10/03/2014 05:51 GMT | Updated 09/05/2014 06:59 BST

Crufts: Worst in Show

Last weekend saw the latest instalment of the annual parade of miserable genetic freaks known as 'Crufts'. Dogs are smart, complex animals - not bonsai trees to be contorted into shapes that please us. Beneath the coiffed exterior of many of the dogs paraded around Birmingham's National Exhibition Centre lies a slew of painful and deadly health problems caused by generations of inbreeding to achieve a certain "look". The Kennel Club's "breed standards" encourage breeders to manipulate dogs' bodies as if they were made out of modelling clay, and they are suffering for it.

The lack of genetic diversity caused by inbreeding greatly increases the likelihood that recessive genes, which cause debilitating afflictions, will be passed along to puppies. As a result, roughly one in four purebred dogs suffers from serious congenital defects, such as hypothyroidism, epilepsy, cataracts, allergies, heart disease and hip dysplasia - a disease that can lead to crippling, lameness and painful arthritis. Each of the 50 most common dog breeds is at risk for some genetic defect which can cause suffering, according to a study published in The Veterinary Journal. Labrador retrievers are predisposed to bone disease, haemophilia and retinal degeneration, and nearly 60 per cent of golden retrievers suffer from hip dysplasia. In addition to glaucoma and epilepsy, beagles are susceptible to congenital heart disease. Great Danes, cocker spaniels, boxers, and Doberman pinschers are all prone to dilated cardiomyopathy, an inherited degenerative disease which weakens the heart and undermines its ability to pump blood effectively until the animal eventually dies. In fact, this heart condition is one of the leading killers of Great Danes. Many dachshunds have hereditary back problems because of their deliberately elongated spinal columns and short rib cages. Afghan hounds, greyhounds and Rottweilers often develop cancer, and Saint Bernards frequently get diabetes.

A study from the University of Surrey published last month used MRI scanning technology and found that many dogs who have been bred to have small, round heads - particularly Cavalier King Charles spaniels and Chihuahuas - may suffer from constant, excruciating headaches because their skulls are too small for their brains. Afflicted dogs often scream in agony, scratch themselves raw and become progressively weaker until they can barely walk and become paralysed. It is thought that more than a third of Cavalier King Charles spaniels - the breed favoured by former US President Ronald Reagan - suffer from this agonising condition. These dogs pay with their health - and sometimes their lives - because of the cosmetic standards promoted by The Kennel Club and Crufts.

The authors of an independent scientific report commissioned by the RSPCA clearly conclude that the very notion of breeding purebreds and breeding for any physical trait is a problem, stating that it is difficult - and we'd say impossible - to eliminate these problems while these dogs are being bred with others of the same breed.

Offering further proof that it is interested only in dogs' outward appearances, last year Crufts decided to allow dogs in its show to be doused with "performance-enhancing" products such as hairspray and white chalk to erase "stains" on white fur.

But the slew of health problems caused by breeding pedigree dogs is not the only reason to end the shameful practice of churning out puppies to sell. Each year, thousands of wonderful dogs have to be destroyed in UK shelters because there are simply not enough good homes to go around. Every new puppy born to a breeder means one home fewer for dogs waiting in an animal shelter. By driving up the demand for pedigree dogs and encouraging breeders to bring more dogs into the world when there aren't enough homes for those who are already here, Crufts sentences homeless dogs to euthanasia or life behind bars.

Anyone who is upset that thousands of homeless dogs and cats are languishing in shelters across the country or killed for lack of a good home should join us in condemning the bigoted practices of the Kennel Club and all breeders. Instead of tinkering with their genetics and entering them in silly pageants, we should let dogs be dogs and respect and appreciate them regardless of their outward appearance - just as they do with us. All dogs - regardless of their "heritage" - deserve love, a soft place to curl up in, a kind family to share their lives with, and a place to call home forever.