“Burn the Witch!” It’s one of the more printable Facebook comments directed at film-maker Jemima Harrison. Her offence? A 2008 documentary Pedigree Dogs Exposed revealing the extent to which some breeders unwittingly perpetuate catastrophic health problems, often by mating closely related dogs in the quest for purity, or by breeding from champion sires that aren’t free of disease.
Her documentary had an extraordinary impact that continues to resound across the pedigree dog world. The BBC dropped coverage of Crufts after 42 years, the Dog Advisory Council was established and the Kennel Club amended 78 breed standards, the aesthetic criteria to which breeders must aspire.
But what actual progress has been made in terms of dog welfare? That burning question is addressed in Harrison’s follow-up film this week. Worryingly, it is scarcely less devastating in its conclusions and will doubtless provoke lots more hate mail. In her house in a Wiltshire village, Harrison feels safe from even the most extreme of her abusers, and fittingly that’s on account of her nine rescue dogs, who raise a cacophony when anyone sets foot beyond the garden gate.
She’s a committed dog-lover, and indeed it was the death in 2003 of her beloved flat-coated retriever, Freddie, that sowed the seeds of Pedigree Dogs Exposed. Freddie died at 15, a ripe old age, but after his death she learnt that more than 50 per cent of flat-coats are diagnosed with cancer by the time they are eight. She wanted to know why. And the answer seemed to lie squarely in the way that flat-coats are bred.
Once I’m safely indoors, with her dogs’ curiosity in me finally sated, she shows me clips from her latest film. It introduces a pug called Cissy, whose tongue is too big for her mouth, and whose eye sockets are so shallow that under stress her eyes might actually pop out at any time.
Cissy’s problems are all too common among pugs. They’re a direct consequence of generations of selection by breeders to produce a flat face. Cissy also suffers from breathing problems now endemic among brachycephalic (short-headed) dogs, to such an extent that one of the world’s foremost experts in the condition, Dr Gerhard Oechtering of the University of Leipzig, believes that, ethically, people should simply stop breeding pugs. We see him operating on Cissy to restore her most basic physical need – the need to breathe – and learn that in 2010 the insurer Pet Plan paid out £1.5m for surgery to resolve breathing difficulties in dogs, and also cats.
Meanwhile, some breeders are tackling such problems themselves. In the film, Harrison interviews a “smart and brave” woman called Julie Evans, who has set the cat among the pigeons – if that’s not mixing metaphors – by importing, from the US, a dog called Fiona.
This is significant because way back in Fiona’s pedigree there was a pointer, who in 1973 was deliberately brought in to the bloodline to reintroduce a vital gene that had been bred out of dalmatians. It helps to moderate levels of uric acid, so dangerously high in some dalmatians that their bladders burst, resulting in certain, painful death. Yet for some in the British Dalmatian Club, a dalmatian with pointer ancestry is no more than a mongrel, and therefore unwelcome.
Despite this, in January last year the Kennel Club agreed to register Fiona as a dalmatian. And in November she had nine puppies. “Which hopefully means that the new gene is here to stay,” says Harrison, who credits the Kennel Club’s “amazing” concession, yet remains withering about the 139-year-old institution’s reactionary attitude to many other problems.
Whatever progress has been made since 2008, it hasn’t been in time to save many thousands of Cavalier King Charles spaniels from syringomyelia, a devastating condition effectively caused by their skulls being too small for their brains.
The latest research shows that by the age of six, syringomyelia is present in some 70 per cent of a breed that wasn’t even founded until the 1920s. “From creation to ruination in less than 100 years,” says Harrison of Cavalier King Charles spaniels, towards the end of the new film.
It’s a line she’s rather proud of, yet not at all happy to have had to utter. It also seems likely to unleash a fresh torrent of abuse. In 2008, the intensity of the hostility took her by surprise. This time she’s ready for it.
Pedigree Dogs Exposed: Three Years On is on Monday at 9pm on BBC4 and repeated at 11:00pm on Thursday 1 March on BBC HD
This is an edited version of an article in the issue of Radio Times magazine published 21 February 2012