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Breeding Beyond Dogs' Limits?

Updated: Jun 23, 2023


© Naturewatch Foundation 2022 Registered Charity (England & Wales) 1039679

Canine fertility clinics: the latest UK dog breeding phenomenon. The number of businesses selling breeding procedures and related services for people who breed dogs has increased rapidly in recent years. A surge in pandemic puppy buying and legal uncertainty have helped fertility clinics to flourish. The impacts are being keenly felt by many, especially dogs and their offspring. Whilst some businesses are operating within the law to provide a specialist service, much of the sector is entirely unregulated and unaccountable.

The report by Naturewatch Foundation report briefly examines the canine fertility clinic sector in the UK and outlines findings from Naturewatch Foundation’s survey for veterinary professionals. It also suggests a way forward so that we can begin to tackle the challenges posed by this new sector.

Key findings from the survey include:

• 98% of veterinary professionals are concerned about canine fertility clinics.

• Most veterinary professionals think that commonly advertised canine fertility procedures should only be performed by veterinary surgeons and, in some cases, veterinary nurses.

• 94% of veterinary professionals think that dogs used for breeding should have an annual fitness to breed assessment with a vet.

• Less than a quarter of veterinary professionals support the introduction of an exemption order as a method of regulation.

• Veterinary professionals are seeing the impact of canine fertility clinics in practice.

Why are people concerned about canine fertility clinics?

2.1 Lack of veterinary involvement

At least some of the services offered by canine fertility clinics are acts of veterinary surgery. Under the Veterinary Surgeons Act 1966, only a registered veterinary surgeon may practise veterinary surgery.

There are exceptions to this to enable other professionals to perform certain acts, but it is the norm for such acts to be expressly exempted in law.

‘Veterinary surgery’ includes:

• the diagnosis of diseases in, and injuries to, animals including tests performed on animals for diagnostic purposes

• the giving of advice based upon such diagnosis

• the medical or surgical treatment of animals

• the performance of surgical operations on animals.

This definition in the Veterinary Surgeons Act 1966 is broad but there is certainty that taking a blood sample, making a diagnosis, and performing transcervical artificial insemination on a dog are considered acts of veterinary surgery. Registered veterinary nurses may draw blood under the direction of a vet. Some businesses are providing additional veterinary services that they do not advertise publicly, including operations such as caesarean sections and cherry eye removal. Again, registered veterinary surgeons are not always involved. Personnel who are performing acts of veterinary surgery unlawfully are clearly putting dog health and welfare at risk. However, the RCVS does not have powers to regulate or investigate unregistered personnel. Instead, this falls to Trading Standards or the police.

2.2 Unethical breeding

The sector has a strong association with facilitating the breeding of breeds and types of dogs who typically suffer from poor health and welfare, particularly dogs with brachycephaly.

A concern is that a large portion of the sector exists to help people breed from dogs who are otherwise unable to mate or whelp due to their anatomy, physiology and/or pre-existing health conditions, which raises ethical concerns. In addition, some businesses are using assisted breeding procedures to not only overcome dogs’ inability to reproduce, but to help clients breed increasingly extreme ‘versions’ of dogs. Recent extreme trends include ‘fluffy’ Frenchies, ‘fluffy’ pugs, ‘big rope’ Frenchies, ‘big rope’ English bulldogs, ‘pocket’ bullies, and ‘micro’ bullies, amongst others. In these cases, breeding procedures are being used irresponsibly to facilitate the most extreme examples of selective breeding for aesthetics.

Some dogs’ conformation and physical features are so exaggerated it is difficult to regard this kind of breeding as anything but animal cruelty, given the almost inevitable health and welfare challenges those dogs will suffer from throughout their lives. Perhaps most concerning of all is that some of these dogs appear to be being kept or sold on as future breeding animals, which raises questions about how far some people are prepared to push dogs.

2.3 Illegal or irresponsible use of medicines

Some businesses supply and administer categories of veterinary and unlicensed medicines that they are not authorised to. Of particular concern is the use of POM-V medicines, such as oxytocin, to interfere with or accelerate canine reproduction, and the misuse of antibiotics. Veterinary medicines classified as POM-V are heavily controlled and may only be prescribed by a registered veterinary surgeon. Misuse poses serious risks to animal and human health and raises questions about where unqualified people are getting their illegal supply from.

2.4 Criminality

Some parts of the sector have links to other forms of criminality. This includes serious organised crime and other animal welfare offending, such as illegal cosmetic mutilations including ear cropping and tail docking. Some businesses also have links to the hugely exploitative illegal puppy trade.

2.5 Impact on the public

There is a tendency for businesses to display or refer to unofficial accreditations and/or qualifications in their advertising. It is unclear whether the client base of clinics appreciate that these are often not markers of quality and do not qualify personnel to perform acts of veterinary surgery. These should largely be regarded as marketing tools that have the potential to mislead the public into believing that businesses are offering a safe and legitimate service. More broadly, there is a risk of public perception of ethical and acceptable breeding being undermined by clinics that do not prioritise health, welfare and temperament.

2.6 Impact on the veterinary profession

Registered veterinary professionals are seeing impacts in practice and will be expected to continue to deal with the aftermath of avoidable, irresponsible breeding decisions. This could impact the morale of a profession that is already under significant pressure.

The veterinary profession is also at risk of being undermined by canine fertility clinics that provide services they should not, particularly if clients and members of the public begin to perceive that providers of veterinary services do not require a high level of skill and training. Registered veterinary professionals train for many years; by contrast, fertility courses typically last a matter of days or even hours.

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