Norway Bans the Breeding of Two Popular Dog Breeds, Citing Severe Health Problems

A Tufts veterinary geneticist weighs in on why he thinks breeding bans are a bad idea.


Norway has banned the breeding of English bulldogs and cavalier King Charles spaniels, both among the most popular dog breeds. The ban came in response to a lawsuit brought by an animal rights group called the Norwegian Society for the Protection of Animals. The group argues that breeding those dogs violates the country’s Animal Protection Act, citing the fact that so many English bulldogs — a brachycephalic breed with short noses and skulls — have a lifetime of not being able to breathe comfortably because their noses are too pushed in. They also have obstructed airways. And too many cavalier King Charles spaniels, the organization says, develop faulty mitral valves in the heart and go on to develop heart murmurs and eventually heart failure. Many also develop a painful brain disease called syringomyelia due to a compressed skull.

It’s true. Many breeders mate brachycephalic dogs such as English bulldogs without regard

It is now illegal in Norway to breed 
English bulldogs (top) and cavalier 
King Charles spaniels. © Lilun, mkoudis | Bigstock

for whether the sire or dam have breathing difficulties. And too many cavalier King Charles spaniels — nearly all by some estimates — develop heart disease to one degree or another by age 10. Norway, in making its ruling, cited the breeding of these two types of dogs as “cruel.”

Still, Tufts adjunct professor of veterinary genetics Jerold Bell, DVM, thinks breeding bans are a bad idea. We sat down with Dr. Bell, who is also the chair of the World Small Animal Veterinary Association’s Hereditary Disease Committee, for his perspective.

Your Dog: How serious is the problem of English bulldogs and cavalier King Charles spaniels being born with defects that can make their lives miserable?

Jerold Bell, DVM: It is a real animal welfare problem, there’s no question about it. We don’t want animals to suffer. And with English bulldogs, it’s more than just difficulty breathing. They get corneal ulcerations in their eyes as well as lip- and nose-fold dermatitis. They also have spinal cord compression issues along with heads big enough that Caesarean sections are required for more than 85 percent of births in bulldog litters.

Your Dog: If so many English bulldogs and cavalier King Charles spaniels are born unhealthy, or with a genetic ticking time bomb that will make them unhealthy as they age, why is it a bad idea to ban their breeding?

Dr. Bell: Because it prevents responsible breeders from selecting for healthy dogs based on validated breed health improvement programs adopted by kennel clubs. In addition, while it is no longer legal to breed those two types of dogs in Norway, it doesn’t stop anyone from going on the Internet and bringing them across Norway’s borders. The ban is not going to stop demand for these breeds; they are very popular. In fact, what it’s going to do is increase illegal breeding and the illegal trade of dogs that occurs. There’s a lot of organized crime behind it in Eastern Europe; it’s a very profitable industry, with no regard for health or welfare. So it’s actually creating a worse welfare situation for those breeds by removing the oversight of kennel clubs in Norway that have established health improvement programs with specific guidelines for healthful breeding.

Your Dog: What do you mean by validated breed health improve-
ment programs?

Dr. Bell: Responsible breeders conform to pre-breeding health screening guidelines for prospective parents to promote healthier litters. For instance, in the UK, the Kennel Club stepped in to say that Pekingese dogs must have a defined muzzle in order to cut down on breathing difficulties in the breed; they were being bred to extreme with short muzzles without any guidelines before that.

Breeders can rely on genetic registries to see whether a dog they want to use for breeding has a clean bill of health for breed-specific health screening. Such registries can also aid potential adopters of a particular breed who are considering bringing home a puppy. [See box.]

Your Dog: What else can people who want a specific breed of dog do to protect themselves from ending up with a pet that has a high chance of developing a debilitating illness?

Dr. Bell: They can — and should — ask the breeder for documentation of health testing of a dog’s parents. Veterinary examinations of the eyes, heart, hips, and patellas [knee caps], as well as review of the health history for allergies, seizures, hereditary bladder stones, gastric dilatation/volvulus and other heritable diseases, should be done on every single breeding dog prior to mating. For breed-specific hereditary disease, there may be more pre-breeding screening or certain DNA tests required. Several kennel club and health foundation databases can also inform prospective adopters whether a puppy’s grandparents, siblings, or half-siblings developed a problem for which the breed is known.

Your Dog: Can you talk more about doing genetic testing on potential sires and dams?

Dr. Bell: There are some genetic tests that breeders can have performed on their dogs with a sample of blood or saliva to see whether a potential sire or dam is prone to a condition for which the breed is known. That said, genetic testing is complicated, and several commercial genetic testing companies market DNA tests that are not validated or applicable in all breeds, or in some cases for any breed.

Your Dog: What about breeding purebred dogs with mixed-breed dogs or other types of breeds to cut down on the potential for passing on health problems?

Dr. Bell: In its ruling, the Norwegian government allows for breeding the two breeds in question with mixed breeds, but the situation is more complicated than that. Breeding with mixed-breed dogs can bring in normal genes for head shape and mitral valve function, but it will also bring in tens of thousands of other genes, some of which cause other genetic diseases not occurring at a high frequency in the breeds at issue. Published studies show in fact that there is as much genetically based disease in mixed-breed dogs as in purebreeds.

Granted, certain breeds have a higher incidence of certain health issues, so crossbreeding may be part of the solution. But it has to be done judiciously with careful selection. The idea that purebred dogs are unhealthy and mixed breed dogs are healthy is not true.

That’s one good thing about this legislation. It raises the conversation of inherited disease in dogs and how to deal with it. But just banning a breed offers no constructive support for improving dogs’ health. It’s an understandable emotional reaction, but not a pragmatic one that will improve dogs’ lives.


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