Nowadays dogs often play a completely different role for their owners than they did a few decades ago: some get a dog when they don’t have children, others as an accessory or for stylish Instagram photos. More and more popular are dogs with strange… colors, such as labradors with silver fur or French bulldogs and chihuahuas with a bluish tint.

Although these colors look beautiful, “they are not just color variations, but actual malformations, genetic abnormalities,” explains animal pathologist and author Achim Gruber. In fact, several of these animals suffer from incurable hair loss and other skin problems due to such genetic disorders.

He is a professor at the Institute of Animal Pathology of the Free University (FU) Berlin, researches abnormalities in reproduction and seeks to find solutions in his book Tortured Companions. “We’ve bred a lot of dog breeds downright sick,” he says. “There are no races in nature, the concept is a human invention.”

Problems due to targeted breeding

Gruber explains that decades of targeted dog breeding has resulted in the differentiation of external characteristics and consequently the deterioration of the dogs’ lives. According to the German Association for the Protection of Animals, dogs with small heads, for example, often suffer from skin, ear and eye diseases, as well as deformities in their muzzles and teeth. The majority of these dogs suffer from shortness of breath, heat intolerance and sleep problems.

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“We now know of more than 80 different diseases and disorders that arose as ‘side effects’ of extreme targeted breeding,” says Gruber. According to data from an American study of dogs with cancer, for example, purebreds were diagnosed with cancer at a significantly younger age than mixed-breed dogs.

In addition, according to the expert, more than 500 hereditary diseases are known in dogs – far more than in all other domesticated animals. This has a lot to do with inbreeding. One solution, for example, is to crossbreed animals of different breeds so that the animals have longer noses and fewer health problems.

Requests for a new legal framework

Targeted breeding is prohibited under the Animal Protection Act. But the law is hardly enforced, Gruber points out, both because breeders are not aware of the law and because the relevant authorities are not taking action.

The German Association for the Protection of Animals demands a legal framework with more clarity. “What many owners find cute is torture for animals,” explains Union spokeswoman Leah Schmitz. “In order to achieve certain external characteristics, such as round eyes, a certain type of coat or a flat muzzle, owners and breeders tolerate animal suffering.” Not only the breeding, but also the importation and sale of animals bred by such methods should be banned – as should the advertising of such, Schmitz argues.

In Germany, dogs and cats have grown significantly in recent years. According to the German Association of Special Animal Enterprises (ZZF), in 2022 there were 10.6 million dogs and 15.2 million cats. During the pandemic, the illegal puppy trade flourished due to higher demand for pets, says Leah Schmitz. According to an assessment by the Animal Welfare Association, breeds such as French bulldogs and chihuahuas make the most sales – breeds that suffer due to targeted breeding and breeding.

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Pets not accessories

“I get the impression that a lot of people confuse dogs and cats with branded products, like cars or fashion,” grumbles Gruber. “They’re waiting for a new shade, a more attractive shape or color, something new to entertain them.” The huge problem is that “many of the variations in dogs and cats are actually deformities and genetic disorders that can often be associated with serious suffering and disease for the animals.”