Cute vs. Cruel: Why This Vet Can’t Stand “Ugly Dog” Contests

KIRA STACKHOUSE / NUENA.COM

The Bay Area in Calfornia is renowned for its progressive pet culture and its forward-thinking ways. How then to explain the Sonoma-Marin Fair in Petaluma, Calif., as proud host of The World’s Ugliest Dog® Contest?

As a veterinarian, I can’t wrap my head around this one. Why would any animal lover choose to celebrate the undesirable, even repulsive features our pets possess through this bizarre breed of pageantry?

Though the talk around the spectacle is all about rescuing dogs and celebrating their inner beauty —an “anti-dog show,” if you will — the truth seems far more sinister to me. Don’t they understand that most of the winners are genetically deformed and almost always afflicted with extreme disease conditions?

Take the last few champs as example: Among the ailments they visibly possess, I count a miscellany of skin diseases, an embarrassment of ocular conditions (severe dry eye, eye loss and glaucoma, among them), pervasive periodontal disease, impressive angular/rotational limb deformities, and a host of spinal maladies (in one case leading to spectacular spinal curvature). Some entries are shockingly obese, while others appear to have suffered severe debilitating trauma in the past.

Showcasing Disease and Neglect

Of course, you could choose to look at this contest through a sparklier lens. After all, there’s little doubt the shocking display of physical defects here means the triumph of the canine spirit is on exhibit too. But as a veterinarian charged with alleviating animal suffering, I have a hard time taking a cheery tack on this one.

Here’s why: Not only are we promoting these diseases by quite literally offering them a stage, but in many cases we appear to be awarding prizes to pets whose owners (past or present) failed to seek medical attention for their treatable conditions.

As if it wasn’t bad enough that veterinarians like me have to spend an inordinate percentage of our careers treating the mistreated and neglected, we’re now exposed to an internationally hyped reality-TV-style spectacle glorifying the very calamities — societal, genetic or random — that dog our working lives and keep us up at night.

A Cruel Way to Promote Ill-Fated Pets

But it’s not just the health thing. I’ll confess I have trouble with the entire concept of an "ugly pet" contest. In fact, I believe any face-off based on a negative trait should find most any principled person in something of a moral quandary. But when innocent pets are at stake, my hackles get especially prickly. I mean, what’s the point of vying for the negative of beauty if not to ridicule?

No, despite their billing, these "ugly pet contests" aren’t so benign.

Sure, these contests can seem like a cute way to unite a community. I might even concede to comprehend how some might view them as a legitimate way to raise the profile of undesirable pets while celebrating the human-animal bond.

Yet it’s my take that when viewed from my personal veterinary perspective, these ugly pet contests are nothing if not rude, cruel and unnecessary. Because to revel in the unhealthy glory of the diseased, malformed, maltreated and deprived is NOT the ideal way to achieve these worthy goals.

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