The tl;dr version: if a dog is cute, it is also probably miserable, and breeding is responsible for both.
Way back in the day, all dogs were basically wolves. Researchers theorize that some of these wild dogs began following people around, and learned that in doing so they could score free food scraps and a little insulation from the competition. Repeat this exposure, and add the interim of about 15,000 years, and you come out with the modern version of Man’s Best Friend we know and love today. Except that humans intervened with their own controlled version of selective breeding in order to concentrate certain characteristics–behavioral and physical–that they found useful, or simply funnier to look at.
Along with all these traits that dial up the cute factor or make certain dogs employable, come a host of health problems that no amount of treatment can cure. By laughing at nature and treating an entire species like their own Build-A-Bear creation, purebred dogs today are a living mockery of natural selection, adorable abominations prized precisely for the features that leave them utterly dependant on their human caretakers.
So read on, and learn about all the most popular breeds that you can try to rescue from a shelter, but you can’t rescue from their sad genetic destiny.
10. German Shepherd
As its name suggests, German Shepherds were bred by a 19th century German kennel club as working dogs, which generally means they were employed to herd other animals. German Shepherds are something like the elite squad of herding dogs, due in part to their great capacity for training, and their incredible loyalty to human owners. These same features have fed their status as a favored breed among K-9 units and other law enforcement applications, and have generally made them among the most popular and fondly regarded dog breeds in the United States and around the world.
They are also prone to hip dysplasia, a condition which causes the bones of their hind legs to abrasively grind in their sockets. It is as painful as it sounds, irreversible, and tends to gradually worsen until their hind legs become entirely immobile. It is also congenital, which means that onset can begin as early as four months, and the dogs remain at risk for their entire lives.
While scrupulous breeders can screen for hip problems with a simple X-ray and avoid allowing the trait to be passed on, demand for purebred German Shepherds rewards puppies at a greater premium than integrity, so even the highly selective K-9 programs end up having to retire their dogs early to give them relief from the pain.
And it isn’t just the legacy of genetics that cripples these unshakingly loyal work dogs. German Shepherd (actually, just about every herding dog) puppies are particularly vulnerable, because calorically-dense puppy chow can cause them to grow too fast for their hips to keep up, leading to poorly proportioned adult dogs with crippling hip pain. Similarly, when they don’t receive enough exercise during their formative years, the same developmental imbalance occurs, and dysplasia all but guaranteed.
That’s right: not only do we not know how to feed ourselves properly, but we routinely destroy the health of our hardest working dog breeds by overfeeding and under-exercising them until they literally cannot walk. But they will never hold it against you, because they are conditioned by more than a century of breeding to be happy just to have a human around for company.
9. Huskies (aka Houdini Dogs)
Siberian Huskies probably look more like their wolf ancestors than any other popular dog–while still being adorable. Like shepherd varieties, these dogs were bred as workers–specifically, sled dogs. The upshot of this is that they are extremely sociable, tolerant of both humans and other dogs, and seldom prone to violent or aggressive behavior.
Of course, it takes a pretty vigorous metabolism to haul a laden sled all day, so when Huskies aren’t preoccupied with that task, they tend to be insanely hyperactive. Their incredible energy level means they require a lot more exercise than other dogs–even other working breeds like shepherd varieties. Without a reliable outlet, Huskies will create their own workout, which usually takes the form of breaking out of wherever they are being kept, like coked-up escape artists.
This is why Huskies are commonly known as “Hairy Houdinis” among those who work with the breed: there seems to be no enclosure that can contain them for long. They will jump over, dig under, or chew and Hulk-smash through any fence with equal zeal. Tying them up is a fool’s errand, and they laugh off “invisible” electric fences like Zeus watching the hapless antics of so many mortals from his throne on Mount Olympus.
Of course, keeping them inside is little better, as their thirst for freedom quickly gets converted into an appetite for destruction. If this is starting to sound like a Catch-22, bear in mind that working Huskies traditionally get their own house, where the whole sledding pack lives and frolics together, wearing themselves out through classic social behaviors and dominance games, or else getting rigged up and pulling a sled until they are tired.
That socialization is an important feature of life for happy pack animals like Huskies. As in, as necessary as food and water for a healthy Husky. All that exercise isn’t just a matter of burning off energy; they really, really need to know who is boss (Alpha), and hunger for the kind of constant interaction (especially with other dogs) that comes from having a large family or pack. Failing to account for this, many owners find that their dogs vacillate between destructive hyperactivity and lethargic doggie depression. Turns out people aren’t the only ones who stand to benefit from animal assisted therapy.
Since Husky puppies are the cutest, and the most energetic of the lot, it is common for exasperated owners to quickly get overwhelmed by their behavior, to say nothing of their endless appetite for play, and the high-maintenance requirements of that gorgeous Husky fur. This is why Huskies are often given up to shelters or simply abandoned.
Of course, no matter where they end up living, Huskies are also predisposed to primary glaucoma: a hereditary eye disease that causes extreme pain and blindness. As an autoimmune disease, this is essentially programmed into their doggie DNA, and cannot be effectively prevented–except by breeders who screen for the condition.
8. Great Danes (aka The Hearbreak Breed)
Great Danes’ nickname is, sadly, well-earned.
Prized for their regal stature, their docile disposition, and their devout loyalty, Great Danes are your classic gentle giants. Though they aren’t the only massive dog breed, Great Danes are easily the most popular and recognizable variety of oversized housepets.
Then again, these dogs have a notoriously poor sense of physical self-awareness, and can quickly wreak havoc in houses even without misbehaving–again, just because they are so incredibly big. That is why, frequently, their friendliness is rewarded by getting turfed to shelters and pounds once they get too large to fit safely in their old homes.
For those who do manage to find a permanent home, the aforementioned heartbreak is still inevitable. Great Danes (and their gigantic peers) live significantly shorter lives than other dog breeds, usually just 7-10 years, essentially because they are literally too big to go on living. The DNA of Danes is stretched to its limit in pushing them to grow so large, which means their skeletal structure, cardiovascular system, muscles, and especially hearts are under constant strain just to keep them going.
Yet heart problems are not the leading killer of Great Danes. Their loyalty and sociability means they usually prefer to stay indoor near their owners, which is not generally conducive to play or exercise, even if it does make for good company. Too much lying around, combined with a poor diet, is one of the many paths leading to bloat, in which the dog’s stomach over-expands and puts pressure on other organs, or even gets flipped around and blocks blood from returning to the heart entirely. This can happen very quickly with bloat, and generally leads to the dog going into shock and dying.
It is a horrible genetic probability, visibly painful, and although proper diet and regular exercise can mitigate this risk, it is still the most common way Great Danes expire.
There are several competing theories to explain the origin of these dogs, but the only consistent feature seems to be that people delighted in having tiny dogs around, and needed them to survive regardless of house size. Basically, small = cute. But while Great Danes as a breed come devastatingly close to being the canine embodiment of purest love, Chihuahuas trend closer to an incarnation of hateful spite.
In plainer terms, chihuahuas are the most consistently aggressive breed of dog. This is controversial in some circles, because most historical studies of canine aggression focus on ER admissions and fatalities resulting from dog attacks, and tend to point toward pit bull breeds as the worst. These kinds of studies may put up impressive-looking data, but they are inherently biased toward dogs large enough to inflict fatal injuries, or otherwise oblige victims to seek medical attention.
As any veterinarian can attest, small dogs are far and away more likely to bite, and chihuahuas lead the pack. Because their needly little teeth hurt, but do little real damage, their bites go under reported, and owners are free to laugh off the behavior as an “outsized personality.”
More apt would be acknowledging it as small dog syndrome.
Owners routinely fail to socialize their small dogs properly, carrying around their chihuahuas (and other tiny breeds) in handbags, pampering them, and generally encouraging them to bond to one person and lash out at everyone else. Not only does this create a false sense of dominance, it makes it all but impossible to condition the dog not to be a yippy little turd later on.
While they still have enough proper dog genes in them to socialize and even become attached to their owners, they are fiercely territorial and protective of their adopted pack. Unlike Great Danes, chihuahuas do seem more self-aware of their size, and compensate for it by being almost permanently defensive.
Human-biting aside, chihuahuas are unambiguously the most destructive breed, making them an expensive investment even without racking up medical bills. From soiling floors that haven’t been dog-proofed, to chewing up furniture and digging through gardens like it’s their job, chihuahuas manage to cost owners more over their lifetime than even the largest breeds.
Labrador retrievers–purebred or in mixes–are by far the most popular dog breed in the United States.
They are friendly, playful, obedient, and have a naturally short coat (relative to other breeds) that makes them easy to groom and maintain. Unlike most dogs, labs are actually enthusiastic and capable swimmers (they actually have webbed feet), and will happily join you in the pool with little encouragement, although it is still best to give them some accommodation for their safety. By most conventional measures, they really are the standard-bearer for domesticated dogs.
Meanwhile, in veterinary clinics, labradors of every shade and stripe are notorious for being admitted for “foreign body ingestion,” otherwise known as swallowing stuff they shouldn’t have. If you have a lab, this has happened. There is simply no question. Sometimes, an owner will catch the pooch in the act; sometimes, it isn’t until symptoms manifest that it becomes clear emergency care is necessary.
Labrador stories involve them swallowing just about any object they can fit down their gullets, but the classics, like some perverse Dr. Seuss story, are rocks and socks.
This self-destructive behavior is partly learned, partly enabled, and typically starts during the extended puppy years. Without a strict, consistent diet and feeding habits, these hapless pups just can’t help themselves, and no amount of time at the vet’s office seems to discourage them from trying again at the next possible opportunity.
Labs also have a propensity to develop enlarged spleens (hemangiosarcoma) and stomach bleeding (hemoabdomen). While both can be symptoms of cancer, more often than not in labs, it indicates the presence of benign but painful tumors. In both cases, labs start to really pump the breaks in old age, experience pain moving, and stop eating–which tends to create its own set of problems over time..
5. Dachshunds (Wiener Dogs)
You don’t have to buy your dog’s love, because you’ve already done that by buying a dog–dogs are love. Despite this, we tend to treat dogs like small children, who will throw tantrums and resent us if we send them to bed without dessert. Due in part to this mistake, obesity is about as common among dogs as it is among humans, but the sublimely comical dachshund may suffer the most from overfeeding.
Dachshunds were bred in Germany to hunt badgers and other ground-dwelling critters (the name literally means “badger-hound”). Their elongated body shape enables them to scurry through tunnels and underground in pursuit of their quarry. This history is reflected in their temperament: dachshunds can give chihuahuas a run for their money in terms of size-agnostic aggressiveness.
The sausage shape of this breed is also particularly exacerbated by obesity. Dachshunds are extremely prone to slipped or herniated disks, which is when the cushioning disks between their vertebrae slip out of place, and press on the spinal nerves. Besides causing excruciating pain, this condition can also lead to nerve damage and paralysis.
Of course, proper exercise and a disciplined diet can help mitigate the hereditary factors working against them. A lifetime of running, jumping, and bounding around with abandon as dachshund do will eventually takes its toll, but responsible owners can certainly do their part to make up for this ticking timebomb. Yet something about giving food to an animal also shaped like food delights dachshund owners more than the promise of preventing paralysis. Dogs tend to fare very poorly on diets because of their delicate nutritional needs, meaning that there really is no substitute for prevention.
Overfeeding certainly increases the risk of a slipped disk (and especially the recurrence of problems), but the reality is that with wiener dogs, it is only a matter of time before it occurs regardless of fitness. Veterinarians generally advise that dachshund owners plan on paying for at least one spinal surgery in the lifetime of their pet, easily a $3-4,000 premium on top of adoption fees and all the other routine expenses.
From beagles to bassets to blue ticks, hound dogs are all variations on a theme: hunting dogs. Hounds may be the oldest variety of working dogs bred specifically to support human labor. Some types were specialized to track prey by scent; others selected for their stamina in chasing down a quarry. In general, hounds are intelligent but less obedient than other breeds, as their historical occupations entailed a great deal of independence they remain reluctant to cede in captivity.
Hounds are also prone to developing a wide variety of infections.
The features that make them prized hunting companions and particularly effective trackers also turn them into walking petri dishes for bacteria. Basset hounds, the ones like Droopy, with the textbook “puppy dog eyes,” are especially given to eye infections, as their soggy sockets excel at culturing noxious bacteria. The trademark oversized, floppy ears and loose jowls that distinguish most hounds also trap a lot of dirt, moisture, and bacteria.
Responsible owners must take on a secondary maintenance regimen, in addition to the usual duties of maintaining dogs’ fur and feet. Hounds need regular cleansing and disinfecting of the skin folds around their lips, to prevent dermatitis, and drops to keep their ears from culturing disease-ridden scum.
Like all purebreds, though, this vigilant approach to hound hygiene can only mitigate the already compromised immune system that comes from decades of inbreeding and genetic redundancy. Hounds in general suffer from immunodeficiency that, in combination with their physical susceptibility to bacterial infections, make them frequent visitors to the vet.
3. Golden Retrievers
This breed is another American icon: loyal, profoundly intelligent, easily trainable, great around kids, and particularly effective as seeing eye guides and other service occupations. Golden retrievers have been around for over a century, and in that time have performed acts of heroism to rival our most storied legends, and more than earned the designation as Man’s Best Friend for dogs everywhere.
Tragically, this once hearty breed has been encountering shorter and shorter lifespans since the mid-1970s. Studies are trying to pinpoint the cause, but in general, it seems that golden retrievers have suddenly become extremely susceptible to cancer.
While all dogs are certainly vulnerable to various cancers, over the last 40-odd years, golden retrievers have shot to the top of the at-risk list for this spectrum of diseases. Average lifespans have dropped nearly 50 percent, from the high teens to just nine or ten years. Like their purebred cousins, golden retrievers are also given to hip dysplasia, obesity (from overfeeding), gum disease, and the occasional autoimmune disorder, but cancer has suddenly become a spectre hanging over the whole line.
Given the strength of research into other areas of canine health like diet and lifestyle, the sudden surge in the incidence of cancer in this particular breed is baffling to scientists, and devastating to owners.
Treatment of cancer in dogs tends to be roughly the same as for humans–that is to say, really, really rough. The situation is not helped by the curious cognitive dissonance among pet owners that sees animals as part of the family when they are healthy, but often treats them as expendable when their care becomes expensive. Cancer, having no real cure, is about as expensive as it gets, so it often becomes a death sentence before it really becomes deadly out of pure economics.
Another marvel of German engineering, schnauzers are a time-tested, all-purpose dog. They are capable rat-catchers, amiable companions, vigilant guards, and readily bond with their owners and families alike. The name is a colloquialism meaning “mustache,” a reference to the tufty fur surrounding the snouts of these dogs.
As a bonus, German breeders were obliging enough to prepare this endearing dog in three distinct sizes: miniature, standard, and giant.
Of course, the people who brought us Goldilocks and the Three Bears didn’t do all their homework perfectly, and the poor schnauzer ends up the victim.
Schnauzers frequently fall prey to a little-know yet distressingly common condition known as IMHA, or Immune-Mediated Hemolytic Anemia. Essentially, IMHA causes dogs to become allergic to their own red blood cells and die.
It is an autoimmune disease, switched on without warning by some latent genetic code. This makes it difficult to screen individuals for the condition, and all but impossible to predict if and when it will suddenly take hold. The early symptoms are innocuous enough: changes in behavior, a lack of energy or appetite, maybe some bloody urine. But the generic early stages belie the horror show happening inside the animal. There is no real cure, although blood transfusions, steroids, and other various medications can somewhat hold the symptoms at bay, some of the time.
Although technically it is possible for just about any dog to develop IMHA, it tends to affect smaller breeds more often, and schnauzers the most. The severity of the condition always eventually makes it painful and deadly, and in the veterinary world it is pretty much like saying Voldemort’s name.
1. Brachycephalic breeds (aka snorty dogs, squish faced dogs, etc)
If all the prior entries don’t have you scratching your head over the continued practice of dog breeding, then you’ll just be delighted by the long, sad story of the brachycephalic breeds.
Pugs, bulldogs, boxers, some terriers and spaniels–the large and diverse brachycephalic club started its life as far back as the ancient Chinese and Roman empires. They were generally bred for one of two, non-mutually exclusive purposes: to fight, and to provide companionship.
Flat-faced dogs excelled at fighting because their lack of a snout made it harder to grip and rip their opponents, prolonging the fight and making for more vibrant carnage. They also made for exceptional companion animals, because they looked and sounded funny, and humans delight in the misery of lesser creatures. Actually, Germans gave as a word for that, too: schadenfreude. That was also probably the creation of dog breeders.
As their incessant snorting suggests, many of these dogs cannot breathe properly because they have had their noses and airways bred into an almost vestigial state, even though they still need them to breathe. This is known as Brachycephalic Obstructive Airway Syndrome, and it makes these dogs easily exhausted, to the point that they can simply faint during exercise from lack of oxygen.
But the insult of their existence goes further.
Purebred bulldogs can no longer give birth naturally. They literally cannot give birth without dying. Every bulldog puppy you see is delivered via C-Section, because these dogs had their hips bred into narrow fragility and their heads ballooned to cartoonish proportions, and they are physically unable to deliver their own puppies. C-Sections are not the preferred choice or most vets, or (presumably) their patients, but since the alternative is a gruesome and guaranteed death, the circle of life continues for bulldogs.
Bulldogs are so prone to complications during pregnancy, their breeders just about have to keep their veterinarians on speed dial. The entire gestation period has to be carefully planned out, from timing the insemination to ensuring veterinary surgeons will be available to perform the C-Section delivery, or all that money goes to waste on a litter of stillborn bull pups.
Animal rights groups and veterinarians’ organizations around the world have protested against the continued breeding of bulldogs and other brachycephalics, even demanding that it be outlawed as a form of abuse. Others argue that the cycle can be reversed by breeding practical characteristics–like functioning nasal passages and viable birth canals–back into these dog varieties.
While this fight rages on, breeders charge thousands of dollars a head for their trouble, and snorting dogs remain as popular as ever.