Breeding change – vets and vet nurses tackling root cause animal welfare problems

Posted on October 26, 2018 by Sean Wensley

For as long as humans have used animals – for transport, food, sport, companionship and more – we have recognised the benefits of breeding from the best suited naturally occurring individuals. Whether selecting for behavioural traits, such as herding, guarding or fighting, or physical attributes such as strength, speed or growth rate, artificial selection – as distinct from natural selection – has sought to make animals increasingly useful across successive generations.

In pursuit of novelty

Artificial selection also piques human curiosity. As Mendel manipulated peas, so many latter-day examples of animal breeding now pursue form over function, giving us “tumbler” pigeons (selected to tumble and somersault backwards when they attempt to fly), Celestial Eye Goldfish (whose eyes are abnormally rotated through 90 degrees – towards the heavens), and ubiquitous pugs, bulldogs and Frenchies. Aside from the companionship some of these animals still provide, human “benefits” can be linked to interest in the selection process itself and the intriguing creation of novel types.

Unintended harms

While understanding of genetics and development of breeding technologies have developed apace, so too has understanding of the experiences, including the pleasures and pains, of sentient animals. Unlike peas, animal wellbeing can be unintentionally harmed by breeding goals, leading to, for example, frustration and injury in tumbler pigeons, retinal degeneration and blindness in Celestial Eye Goldfish, and the well-publicised breathing and other health problems in brachycephalic (“flat-faced”) dogs. Being a moral as well as a curious species, this raises the ethical question of what we should do, as well as what we can do. The vet and vet nursing professions, above all, have a professional responsibility to raise this question with society.

Veterinary responsibility

The roles of vets and vet nurses in selective breeding serves as a poster boy for our professions’ contemporary responsibilities towards animals.

On one hand, the veterinary professions may be requested to actively assist with manipulating animals for human ends through breeding. For example, advising on dairy cow or pig breeding strategies to increase milk yield or litter size.

Caesarians on bulldogs and French bulldogs are necessary for individual animals with dystocia, but at a population level they enable breeds to persist that have a widespread inability to mate and give birth unaided.

While it’s well recognised that veterinary professionals have a codified duty to prioritise the health and welfare of animals under our care – acting in those animals’ best interests within the circumstances in which they find themselves – it’s also clearly established that the veterinary and veterinary nursing professions have an additional, wider responsibility to question and challenge prevailing circumstances, to address the root causes of animal welfare problems. This dual responsibility is clearly conveyed in the joint BVA/RCVS Vet Futures Report:

“Enhancing, protecting and securing the health and welfare of animals is our mission; it’s our fundamental purpose. We are clear about our duty to champion animal welfare more broadly across society – beyond the bounds of animals under our direct care”

In 2016, BVA launched its Animal Welfare Strategy, Vets Speaking Up for Animal Welfare , as a Vet Futures action, in which selective breeding was used to highlight our dual responsibility:

“Veterinary surgeons must, of course, treat breed-related health problems as they arise. But if we assist an animal to give birth, when the animal is otherwise incapable due to selective breeding, and we accept money for this without taking measures to address the underlying problem…then it has been suggested that as a profession we are enabling poor animal welfare to persist and we are simply facilitating the status quo.”

Profession-wide collaboration on animal welfare problems

Of course, problems linked to selective breeding aren’t the only animal welfare problems, and problems facing brachycephalic dogs, cats and rabbits aren’t the only problems linked to selective breeding. In its Animal Welfare Strategy, BVA committed to working closely with the species-specialist  divisions to   develop a comprehensive list of animal welfare problems on which to formulate positions and proactively campaign. Of the 125 agreed welfare problems, those linked to selective breeding include breeding oversized calves (eg. Belgian Blues) and selection for rapid growth in broilers, with its links to lameness and heart disease.

As position statements are published on the agreed problems, advocacy will then follow. BVA has wholeheartedly acted on this commitment as well, with, for example, its high profile #BreedToBreathe campaign motivating veterinary practices to create policies on how they depict and advise on brachycephalic breeds, and eliciting pledges from large brands including Heinz, Costa Coffee, Comic Relief and Halifax to not use brachycephalics in their marketing.

A strong voice for vets and animals

History suggests that the pull of breeding for novelty is strong, but global society no longer tolerates a no-questions-asked approach to animal use. With the publication of BVA’s recent overarching policy position on extreme conformation across many species, its new #HealthOverLooks campaign aimed at prospective pet owners, and further species-specific position statements to follow on breeding-related welfare problems, our national representative body has amplified the veterinary message on selective breeding. BVA’s trusted, evidence-based voice, applied across all areas of animal use, is ensuring the animals’ perspectives are accounted for, as our professional duty demands.

Sean Wensley

Written by Sean Wensley

BVA President from September 2015 to September 2016

Sean is Senior Veterinary Surgeon for Communication and Education at PDSA, based in Northern Ireland. He is also an Honorary Lecturer in animal welfare at the University of Nottingham.