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Is Love Blind? When Pets Suffer Due to Exaggerated Features

Extreme breeding and ignorance of proper handling are often to blame for pets’ deaths.

Mar 15, 2019

Large dogs like the Dogue de Bordeaux (French mastiff) increasingly suffer from joint problems, like many other large, heavy dogs; the short skulls of tiny Chihuahuas can lead to airway issues.

Large dogs like the Dogue de Bordeaux (French mastiff) increasingly suffer from joint problems, like many other large, heavy dogs; the short skulls of tiny Chihuahuas can lead to airway issues.
Image Credit: picture alliance/Soeren Stache

Learning from a sample: Achim Gruber with students.

Learning from a sample: Achim Gruber with students.
Image Credit: Nadine Borau

When Professor Achim Gruber makes the first cut with his scalpel on the table in one of the tiled necropsy labs, he often reveals a long story of animal suffering.

“After their deaths, the animals tell me quite a bit about their lives: how they lived, what they suffered from, and what ultimately killed them,” says Gruber, 52

Together with his colleagues and students of veterinary medicine, Gruber, who is the head of the Institute of Veterinary Pathology located in Berlin’s Düppel district, performs several post-morten exams a day. They include up to 1,000 pets each year, but elephants, Indian rhinoceroses, and animal celebrities like the panda Bao-Bao and hippopotamus Bulette from the Berlin zoo have also wound up on his table.

The post-mortem exam or necropsy is often commissioned by practicing veterinarians or desperate owners who want to know the cause of death of a beloved pet. But Gruber is also called to act as an expert in court, when the results of his necropsy can help clarify whether the animal was neglected or abused, and whether a crime has been committed. There are also cases that involve large sums of money. “German shepherds can sell for as much as several hundred thousand euros per animal to buyers in China,” Gruber says. “If anything happens to an animal like that, the amount in dispute in court can soon reach the price of a single-family home.”

“Scientific interest is the primary focus of our necropsies, along with training our students,” says Gruber, who is originally from the German region of Westphalia and for the past six years has been the dean of research at the Department of Veterinary Medicine as well. In 2006, when carrier pigeons in Berlin began dying off for no apparent reason, researchers at the Institute of Veterinary Pathology and avian experts from Freie Universität discovered a previously completely unknown killer parasite.

From Human to Animal

Finding evidence of “zoonotic” diseases – illnesses that can be transmitted from animals to humans and vice versa – is also part of the pathologist’s duties. Gruber still recalls the case of a girl who brought her dead chinchilla to him in hopes that he would be able to do something for the animal after all. He couldn’t, of course, but he did figure out what had killed the chinchilla. Gruber noticed a cold sore in the corner of the girl’s mouth. She had probably given the animal a loving kiss and inadvertently infected it with the form of herpes that causes cold sores. Most pets are completely immune, but in chinchillas and rabbits, exposure to the virus can trigger a deadly inflammation of the brain.

Mixed-breed dog Trüffel also contracted a deadly infection. He had lost a lot of weight over the course of several weeks, and various treatments were tried, all unsuccessful. In the end, the owners had to put him to sleep. With a detective’s instincts, Gruber and his students identified the cause during the post-mortem exam: tuberculosis. “I called the owner and asked, who in your household is coughing?” the veterinary pathologist recalls. “She answered, Grandpa has a cough because he was such a heavy smoker.” It was a fatal misdiagnosis. After an examination by the public health authorities, it became clear that the man had a case of “open” tuberculosis, and he had infected the dog.

Gruber has memorialized cases like these from his professional practice in a book, entitled Das Kuscheltierdrama (The Pet Drama). “My goal is to raise awareness of these kinds of risks in the relationship between humans and animals,” he explains, “and to offer explanations because there’s a lot the public doesn’t know.”

By now, the word is out that certain breeding practices – in the case of dogs and cats, for example – entail extreme suffering for the animals. These forms of selective breeding are something Gruber takes very seriously.

Hardly any other animal has shared such a close bond with humans, and over such a long time, as dogs, which have been our trusty companions for more than 20,000 years. Up until the mid-19th century, dogs were kept for certain purposes, such as hunting, guarding, or to pull sleds or track buried avalanche victims.

“It wasn’t until 170 years ago that we started breeding many dogs solely for an extravagant look or beauty,” Gruber explains. “Suddenly, a dog didn’t have a working function anymore. It was kept as a status symbol, or to keep people company. More and more people wanted to have a certain animal based on looks alone, too. That was the start of a dramatic development that has continued right up to the present day.”

Gruber has seen many of these animals on his necropsy table, among them extremely short-snouted pugs and French bulldogs, which are increasingly dying of heatstroke in the summer because they can no longer pant properly. “According to a survey of owners, a quarter of these animals try to sleep sitting up at night for fear of suffocating when they lie down,” Gruber says.

Violating the Spirit of Animal Welfare Laws

The blame for this suffering rests with humans. Take Sphynx cats, which get cold faster due to their complete lack of hair, are susceptible to certain skin diseases, and cannot find their way around easily without whiskers. Or dachshunds, which have been bred for a certain body shape that leaves them prone to slipped disks and paraplegia. There are also Great Danes and Irish wolfhounds, whose extreme size puts them at increasing risk of bone cancer.

The list of symptoms due to breeding is long – too long, as Gruber says, “It’s a scandal what we do to many pets.” Susceptibility to hip dysplasia, certain tumors, or allergies and a large number of other issues in many breeds are due chiefly to unfavorable genes, which means they are consequences of breeding. These problems can cause the affected animals to suffer, often for years, and also cause strain on their owners in the form of care and veterinary expenses. It is not uncommon for the animal to wind up in a shelter, or even to be euthanized.

Gruber also takes a critical view of the current fad for “merle” or “tiger” coloring in the coats of collies, Australian shepherds, and many other dog breeds. These map-like gray-and-white pied patterns often go hand in hand with a striking light eye color. While the combination is very appealing indeed, it is based on a genetic defect that can also leave the dogs hard of hearing or deaf and cause other problems.

“As far back as 50 years ago, studies warned against breeding dogs for these traits, since about half of them would be unable to swim, or to swim well, as a result of this ‘pretty’ genetic defect,” Gruber says. “Would we accept defective functionality as a trade-off for a nicer color in something like a watch, or a car?” To Gruber, this is another example that beauty in the eye of the beholder can come at the expense of animals’ health. And that is a clear violation of the spirit of animal welfare laws

Section 11 b of the German Animal Welfare Act namely bans any animal breeding in which pain, suffering, malformations, and harm to animals’ health are deliberately accepted. So in that case, how can it be that certain forms that cause disease and extreme breeds are still being bred in Germany?

Gruber explains that another factor is the fact that “official enforcement of the law is still completely inadequate.” He believes the best solution is broad-based public awareness and a shift in perceptions for the animals’ sake. “If people know the kind of suffering that is bred right into these animals, then hopefully that will also dampen demand for animals that are bred for extravagant looks or supposed beauty and are susceptible to health problems and diseases. Here, as elsewhere, it is buyers who determine the market, and that market obviously suffers today from a lack of information, sensitivity, and sense of responsibility.”

Institute of Veterinary Pathology at Freie Universität Berlin

Veterinary pathology is the study of illness in animals. Those wishing to enter the profession must complete not only veterinary training, but also a five-year continuing education program to become specialized veterinarians.

Ten researchers work at the Institute of Veterinary Pathology at Freie Universität Berlin, located in the Düppel district, among them Professor Achim Gruber, the head of the institute, and Professor Robert Klopfleisch. They also train students of veterinary medicine and equine sciences.

The students spend six semesters learning about the causes, mechanisms, and diagnosis of all the common and major animal diseases. In addition to lectures, the curriculum also includes practical exercises: necropsies and microscopic studies. Every year, the institute performs postmortem examinations of more than 1,000 pets and livestock animals, along with many zoo and wild animals.

Biopsy diagnosis is an even larger field of work in animal pathology. About 8,000 tissue samples from living animals are examined under a microscope for pathological changes there each year. These samples come from animals whose symptoms are unclear. The results can offer insight into the nature of the change – if a tumor is present, for example – and what treatment options may be available.

This text originally appeared in German on February 23, 2019, in the Tagesspiegel newspaper supplement published by Freie Universität.

Further Information

Prof. Dr. Achim Gruber, Department of Veterinary Medicine, Freie Universität Berlin, Tel.: +49 30 838 62440, Email: Achim.Gruber@fu-berlin.de