Is Breeding Bigger Better?

Updated June 6, 2021

Did you see the animals in this year’s Guinness World Records? That’s two of them above.

The world’s longest living pet cat was a Maine Coon called Ludo, who is a phenomenal 118.3cm long.

The world’s tallest living female dog was a 96.4cm Great Dane.

Why do these cute facts make all vets shudder?

Original Great Dane
What’s Wrong With Great Danes?

Here is what a Great Dane was once like. Once upon a time, Great Danes were just large hunting dogs. Then they got well known and the breed was quickly selected for certain features and larger size.

Note the broad chest, stocky build and minimal jowls. Ignore the artificially cropped ears.

Below is a classic example of a modern Great Dane, like the ones we see here in Adelaide. He’s a fine specimen but he’s come a long way from how his breed began.

brindle great dane
By Harlis.jpg: Rytis Mikelskasderivative work: Pleple2000 (Harlis.jpg) [CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons

The increased height and deep, narrow chest are thought to be at least partly why they are now known for:

Bloat is now such a problem that many young Great Danes get a preventative gastropexy. This abdominal surgery attaches the stomach to the chest wall to stop it rotating.

I’ve said it before: giant breed dogs don’t age faster than other dogs, they die younger. Lifespan data for dog breeds show Great Danes live to only 6 to 8 years of age, versus 13 for cross breeds.

In fact, Zeus, the world’s tallest dog ever was a Great Dane that lived to only 5 years old. This should be a scandal, not a cute fact. I have no doubt (though it’s untested) that the taller we breed them, the shorter they’ll live on average.

Read common inherited diseases of other dog breeds here.

What’s Wrong With Maine Coons?

Maine Coon cats have undergone a similar selection for size from when they were just large American barn cats to the gigantic cats that can be seen today.

Maine Coons are great cats, full of personality. However, just like in Great Danes, the story of their growth has been sad one for their health.

  • Hypertrophic cardiac disease has become common in the breed
  • Hip dysplasia, unheard of in other cats, can be found in up to half of Maine Coons
  • Lifespans are 3 years below the average for other cats

In fact, the world’s longest cat ever was a Maine Coon called Stewie that only lived to 8 years old. It’s appalling that no one is making the link between these lifespans and their size.

What’s Going Wrong?

Breed standards set the guidelines that breeders and show judges use to select the best animals. Unlike for most dogs, the standard for Great Danes only sets a minimum height. The standard for Maine Coons does not specify size despite it being their obvious claim to fame.

The lack of a maximum height, weight or length means that breeders are encouraged to breed for more extreme and noteworthy individuals, whether to win shows or achieve success elsewhere. You’ve only got to look at the competitions for largest, tallest or longest pet to see how much it matters to people.

They are probably ignorant of the true cost of breeding animals for body shapes like these.

Breeding for single spectacular traits also means other, more important, traits like fitness and resistance to disease are being overlooked. I had the pleasure of watching the German Shorthaired Pointer judging at the Royal Adelaide Show this year. I enjoyed it so much because a big part of the judging was the dogs being run, and run, and run. You won’t easily hide a bad heart or hip dysplasia with testing like this. Is it any wonder this is a healthy breed?

What I say about Maine Coons and Great Danes could be said of many other cases of exaggerated features being selected by animal breeders. Here’s what I’ve said before about Shar Pei and Scottish Fold breeding practises. All these breeds are beautiful animals being treated unfairly. It’s up to us to say no to extremes.

Cat breed lifespan data taken from O’Neill, D. G., Church, D. B., McGreevy, P. D., Thomson, P. C., & Brodbelt, D. C. (2014). Longevity and mortality of cats attending primary care veterinary practices in England. Journal of feline medicine and surgery, 1098612X14536176.

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By Andrew Spanner BVSc(Hons) MVetStud, a vet in Adelaide, Australia. Meet his team here.

One Reply to “Is Breeding Bigger Better?”

  1. Thank you. What a lovely thought to know someone else can see this too. However sad the truth is please keep sharing your thoughts and blogs I’m hopeful this will come to be a part of the buyers concerns if we train the buyers on what they should look for and encourage the breeders to value the health over competition.

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