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August 30, 2014

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Dogs are dogs, not dolls

For the first time, dogs of diverse lineage will have their day at the Westminster Kennel Club dog show. Perhaps prompted by the growing number of people who adopt lovable “Heinz 57s” instead of buying “purebreds,” Westminster will allow mutts to compete in its agility competition this year. It’s a nod to society’s newly raised consciousness about and appreciation for mixed breeds and is certainly a step in the right direction. However, it doesn’t come close to atoning for its shocking contribution to the dog-overpopulation crisis.

As PETA’s posters proclaim, “Breeders Kill Shelter Dogs’ Chances.” That’s because we have more than enough dogs to go around — far too many to place them all in loving homes or indeed in any homes. Every dog specifically bred for a trait or a “look” will cause another wonderful dog sitting staring out from a shelter cage to lose that spot by the fire that this new purebred pup will fill.

By holding this outdated beauty pageant designed to attract people to certain breeds of dogs and by announcing during its broadcast that viewers should patronize dog breeders, Westminster promotes the idea that it’s OK to custom-design dogs for frivolous reasons in order to keep bringing more and more litters into the severely crowded world of homeless dogs. And it is dogs in shelters who pay the ultimate price.

But the pedigree dogs who compete in Westminster don’t get much out of the deal, either. They are bred with problems that become manifest later in life, which is pretty ironic considering that dogs love us regardless of our outward appearance. We could probably roll in cow dung, and they’d still want to kiss us — but breeders don’t extend the same kindness to them.

They stretch, shrink, flatten and distort various parts of dogs’ bodies in order to fit an arbitrary ideal of “beauty” and to conform to Westminster’s unhealthy breed standards. The dogs on display at Westminster are about as “natural” as the Astroturf lining the ring — and they are paying for it with their happiness and their health.

Dachshunds have been selectively bred to look like stretch limousines — and many of these dogs suffer from excruciating disk disease or other debilitating back problems as a result.

One dachshund who had been rescued during Hurricane Katrina and for whom PETA found a new home subsequently threw out his back so badly that the veterinarian he was rushed to recommended immediate euthanasia. His case is not unique.

More than a third of Cavalier King Charles spaniels suffer from a condition called syringomyelia — which occurs when their skulls are too small for their brains. The condition is so painful that dogs who have it often scream, scratch themselves raw and become progressively weaker, until they can barely walk or even become paralyzed. They endure all this misery simply because breeders have an arbitrary preference for dogs with tiny, flat heads.

English bulldogs and pugs pay dearly for the flat faces that breeders and judges prize. Even breathing is difficult for them, particularly in warmer weather. Chasing a ball or going for a walk — activities that dogs love — are next to impossible for many of them.

To increase the odds of passing down certain physical traits, greedy breeders often breed mother dogs with their sons, brothers with sisters and fathers with daughters — i.e., canine incest. But inbreeding also passes down genes that cause miserable (and sometimes fatal) afflictions, such as hypothyroidism, epilepsy, cataracts, allergies, heart disease and hip dysplasia — the bane of St. Bernards and German shepherds.

Westminster is no friend to mutts or any dogs. Instead of tinkering with dogs’ genetics and bringing more dogs into a world without enough homes to go around, “dog show people” should find some other outlet for their obsession with appearances and just let dogs be dogs. Dogs deserve to be respected and appreciated for who they are, not how they look — the same kindness that they afford our species.

Ingrid Newkirk is the president of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and the author of “One Can Make a Difference.”

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