Britain's penchant for designer dogs could well be 2008's most worrying fashion trend. Martin Hickes reports.
Every trend needs a figurehead and when it came to handbag-sized dogs Paris Hilton was happy to lead from the front.
The socialite was rarely seen out without a chihuahua poking its nose out of some suitably expensive bag and in 2008 the need for canine fashion accessories looks set to continue.
Few people in the non-canine world may have heard of Labradoodles and Cockerpoos, but recent reports suggest that we soon will because such is the demand and likewise disposability of exotic cross-breeds that the Yorkshire Terrier's designer cousins are set to become the focus of a campaign to highlight the cause of trendy crossbreeds.
While designer dogs were first introduced to Britain in the 1970s, anecdotal evidence suggests their numbers have rapidly increased since then, especially in the past two years. However, with the demand for something more exotic than a Jack Russell on the up, the Dogs Trust, which is this year celebrating the 30th anniversary of its famous "A Dog Is For Life and Not Just For Christmas" slogan, has already pricked up its ears to this peculiar 21st-century problem.
"A dog is not a trendy item like a handbag that can be discarded once the fashion has passed," says the organisation's chief executive Clarissa Baldwin. "The message of 30 years ago remains pertinent in today's society.
"A dog lives on average 13 years, costs about 8,000 over the course of its lifetime and we are worried what will happen to the growing number of designer
dogs in the UK once the trend wears off.
"New crossbreeds such as the Puggle (pug x beagle), Labradoodle (Labrador x poodle), and the Cockerpoo (cocker spaniel x poodle), have become so popular that many breeders have long waiting lists and are charging up to 3,000 per puppy. The attraction of the pups has been spurred on by celebrities such as Ozzy Osbourne and Uma Thurman who have been pictured with the cute pups.
"The trouble with this trend is that is it just that – a trend. Dogs are not fashion accessories and we are very worried about what will happen to these dogs when the novelty has worn off and the fashion changes.
"Potential dog owners should be aware that there is no more guarantee that designer dogs will have fewer genetic abnormalities than any other dog. In fact, where they are bred from a small pool of dogs it is likely that more genetic disease will show up."
The practice of breeding these hybrids causes much controversy, with opponents citing the often exorbitant prices charged for what some people used to refer to as mongrels. However, there are those ready to defend the designer dogs corner, claiming the trend is nothing new, but in fact, a continuation of the centuries-old practice of selective breeding.
All dog breeds were created for a particular purpose, usually some form of hunting, herding, or guarding and while these tasks are largely redundant proponents point out that there are bona fide reasons for the breeding of some specific crosses – the Labradoodle, for example, which along with the Cockerpoo has now made it into the dictionary, was first bred as a guide dog for visually impaired people with allergies.
However, while some research shows that crossbreds on average live longer, other groups suggest that in a throwaway society the health risks to which such dogs are often liable add to the increased disposability factor among discriminating owners.
"Our view is that it is totally unacceptable for anyone to acquire a pet simply as a fashion accessory or on a whim: animals are sentient beings and require lifelong care and commitment," says a spokeswoman for the RSPCA.
"Being a pet owner takes time, money and patience. The life expectancy of many dogs is 10 years or more so it's not a decision to take lightly. More than 50 unwanted dogs and cats are taken in by the RSPCA every day over the Christmas period and the society rehomes about 70,000 animals each year.
"Adopting an animal from the RSPCA or another rescue charity would give one of these pets a much-needed second chance – and the new owner would be able to enjoy the wonderful feeling of knowing they've given a special home to an animal that really needs it.
"Another thing worth bearing in mind is that Progressive Retenal Atrophy occurs in both labradors and poodles so while the crossbreed labradoodle is sold on a lot of good points, this risk of blindness may not be highlighted.
"It's important to research potential health problems associated with particular breeds and crossbreeds. It's also worth checking whether the breeder has joined the Kennel Club health schemes, which are an effort to reduce the number of hereditary health problems in pedigree dogs through responsible breeding."