Are pets too spoiled

Humanization, infectious diseases and torture breeding How people love their pets to death

He's a real social media star: Doug the Pug is arguably the most popular pug on the internet. An unbelievable 3.8 million people follow him on Instagram, a quarter of a million on Youtube. Doug is not just any pug, because he wears funny clothes, shoots funny video clips and even meets celebrities. And the way Doug gasps and pants, his fans think is totally cute. Is just typical pug! But what many consider "typical of the breed" can be a serious health problem: The pug with its short-bred nose often simply cannot breathe properly. But because humans find it cute, it is just bred.

Something is going wrong between pet and human

Some of these overbred dogs end up on the autopsy table of Professor Achim Gruber, the director of the Institute for Animal Pathology at the Free University of Berlin. On his autopsy table, he sees the fate of pets every day, and he feels the urge to tell pet owners and society as a whole what is going wrong in the relationship between us and our pets, he says.

Because there is a lot going on. And while we focus our attention on the protection of farm animals or wild animals, our pets suffer quietly, says Gruber. That is why he wrote "Das Kuscheltierdrama" - with cases from his everyday life as an animal pathologist that are supposed to show what is going wrong. Above all, he wanted to educate. "I often have the impression that we are depriving them of their animal nature when we humanize pets and take them into our families - pets often become social partners too," says the veterinarian.

We believe that these animals will then be accepted into the family. We think that we can then feed them like humans, like humans can accommodate, that they are also clean and hygienic like humans. And as part of this humanization, we have deprived many of our animals of essential aspects of their own nature and needs.

Prof. Dr. Achim Gruber, Free University of Berlin

For example, cats would have to hunt or birds would have to fly in order to stay healthy. During an autopsy, Gruber can draw conclusions about a large number of details from the animals' lives, he explains: What diseases they suffered from or how they were fed, for example.

Using the example of nutrition, the pet shows itself to be a humanized social partner and projection surface: "If we transfer our worldview too much to the animals with regard to our own nutrition." The veterinarian experiences time and again that vegetarian or vegan people eat their animals, which are actually predators or carnivores, contrary to their nature, completely plant-based. "And they can develop deficiency symptoms from it and can even die from it.

Cats in particular should never be given a vegetarian or vegan diet.

Prof. Dr. Achim Gruber, Free University of Berlin

For carnivores, this misunderstood love of animals can be fatal.

More than 250 pathogens can be transmitted

The humanization of pets brings health risks for animals and humans: In his book, Gruber reports on infectious diseases that can be transmitted between animals and humans. "We are also increasingly concerned about them," he explains. Because with the humanization of animals, the most important hygiene rules would often no longer be observed. "Animals sleep in bed, animals are petted at the table - you then bite the bun with the same hand," says Gruber.

Veterinary medicine now knows well over 250 infectious agents that could be transmitted between animals and humans, many of which could even be fatal. The fox tapeworm, for example, is a pathogen that dogs that spend a lot of time in the forest now pass on to their owners all over Germany when they cuddle.

But it can also be dangerous the other way around: If, for example, a person with herpes gives a chinchilla or a rabbit a kiss, it can be the death sentence for the animal. The animal pathologists even speak of the kiss of death.

Professor Reiner Ulrich has dealt with such pathogens for years. Since April he has been the new director of the Institute for Veterinary Pathology at the University of Leipzig. His office is still pretty empty, his dog curled up in the corner for a nap. He also sees a lack of problem awareness in this area.

The knowledge of the danger posed by my closest household mates is probably not seen that way, because my animal is my family member and one does not think of such negative possibilities.

Prof. Dr. Reiner G. Ulrich, University of Leipzig

If avian influenza was in the headlines, everyone would be afraid of throwing a fallen sparrow in the garbage can, even though the risk of infection is negligible. But if you buy a rat from an illegitimate breed in Eastern Europe, you can get smallpox into it, says Ulrich. The Leipziger can also confirm that there are owners who humanize their pets. Some would even give them the right to vote, he jokes. However, he could not see a trend.

There are also a lot of very well-informed pet owners who, out of love for their pet, get specific information and have a lot of knowledge and treat their animals very well. I believe that is also a very large percentage of pet owners.

Prof. Dr. Reiner G. Ulrich, University of Leipzig

No end of the breeding of defects in sight

Of course there are, says his Berlin colleague Gruber. But in one point there are still far too few of these responsible keepers: in breeding. The breeding of defects is still a big topic - even though veterinarians have been trying to educate people for almost 50 years.

Nevertheless, large dogs, for example, are getting bigger and bigger, colorful dogs are getting more colorful and snouts are getting shorter and shorter: "With many of these extreme breeds we also see a number of new diseases that really burden these animals," says animal pathologist Gruber. "Deafness is often associated with beauty and we see a whole range of genetic problems - diseases that are caused in animals by breeding."

At least the German Dog Association (VDH) has received this message. Stress tests for flat noses like the French bulldog have been introduced here. The pug is currently being researched in a pilot project with four universities to find out how it can be bred in a healthy manner.

But the VDH's share of breeding in such breeds is relatively small and there are a lot of black sheep on the market, explains managing director Jörg Bartscherer. "The people who breed in our association voluntarily submit to stricter criteria because they have the right to breed in accordance with animal welfare," he says. A few years ago they even excluded a club from the English Bulldog because the conditions were bad.

I think what would be very important and what is not there would be that breeders are required to have expertise before they are allowed to breed.

Jörg Bartscherer, Association for German Dogs V.

So far, only commercial breeders need an official permit. Bringing can be done privately, whatever the Animal Welfare Act allows. Bartscherer would also like a Europe-wide breeding register so that problematic cases can be traced back to their origin. But politicians apparently lack the will, complains the VDH managing director.

The Leipzig animal pathologist Ulrich reassures us about defect breeding: At least in Germany, the situation has already improved: "In other words, the extreme forms no longer occur here," he says. "People are very sensitive about that."

Learn to understand our animals

In Berlin, on the other hand, Achim Gruber observed that pets repeatedly end up unnecessarily on his autopsy table, the death of which could have been avoided. That makes him angry, he says, because many of these animals would have suffered quietly while they were alive - even though they were loved. "We actually have to learn more to understand our animals and to be able to empathize with our animals," adds Gruber. We don't always succeed, many people can't even put themselves in other people's shoes.

And sometimes I also hear from the patient owners: Geez, I know how my cat is and I may understand my dog ​​better than my partner and other people. I think that is often not the case. I think a lot of people are fooling themselves.

Prof. Dr. Achim Gruber, Free University of Berlin

And dogs like Doug the Pug - the funny pug from the internet? That should speak for this theory. Because whether he really enjoys disguises and video shoots is more likely to be questionable. Maybe he would much rather take a deep breath ?!

Prof. Dr. Achim Gruber: "The cuddly toy drama"
Published by Droemer Knaur
312 pages, 19.99 euros
ISBN: 978-3-426-27781-2