Purebred vs mutt – It’s not a new debate. And there are facts and myths on both sides. That’s what this article is about. We dig down to the facts of the matter and find out if mongrels are really healthier than purebred dogs, or if you are better off going for a pedigree puppy
You may have been warned not to buy a pedigree dog as they are all sick.
You many have been told this isn’t true and that designer dogs and fluffy mongrels all come from puppy farms and aren’t cared for.
- Definition of a purebred dog
- How does being purebred affect dogs?
- What does purebred mean to you?
- New diseases in purebred dogs
- Do purebred dogs have more health problems
- Is is safe to buy a purebred puppy
- Responsible breeders
- Health testing
- What is a mongrel
- Do mongrels live longer
- Purebred dogs vs mutt breeders
- Downside of mongrels
- Designer dogs
- Advantages of mutts
- Advantages of purebred dogs
- Summary and further information
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. Something which was rarely discussed in public until that point
Purebred vs hybrid dog – the debate
The film deeply offended some members of the dog breeding community who saw it as a direct attack on their way of life.
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 the debate 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 define purebred dog
The terms purebred and pedigree are often interchanged. But they are not quite the same.
A pedigree is simply an ancestral chart. Like the ones we often make of our own family tree. A dog can have a pedigree (recorded ancestry) without being purebred.
Pedigree dogs in the UK are pure bred dogs that are registered with the original Kennel Club (KC). And in the USA with the American Kennel Club (AKC).
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’.
A closed register is one where matings can only take place between dogs on that register. It is at this point, that the pedigree breed becomes an isolated group of purebred dogs.
All purebred puppies today belong to one of these closed registers. And puppies can only be registered with a Kennel Club if both their parents are already registered as members of that breed.
You can read more about what the history of pedigree dogs here: What is a pedigree dog?
What does purebred 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.
It creates what biologists often refer to as an ‘island population’
In fact there are human communities whose genetic variety has been restricted in this way, sometimes geographically and sometimes through cultural rules and practices.
What does purebred mean to people?
The most fundamental reason for breeding purebred dogs is to produce puppies that are consistent in terms of appearance, temperament, and ability.
Breeding dogs that are similar to one another helps to ‘fix’ the great qualities that we admire in our pedigree breeds. Unfortunately it also causes a great many problems
The shrinking canine 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.
In dog breeding circles, when a female dog is ready to be mated she will taken to the stud dog of her owner’s choice.
Because a stud dog can service many females in any given month, and because female dog owners naturally want to breed great puppies, successful (in the field or show ring) stud dogs may become hugely popular and service many, many females.
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.
Purebred vs mutt – genetics
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 color, 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 of these ‘gene pairs’ 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. Sometimes a dog inherits two dominant genes, sometimes two recessive genes, and sometimes one of each. It all depends which genes his parents pass down.
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 almost certainly all carry at least one nasty recessive gene.
Purebred dog health – new diseases
These dangerous recessive genes, in a big enough population, never or rarely get to cause a problem because they never meet their matching partner. So for the most part, the diseases they could cause, if they were paired together, are unheard of.
Purebred biology shows us clearly that when the gene pool gets small enough, and when animals are frequently paired with other animals that share some of the same genes, the risk of two disease causing genes getting together begins to rise. And rise.
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).
So do purebred dogs have more health problems than mutts?
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 purebred-dog-hating sensationalists.
Not only do we know that isolating our breeds is causing new inherited diseases to appear, studies have shown that more closely related dogs have smaller litters and more stillborn puppies.
These problems don’t affect mutts to the same extent, though of course there are also many environmental factors that can influence your puppy’s health.
But how small does a purebred 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 purebred dog 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 of a genetically sick breed is the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel whose gene pool is so compromised that some experts fear the breed cannot recover.
And there are many purebred dog breeds with structural health problems built in to the breed standard – this is a serious cause for concern, and one that is simply not being addressed by the organisations that claim to represent pedigree dogs
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 USA and throughout the rest of the world, but don’t forget the size of the gene pool is not the same as the number of individuals in it.
So is it safe to buy a purebred puppy?
The answer to that question depends on the breed that you have in mind.
Although new diseases are arising from time to time, at the moment these are not a major issue for many breeds. Biologists are concerned though, because the long-term decline in health of our purebred dogs is inevitable if we do not take steps to increase genetic diversity.
But whilst the future may be a different matter, your chances of getting a healthy dog from a breed you like may be reasonably good at this time with some provisos.
You need to do your research and eliminate breeds with very small populations, breeds 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.
Responsible purebred dog breeders
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.
Purebred breeders that carry out these health tests, in addition to taking good care of their dogs and puppies, are considered to be ‘responsible breeders’
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.
Won’t health testing solve our purebred dog 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.
What is a mutt or mongrel
A mongrel is a dog of thoroughly mixed parentage.
Most mongrels are born as a result of an accidental mating. We’ll look at deliberate cross-breeding in a moment
But usually, someone fails to supervise their in-season girl, and nine weeks later are presented with a litter of puppies.
The accidental nature of a mutt’s arrival, can create some problems of its own.
Unplanned pregnancies mean that the female dog may not have had optimum care and nutrition whilst the puppies were developing inside.
As most dogs don’t smoke or drink alcohol, the chances are, the puppies will be ok in that sense! But it is reasonable to assume that there may be some advantages to a mother dog and her puppies, if Mom receives first rate care during her pregnancy.
There is also the issue of health testing. An accidental mating means that parents almost certainly won’t have been health tested.
And while health tests won’t save our pedigree breeds, they do offer protection for your puppy, against those recessive diseases that have already been identified
Do mixed breed dogs live longer?
Depending on the parent breeds, it is quite likely that the parents of a mongrel puppy will have far fewer genes in common than would be the case in a purebred mating. And this is a distinct health advantage.
So it isn’t surprising to find that studies show longevity is greater in mongrels than in many purebred dogs. A study published in 2013 showed that mutts outlived purebreds by over a year. Another study from 1999 showed that on average mongrels lived longer but noted that a few smaller purebred dogs outlived the mutts.
Other studies support these findings and more worryingly recent studies have highlighted the very poor longevity in some of our purebred dog breeds – especially our Bulldogs, and several of our larger breeds (Great Dane, Dogue De Bordeaux and others)
Purebred vs mutt – breeders
Not all mutts are the result of an accident. Some people deliberately mate dogs from different breeds together. Often this will be a casual mating arranged between friends.
Purebred breeders often refer to this kind of arrangement as ‘backyard breeding’ – although this term is also used to denigrate those who breed purebred dogs outside of the dog showing or sporting dog communities.
Provided the these homebred mutts are healthy and well cared from, the way that their breeders are perceived by others need not be an issue. But how do you know that the pups have been looked after properly?
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.
Just as there are certainly many litters of purebred dogs born without proper care or health testing.
The fact is, that in order to pick a healthy well-cared-for puppy, you need to be a bit of a detective.
The downside of mongrel puppies
The main 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
Some mutt litters are born from the purely commercial ambitions of their owners. These dogs are there to cater for a fashion in a certain breed mix or cross.
Once such a mix becomes fashionable, they are usually referred to as ‘designer dogs. And designer dogs are often 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.
With a first generation cross-bred dog, there are no guarantees, but you may have a little more chance of a predictable outcome when it comes to appearance than with puppies from parents of more mixed origins. Especially if the parent breeds are similar in size.
Designer dogs often fetch high prices, and the advent of designer dogs makes many pure-bred breeders gnash their teeth with rage. They see the purity of their breeds as something that has a value in its own right, independent of the costs of raising healthy puppies
Designer dog health
The main problem for dogs and those who want to buy a puppy, is that these sought-after crosses (along with currently fashionable purebred dogs) are very attractive to puppy farmers because of the price people are willing to pay for them.
And as we all know, puppy mills are not good places to get a puppy.
Puppy mills get a bad press and most people know not to buy from one. But puppy farmers are getting very clever at tricking puppy buyers. Right down to renting residential accommodation and posing as family dog owners!
Check out how to spot a puppy mill to make sure you don’t get caught out.
If you want a designer dog, do make sure you buy one where the mother dog 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. Not being purebred will not save them from this kind of health problem.
Advantages of mutts
In some cases designer mutts are a great improvement on at least one of the parent breeds.
This is particularly the case where one of the parents is from a breed that has 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.
Longevity studies, and reductions in health insurance fees for mutts are all clues that chosing a mutt 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.
Advantages of purebred puppies
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 purebred dog vs mutt, especially for inexperienced puppy owners is breeder support
Purebred vs Mutt – 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 purebred 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.
It is also worth bearing in mind that the pedigree registration certificate that comes with every purebred puppy, can open doors that will always be closed to mongrels or mixed breed dogs
Kennel Club registration – what it means to go without
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. And no matter how beautiful your dog, or how perfectly he meets the breed standard, you won’t be able to enter your mutt into a mainstream dog show without that certification.
Purebred vs Mutt – summary
Pedigree puppies are predictable. Within reason, you know what you are going to get. Not just in appearance but also to some extent, in terms of temperament and skills.
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, and health testing can help your puppy avoid some of the known inherited conditions prevalent in purebred dogs
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, raised in a loving home, is also a good bet. With the emphasis on well cared for.
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.
Purchasing a mongrel puppy is also a much safer bet than buying a pedigree puppy from a breed that is in trouble, health wise. And that includes many flat faced, and many long-backed, breeds.
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 mother dog and puppies
If you decide you would really like one of the designer dogs, then do your homework, find a caring breeder, find out what diseases are prevalent in each of the parents’ breed, and ensure that 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.
The next step along the journey can be found here: Dog Temperament – Choosing a Friendly Puppy
Or if you prefer, you can find the whole series and much more besides, in my new book – Choosing The Perfect Puppy
You can also check out our reviews of many popular breeds and cross breeds for a full and honest appraisal of their characteristics and the issues that affect them.
O Neil et al . Longevity and mortality of owned dogs in England. The Vet Journal . 2013
Gresky C1, Hamann H, Distl O. Influence of inbreeding on litter size and the proportion of stillborn puppies in dachshunds . Berl Munch Tierarztl Wochenschr. 2005
Longevity of British breeds of dog and its relationships with sex, size, cardiovascular variables and disease. The Veterinary Record 1999