Travelling through Indonesia, Thailand and India, I have patted, fed and run away from my share of street dogs. These mutts are like distant antecedents of our domesticated pooches back home. Strange amalgamations of genetics, their fur colours, body sizes and breeds are confusing and unidentifiable -- and therefore their value somehow less. Less smart, less attractive, less desirable than their purebred counterparts.
In Australia, most domestic canines are easy to identify -- Labrador, Staffy, Border Collie -- at worst it is a cross. The odd family ventures to the RSPCA and picks up a mutt, but the majority of dog owners want a specific breed, one that they can choose, recognise and love. This practice seems totally acceptable until you look at the consequences.
Purebreeds are riddled with genetic disorders. These range from, but are not limited to, early onset arthritis, heart conditions, hip dysplasia, increased risk of cancer, even epilepsy.
In 2012, the Bellumori study used the medical records of 27,000 dogs from the same veterinary clinic and compared the incidence of 24 genetic disorders in mixed versus purebred dogs. They found that 10 genetic disorders were significantly greater in purebred dogs while one disorder was greater in mixed-breed dogs, the rest being nominal. So purebred dogs have a 42 percent higher chance of contracting a genetic disorder.
This is the effect of inbreeding and eugenics. Practices condemned in humans but totally acceptable in dogs. The gene pools of purebred dogs are horribly concentrated, with not only the parent dogs being the exact same breed, but often dog clubs needing them to spawn from the same family line. And as with all gene pools, when they restrict access, deformities proliferate.
Purebred dog owners are happy to fork out between $500 and $3000 to ensure that their new best friends have been bred to ill-health while the RSPCA is handing out perfectly fine versions of the same species for free. Though in some cases it is the imperfections that are what people are looking for.
Enter the pug. The Frankenstein of canine eugenics. Most pugs' airways are partially closed due to their excessively flat faces (they are cuter with small skulls), and as their soft tissue airways remain the same size they must fold and twist to fit, forcing them to breathe in wheezes, and almost choke when eating or exercising.
Their rolls need cleaning, their eyes need wiping. High blood pressure, inflammation of the brain, fainting due to lack of oxygen, difficulty walking and sleeping, these evil canine experiments can barely survive with 24-hour human assistance, and we designed them to look this way because some people think that controlled ugliness is cute, or enjoy the utter dependency of these little freaks. However, pass these same people a crossbreed and they will shirk, because they don't have the same status as a pug, they aren't known as the purposeful f**k up, they didn't star in 'Men in Black 2'.
It's pretty messed up.
But not all interest in purebreeds is completely superficial. Many claim that higher intelligence motivated their want for eugenics. While certain breeds of dogs, notably German Shepherds and Border Collies, have a higher range of intelligence, it is rarer for purebred dogs to attain the upper strata of that range, whereas cross breeds are more commonly intelligent. However, the gap between the two is pretty insignificant.
Crossbreeds are also more chilled. Purebreds are more likely to exhibit extremes of temperament and behavior, and while this might mean they are endowed with specific skills like herding, guarding or hunting, most people walking down the street with their new purebred Great Dane puppy aren't in it for the skills. And the same people who claim that certain breeds have certain personality traits will agree that a dog's environment plays a large role in whether it is going to be calm, happy and friendly or antisocial and ferocious, so eugenic breeding for temperament can hardly be justified.
Simply put, purebred dog owners want their dogs to look how they want. Crossbreeds seem ugly, unhealthy, or unintelligent, despite facts proving otherwise, compared with what they consider a 'normal dog'. They want control over the breeding process, over natural selection. They want to play God.
But, the real question in all of this is, is the desire for purebreds socially constructed -- a product of movies and neighbours and trends? Or is the valuation of pure genetic streams as higher innate in humans -- and does this valuation still apply when we look at ourselves?
This post first appeared on September 9, 2016.