But what’s the truth about pedigree dogs and mutts?
When I was a child, for most people, the word ‘pedigree’ was a badge of quality.
In 2008 producer and journalist Jemima Harrison made a film for the BBC entitled Pedigree Dogs Exposed.
It was a film that was to shake the dog world to its roots. And to alter, perhaps forever, the public perception of pedigree dogs .
The film highlighted some of the serious health issues that exist in some of our pedigree dog breeds and even questioned the ethics and morality of breeding dogs within a closed gene pool.
Who is right?
It also set a lot of people wondering.
“Should I buy a pedigree dog, or would I be better off with a mongrel?”
But are pedigree dogs more, or less healthy than mongrels, or has the whole issue been blown out of proportion and misrepresented?
That’s what we are going to look at in this article, and hopeful give you an understanding of both the pros and cons of purchasing a pedigree puppy compared with a mixed breed dog.
Let’s take a look first at pedigree dogs.
What is a pedigree dog?
A pedigree is simply an ancestral chart. Like the ones we often make of our own family tree. But what we usually mean by ‘pedigree’ is something more than just a dog with a recorded family tree.
Pedigree dogs in the UK are pure bred dogs that are registered with the Kennel Club. At some point in time, depending on when the breed was ‘recognised’ by the Kennel Club, each of our pedigree breeds became part of a ‘closed register’
This means that the only puppies that can join that register are those whose parents belong to it too. You can read more about what the history of pedigree dogs here: What is a pedigree dog?
What does being pedigree mean for dogs?
In biological terms, separating each breed of dog from every other breed, is a bit like someone putting a massive fence around your village or town and making it illegal for people to marry, or have children with, those from other communities.
In fact there are human communities whose genetic variety has been restricted in this way, sometimes geographically and sometimes through cultural rules and practices.
And we know that such restrictions are associated with genetic disorders.
The shrinking gene pool
With very few exceptions, where dogs are concerned, the closed pedigree register means that no new genetic material can be brought in to the family of dogs that are bred within it.
This inevitably leads to dog being mated to other dogs that share some of the same genetic information.
How much genetic material they share depends on just how closely they are related. And this in turn is influenced by popular breeding practices.
The key point is that a certain amount of genetic material is constantly being lost from any closed gene pool (as individuals die for example, or are never bred from) And as a result, the gene pool inevitably continues to shrink.
You can read this article Pedigree dog health: how loss of genetic material affects our puppies for more information
In dog breeding circles, when a bitch is ready to be mated she will taken to the stud dog of her owner’s choice.
Because a stud dog can service many bitches in any given month, and because bitch owners naturally want to breed great puppies, successful (in the field or show ring) stud dogs may become hugely popular and service many, many bitches.
This further exacerbates the problems of the shrinking gene pool, and means that there are many dogs, that share 50% of their genes with one another
Let’s have a look now at why the shrinking gene pool matters to the dogs that are affected.
Hidden in amongst every gene pool, even in a population of healthy individuals, are some very nasty recessive genes that have the potential to cause serious diseases.
There is a gene for virtually every aspect of what makes you the person you are, or what makes your dog the dog he is. From hair colour, right down to the tiniest freckle.
Genes come in pairs, and they come in two types – dominant and controlling, or recessive and weak! And many control aspects of your dogs development which influence his health.
The dog inherits one of each pair from its father, and the other from its mother.
These two genes work together in tandem, and a recessive gene is always ‘switched off’ by its dominant partner. It only gets to take charge if paired with another recessive gene. And that is when things can go badly wrong
Provided each recessive gene is always paired with a dominant normal one. The disease it can cause remains hidden. We all probably carry at least one nasty recessive gene. But these flawed genes relatively rare. So they hardly ever meet an identical partner.
These dangerous genes, in a big enough population, never or rarely get to cause a problem. So for the most part, the diseases they could cause, if they were paired together, are unheard of.
But when the gene pool gets small enough, and when animals are frequently paired with other animals that share some of the same genes, eventually two disease causing genes get together.
This is how apparently new diseases can arise in a population that appeared to be healthy before. The disease was there all along, it was simply hidden within a large and varied gene pool.
Bad genes can also occur by accident, through genetic mutations (spontaneous changes in a gene). But the evidence clearly shows that an increase in diseases caused by existing recessive genes is inevitable if a population becomes too small.
So on this point, the arguments against breeding within closed registers (and isolating our pedigree breeds from one another) are founded on genuine scientific principles. They are not myths that have been invented by pedigree dog hating sensationalists.
But how small does a population have to be before problems set in? And how many, if any, of our pet dog breeds have actually got such small gene pools that their genetic health is already compromised?
Which breeds are affected?
This is where many people are divided. There are some breeds that are clearly very sick. And many others that appear healthy. For the moment.
One sad example is the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel whose gene pool is so compromised that some experts fear the breed cannot recover.
But what about our popular breeds like the Labrador Retriever for example. Surely they are doing just fine?
In general, the answer is yes. Again, for the moment. We don’t actually know exactly how large a population needs to be, to be healthy.
There is a large population of Labradors in the UK, but don’t forget the size of the gene pool is not the same as the number of individuals in it. It depends on how interrelated they are, not how many of them exist.
So is it safe to buy a pedigree puppy?
The answer to that question depends on the breed that you have in mind.
But although new diseases are arising from time to time, at the moment these are not a major issue for many breeds.
So whilst the future may be a different matter, your chances of getting a healthy dog from a breed you like are reasonably good at this time with some provisos.
You need to do your research and eliminate breeds with very small populations, with conformational defects, or with major known problems. There are quite a few very popular breeds that fall into one of these categories so you need to be discriminating.
And you need to go to what is usually known as a ‘responsible breeder’ so that your puppy is bred from health tested parents
The approach taken by the dog breeding community towards keeping each breed healthy is to encourage all those breeding dogs to carry out health tests on their breeding stock.
So for example, if you want a labrador puppy, a responsible breeder would sell you a puppy whose parents had been tested for a number of inherited diseases.
Including hip dysplasia, elbow dysplasia, progressive retinal atrophy, and possibly also centronuclear myopathy and exercise induced collapse.
Many breeders consider this to be the way forward to resolve our pedigree health problems. But is it?
Won’t health testing solve our problems?
As more diseases appear in a population, more tests are developed to detect them and to exclude those affected from the gene pool.
In fact, one of the complaints I hear from breeders is that there too many tests being developed. Some see this a money making machine by the laboratories running the tests, rather than as an essential part of keeping the breed healthy.
But actually, the problem of ever more tests is much more serious than that.
The problem with testing is that it removes even more animals from the breeding population, effectively making our shrinking pedigree gene pools, even smaller. And, as you will have surmised, increasing the risk of more diseases appearing.
So whilst some breeds currently remain reasonably healthy, the chances are we can’t ever health test our way out of the inevitable decline of any breed that is genetically isolated from all others.
This is an issue that has been dodged for some time, and will probably be dodged for some time to come, as the concept of breed purity is one of the important founding principles of our breed clubs.
That’s a question for the future. For now, let’s focus on your puppy. We’ve looked at pedigree dogs. Now let’s look at mongrels.
What is a mongrel
A mongrel is a dog of thoroughly mixed parentage.
Most mongrels are born by accident.
Someone fails to supervise their in-season bitch, and nine weeks later are presented with a litter of puppies.
Unplanned pregnancies mean that the bitch may not have had optimum care and nutrition whilst the puppies were developing.
But as most dogs don’t smoke or drink alcohol, the chances are, the puppies will be ok in that sense.
The parents won’t have been health tested.
But although you could still end up with a dog that has an inherited disease, as the parents are unlikely to have had any genes in common this is less of a risk than it would be if the parents were distantly related (as in many pedigree births).
We could make assumptions about the lengths to which the owner of such a litter will go to ensure healthy puppies. We might reasonably worry that they will be less motivated to worm the puppies and wean them on decent food.
But those would just be assumptions. There are probably many litters of mongrels, born in family homes each year that do very well and are properly cared for.
Longevity is one indicator of health, and the evidence suggests, that mongrels are just as long lived as some breeds, and longer lived than many.
So, if you find a litter of mongrels for sale in a caring family environment, you would not be unreasonable to consider them
The downside of mongrel puppies
The disadvantage of buying (or being given) a mongrel is that you really have no idea what it will turn out to look like
You won’t know how big your dog will grow, how long his coat will be, nor what his underlying temperament will be like.
And if you don’t like grooming dogs, you’ll just have to hope the father wasn’t an Afghan Hound, or buy a sturdy pair of clippers
Cross-bred dogs and designer dogs
With a cross bred dog, there are no guarantees, but you may have a little more chance of a predictable outcome when it comes to appearance.
Like mongrels, first crosses are often an accident. But there is a trend at the moment for breeding, and selling at what many breeders consider exorbitant prices, cross-bred dogs known as ‘designer dogs’.
These are first crosses between a pure-bred dog of one breed and a pure bred dog of a different breed. Perhaps the best known of these is the labradoodle.
The advent of designer dogs makes many pure-bred breeders gnash their teeth with rage. It goes against everything they stand for.
Designer dog health
But the main problem is that these sought-after crosses are very attractive to puppy farmers, and puppy farms are not good places to get a puppy.
We’ll look at the issue of puppy farms in another article, but if you want a designer dog, do make sure you buy one where the bitch and puppies live at home with a family.
If the parent breeds share a particular health condition, hip dysplasia for example, it is important that your puppy’s parents have been tested for it. This is the case for labradoodles and several other crosses.
In some cases designer dogs are a great improvement on at least one of the parent breeds.
This is particularly the case where one of the parents has been bred with a very exaggerated conformation. Brachycephalic’ dogs for example. These are the flat-faced breeds which are plagued with respiratory problems.
You can read more about these in our health section, but crossing a brachycephalic dog like a pug, with a dog that has a muzzle is likely to produce healthier puppies than those from two brachycephalic parents.
We can conclude by saying that buying a cross-bred dog from a responsible breeder that has health tested the parents where necessary, may set you back an arm and a leg, but it probably won’t reduce your chances of a healthy puppy, and might even improve on them.
You still won’t be able to guarantee the final appearance of your dog, and there may will be more variation between litter mates than you might like.
Pedigree dogs on the other hand, are all about consistency. Let’s look now at some of the advantages of buying a pedigree puppy.
A predictable outcome
Perhaps one of the best things about buying a pedigree puppy is that you have a really good idea of what your dog will be like once he is adult.
This is more difficult to predict with a mixed breed dog, especially if the parents were very different from one another.
It isn’t just the appearance of the dog that we can predict. We can also predict some important ‘personality’ traits and abilities.
If I buy a working bred Labrador for example, not only do I know what my dog will look like once she is grown up, I have a pretty good idea that she will be even tempered and that she will love retrieving.
If I check out her parents and grandparents closely, I will shorten the odds even further. This is not normally possible with a mongrel whose parentage may be unknown.
Another key advantage to buying a pedigree especially for inexperienced puppy owners is breeder support
It probably shouldn’t be the case, but the fact is, you are more likely to get considerable support from your breeder after you take home your puppy, if you buy a pedigree puppy.
There probably are people out there breeding mixed breed dogs that provide this kind of support, but there is not quite the same incentive for them to do so that there is for the traditional pedigree breeder.
Many breeders of pedigree dogs work or show their dogs. They have dedicated their lives to breeding great dogs and their reputation is important to them. The stakes are high.
Looking after their puppy buyers is a part of the service that they provide and a part of who they are and what they do. Most good breeders will offer to take back any puppy they have bred, at any time during its lifetime if the new owner cannot cope for any reason whatever.
If you buy a pedigree puppy your breeder is likely to have bred many litters and raised many puppies. He or she will be able to advise you on all kinds of matters.
The mixed breed puppy on the other hand, is more likely to have been an ‘accident’ and the breeder is less likely to have this kind of valuable experience to offer you.
Getting the right support after you take your puppy home can make all the difference to whether or not you enjoy this life changing experience.
Kennel Club registration
You cannot register a mixed breed puppy on the Kennel Club’s breed register. This means you will be excluded from certain activities
I know of more than one person who has bought and trained a mixed breed gundog only to find he can never be entered into a field trial.
If you are hoping to compete in dog sports organised by the Kennel Club, a mixed breed puppy may not be a good choice for you
Pedigree puppies are predictable. Within reason, you know what you are going to get.
For an inexperienced puppy buyer, a pedigree dog purchased from a reputable breeder is usually a supportive and caring introduction to puppy ownership
Whilst the future for pedigree breeds is uncertain due to the problems that arise from long term genetic isolation, the current state of health of many breeds is reasonably good.
Now is not a bad time to buy a pedigree puppy, if you choose wisely. Whilst some breeds are not in good shape, there are still many breeds to choose from that are in reasonable health at the moment.
A well cared for mongrel puppy is also a good bet. You won’t know exactly how he is going to turn out, but as long as you are happy to accept the unknown that won’t matter. It is also a much safer bet than buying a pedigree puppy from a breed that is in trouble, health wise.
Many of the problems that arise with cross-bred or designer dogs are not problems intrinsic to cross breeding, but environmental issues caused by inappropriate care of the bitch and puppies
If you decide you would really like one of the designer dogs, then do your homework, find out what diseases are prevalent in each of the parents’ breed, and ask if the parents of your puppy have been tested for them.
There are no guarantees when it comes to buying any puppy. I cannot promise you that a puppy from health tested parents will be healthy, or that your mongrel puppy will be free from the diseases that have afflicted some of our pedigree breeds.
It is all a question of shortening the odds, and tipping the scales in your favour.
We’ll look at this topic in more detail in other articles but the key message is don’t just buy the first puppy you see.
There is a lot more you need to know yet.
We will be covering in detail what you need to do next as the series continues
The next step along the journey can be found here: Puppy Search Six: The importance of temperament