Selecting a pet with a very functional body is one of the most important steps you can take to increase the chances that your animal will have a healthy, happy life. Dogs have been very modified compared to their wild ancestor (cats less so), and some of these modifications can make it difficult to care for them and also cause them lifelong suffering.

It can be tempting to choose a particular breed or animal just because you like its looks—or even to pick out the most pitiful-looking pup in the litter or at the shelter because it elicits your sympathy. But it’s not quite as simple as picking out the liveliest, friendliest, and most inquisitive one either.

Selecting a pet with a very functional body

Every type of dog or cat (pure or mixed breed) has physical characteristics—face, build, relative body proportions—that invite predictions about its potential well-being. Different breed types have different behavioral tendencies as well.


For instance, one day someone brought a lost miniature poodle into an SPCA clinic. Besides being lost, the poor dog was covered from head to foot with burrs, foxtails, and tangled hair. One eye was closed and discharging pus, and the areas between his toes were red and swollen. Clearly, he was a victim of the “foxtail season.”

Foxtails and other plant awns are those stickery burrs that attach to your socks when you walk across a field. They latch onto dogs, too. Their pointed ends work their way not only into the coat but sometimes right through the skin, burrowing into eyes, ears, noses, mouths, vaginas, rectums, and between the toes.

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This little guy was so badly affected that we had to give him a general anesthetic before we could begin the long process of removing stickers out of his coat, between his toes, and deep in his ear. Careful examination revealed another lodged in the eye—the cause of the inflammation and discharge. As we worked, my assistant Dottie and I began talking about how pets get into such a state after even a short trek in the fields.

“This is why,” I said, holding up some matted hair we had just clipped off. “His coat is like walking Velcro. Once the stickers brush against it, there’s almost no place else for them to go but deeper in.”

“You know, really it’s we who created this problem by breeding and selecting for dogs with such curly fur and floppy ears. Wild animals don’t have anywhere near this issue with stickers.”

A young wolf, for example, has softer or curlier hair that normally becomes more coarse, smooth, and protective when it becomes an adult, sometimes called “guard hair.” We enjoy that soft feel (maybe that’s why we call our animals “pets”), and so we selected for the occasional wolves that never quite grew up, just as we selected for the more docile members of most domestic species.

Through hundreds and thousands of years of selective breeding, we have created a host of other abnormal body structures as well, many that foster health problems. For example, animals with stubby legs and pushed-in faces or extra-long silky ears often face lifelong discomforts or health issues. So it’s important to be mindful of what we are doing and to consider the big picture.