Canine fertility clinics have boomed in the UK during the pandemic, experts have revealed, as calls grow for greater oversight of the industry.
The clinics offer services ranging from artificial insemination to ultrasound scanning, semen analysis, progesterone testing and in some cases caesarean sections.
Such clinics can be used to support good breeding, but their rise has caused concern because of a lack of regulation and the focus of many on flat-faced, or brachycephalic, breeds such as pugs and French bulldogs.
The president of the British Veterinary Association (BVA), Dr Justine Shotton, said there had been a huge increase in canine fertility clinics over the past couple of years.
“It really is a new trend,” she said, noting possible drivers included the rise in pet ownership during Covid and the increase in popularity of novel dogs such as hairless and flat-faced breeds.
The latter often struggled to mate naturally due to their conformation, and their puppies commonly need to be delivered by caesarean section because of their large heads.
“Having that assistance, and because of the huge, huge prices that some of these puppies are going for, there is a financial incentive for clinics to exist and do this sort of work,” said Shotton.
But the situation had caused consternation, she said. “We’re concerned about the welfare and the ethics of whether we should be helping dogs to give birth and breed in unnatural ways, particularly when we know that they’ve got issues in terms of inherited diseases or conditions or conformations.”
There were estimated to be at least 37 canine fertility clinics in the UK in 2020, and according to work by the Naturewatch Foundationthere were at least 120 as of October 2021 and at least 339 by June 2022 – though the charity notes that some appear inactive or to have ceased trading.
Naturewatch’s campaign manager Natalie Harney agreed that money was likely to be a motivator. “Pandemic demand for puppies has incentivized more people to try out dog breeding because of the assumed high profits involved,” she said. “For novice breeders or those who just want to make some quick cash, canine fertility clinics seem like a convenient one-stop shop, despite the fact that those involved may be entirely unqualified to provide the services and advice they offer.”
Harney also raised concerns about the focus on flat-faced breeds, adding that together with a lack of oversight or accountability, there was a “perfect storm whereby canine fertility clinics are helping people to breed dogs indiscriminately using procedures that have the potential to cause serious risks to animal welfare in the wrong hands”.
Shotton said there was a huge spectrum of clinics, from those operating with complete veterinary oversight to those operated by people with no veterinary qualifications, and even some that are fronts for organized crime networks involved in activities such as puppy smuggling.
One issue, she said, was that while some laypeople had completed a training course, there was no official accreditation, and such courses did not allow them to carry out acts of veterinary surgery such as taking blood.
“The problem is that there isn’t this robust mechanism for investigating the legality of the activities of the clinics,” she said.
Harney also called for action. “We need gaps in the law to be plugged to ensure there’s proper oversight of these businesses, and this needs to be underpinned by training and resourcing for enforcement officers,” she said.
The issue of who is to blame for the rise in canine fertility clinics, and what can be done, will be debated at the BVA Live event on Friday at the NEC in Birmingham. A previous session explored whether there should be a ban on flat-faced breeds.
Recent research has revealed such dogs have some of the shortest life expectancies, and that the host of disorders pugs face mean they can “no longer be considered as a typical dog from a health perspective”.
Shotton, however, said a ban may not be the answer. “We’re really worried that a ban, which we have seen in other countries, won’t necessarily solve things because it will potentially drive things underground. And if there’s still a demand there that could then result in even worse welfare and even worse breeding,” she said, adding that educating the public may be a better approach.
“They’ve got nice temperaments, they’re cute dogs, but we really need to start people thinking from the animals’ perspective and start to breed better conformation,” she said.