Ethics Quiz: The Dish-Faced Horse And Animal Breeding Ethics

A US stud farm has offered an Arabian Colt with an concave, or ‘dished’ profile, for sale. He looks like this:

The farm described the horse as a step towards ‘perfection’, but equine experts expressed alarm, warning that such an animal may find it difficult to breathe.

Equine expert Tim Greet told reporters that although Arabians were known for their ‘dished’ features, the new mutant colt “takes things to a ridiculous level.” Such a deformity, he opined, could be even worse for a horse than for dogs bred with pushed-in muzzles, like bulldogs…

…and pugs…

They do it to cats, too:


Your Ethics Alarms Ethics Quiz Of the Day:

Is breeding animals to emphasize features that may constitute handicaps unethical?

I’m going to hold my fire, but suggest that any analysis consider…

the Ick Factor and the Awww! Factor.

…the fact that the animals don’t know there’s anything unusual about them

…the specific harm that makes the breeding unethical.

Go for it.


32 thoughts on “Ethics Quiz: The Dish-Faced Horse And Animal Breeding Ethics

  1. Time for a new rationalization called “The Adorableness Defense” because right now I’m thinking that it’s okay for pugs and bulldogs but not for horses.

  2. IMHO, the only ethical consideration should be the health of the animal. In my experience, cats are aware of very little but their own comfort, and certainly are not capable of evaluating their physical condition. I suspect that dogs are only slightly less oblivious. Smartest dog I ever owned had a propensity for rolling around in dead jelly-fish at the beach.

      • Perhaps, but my claim is that they are not aware of the difference, and can’t be. Thus, their awareness should not enter into an ethics discussion. OUR awareness should.

        • Clarification needed. So if there’s a fad for three legged dogs, and three-legged dogs don’t know they are better off with four, then breeding them is ethical? I’m not necessarily disagreeing with you.

          I love the giant breeds. We had an English Mastiff, Patience. They are bred to be giants, and it usually means they live half as long as other breeds. Patience lived only 7 years. Is breeding English Mastiffs unethical?

          • I’m not expressing myself well, and I apologize. Mutilating an animal is unethical, period, whether done by surgery, genetics, husbandry or shot gun. The ‘normal’ genotype for a dog has 4 paws. Thus, breeding for 3 is, in my mind, unethical. However, whether or not an animal understands what is being done to it does not effect in any way the “ethical-ness” of the act. Breeding for size does not change the genotype, and I would have no argument with it if not for the short life spans. I’m not convinced that would make it unethical, though.

    • Dragin, i have to disagree with your assesment of feline awareness. Many animals are far more sensitive and aware of their environment than humans. Some can identify cancer patients, some can forecast earthquakes etc. Simply because we do not share the same traits to vocalize our thoughts does not mean that other species lack self awareness or empathy.

      If you evaluate the reaction of dogs who are reunited with their human companions after an extended period of time of absense you will see they are more than animals devoid of any capability for non-sexual pairing. I have observed felines display sympathy during emotional distress of it owner as well as the ability to reason ( rudementary problem solving) beyond operant conditioning.

  3. This is an area in which there are no easy ethical answers, in my opinion.

    Dogs are, among all the species, the most phenotypically diverse species on the planet. Humans? Not even close. Dogs have been selectively bred for certain characteristics – both behaviorally and with regard to appearance to such an extent that a Chihuahua could impregnate an Irish Wolfhound, and produce a littler of pups.

    God help the Chihuahua on the receiving end of the schvantz or the pups.

    I grew up with retrievers – Goldens, specifically (or, as a friend describes them, “Swamp Collies”), and have shared my home with Labs for the last thirty years. I have seen poor examples of both breeds in abundance. Some of those poor examples reflected bad choices on the part of irresponsible breeders.

    Among those, the various breed clubs themselves can be incredibly problematic. Alsatians – better known as German Shepherds – are currently bred to an appearance-based norm that is structurally devastating. They’re bred to have strong forequarters and a sloping rear end. They can barely run, let alone herd sheep.

    Pugs, Pekingese, English Bulldogs and other breeds with short legs and snouts are bred to favor the same genetic problems that produce dwarfism in humans. It’s been studied, and it’s the same amplification of a recessive gene that produces the “desired” result.

    There are other breeds – the Bernese Mountain Dog comes to mind – that have such a preponderance of disease susceptibility that it’s rare for a Berner to live much past eight years. Which is why I’ll never own one. I love these dogs, but it’s hard enough to lose a Lab every twelve or thirteen years. I don’t need to reduce the timeline by a third.

    Selective breeding has brought humans many wonderful things. Among them, we eat much better due to selecting plant and animal traits that help us survive.

    I would say that the way dogs are bred CAN be unethical, and often is.But I cannot say that it always is. According to a fair number of studies, canids in the wild have an expected lifespan one third to one half of those living in the company of humans.

    And dogs are closely related Would their lives even exist without us? I still don’t know the answer; I only know that dogs can make human lives much better.

    Some of that clearly has to do with the way humans have manipulated dogs.

    I would like to think that a big part of it is how dogs have manipulated us.

  4. I think when it comes to working animals, breeders and owners have more of an obligation to help them be as healthy as possible. Animals that just have to sit around and be cuddled may be more okay with the weird body parts, as long as the breeders and owners are willing to deal with any extra care these alterations require.

  5. Absolutely unethical. Any breeding that condemns a living thing to being handicapped or otherwise deformed on purpose for human entertainment is definitely unethical.

        Especially when it comes to respiration health.

        I don’t even like to see horses’ tails docked. Took a look in at one of the forums hot on the trail of show horse abuse, including the poor Clydesdales who are left with only a “bud” to swat flies (and do lots of other things) for the rest of their lives. Or the RSPCA website on docking dogs’ tails. Like snubbing dog and cat noses. These are all done purely for “cosmetic” reasons. It’s like giving a nose job to a three-year old human so she (or he) can appear more “perfect” in a pageant.

  6. What about the super vibrantly-colored impatiens (flowers), black roses, and many other genetically modified plants that are living things altered for human entertainment and/or benefit? Is it different if it is sentient?

    On the other hand, if doing this to animals is ethical where does it stop? Consider this article from Tyler Cowan on the implications of genetic modifications to humans. As he wrote: “I don’t trust people to take so much control over the future of human nature.”

    I know this sounds like a slippery slope fallacy, but when you consider how easy it is to manipulate genes with CRISPR and other new technologies, the human desire to explore and push limits, scientists’ desires to see what they can accomplish often with little thought or concern for the long-term consequences, the popular unwillingness to limit science, and the ineffectiveness of government regulation to stop this type of experimenting, well then what and where are the limits to more of this type of genetic engineering?

  7. Unethical for horse, cat, dog, and so on. Just because the animal knows no better, doesn’t mean it’s correct. When they started breeding bull dogs there was a purpose: fighting. That is not considered humane, but the breeders keep searching for and preserving the perfect form for archaic purposes.

    Mind you, I mean no harm to the extremes and unhealthy creatures. They should find places. I do think breeding from those outlier and risky/dangerous to survival lines should be discouraged. I’m sorry the breeding farm lost whatever was invested, but each birth is a roll of the dice.

  8. Counterintuitive as it sounds, a dog’s quality of life is not going to be diminished by a shortened lifespan. As far I’m aware, dogs don’t have a concept of their own mortality, and will happily live each day whether they’re going to keep doing for another year or another ten. It may not be so pleasant for their human owners or dog friends, though.

    By contrast, there is a clear drop in quality of life when the dog’s body starts failing to do what the dog has come to expect it to do, or when it has trouble doing something important, like breathing or circulating blood. I’d argue that it is unethical to deliberately breed for qualities that you know will compromise essential functions. How much you should avoid risking such things as part of experimental breeding is a gray area.

    The disorders that show up as the dog ages are another gray area, because senescence is natural and currently inevitable. I don’t mean to imply that it would be more ethical to breed a dog that dies suddenly in its prime, before its body can deteriorate. That idea doesn’t seem right, though I haven’t identified just why yet. Maybe it’s simply for the benefit of the human owners. (My family had two beloved dogs while I was growing up, and they lived to be quite old.)

    Eventually, we end up going full existentialist, asking whether creating a conscious entity is ethical at all, since all conscious entities are condemned to be free and to experience desires which their limited existence cannot fulfill, leading to negative feelings. The degree to which we can control the qualities of the conscious entity we create changes the question somewhat, but the core remains.

    I don’t have a definite answer for that question at the moment, since I haven’t put quite as much thought into existential issues surrounding non-sapient conscious entities. I do know that the capability to control the forms and destinies of animals is not one that should be treated lightly or used carelessly.

  9. I think we should stop breeding pet- or show-animals altogether, until all the adoptables are all taken on. (Jack said there has to be a full stop after “animals”, so I won’t go any further along that road.)

    • I wrestle with this periodically.

      I can’t say that people should not have children just because there are children who NEED to be adopted NOW. But I also can’t deny that it seems, based on general ethical analysis, that IF there is a child that NEEDS to be adopted NOW, the *only* ethical choice for a couple considering having a child is to adopt. (in the case of adopting newborns — that is, I can see ethical arguments against expecting someone to adopt, say, a 10 year old who may already have a great deal of bad culture rubbed off on them, which would require a great deal more expertise than new parents possess for the process of re-acculturation).

      I haven’t fully reconciled this.

      • It’s not reconcilable, really. There is a natural urge (and a strong religious voice) for reproduction, in some cases without end. There is also a strong feeling for adoption as well as fostering that is thwarted by a child welfare system that is a century behind its needed overhaul. There is, finally, the lack of guarantee that goes with any of them — the ten-year-old may respond as a late-bloomer to affection and education, and the new-born can have a lifetime of problems ahead for self, family and/or society. The lack of guarantee also exists on the parental side: how many people who haven’t even lived as adults for eighteen years can understand what an eighteen-year commitment means? (How many couples today believe their marriage will even get that far?)

        It does come down to ethics, with both animals and humans. In either case, ethics only begins with the act of choice — it has to last the course as well.

        • “There is a natural urge (and a strong religious voice) for reproduction, in some cases without end.”

          There’s also a natural urge to get rid of people who are in your way of achieving everything you want in life. But we don’t base ethics *merely* on natural urges.

          I really am beginning to think that yes, while there are children who NEED to be adopted, it may just very well be unethical to have a child before adopting a child.

          Hm. But I’m not so sure, yet.

          BUT (underlined twice)

          Because the natural urge to procreate is so strong, nearly insurmountably so among the vast majority of people, I don’t think we can hold people ethically accountable for not adopting and instead procreating. That is…maybe in this case, though it may not be ethical to procreate when a child somewhere needs to be adopted, we can say the natural urge being so strong, undoes the conclusion that it is unethical. That the urge’s overwhelming strength pushes procreation out of unethical territory, it automatically promotes adoption into exemplary ethics territory.


        • Oops…sent before completing.

          Just watched this movie on Netflix. Tangentially related to the topic of adopting vs having babies.

          Great movie. You won’t be disappointed.

  10. “…the fact that the animals don’t know there’s anything unusual about them”

    It is correct that animals lack self-consciousness (we assume to a degree), so that they don’t know there is something “wrong” with them. I think that is neutralized however, by the consideration, that as their stewards, in whom a great level of responsibility is bestowed, the deforming modifications we create for our own pleasure IS a reflection on us and our choosing to degrade something else’s life for a reason other than our own existential needs, says enough about *us*, to render this consideration moot.

    In short, the animal doesn’t know what is happening to it, but its caretakers do, and so it matter that we know there’s something unusual about them.

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