More research and education is needed to minimize genetic disorders in companion animals, help veterinarians encourage responsible breeding programs and advocate against careless practices.
That's according to the American Veterinary Medical Association, which recently enacted the Policy on Inherited Disorders in Responsible Breeding of Companion Animals. The idea is to address welfare issues tied to breeding for deformities — characteristics that often are prized by enthusiasts but can lead to negative health consequences — and start a national conversation.
"When you know better, you do better," said Dr. Jerry Klein, chief veterinary officer of the American Kennel Club. "What we know now is vastly different than what we knew 10 years ago. … Purebred dogs are not going away. Our job is to make it better."
Klein addressed the AVMA House of Delegates, which gathered earlier this month in Chicago to examine the proposed breeding policy and a handful of other resolutions.
Approved unanimously by the House on Jan. 14, the policy emerged from a resolution drafted by the AVMA Animal Welfare Committee. It stated that animals should not be bred for characteristics that can threaten their health and listed examples such as brachycephalic syndrome, a pathological condition affecting short-nosed dogs and cats that can cause respiratory problems.
The strong language, committee members said, was needed to solidify the AVMA's position, help reduce the prevalence of inherited disorders and discourage faddish extremes of conformation.
Delegates, however, deemed the Animal Welfare Committee's resolution to be too antagonistic, largely because it identifies the malformities that are characteristic of certain breeds.
Dr. Richard Sullivan, a delegate representing California, warned that the tone of the policy as originally drafted would provoke breed enthusiasts and others who might be opposed to fire back, possibly with legislation. "When you have something in there that's negative, it's going to be used by multiple groups who are going to spin that however they want," he said.
Dr. Marcus Brown, a delegate representing the American Association of Feline Practitioners, agreed. "We all feel this is very important, but when you start listing specific breeds, that gives us heartburn," he said.
Naming breed-specific traits "is a slippery slope to legislation," Klein added.
Delegates spent two hours red-lining the Animal Welfare Committee's resolution, removing all references to specific medical conditions and crafting language that they were more comfortable with.
The result is a new policy that highlights the AVMA's support of responsible breeding practices that consider health and welfare concerns but does not condemn conditions associated with specific breeds. Its passage was met with applause by delegates.
As chair of the Animal Welfare Committee, Dr. Elizabeth Mackey said by email that she's celebrating the policy's passage because it "lays the groundwork for further discussions on responsible breeding."
Personally, she wishes the new version was stronger.
"It is great we now have a policy that says these efforts should be applied to responsible breeding," Mackey said. "I am, however, disappointed in the policy in that it fails to acknowledge that every effort should be made to eliminate deleterious inherited disorders from our companion animals, beginning with not breeding known problems."
Members of the Animal Welfare Committee, Mackey explained, began evaluating the need for a policy in 2015, prompted by inquiries from AVMA members and the general public. "As there are more conversations about responsible breeding, both locally and internationally, we felt AVMA needed to have a policy addressing the issue," she said.
Concerns about inherited diseases in pedigreed dogs also are being addressed overseas. In July, the British Veterinary Association and the British Small Animal Veterinary Association issued a joint statement that urges the revision of breed standards and focuses on brachycephalic dogs, in particular.
A petition by U.K. veterinarians calls for further action: "Despite the evident appeal of short-nosed pets to many of our clients, it is our duty as vets to not just treat these animals but also to lobby for reform in the way they are bred — in particular the 'extreme' brachycephalics such as Pugs, Bulldogs, French Bulldogs and flat-faced Persian cats."
Other AVMA business
While the responsible breeding policy dominated House discussions, delegates also considered other matters, including a resolution instructing the AVMA Board of Directors to consider financially compensating or offering other forms of remuneration to veterinary medical associations in states that host the AVMA Convention.
The convention, held annually in July or August, rotates through major cities across the United States. One consequence of having the AVMA Convention in town, leaders say, is that the local continuing education meetings held that year often see a dip in attendance.
The Colorado Veterinary Medical Association, for example, reported losing an estimated $80,000 due to low attendance at its state meeting in 2003, the year the AVMA Convention was held in Denver.
The association doesn't want a repeat: "With the return of the AVMA Convention in Denver in 2018, the Colorado VMA will be required to reduce its delivery of programs and services to members in anticipation of a significant reduction in revenue," reads a statement in support of the measure.
This year's AVMA Convention will be held in Indianapolis. The Indiana Veterinary Medical Association, in addition to Colorado, California, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania state associations, submitted the resolution. It passed with 91.7 percent of the vote.
Delegates also passed a resolution to amend the AVMA Articles of Incorporation, a document that lays out how the association is structured and functions.
The change nixes a specification that 13 directors or trustees must manage the association. By not specifying the number of directors or trustees within the Articles of Incorporation, the AVMA gives itself the latitude to alter the composition of its governance structure.
The new statement reads: "The number of directors/trustees, the term in office and manner of election shall be as set forth in said association's bylaws."
Like the policy on responsible breeding, the resolution passed unanimously.
Editor's note: This article was amended to include the perspective of Dr. Elizabeth Mackey, chair of the AVMA Animal Welfare Committee.