By Nicholas Coady, winner of the The Hon Michael Kirby – Voiceless Prize for Animal Law at UTS Law School (2018).
Brachycephalic breeds of dog (‘brachy breeds’), including Pugs, French Bulldogs, and Shih Tzus, are increasingly popular companion animals in Australia, despite their well-documented health problems and lower quality of life.
For hundreds of years, humans have bred these dogs to have wrinkly faces and bulging eyes for purely aesthetic reasons, leading to a raft of serious health problems.
These problems include (to name just a few), limited capacity to walk and run due to breathing difficulties, higher tendency to collapse in the heat, sleep apnoea, eye disease and dislocation, and difficulty giving birth due to their large heads relative to their bodies.
SO WHAT DOES THE LAW CURRENTLY DO ABOUT THIS?
There are limited regulations governing the breeding of dogs and cats in Australia, with standards and guidelines differing between jurisdictions.
In NSW, the relevant Code of Practice contains a caution against increasing the frequency or severity of ‘known inherited disorders’, and requires animals to be bred as ‘behaviourally sound and healthy as possible’. The worst effects of the deformities inherent in brachy breeds can be mitigated through measures such as breeding ‘healthy’ dogs of the same breed together, and surgical intervention.
However, breeding regulations across the country inadequately address problems inherent in pedigree breeds as a result of their design. This is where these dogs fall through the cracks. A ‘pedigree pug’ might look cute, and may not have any ‘inherited disorders’, but what should the law do when the problem is the very existence of the breed in the first place?
Clearly, the law is not equipped to face a hard but crucial question; given all of the suffering associated with these dogs, should these breeds exist at all?
HOW COULD THE LAW BE CHANGED?
Two immediate reforms could be made to implement a more companion animal centered approach to the law. Firstly, we need to require that dogs with serious breed-related health issues, such as breathing difficulties, mobility problems and eye issues, should not be bred.
The relevant NSW Code of Practice already provides that some traits should not be bred into future generations of dogs – such as, excessive nervousness or excessive aggression. The practical outcome of such a prohibition may mean a move away from the ‘cute’ dogs we have come to know and love, but this is well worth it if it puts an end to their suffering.
Secondly, we should insert a clear duty of care to companion animals under animal cruelty legislation across all state/territory jurisdictions in Australia. Failure to adhere to this duty of care should have tangible and enforceable consequences, such as animal ownership bans and significant fines. This could potentially be accompanied by reforms criminalising breeding companion animals in a fashion which would knowingly perpetuate harmful traits.
Beyond legal changes, there is also capacity for the breed standards of the Australian National Kennel Council to ensure that breeders move away from flat faces, small nostrils and other harmful traits. These standards are influential because they determine whether dogs are considered ‘pedigree’, and a healthy shift in these requirements could have a significant trickle-down effect.
ATTITUDE SHIFT NEEDED
Whilst a lot of problems facing brachy breeds would be overcome if they were no longer treated as commodities in the open market, tangible reforms are possible to implement now if there is sufficient political will and a compassionate shift in societal attitudes towards companion animals. Fundamentally we need to stop valuing cuteness over the wellbeing of dogs. Whilst we should aim to end all suffering of animals, the idea that dogs are suffering for something as flippant as appearance is particularly abhorrent. If we love these dogs, we should be willing to ensure they are comfortable and have a good quality of life. Education campaigns directed at dog lovers, breeders, and politicians are crucial to any legislative shift in favour of healthier dogs.
Humans have a special responsibility to brachy breeds given that they exist purely as a result of our manipulations over time, and the law should reflect this duty of care inherent in the relationship.
HOW CAN I HELP?
- Adopt a dog! If you do opt for a ‘pure bred’ dog, at least choose a dog which does not suffer as a result of disease or design.
- Write to politicans about the issue.
- Get involved in campaigns, such as ‘Love is Blind‘.
- Support/follow the work of Oscar’s Law who are campaigning to end puppy factories (where a lot of brachy dogs are bred) across the country.
- Talk to your friends, family and politicians about our responsibilities to these dogs.