It could be the plot of a horror film: some all-powerful entities decide they don't like how you look, that your head is too round, so they flatten your skull – until it becomes too small for your brain. The agony caused by the pressure of the tissue pushing against bone causes you to scream out in constant pain until the merciful day when you're put out of your misery.
Unthinkable, isn't it? But Cavalier King Charles spaniels have been bred to suffer in exactly that way, and they win ribbons at the Crufts dog show.
Breeders aspiring to The Kennel Club's “breed standards” have resulted in spaniels with skulls that are nearly flat on top, which often leads to syringomyelia, the technical name for this agonising condition. Likewise, dachshunds' spines are now so long that disc disease and other back problems are common. Great Danes, who are bred for long necks and large heads, often have compressed spinal cords in their neck vertebrae, which can make these gentle giants topple over.
Many English bulldogs have difficulty fetching a ball, walking or even breathing because their pushed-in faces go along with unnaturally short airways. There is barely an inch of a bulldog's anatomy that is not riddled with potential problems. One veterinary epidemiologist's report found that bulldogs are significantly more likely than other dogs to suffer from eye and ear problems, skin infections and respiratory, immunological and neurological difficulties. Another report concluded: “Many would question whether the breed's quality of life is so compromised that its breeding should be banned”.
Once it's decided that a skull is flat enough or a spine long enough to win a judge's favour, dogs are inbred to ensure that a particular trait remains in the bloodline. Inbreeding is so rampant that all of the more than 10,000 pugs in the UK are descended from just 50 dogs, which has dire consequences.
Not only do many pedigrees have significantly shorter life expectancies, inbreeding also increases the likelihood that recessive genes will be passed down to puppies, along with a host of serious congenital defects, including heart disease, epilepsy, hypothyroidism, cataracts, allergies and hip dysplasia, a disease that can lead to crippling, lameness and arthritis.
In recent years, people have begun to sit up and take notice. The RSPCA publicly distanced itself from Crufts in 2008, stating that dog shows “actively encourage both the intentional breeding of deformed and disabled dogs and the inbreeding of closely related animals”.
The Kennel Club hit back denying that Crufts puts looks above the health of dogs. Its spokeswoman, Caroline Kisko, reportedly said the club was “dedicated to improving the health and welfare of dogs through responsible breeding and will continue to use Crufts as a platform to educate breeders and the public about the importance of joining us on this quest”.
The BBC cut its ties with the show after the scathing documentary Pedigree Dogs Exposed was aired insert: and the club reportedly said it could not comply with the BBC's request for particular breeds to be excluded from the show.
However, the suffering isn't confined to the arena in Birmingham's National Exhibition Centre where Crufts takes place. The breeding industry drives the demand for pedigree dogs and in the process seals the fates of countless dogs who are languishing in animal shelters right now. A healthy dog is put down every two hours in the UK, and many others will spend their entire lives behind bars instead of in a loving family, simply because there aren't enough good homes available – all while breeders continue to churn out more puppies for profit.
Beauty is subjective, but for dogs, Crufts is undeniably ugly. It's a display of callous arrogance in which complex, intelligent, loving beings are often treated as commodities whose comfort, happiness and very lives are less important than a trophy or a ribbon.
It's up to us to send a message that dogs shouldn't suffer for humans' vain hobbies by refusing to attend or watch Crufts.
Dogs don't care how we look – they love us for who we are. Don't we owe them that same kind of unconditional love?