March 28th, 2011 

Americans spend about $9 billion per year on veterinary services for their 77 million dogs. That’s about $117 per dog, but this number is misleading because so many dogs get no veterinary care at all. My own experience with about a dozen dogs over the course of 30 years is that we spend about $3000 per dog over its life on veterinary care. That includes annual checkups, costing about $100 per year for 12 years, including shots. But that covers less than half of the total cost of veterinary care. The big costs have always arisen from problems that never should have arisen in the first place: hip dysplasia, cruciate ligament problems, skin autoimmune problems, and others. These are, at root, genetic problems. We have been overbreeding dogs so intensely for so long that genetic defects causing such problems are now widespread. What are commonly called “mutts” -- I prefer the term “hybrids” -- have a lower incidence of such problems, but I have always eschewed purebreds in favor of hybrids, and genetic problems still plague my dogs.

For this I blame the breeders -- all breeders. They defend themselves by pointing out the difference between careful, well-informed breeders and the nitwits who run puppy mills. I certainly agree that the nitwits make matters much worse, but even the most conscientious breeders are unable to acquire the data they need to breed healthy animals. They cannot keep track of their animals’ health records for long after the animals are sold, so they are blind to long-term genetic ailments. 

Here’s my proposal for how to address this problem: the Superdogs Program. The idea is to set up a research operation with the specific goal of producing a breed that has two primary traits: good personality and good health. They begin with a collection of likely progenitor dogs and then begin breeding them. Each puppy is checked, both by veterinary examination and DNA testing, for the most common genetic flaws. If the puppy passes these examinations, its complete genome is mapped and recorded, it is tagged with a subcutaneous ID module and then offered for adoption. The puppies are free but the owners must sign a contract specifying that they will submit an annual report including their own observations of the dog’s personality as well as a detailed veterinary report on the dog’s health. These reports will be submitted electronically to a database maintained at the Superdogs Research Center. That database provides the crucial feedback necessary for guiding the breeding program. By correlating behavioral and health characteristics with the DNA profiles of the animals, researchers will be able to weed out genetic weaknesses in their breeding stock. It is conceivable that, at some future date, researchers will be able to directly modify the dogs’ DNA to more rapidly clean up the genome of the breed. 

The end result will probably look something like the feral urban dogs in cities all over the world:


It should come as no surprise that the genetically ideal dog will look something like the wolf that it sprang from. I’d expect them to have pointed snouts and large upright ears and weigh around 50 pounds. A tertiary priority for the research lab is the establishment of some distinguishing visible trait that clearly identifies the dog as a Superdog -- this would be a desirable marketing trait to help spread the adoption of the breed.

In future years, as the program matures and enjoys some measure of success, it could be expanded to produce dogs better suited to some tastes, such as a toy-size Superdog. It should also be possible to alter a few cosmetic traits without affecting the primary design goals of the breed, thereby avoiding the marketing weakness that every Superdog looks like every other Superdog.

Let’s not kid ourselves about the difficulty of this task. It will take decades to achieve its ends. After all, the complete breeding cycle will be roughly 12 years in length, and multiple generations will be required to hone the breed. It will also be expensive, requiring a few tens of millions of dollars per year. Where will that money come from?

We should look first to the marketplace for funding; sadly, this project is not feasible as a profitable enterprise, largely because of the extremely long delay between investment and profitability. I’d guess that it would take 30 years for the Superdog breed to become popular enough to achieve profitability. Moreover, a for-profit operation would fail to attract the early adopters who are crucial to the success of the effort. What would motivate a prospective dog owner to adopt a beta version of the Superdog? Why take a chance on a research animal, one that comes with lots of reporting strings attached, when you can get a dog from the pound that’s probably just as good? No, the only way to motivate early adopters to participate is to make this a non-profit operation, done for the long-term benefit of all dog owners.

It is plausible that the operation could be funded by the American Kennel Club, using funds contributed by breeders, but it strikes me as unlikely. After all, what breeder would want to fund an effort to put himself out of business? And how could a breeder justify expenditures today that are unlikely to yield results for 30 years? 

It is also plausible that this effort could be undertaken by some charitable organization such as the Humane Society. The killer problem here is that no such organization would contemplate a program that leads to the breeding of more dogs. The dog economy right now is saturated with supply that exceeds demand; every puppy added to the supply merely guarantees one more dog euthanized at the animal shelter. While this proposal definitely serves the long-term interests of dog owners, it also works against the interests of dogs as a group. I doubt that we can get funding from such organizations.

All of which leads us to fall back upon the financier of last resort: the Federal Government. I groan at this prospect, because all too often federal money is treated as a freebie that can be used for any project that appeals to any special interest group. However, I think I can offer a solid case in favor of such funding. Let’s first do a quick-and-dirty financial analysis of such an effort. Let’s suppose that it requires $20 million per year for 50 years, adding up to a cool $1 billion. I won’t take into the differences between present value of money and future value of money, even though a time period of 50 years is long enough to make such considerations important. I will justify this gross simplification in the next paragraph

What kind of economic benefits will the public gain from such a project? Right now, Americans are spending $9 billion per year on veterinary care for dogs -- and this number has tripled in the last 20 years. This dramatic increase in the costs of veterinary care mirrors the dramatic increases in the costs of human medical care of the same period. We can expect these costs to continue to rise -- and I maintain that this increase in costs completely outweighs the errors introduced by assuming, as above, a long-term interest rate of 0%. Let us suppose that veterinary care for a Superdog costs only 75% of what veterinary care for a regular dog costs. If all Americans owned Superdogs, (which would not happen for decades), then the net savings would add up to $2 billion per year -- in other words, the program would pay for itself in just six months! Of course, that’s looking far down the road. Over the short term, the savings would be much less, for two reasons: the Superdogs would at first not be that much healthier than normal dogs, and not that many Americans would own one. But consider a likely scenario: fifteen years after the program launch, 1,000,000 Superdogs have been adopted, and veterinary costs for Superdogs are 90% as large as veterinary costs for regular dogs. Even with these small numbers, the net annual savings would still amount to about $20 million -- about the same as the cost of operating the program. From that point forward, the benefits would greatly exceed the costs of the operation.

There is a solid justification for this expense: its profitability horizon is so far into the future that it cannot be properly addressed by conventional market methods. That is, most profit calculations look only a few years into the future -- anything beyond 10 years is considered too remote to be reliably predictable. Therefore, the market blanches at long-term investments, which is why the government must handle such long-term projects. For example, the return on investment of the NASA space program is undeniable -- yet what financial institution could have justified that investment? The same kind of reasoning applies to all long-term investments, such as most infrastructure investments (dams, roads, bridges, etc). The market really does fail when it comes to long-term investments, and that market failure provides the justification we need for government intervention.

One objection to this proposal is that it benefits a special interest group -- dog owners -- and not the general population. However, the most recent surveys show that more than 60% of all American households own dogs. This special interest group is a LOT larger than most of the special interest groups catered to by the Feds. 

Another objection takes the form “But we already have something equivalent to the Superdog in breed X.” The claim here is that there exist some purebred dogs that are free of genetic defects. I do not accept this claim, because there are no free lunches in genetics. The only thing that’s free, to strain the metaphor, is shit. In other words, you can’t breed a perfect animal, although you can easily breed a truly wretched animal. The best you can get is what you pay for, and you never get what you don’t pay for. If you put higher priority on pointy ears than general health, then you’ll get pointy ears and compromised general health. The only way to achieve high health is to make that your breeding priority. If you compromise that priority with other priorities, then you compromise your results. As far as I know, there is no recognized breed that is defined and evaluated in terms of long-term health and personality; the primary factors used to evaluate dogs in dog shows are cosmetic factors. A dog can be disqualified for a visible genetic defect, but no dogs are rewarded for absence of genetic defects, because many such defects are invisible.

So there you have it: a proposal for fixing the truly appalling state of canine health. Write your congressperson and give them this URL. I know, it’ll never happen -- but I had to make the effort of writing it all down.