is a thrill and makes them proud, and the AKC has a lot of shows." Perhaps more to the point, once the Havanese join the high-profile AKC fold, the going rate for puppies, according to some breeders, could go as high as $2,000, up from about $750 now. On average, registered puppies go for 10 to 20 times the price of paperless dogs, and champion purebreds can sell for as much as $50,000.

Most of these genetic problems would disappear if Americans could somehow be persuaded to abandon purebreds in favor of mutts. While individual mixed-breed dogs have problems, the animals on average are a lot healthier than their high-class cousins. "Mutts are the Hondas of the dog world," says syndicated animal columnist Mike Capuzzo of the Philadelphia Inquirer. "They're cheap, reliable and what nature intended in the first place. They are what you would get at a canine Club Med if you left them alone for six years." There are "breeds" in the mutt world, just as there are among purebreds. The most popular: a cross between a Labrador retriever and a German shepherd.

But even if the U.S. cannot be cured of its addiction to purebreds -- probably a safe assumption -- there is plenty that can be done to improve overall canine health. One factor that is forcing breeders to pay closer attention to genetic problems is the emergence of puppy lemon laws in a dozen states, including New York, Massachusetts, California and Florida. If a dog is found to have a debilitating defect, owners can get a refund or a healthy dog in exchange, or they can force the breeder to pay the vet bills to repair a problem.

The laws are not entirely fair to breeders, though, says George Padgett, a veterinary pathologist at Michigan State University. "Some may be penalized unfairly because no one has taught them about genetic defects." Agrees Penn's Dr. Donald Patterson, founder of the genetic section of the University of Pennsylvania's School of Veterinary Medicine and widely acknowledged as the dean of canine genetic research, "The common misconception is that breeders are cavalier." The real problem, he says, is that they have not had the scientific information to detect hidden defects and thus avoid bad breeding decisions.

That is starting to change. One new tool that should prove helpful is a computerized genetic-disease data base developed at Patterson's lab that lists more than 300 genetic problems plaguing dogs. Another is the university's PennHIP program, a hip-disease-detection system that took 11 years and $1 million to develop. It involves taking detailed measurements of hip X rays to grade the severity of dysplasia. The program is being marketed by International Canine Genetics Inc., a research company based in Malverne, Pa., which is already training vets to use it. "A tighter-fitting hip joint is better, and we now have the technology to determine which hips are tighter," says Dr. Gail Smith, an engineer and veterinarian who developed the test. "This will help people select the best breeding dogs."

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