Shelter Dogs, Purebreds, Westminster Kennel Club and Pedigree Dog Food

Westminster Kennel Club held its 136th annual dog show in Madison Square Gardens on February 13-14, 2012.  Amid the extensive press coverage of the event and the Best in Show winning Pekingese, much hullabaloo was covered by the press and in editorials regarding Westminster Kennel Club’s repudiation of its 24-year sponsor, Pedigree dog foods, because Pedigree’s ads, which encouraged adoption of shelter dogs, were deemed too depressing for the Westminster TV audience.  One of the advertisements Pedigree ran during past Westminster shows featured images of dogs sitting alone in shelters. Most of the featured dogs were mixed breeds, and the ads encouraged viewers to adopt dogs from shelters.

“The feedback we got from our primary audience was that they were seeing commercials that made them want to turn the channel,” Westminster spokesman and USA network on-air commentator David Frei told the Associated Press. He went on to say that the problem was with the Pedigree spots. “Show me an ad with a dog with a smile. Don’t shame me,” he said. “We told them [Pedigree] that and they ignored us.”

To be fair, Frei has often spoken of homeless dogs (including shelter dogs and mixed breed dogs) during his commentaries, and he has emphasized that the joy of any dog, purebred or mixed, is the companionship and pleasure it provides.  Nonetheless, his comments regarding Pedigree spawned a maelstrom of retaliatory editorials and press coverage condemning Frei and Westminster Kennel Club for being, at best, insensitive snobs, and at worst, elitists without compassion for millions of homeless animals.

I am in agreement with Westminster Kennel Club’s termination of Pedigree as a sponsor, not because  of any opinion on the ad campaign, but because Pedigree peddles an inferior quality, nutritionally suspect product that, in my opinion, should not be fed to any dog.  The first four ingredients of Pedigree’s adult maintenance dog food are whole ground corn, meat and bone meal, corn gluten meal, and animal fat (preserved with BHA and citric acid).   How many times on Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom did Marlin Perkins ever show us wolves, foxes and coyotes stealthily hunting corn?  Corn is not a natural food of canids.  In addition, BHA (butylated hydroxyanisole) is a controversial preservative.  The US National Institutes of Health report that BHA is reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen based on evidence of carcinogenicity in experimental animals.  Quality dog foods do not use BHA.  If Westminster Kennel Club is interested in promoting the welfare of dogs, Pedigree should not be its sponsor.

The plight of homeless animals is real.  This topic is too long to tackle in a single blog post, so this is going to be a series.  I will start with what the statistics say.

  • About 75 million dogs are owned in the United States (Pet Food Institute).
  • Approximately 2.5 million to 3.5 million dogs are relinquished to animal shelters every year.  25% of them are purebreds (NCPPSP).
  • Only 15% – 20% of dogs obtained by people come from reputable breeders (Ralston Purina and NCPPSP).
  • 10% – 20% of dogs obtained by people come from animal shelters and rescues (Ralston Purina and NCPPSP).
  • 2% – 10% of dogs are obtained by people from pet stores (Ralston Purina and NCPPSP).
  • More than 20% of people who relinquish dogs to shelters also adopted those dogs from shelters (NCPPSP).
  • The vast majority of dogs come from private individuals who are not breeders (acquaintances, family members and backyard breeders). (Ralston Purina and NCPPSP).
This means that somewhere between 50% – 73% of dogs obtained in this country come from backyard breeders, people who are not involved in the fancy (showing, obedience, tracking, agility, rally, etc.). These are the people advertising in the classified section of your local newspaper, on Craigslist and with roadside signs about puppies.  These are people who purchase Fluffy and Fido and decided to earn a little side money by breeding a litter of puppies whose parents have had no health or temperament screening and who have no idea what genetic defects they are foisting onto a new generation of dogs and owners.The problem is not responsible breeders (although the topic of responsible versus irresponsible breeders who are involved in the fancy will be the subject of a future post).  Responsible breeders screen buyers, have contracts, are always willing to take their dogs back and truly concern themselves with animal welfare.  They often work in rescue and take in foster dogs as well.

Even responsible breeders are not exempt from culpability.  We create the market that attracts people to irresponsible dog breeding for pecuniary gain.  Churning out puppies with low overhead for profit is the problem, and that is the problem whether it is a backyard breeder, a commercial breeder or a pet store.

Westminster Kennel Club should not shy away from those sad, little shelter dogs, because those dogs are our problem, too.  The fancy needs to take control of this dialogue and deal with the collateral damage we create while we run around Manhattan in formal wear to win a a giant, silver trophy with an impeccably manicured dog.  Dog people take great umbrage to the positions of organizations like the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS). But it is our inertia that creates the place for them to operate.  HSUS is a 200+ million dollar per year legislative machine.  It runs almost entirely on individual donations, donations from animal lovers who want to see animals receiving humane care.  If the dog fancy is to survive, we must take control of this debate.  Responsible breeders are in the best position to define what is humane care and what is not, and we must define those standards and be willing to demand accountability.
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