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Folded ears, a trait seen in the Scottish fold cat, are associated with painful cartilage and bone abnormalities.
In what may be a world first, the Netherlands is preparing legislation that would ban the ownership of pets with harmful physical characteristics that may include extremely flat faces or tightly folded ears.
Some countries, states and cities prohibit or restrict ownership of pet breeds perceived to be dangerous to humans. The Netherlands appears to be the first jurisdiction to move toward banning ownership based on harm to the animal due to its physical features.
The European country's initiative comes as governments, breeding clubs and veterinarians worldwide grapple with how to discourage the reproduction of pets with extreme and harmful traits such as a flattened face, technically known as brachycephaly (brak-ee-SEH-fuh-lee).
Another European country, Norway, recently banned the breeding of cavalier King Charles spaniels, which, in addition to having flattened faces, are susceptible to heart disease and syringomyelia, a progressive neurologic condition characterized by pain in the back of the neck. A Norwegian breeding ban on English bulldogs, though, was reversed on appeal, disappointing animal welfare advocates hopeful that bans could catch on in other countries.
The Netherlands already had banned the breeding of animals with short snouts, in 2019, prompting the Dutch Kennel Club to end registration of 12 brachycephalic dog breeds, including English bulldogs, French bulldogs, pugs, cavalier King Charles spaniels and Boston terriers.
The new Dutch legislation goes a step further by banning the ownership of such animals, not just their reproduction. In addition, a separate "showing" ban would outlaw displaying images of animals with harmful features in public, such as in advertising or on social media.
Each new rule — the ownership ban and the showing ban — will encompass its own separate list of banned physical traits, which will partly overlap. Precisely which physical characteristics will be deemed harmful is being decided with help from veterinarians at Utrecht University. The government already has mentioned short muzzles and folded ears as likely candidates.
The lists of banned traits will start small, focusing on dogs and cats; will be expanded pending further research; and may eventually include harmful features in other animals, such as horses and rabbits, Martijn Goosensen, a spokesperson for Dutch agriculture minister Piet Adema, said in an interview.
Brachycephaly, also found in a number of cat breeds and other types of animal, is associated with a host of health problems with varying degrees of severity, including difficulty breathing and giving birth, eye issues and skin infections. Folded ears, seen in cat breeds such as Scottish folds, are associated with painful cartilage and bone abnormalities.
In order to become law, the planned changes in the Netherlands must be passed by the country's two houses of parliament — the House of Representatives and the Senate, Goosensen said. The clampdown on flat-faced breeding in 2019 indicates tough animal welfare rules are popular with the Dutch people, though the government acknowledges that determining which characteristics will be banned, and how the new rules will be enforced, will be challenging.
"These issues will take time to work out carefully," the agriculture ministry said in a press release last month. "But we already want to inform people that this is coming, especially people who are considering bringing a new pet into their home."
If approved and enforced, people who possess an animal with banned traits will be able to keep it for the rest of its life. The government hopes that announcing the plan now will inspire widespread discussion and prompt the public to become more cognizant of animal health issues.
Goosensen said the government is consciously not giving a timeframe for when the rules will be finalized because it's too early to tell how long it will take to get them right.
"We want to make sure that we're giving ourselves the time and space to really work this through well, because the implications are quite large," he said. "And, especially for something like the showing ban, which affects social media usage, there's some pretty big implications around enforcement, so we really need to do our due diligence."
Goosensen said the government is serious about the legislation, and that it's a matter of when, not if, it will be put to a parliamentary vote. He stressed the new rules will target physical characteristics, not breeds — though acknowledged it may be possible for a breed to be banned de facto, should a harmful characteristic be an integral part of its breed definition.
Many dog and cat breeds have physical characteristics in their breed standards that could be interpreted as harmful. The American Kennel Club, for example, in its standards for pugs, says the animal's head must be "flat when viewed from the side," and that a protruding nose is "undesirable."
Most veterinarians are wary of the health risks associated with extreme characteristics, judging from message board discussions on the Veterinary Information Network, an international online community for the profession and parent of the VIN News Service. Some practitioners support outright breed bans. Others note that not all animals of the same breed necessarily experience health problems, and question whether bans can be enforced.
Kennel clubs tend to argue that health issues can be addressed by gently discouraging the reproduction of the most extreme characteristics within breeds, rather than introducing bans. Animal welfare campaigners counter that manifestations of extreme characteristics have gotten only worse in recent years, despite assurances by kennel clubs that they are encouraging more responsible breeding.
"To people who say bans are too hard or too much, I would say 'Get in this body and feel what the dog feels,' " said Dr. Kelly Kessen, who spent 16 years in small animal practice and works now for an animal welfare group, Dier&Recht, based in Amsterdam.
She is concerned about numerous health issues associated with brachycephalism such as difficulty breathing, hernias and knee injuries. "They cannot run for long because they get overheated and out of breath, and they are snoring, not because they want to snore, but because they have no other choice. The airways are blocked."
Strict bans are appropriate, Kessen posits, because even when two apparently healthy brachycephalic animals breed, there is a serious risk their offspring will be born with lifelong health problems.
She hopes new rules will become enforceable by as early as next year, perhaps initially for more obvious traits such as folded ears, but accepts it could take longer to sort it all out. Other physical traits that Kessen would like to see targeted include extremely loose skin, a defining characteristic of shar-peis.
The Royal Dutch Association of Veterinarians (RDAV), a key representative body for the profession in the Netherlands, supports the government's plan.
"The RDAV has been lobbying for years for tackling this type of problem, and sees this as the only correct decision to prevent future animal suffering," the organization said in a press release.