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Why Hybrids Aren’t Mutts – and Why It Matters

By Dr. Patty Khuly

Goldendoodle with tongue out

I used to think hybrid breeds were all hype. I reckoned that people make too much of their dog’s breed. As if it matters that you have a Schnoodle, Double-doodle or Cocka-zhu – they’re all just glorified mutts, right?

To be even-handed, I’ve been known to say much the same thing about purebreds. Why focus on the differences? They’re all wonderful!

As the bumper sticker slogan goes, we should “embrace the diversity” in dogs the same way we should in our choice of friends, neighbors, and colleagues. But that doesn’t mean we should go out of our way to create more extremes.

My Position on Purebreds

Propagating a line of dogs that bears unique characteristics of a specific breed and that preserves its functionality and history can be a rewarding and humane endeavor. The thing is, it shouldn’t come at the expense of any animal’s health.

Too often we breed dogs as if our sole objective is to create a specific appearance. We behave as if the very point of bringing them into the world is to have them look like the breed standard the AKC has codified on paper and refined by picking winners in the show ring. (The AKC cannot judge a dog’s complete health – what we see in the show ring is, after all, only a snapshot in time, health-wise.)

When we breed with the primary intent of achieving perfection in appearance during an animal’s prime, we’re inevitably making allowances for imperfections in health that may arise later in life – or that may lead to devastating congenital abnormalities we might discount as the result of small litter sizes or neonatal deaths.

Which is how we get breeds with average lifespans less than eight years due to an astronomical incidence of cancer, and where virtually no dogs die of old age (Bernese Mountain Dog), breeds in which nearly all adults will develop a devastating heart disease later in life (Cavalier King Charles Spaniel), breeds where all adults carry a genetic mutation that leads to a thirty percent risk of forming urate bladder stones (Dalmatians), and breeds with a fifty percent chance of getting cancer by the time they’re eight (Flat-coated Retrievers).

Note here that I haven’t even started in on the dogs whose very appearance is linked to their health status, dogs who, by design, are diseased, such as the English Bulldog and respiration issues or Dachshunds and Frenchies with their spinal concerns. Then there’s the skin disease that plagues all bullies and the collapsing tracheas and periodontal disease inherent in Yorkies and Maltese (among other toy breed dogs).

The list is seemingly endless. And the AKC and its breed clubs’ position? It’s all the fault of the “irresponsible” breeders. If there were no irresponsible breeders there would be no major health concerns in our breeds they claim. Meanwhile, the AKC’s judges have pushed breeds to adopt more extreme conformations and, as an organization it’s perfectly willing to accept registration fees from puppy millers and pet stores without policing the dogs’ health in any way. They claim they can’t. So they don’t even try.

All of this means that our purebreds are only as good as the “papers” they come with, papers that say nothing beyond certifying that the deeds behind them belong to breeding dogs that had other “papers” whose parents had still other “papers.” And we have to take everyone’s word for the fact that all these documents honestly correspond to all of these dogs.

Given that the bulk of the purebreds sold in the U.S. come from commercial breeders (AKA puppy mills) who can’t even be trusted to offer bedding and water to their dogs, why do we trust that these dogs hail from the “healthy” one percent paraded in show rings? Sigh…

Enter the Hybrid

The hybrid was effectively created with this perennial mantra in mind: two great things taste better together. These so-called “designer dogs” were marketed as the best of both worlds: dogs whose very genetics transcend what’s currently possible in modern dogdom with the help of a scientific phenomenon known as “hybrid vigor.”

To be clear, hybrid vigor is indeed a thing. It’s a thing that happens when animals of similar but distinct species (like horses and donkeys) produce sterile offspring (like mules). Problem is, it doesn’t apply to animals within the same species. Therefore, there is no hybrid vigor in effect when we’re talking about a Goldendoodle or a Cockapoo.

Are hybrids better? Sure, some are. Some are also worse. They can showcase the best of both breeds along with the worst, and often at the same time.

Take the doodles as an example. Retrievers mixed with Standard Poodles are among the most popular dogs in the U.S. right now. For good reason: they’re even-tempered, gloriously affable, and low shedders. What’s not to love? Well, for starters, the skin thing. Food allergies run rampant in the breed. And while they’re lower on the hip disease scale, the higher cancer risk is still there.

Then there’s the random mix of tiny breed hybrids. Whether it’s the Maltipoo or the Schnorkie, I’ve met few that seemed any better off, genetically speaking, than either of its breeds. None seem to transcend the fundamental problems inherent to their ancestors.

Why is that, you ask? The AKC will tell you it’s because of the preponderance of irresponsible hybrid breeders that persist in watering down pristine purebred lineages. The hybrid thing is a hoax, they’ll happily tell you, but the bigger problem is that so many of these pets are unregistered and, therefore, their genetics are effectively unsupervised (unlike papered purebreds).

While it’s true that the sense of ill-breeding is often magnified when I see hybrids in the exam room, it’s only because so many seem to come either out of pet shops or via casual backyard breeding situations (where any two dogs getting together and having babies are referred to by the sum of its breeds). It’s not because hybrids aren’t just as likely to suffer genetic calamities any more or less than “purebreds.”

To be sure, the biggest factor I see in whether purpose-bred dogs are healthy or not seems to be the quality of the breeder. But that doesn’t mean that purebreds are any better. In fact, some of the best, most “responsible” breeders currently in business are hybrid breeders, which is probably because they’re often vying for something more profoundly important than looks: temperament.

This brings me back to my initial assertion: Hybrids aren’t just “mutts.” Just because they have no “papers” doesn’t mean they’re mutts. After all, there’s nothing magical about these documents, as I hope I established previously. I’ll add that “mutt” is not a bad word.

No, hybrids are not mixed breeds. They’re actually more of the same. They’re effectively purebreds without papers, purpose-bred animals who range from poorly bred and irresponsibly reproduced to creatures who are every bit as finely crafted as show dogs are.

“Fancy” mutts? I guess that’s one way to soften it. But let’s not put too fine a point on it: Purpose bred dogs are only as good as their breeders. And every “breed,” whether hybrid or purebred, has an equal opportunity to achieve genetic catastrophe.

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