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LOVE THEM TO DEATH: How we hurt the animals we ‘cherish’

Selective breeding has greatly increased the incidence of disease in animals, many of whom, as a result of our choices, suffer from life-limiting or chronic, painful conditions.

ESTHER WOOLFSON: Many studies have evaluated the importance of a species’ appearance in determining its popularity, commercial potential or conservation status. The conclusions are dismaying: “An animal’s attractiveness substantially increases support for its protection,” one study says, while another concludes: “A few charismatic and cute species … tend to receive most of the conservation funds and policy attention”… If an emphasis on appearance has had vastly damaging effects on all species, it has exercised a cruelly malign influence over those we keep as pets.

Once bred for their qualities as working or hunting animals, for speed and strength, the “selective” breeding of dogs over centuries created diverse breeds from the single canine line, but in more recent years criteria for selection have changed in response to the demand for “pedigree” animals who conform to particular standards of behaviour and appearance. Not just for dogs, the way a creature looks seems a major determinant of their fate. Beginning with an already narrow gene pool, selective breeding has greatly increased the incidence of disease in these animals, many of whom, as a result of our choices, suffer from life-limiting or chronic, painful conditions…

Deliberate selection for short limbs and long backs has caused dachshunds, shih-tzus, basset hounds and other breeds to suffer from a painful bone condition called chondrodystrophy. Larger dogs such as rottweilers, St Bernards and retrievers experience hip dysplasia, arthritis, osteosarcomas and degeneration of the joints. Eye problems are common in many breeds, as is deafness.

Skin diseases and inflammation are caused by breeding for wrinkled skin in basset hounds, bloodhounds and shar peis. Blood, kidney, gastrointestinal and neurological ailments are common – many King Charles spaniels, griffons and chihuahuas suffer from the spinal-cord destroying syringomyelia, caused by having skulls too small to accommodate their brains… Many dogs are artificially inseminated, and as a result of selection for large heads and narrow pelvises, are unable to give birth without a caesarean section…

Cats, too, suffer the results of breeding for “desirable” traits, most often those associated with colour and appearance. Pedigree cats suffer disproportionately from dystocia – difficulty in giving birth, and subsequent high death rates for pedigree kittens. Manx cats may suffer from a number of ailments related to selection for short or no tails including spinal deformities, spina bifida and digestive problems.

Scottish fold cats are subject to cartilage problems, leading to arthritic conditions, while Burmese cats are prone to diabetes mellitus, cranial deformities, glaucoma and kidney stones. Both Burmese and Siamese cats may also suffer from Boas, diabetes, asthma, lymphomas, strabismus, hip dysplasia and small intestinal adenocarcinomas. Rabbits such as the English “lop” have significant health problems caused by their overlong ears. Selectively bred rats are subject to a number of health problems, including greatly increased risk of tumours…

Another decision is whether or not to have a newly acquired pet neutered. It may be a responsible action in limiting the future numbers of free-roaming animals such as cats, but while it may be convenient for owners, there may be future health consequences for the animal, such as obesity, cancers or joint disease…

Considering the total dependency of domesticated and pet animals on humans, the law professor and ethicist Gary Francione talks of the “netherworld of vulnerability” to which they are subject. It is a vulnerability manifest in every facet of our dealings with them. The cruelties of every day spin out, major and minor, our national claims of love often sounding hollowly over the cold ring of statistics – the 74,000 or so animals abandoned annually in Britain, the shameful list of prosecutions for hideous acts perpetrated daily against other species, the estimated 1.5 million abandoned “shelter” animals killed annually in the US, the 3,500 or so stray dogs killed in Britain. These are just the ones we know about…

What makes us do it? Why do we encourage a trade that exploits the sufferings of others? One suggestion is that the “childlike” appearance of dogs such as pugs and bulldogs attracts us – according to a theory in evolutionary psychology, Kindchenschema, also known as neoteny, a positive response to the appeal of babylike or cute faces is an evolutionary way of ensuring the survival and nurturing of offspring… The theory may be correct (if you really think that bulldogs look like babies), but it does not prevent us from making an ethical decision about who and what we buy… No longer simply a matter of small, personal decisions, our animal ‘owning’ has implications far wider than the privacy of our homes. It is increasingly subject to the moral, financial and political questions raised by our knowledge of animal cognition, and urgent considerations of consumption and resource. SOURCE…

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