Canine fertility clinics have boomed in the UK during the pandemic, experts revealed, as calls for more oversight of the industry mount.
The clinics offer services ranging from artificial insemination to ultrasound scans, semen analysis, progesterone testing and caesarean sections.
Such clinics can be used to support good breeding, but their rise has been a cause for concern due to 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 has been a huge increase in canine fertility clinics in recent years.
“It’s really a new trend,” she said, noting possible drivers were the rise in pet ownership during Covid and the increasing popularity of novelty dogs like hairless and flat-faced breeds.
The latter often have difficulty mating naturally due to their build and their puppies often need to be delivered by cesarean section due to their large heads.
“With that support, and because of the tremendous prices some of these puppies fetch, there is a financial incentive for clinics to exist and do this type of work,” Shotton said.
But the situation caused dismay, she said. “We are concerned about the welfare and ethics of whether we should help dogs giving birth and reproducing unnaturally, particularly when we know they have problems related to inherited diseases or conditions or conformation.”
It is estimated that there were at least 37 canine fertility clinics in the UK in 2020 and according to the work of the Naturewatch Foundation there were at least 120 in October 2021 and at least 339 in June 2022 – although the charity notes that some appear to be inactive or have ceased trading to have.
Naturewatch’s campaign manager, Natalie Harney, agreed that money was likely a motivator. “The pandemic demand for puppies has prompted more people to try dog breeding as it is believed to have high profits,” she said. “For inexperienced breeders or those just looking to make a quick buck, canine fertility clinics seem like a convenient place to go, although those involved may be totally unqualified to provide the services and advice they offer.”
Harney also expressed concern about the focus on flat-faced breeds, adding that along with a lack of oversight or accountability, there has been a “perfect storm of canine fertility clinics helping people breed dogs indiscriminately using processes that… have the potential to pose serious risks to animal welfare in the wrong hands”.
Shotton said there is a huge spectrum of clinics, from those that operate under full veterinary oversight to those run by people with no veterinary qualifications, and even some that are fronts for organized crime networks that are involved activities such as puppy smuggling are involved.
One problem, she said, is that while some lay people have completed a training course, there is no official accreditation and such courses do not allow them to perform veterinary procedures such as blood sampling.
“The problem is that there isn’t that robust mechanism to investigate the legality of the clinics’ activities,” she said.
Harney also called for action. “We need to fill loopholes in the law to ensure these companies are properly regulated, and this needs to be backed up with training and resources for law enforcement officials,” she said.
Who is to blame for the surge in canine fertility clinics and what can be done will be debated at the BVA Live event at the NEC in Birmingham on Friday. A previous session examined whether there should be a ban on flat-faced breeds.
Recent research has shown that such dogs have some of the shortest lifespans and that the multitude of medical conditions that Pugs face mean they “can no longer be considered a typical dog from a health perspective”.
However, Shotton said a ban might not be the answer. “We’re really concerned that a ban like we’ve seen in other countries won’t necessarily solve the problems because it will potentially drive things underground. And if there’s still demand there, that could lead to even worse welfare and even worse breeding,” she said, adding that educating the public might be a better approach.
“They have a nice temperament, they’re cute dogs, but we really need to get people to think from the animal’s perspective and start breeding for better conformation,” she said.