Pets: welfare, health, and the environment

I completely understand why people have pets. I adore my cat, so I’m not in any way trying to dissuade readers from having pets. However, I have written this post to raise awareness of some of the issues surrounding our furry pals, particularly those seen in pedigrees. When I refer to pets in this post, I specifically mean cats and dogs, as other types of pets have separate issues. Apologies, pug lovers, but you’re not going to like this next subsection…

Pedigree dog health problems

Pedigrees are prone to various genetic diseases and conformation related defects. This may be due to poor breeding practices leading to inbred animals, it may be that the breed itself comes with huge health problems, or it could be a combination of the two.

Many vets have called for the ban of some popular dog breeds due to the suffering endured by these dogs throughout their lives. This includes the wildly popular pugs and bulldogs, as well as other brachycephalic (ie. short snouted dogs) breeds. I have read about and personally observed so many of the health issues that come with brachycephalic dogs. Is your dog making those cute ‘snorting’ noises? That’s not something to giggle about, your pet is struggling to breath. This popular ‘squashed snout’ conformation benefits no-one and almost always leads to chronic pain and irritation throughout their lives. However, whilst there is a demand for these ‘designer’ dogs, sadly, there will always be a supply.

Here are some of the most popular dog breeds and just a few of the genetic disorders they are prone to. Not every pedigree dog will have all of the problems listed, and many may live a healthy and happy life. However, the chances are greatly increased, and in some breeds, the disorders are inevitable:

Pugs and other brachycephalic dogs

Brachycephalic Obstructive Airway Syndrome (BOAS): This is caused by the drastically shortened nose seen in pugs and other breeds e.g. bulldogs. These dogs often find that their nares (nostrils) are almost completely closed up. Imagine permanently having a severely blocked nose. Not nice, right?  The end of their palate, called “soft palate”, is too long and thick for their flat face, so it obstructs the back of their throat, leading at best to the loud “snoring” noises when they breathe, and at worse to complete respiratory obstruction.

All brachycephalic dogs suffer from BOAS to some degree, and it impacts on every aspect of their lives. 

This has to be treated surgically by widening the nares to allow them to breathe. This is ridiculous when you could just get a dog that can breathe comfortably without requiring surgery! Just take a look at the dog skull photo below to see just how unnatural the pug in particular looks.

Brachycephalic Ocular Syndrome: The shortened snout seen in pugs isn’t the only issue with their conformation. Their bulging eyes also lead to increased infection risk, many of which lead to chronic pain and irritation. It can take multiple operations to fix, and again, all pugs suffer from this at least to an extent.

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A French Bulldog having its nostrils opened (the right one has already been opened, the left one is still closed). Picture credit: Mosman Vets

Dystocia: On top of all their other problems, brachycephalic dogs are more likely to have trouble giving birth so may need medical intervention.

Cavalier King Charle’s Spaniel

Another brachycephalic breed, these are one of the worst pedigrees for genetic disorders. I’ve worked within a few veterinary surgeries over the years, and the King Charle’s Cavaliers which visited were often ill with a genetic related issue. Here are just a couple of the disorders they’re prone to:

Syringomyelia: This is the presence of fluid filled cavities in the spinal cord of the neck; successful treatment is difficult, and this can lead to life-long pain (often severe) for the dog. One study found that 70% of Cavalier King Charles’ spaniels developed this disorder at just 2.5 years old.

Mitral valve disease: Cavalier King Charles’ spaniels are up to 20 times more likely to develop this nasty disease than other breeds. It is caused by the deterioration of a valve in the heart, and usually results in death. This usually occurs when they are just 5-10 years old.

Large dog breeds

Large pedigree breeds are also prone to health issues. German Shepherds and Labrador Retrievers  in particular are at serious risk of suffering from hip dysplasia, which can lead to motility issues and chronic pain.

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Picture credit: The Dodo

If you want to read more about the health problems associated pedigree dogs, I’ve added some ‘further reading’ at the end of this post.

Pedigree cat health problems

Although not to the same extent as seen in dogs, many pedigree cats also have genetically inherited health problems. For example, Persian cats are more likely to suffer from polycystic kidney disease. This article on inbred pedigree cats is a bit outdated now, but still worth a read.

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An ‘inbread’ cat

Environmental issues

There are ~163 million dogs and cats in the US. According to a recent study, these pets are responsible for around 25-30% of the environmental impacts from animal derived products. However, how much of this is offal and other animal by-products which are deemed unsuitable for human consumption? If we’re going to kill animals, we should be minimising waste and making use of the entire carcass.  Furthermore, dog and cat animal product consumption in  the US is responsible for releasing up to around 64 million tons CO2-equivalent methane and nitrous oxide.

As some-one who doesn’t eat meat myself, I was concerned by these figures, especially as two of my main reasons for cutting out meat are the environment and sustainability. I intend to read deeper into this topic as basing my opinion on a few studies isn’t sensible. However, although it may be bad for the environment and animal welfare to an extent (and I truly wish it wasn’t!), I do not personally condone veganism in carnivorous pets, as it is extremely difficult to balance their diets without meat. Read this article if you’d like to know more, or if you want a more detailed reason from me, get in touch!

Welfare concerns

There are around 15.9 million cats and dogs in the UK, with many residing in animal shelters (there are around 110,000 abandoned/stray dogs in the UK).

Breeding is currently uncontrolled and although pet owners are encouraged to neuter (Blue Cross often provide heavily discounted/free neutering and spaying to pet owners), they do not have to do so. Many of these unwanted kittens/puppies are likely to end up homeless, neglected, or abused.

In my opinion, the government should enforce restricted breeding for cats and dogs in the UK.

Another issue with the pet welfare is when owners don’t insure them and then can’t afford the treatment when their pet gets ill. This is so frustrating, as it isn’t usually that expensive to insure them (we pay £6 a month to insure Mulu), but if your pet is uninsured, vet bills can come to thousands. If you can’t afford to look after a pet, don’t get a pet!

Conversely, many loving pet owners try too hard to keep pets alive, but this can also become a welfare issue. Putting your pet through numerous operations is not fair and will be causing them stress and pain. There comes a point where euthanasia is the kindest thing to do, even if it is heartbreaking (although humans still don’t have the luxury of dying in dignity, but that’s another story). I do completely sympathise as pets become family members, but putting them through excessive pain and stress to keep them alive for you can become selfish.

Conclusion

Pets are great companions and I think they will always have a place in human society. They have been suggested to improve mental well-being, and they are sources of endless entertainment. I will endeavour to monitor and research the environmental concerns surrounding pets in greater detail in future, but for now, I think I will always have pets in my life and give them the best life I possibly can.

However, I will always opt for a cross-breed or mongrel pet rather than a pedigree prone to illness, as I want my pets to live healthy, happy, long lives. I would also adopt, as there are always so many unwanted pets available for rehoming. However, the idea of getting a cross-breed or mutt often seems to be an unpopular opinion, even amongst ‘animal lovers’. The aesthetic appearance of dogs or the ‘designer’ label often comes before health, and I quite firmly disagree with this; their non-functioning conformations and genetic defects can lead to suffering throughout life. If you do opt for a pure-breed puppy, at least ensure you get it from a certified breeder to minimise the risk of your pooch having genetic disorders.

We should all take steps to observe the effects pets may be having on the environment, and to minimise how many pets are left homeless, and I think the best solution is enforced neutering. Only trained breeders should be allowed to have un-neutered cats and dogs to minimise how many homeless/neglected pets we have in the UK, and therefore, reduce the environmental impacts of pets.

Long story short, neuter your pets, insure your pets, and stop buying pedigrees, particularly from dodgy breeders!

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Me and a very young Mulu

Further reading:

 

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