So many times I’ve heard it said – ‘crossbreeds are healthier than pedigrees.’ The argument is everywhere, but is it actually true?
From what snippets I’ve read online, pedigree dogs cost more to buy, maintain and insure, get sick more often and live shorter lives. Crossbreeds, on the other hand, have intelligence and health on their sides. Easier to acquire with good temperaments and longevity, these are the dogs to go for.
So far, I’ve found little info to the contrary, but surely pedigrees still rule supreme? You’d think so, bearing in mind that three quarters of the UK's nine million dogs are pure-bred.
It is true that a lack of genetic diversity has resulted in a higher incidence of inherited disorders in pure-bred dogs, something which many put down to inbreeding. Effectively, the pedigree gene pool is small, select and concentrated, making genetic disorders more likely.
That isn’t to say that all pedigree dogs are inherently unhealthy, only that some poorly bred examples may be predisposed to problems.
Of course, if parents are health-checked before they’re bred, the threat is lifted. I’m tempted to say it is more a matter of good breeding than anything else. In theory, so long as the parents are free of disorders, you would hope that the offspring, whether pedigree or crossed, would be free of them too.
The crossbreed gene pool, by contrast, is bigger and more dilute. This means that genetic disorders appear less often. That is not to say that crossbreeds are without their problems, only that the prevalence of these problems is lower in some cases.
Research indicates that, amongst other things, crossbreeds have a lower incidence of obesity, skin growths and ear infections than pedigree dogs. They are also less likely to suffer heart complaints and, generally speaking, have a longer life expectancy than their pure-bred friends, discounting maybe the Border Collie and Springer Spaniel whose life expectancies are similar to that of the crossbreed.
Until relatively recently, the hybrid enthusiasm that began after Pedigree Dogs Exposed in 2008 ruled the media’s (and much of the public’s) way of thinking, but scientists at the Royal Veterinary College have since suggested otherwise.
After analysing the data of 148,741 dogs, it was found that pedigrees and crossbreeds have roughly the same susceptibility to some of the most common conditions, including heart murmurs and problems with teeth and gums. While the findings did support that pedigrees have greater tendencies towards obesity, skin growths and ear infections, it found that degenerative joint disease was slightly more prevalent in crossbreeds.
Dr O’Neill concludes: There are some differences, but they are not overwhelming at a pure-bred level. [...] There is this image of crossbreeds as wonderful paragons of health. In fact, they are just crosses of pure-breds with combinations of the prevalences you find in their parent.
Of course, there is also the argument that the demand for 'designer dogs' with their unique looks and portmanteau names (i.e. Cavapoo, Puggle) is decreasing the overall health of crossbreeds by bringing together dogs that are genetically unsuited and thus produce inherently flawed offspring. In line with this demand, many crossbreeds are hugely expensive and go for prices way above what is demanded for a pedigree.
It was only the other day that I saw a disturbing image of a Pitbull x Dachshund, whose body could barely support the weight of its head. Bearing in mind that Dachshunds are known to suffer with spinal problems, it seemed the unhealthiest mix possible. Obviously, there are going to be massive extremes in breeding outcomes, but the argument still stands.
By no means should the crossbreed feel hard-done-by, however. There still remains overwhelming evidence in the inherent health of crosses with numerous studies, not dissimilar from that conducted by the RVC, showing a very different but equally convincing set of results.
Qualified vet, Pete Wedderburn, asserts that: Crossbreed dogs have a longer life, less illness, reduced veterinary costs and cheaper pet insurance. When you think about it, isn't it quite remarkable that so many people prefer pedigree dogs?
Many would confidently answer, yes. While you know what you're getting a bit better with pedigree dogs, the exclusivity and surprise of crossbreeds is something many people find appealing. Still, if both parents are known and health-checked, there remains a degree of forecasting and reassurance.
Moreover, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that crossbreeds might in fact be more intelligent than pure-breds, especially when it comes to spatial awareness and problem solving.
Researchers at Aberdeen University conducted an experiment that tested both pedigree and mixed dogs and rated their abilities out of 30. Overall, the crossbreed performed better, with an average score of 20, compared with the pedigree score of 18.
The Guide Dogs for the Blind Association also supports the theory; of the hundreds of dogs they produce and train every year, 80% of crossbreeds make the grade and become service dogs, compared with 65% of pedigrees. This is put down to good adaptability and temperament. Crossbreeds are also predicted to show greater resilience and encounter fewer health problems in their lives as service animals.
So, what is the verdict?
Who knows. It is clear that there are great variations between pedigree dogs and crossbreeds, just as there are between different breeds and individual dogs. It seems unfair tarring every dog with the same brush based purely on parentage and who is to definitively say which type of breeding is healthier? Do you selectively breed for certain traits (eugenics, many would argue), or do you allow nature to have more of a say?
Whatever you agree with, so long as your dog is happy and healthy, surely that is all that really matters?
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