I got strep throat almost every year as a kid, and it always seemed to strike around Valentine's Day. For me, the injustice of missing out on swapping paper hearts and candies with my friends at school was tempered by lying on the couch with my dog, Katie, and watching the Westminster Dog Show. But had I known then that Westminster--and the dog-breeding industry that it props up--share the blame for the mutilation and deaths of millions of dogs each year, I would have changed the channel faster than you can say "Sesame Street."
Back then, I had no idea that the snub-nosed bulldogs and pugs prancing around the ring may have been gasping for breath the whole time because these breeds' unnaturally shortened airways make exercise and sometimes even normal breathing difficult. I didn't know that the "wiener dogs" who made me laugh as their little legs tried to keep up may have eventually suffered from disc disease or other back problems because dachshunds are bred for extremely long spinal columns. I didn't learn until much later that because of inbreeding and breeding for distorted physical features, approximately one in four purebred dogs suffers from serious congenital disorders such as crippling hip dysplasia, blindness, deafness, heart defects, skin problems and epilepsy.
I remember feeling shocked when I learned that Doberman pinschers' ears naturally flop over, and that their ears only stand up because they are cut and bound with tape when the dogs are puppies. And I felt sick to my stomach when I discovered that cocker spaniels have beautiful, long, flowing tails, but American Kennel Club (AKC) breed standards call for their tails to be amputated down to nubs. The American Veterinary Medical Association says that these procedures "are not medically indicated nor of benefit to the patient" and they "cause pain and distress."
I did know that there were dogs and cats in animal shelters who needed homes. In fact, I begged my parents to take me to our local shelter all the time so that I could visit the animals and perhaps convince my parents to adopt one. But like many people, I hadn't made the connection that every time someone buys a purebred dog from a breeder or a pet store, a dog in a shelter--a loving animal whose life depends on being adopted--loses his or her chance at a home.
Westminster seemed like harmless entertainment to me back then, but now I know that it's deadly for dogs in animal shelters. The AKC knowingly contributes to animal overpopulation. Every year, hundreds of thousands of dogs in shelters must be euthanized because the AKC encourages breeders to produce litter after litter of puppies in hopes of winning show titles. Many of these dogs will go on to have litters of their own, exacerbating the overpopulation crisis. Others end up homeless themselves: About one-quarter of dogs in shelters are purebreds.
Dog shows also encourage viewers to go out and buy purebred dogs like the ones they see on TV from breeders or pet stores. This impulse buying robs shelter dogs of homes, and even more dogs end up homeless when overwhelmed people discover that the adorable puppy they bought ruins carpets, needs expensive vaccinations and food and requires their constant attention.
My own parents succumbed to the lure of purebreds: They purchased Katie from a breeder. Katie was an exceptional dog and my best friend, but it saddens me to think that other loving dogs waiting behind bars in shelters missed out on a good home because we thought we needed a certain breed of puppy.
Thankfully, some things have changed. After Katie passed away, my parents adopted a lovable mutt from the local shelter. I haven't had strep throat since I was a teenager. And if the dreaded illness strikes again, you'll find me cuddling on the couch with my rescued dog, Pete, watching movies--not Westminster.
Lindsay Pollard-Post is a staff writer for The PETA Foundation, 501 Front St., Norfolk, VA 23510; http://www.PETA.org.