Norwegian court rules breeding of two British breeds a violation of Animal Welfare Act

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The Norwegian Society for Protection of Animals (NSPA) is celebrating a “full victory” after the Oslo District Court concluded that the breeding of the English bulldog and Cavalier King Charles spaniel is a violation of the Norwegian Animal Welfare Act, due to the severe health issues that plague both breeds.

As many brachycephalic dogs, bred to achieve increasingly exaggerated features such as flat faces and squat bodies, English bulldogs often have severe breathing issues that have a detrimental impact on their quality of life, and may require surgery to fix. They are prone to skin infections, obesity and joint problems, as well as being unable to even mate or give birth naturally.

The Cavalier King Charles spaniel is plagued by heart problems, with about half of these dogs having developed a heart murmur by age five; heart mitral valve disease (MVD) is the leading cause of death in the breed.

Based on statistics from the Royal Veterinary College’s VetCompass project, it was estimated that one in sixty of these dogs also suffers from Syringomyelia (SM), compared to just one in 2,000 of the rest of our dog population. Linked to Chiari-like Malformation (CM), also common in Cavaliers, SM is characterised by fluid-filled cavities called ‘syrinxes’ within the spinal cord. It is a very painful condition which can also cause neurological issues.

Commenting the verdict, the NSPA stated, “The case was carefully considered by an experienced district court judge and two co-judges who are veterinarians and geneticists, respectively. Several of the expert witnesses in the case possess the highest professional competence in their fields, and the major health problems these dogs are bred with were thoroughly elucidated.”

The judgment, the NSPA adds, found that outcrossing was “fully possible” to bring these breeds back from the brink. Careful crossbreeding has been used with success by breeders dedicated to bringing back a healthier version of the English Bulldog, as it used to be when it was bred for function and not looks. The Leavitt Bulldog is one such dog.

“A conviction does not imply a ban on serious breeding of Bulldog or Cavalier, as serious and scientifically based cross-breeding could be a good alternative”

“A conviction does not imply a ban on serious breeding of Bulldog or Cavalier, as serious and scientifically based cross-breeding could be a good alternative,” the judgment states.

Jemima Harrison, founder of CRUFFA (Campaign for the Responsible Use of Flat-Faced Animals) and author of the documentary Pedigree Dogs Exposed, welcomed the ruling.

“I’ve been fighting this fight for 15 years – unshakeable in my belief that dogs deserve to be born into functional bodies and that breeding for looks, when it comes at such a cost to the dogs, is unethical,” she said.

“The end to the suffering is one step closer today. Huge congratulations to the Norwegian SPCA for bringing the case.”

The Kennel Club, on the other hand, was less than thrilled by the development. Bill Lambert, Health, Welfare and Breeder Services Executive at The Kennel Club, commented, “We are concerned about this blanket breeding ban in Norway and don’t believe it is a solution to prevent poor breeding practices or any of the complex health issues some Bulldogs and Cavalier King Charles Spaniels can face.

“This absolute approach, which will be difficult to enforce, could further fuel the ongoing crisis of irresponsible breeders, illegal puppy smuggling and uninformed puppy buyers, and actually worsen the issues the legislation seeks to address.”

“We know that outright breed bans do not work – we have seen this in the UK where attempts were made in 1991 with the Dangerous Dogs act”

He added, “We know that outright breed bans do not work – we have seen this in the UK where attempts were made in 1991 with the Dangerous Dogs act. This has simply served to drive the breeding of these dogs underground, leading to large numbers of unregistered animals where it is impossible to reach the breeders or buyers of these dogs, and attempt to influence them, or have any impact on the breed’s health and welfare.

“It also can further fuel the health and welfare crisis of illegally bred and imported dogs. In the UK, we’re seeing disreputable puppy traders producing unregistered dogs – bred under no sphere of influence – with extreme features, under the radar, which is having a universally agreed and extremely negative impact on dog health and welfare.

“We believe a more effective approach is to continue to work collaboratively with breeders, vets, scientists and welfare organisations to research, understand and take a scientific approach with evidence-based actions – via tools like the Respiratory Function Grading Scheme for Bulldogs – to reduce and ultimately eliminate the health problems that these breeds can face, and to educate and influence uninformed puppy buyers and breeders.”

A litter of smuggled English Bulldogs spend time in quarantine
A litter of English Bulldog puppies smuggled in the UK. Image by Dogs Trust.

However, the Kennel Club has historically been very unwilling to consider outcrossing, and there is some doubt over the odds such severely affected breeds can improve significantly without it – especially when the gene pool is limited.

A 2016 study published on Canine Genetics and Epidemiology found that English bulldogs have “very low genetic diversity resulting from a small founder population and artificial genetic bottlenecks”. In short, they were deemed to be too inbred to improve without outcrossing.

While it never targeted specific breeds, among regulations on breeding that came into effect in the UK in 2018 there is one that takes aim at so-called “torture breeding”. It reads, “No dog may be kept for breeding if it can reasonably be expected, on the basis of its genotype, phenotype or state of health that breeding from it could have a detrimental effect on its health or welfare or the health or welfare of its offspring.”

Unfortunately in the years since this law came into effect it seems to have achieved little in the way of results, as too many dogs are still bred putting looks before health.

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