Top dogs and low tactics: how the pedigree of Crufts came under a shadow

Crufts means many things to many people.

For dedicated breeders, winning best in show is a career highlight to dine out on for years. For the event's sponsors, it's a lucrative chance to reach a worldwide audience – and for makers of a recent BBC documentary, it's a "garish beauty pageant" graced by "freakish mutants".

Following the screening of Pedigree Dogs Exposed, which catalogued in graphic detail the deformed hips, misshapen skulls and eye defects which can result from inbreeding and a lack of genetic testing, the Kennel Club, which runs Crufts, was forced on the defensive.

After wheeling out various experts who complained the programme was unforgivably one-sided and had failed to acknowledge the work it is has already done to address the issues, it seemed like the dust had finally settled. However, this week the row has been reignited, with the RSPCA announcing it is cutting its links with Crufts in protest against malpractice within the pedigree breeding industry.

The organisation, which has long run a stand at the event, certainly seems to have a compelling case.

"People originally bred dogs for a specific purpose such as hunting or guarding livestock, but over the last 130 years the focus has shifted to appearance," says Mark Evans, chief veterinary advisor to the RSPCA. "When dogs are bred to match breed standards, features become exaggerated, and it can result in abnormally-shaped skulls, skin complaints, eye disorders and behavioural problems.

"Intentionally breeding deformed and disabled animals is morally unjustifiable and has to stop. We want to see the emphasis shifted away from arbitrary appearance, so health, welfare and temperament are considered first and foremost.

"All those who benefit from pedigree dogs have a collective responsibility to solve what is now a very serious and totally unnecessary animal welfare problem not just here in the UK, but around the world.

"This is a man-made solution and we need to work together to become a generation that's remembered for saving the pedigree dog. Pedigree dog owners need our help and they need it now."

Announcing their decision, the RSPCA also published various suggestions for future action. However, the blueprint including "development and implementation of health and welfare focused breeding strategies" along with "more data collection and scientific analysis of the causes of disease" was short on detail. Given that the potential problems of pedigree breeding were known long before the BBC decided to make a documentary about it, many have begun to question why it's only now the charity has decided to take a stand.

"I think sometimes the RSPCA is more concerned with their image than they are with doing the right thing," says Tony Fox, an accredited member of the Kennel Club who has been breeding German Shepherds as working dogs in Doncaster for 20 years. "Reputable breeders have their animals regularly tested to identify any potential genetic problems, but there are no mandatory regulations. We do a lot of dog training and you can immediately spot a dog which has been bred through a show line and that's where the main problems tend to be. If the RSPCA really wanted to help, they would keep their stand at Crufts and encourage those competing who haven't had tests done on their dogs to become accredited breeders. This decision sounds like they are more worried about their reputation than they are about any animal welfare issues."

The original documentary, which included footage of a Cavalier King Charles spaniel whose skull was too small for its brain and a Pekingese with the flattest of faces which had undergone surgery to help it breathe, was screened a month ago, but the RSPCA's decision is already making other organisations question their affiliation to Crufts.

Yesterday, the Dogs Trust said that unless the Kennel Club came up with some "robust responses" it may be forced to follow suit, and the BBC, which has covered Crufts for the last 42 years, has found itself facing the difficult decision of how much airtime to afford the event due to be held in Birmingham next March.

"The whole situation is rather unfortunate," admits Tony Lambert, health and breeder services manager at the Kennel Club who has found himself at the centre of a damage limitation exercise. "We had worked with the documentary makers, but much of what we said wasn't included and the more recent statements released by the RSPCA have been unhelpful.

"Recently the Kennel Club as undertaken a major health survey of pedigree dogs. It was the largest survey of its kind in the world and it concluded that 90 per cent of pedigree dogs do not suffer from health problems. Of course we'd like it to be 100 per cent, but it's hardly the horrific picture the RSPCA has been painting.

"We had a record attendance at Crufts last year and one of the things judges score on is the health of the dog. Over the last 20 years we have been working hard to develop tests and health screening schemes to identify and eradicated problems and so far 40,000 dogs have been X-rayed to identify any potential hip problems."

While accredited Kennel Club members have to test their dogs for health problems, any breeder can register for basic membership. It's this open door policy which infuriates those trying to stop unscrupulous breeders, but mandatory testing would bring its own problems.

"It's important to remember that unlike in some other countries, the Kennel Club has no legal standing," adds Tony. "We have to work on issues like animal health tests through partnership and persuasion. The danger of introducing draconian measures is that some breeders could choose to operate outside the Kennel Club's jurisdiction with absolutely no control. That cannot be the best way forward. At least if they are members then we can monitor what's going on."

Many reputable breeders watching the unfolding spat fear the Kennel Club is being made a scapegoat for problems outside its control and point out that in the world of show dogs, some will go to any means possible to secure the kudos which comes with winning best in show.

"Crufts is the Olympics of the dogs world," says Eden Parish, who has bred working Labradors at Thirn near Ripon for 25 years. "We all know the problems there have been with drugs in sport, and there will always be some breeders who will do anything to win.

"We have all our Labradors tested for eye problems and hip displacement, but there are some breeds for which tests don't exist. "In Pugs, judges look for the one with the flattest face. Sometimes it is so squashed it means the dog has real problem breathing. Anyone who has the welfare at dogs at heart can see that is wrong, but it's not something you can stop by testing.

"The danger of the RSPCA's decision is that it tars all breeders with the same brush. Yes there are show people willing to breed grossly misshapen animals, but for many regular pedigree breeders, producing fit and healthy dogs is vital.

"Our Labradors are working dogs, they have to do a job and are tested for any hip, elbow and eye problems, and we only breed from dogs with low scores and clear eye tests.

"The RSPCA does a huge amount of good improving animal welfare, but I'm just not sure how cutting their links with Crufts will help solve the problem."

Yesterday there was no mention of the ongoing debacle on the Crufts website, but whether the world's greatest dog show can emerge untarnished from recent accusations remains to be seen.