This article was written by Dr Harry Cooper for the Nov-Jan issue of Pet Industry News.

I must have been about 12 years old, and about to make the move from primary school to secondary school when my father made me an offer that was impossible to resist: “If your marks are good enough to get a scholarship at your new school, I’ll get you some budgies.”

My brother and I grew up in a family where animals were a big part of our lives. Mum bred Pomeranians, and Dad, Smooth Haired Fox Terriers. On top of that we had poultry and a black cat. We always had a black cat.

The exam was tough on so many levels. Primary school had been a small private campus in Hunters Hill with not many more than 100 students all up. Suddenly, I am sitting in huge hall with twice that number of boys my age and staring at a white exercise book with so many questions, on so many different subjects. We were there for what seemed an eternity, but I think two hours would be about right. How did I go, anxious parents asked. Honestly, I didn’t have a clue.

Fate was on my side, and I gained entry to Barker and won a scholarship to boot. Dad, true to his word duly turned up with two pairs of yellow budgies, well, they were sort of yellow, and by today’s standards so small, they would probably have got out through the wire netting. But they bred. Boy did they breed. The thrill of the first babies squeaking in the nest was unbelievable. Mind you I had nothing to do with it except to put in some nest boxes. I’d read lots of books, and obviously so had the budgies because they just knew what to do. There was no control going on here and they chose mates as they pleased.

Dentists are interesting professionals. They wait until your mouth is stuffed to overflowing with cotton wool, and then they start asking you questions.

“So, what have you been doing over the holidays?”, the family fang flosser asked.

“I gut udgies” was all I could muster.

“Oh, you’ve got budgies”, the dentist went on, “I’ll have to show you some good budgies”.

“I gut gud udgies” I stammered back indignantly.

“I’m sure you do”, he said kindly, “But if you can come with me next weekend you can see for yourself”.

There were three aviaries. There were so many birds in each that at least half a dozen had to keep flying till they could find room on a perch. I was blown away. I had never seen or imagined such stunning birds. Today we call them clearwings. Pure white wings on a blue body or brilliant yellow on a green body. I was hooked. Budgies were going to be my thing, and they were for many, many years. I have judged here in Australia, and in the UK. I am a life member of the society and at one stage had almost 2,000 birds until a massive bushfire slaughtered some 498 of them. Yes, I remember the number to this day. The heat was so intense they never had a chance.

Studying for my veterinary degree I found genetics to be a world just waiting to be discovered. There were Xs and Ys to start, then Dominants and Recessives. The continual debate about line breeding and in breeding always had someone venturing an opinion. ‘If it works then it’s line breeding, and if it doesn’t then it’s inbreeding’. The birds became my tool in a breeding plan. Sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t.

I branched out into poultry and greyhounds and yes of all things, cats. While I may have dabbled with line breeding in the budgie and poultry world, it was all but forbidden in the greyhound fraternity. With cats I exercised a fair degree of caution. We are looking at two very different things.

Firstly, with show animals – and that includes all manner of birds – we have a breed standard. It is the aim of every good breeder to get as close as possible to that standard as they can. Theoretically the judge should then award their exhibit as the winner. We are then only looking at one thing and that is the phenotype. With performance animals like horses and greyhounds, it doesn’t really matter all that much what they look like, but how fast they can travel. It’s unfortunate that in the racing industry money is the driving force. The need to recoup the massive amounts spent annually on young thoroughbreds is what makes the races for a two-year-old such an attraction. The pacing industry is similar. There is, with performance animals, a need to wait. You can’t tell by looking at the animal if it is going to be fast or slow. On the other hand, in the show ring appearance, is obvious from about six weeks of age onwards. You don’t have to wait; you can see what you’ve got.

Now is the time to run my veterinary flag up the mast and tell you just how important temperament is. Strange isn’t it; it’s often the very last thing people want to talk about. Here’s a true story. A quality show winning Seal Point Siamese male cat was imported into Australia via New Zealand. On arrival, I thought the cat to be a bit standoffish, certainly nothing like the crawl all over you and purr that I was used to. He was mated to three queens [females] from three different lines [yes, line bred to a degree]. All had produced beautiful kittens from previous litters. Almost from the day they started to leave their mother’s side those kittens were different. They would hiss and spit. They hated being handled. The older they grew, the worse they got. They would stand upon their hind legs and swipe at you. Decision time. Do you sell kittens like this into loving homes where the first time a child picks one up, he or she will get clawed or bitten. Remember almost 90 per cent will be sold as pets, not show animals. Do you even want to keep these genes in your breeding programme? There is no cure. There is no treatment. Responsible breeders make the hard decisions and eliminate those genes from the ‘pool’.

I have done several stories on selected breeds of cat, and I hate to say it, but in several instances, I was told: “But they win everywhere.”

Well, they didn’t win with me. I could only handle one or two; the others were a ‘look, but don’t touch’ proposition. You’ve got to be kidding.

Regrettably the dog world is no different when it comes to temperament. The sad thing here too is that a good many of these ‘difficult’ dogs are in pain. Why? Often, they have heritable joint problems. Hip Dysplasia is the obvious, but shoulders, elbows and hocks are not immune.

If we are going to breed any animal of any kind, we should be looking at so many things. A good number of the skeletal problems are controlled by many factors. We can test for many heritable diseases these days, and as responsible breeders we must put the good of the breed above all else. I am gladdened by the rebirth as it were of the Pembroke Corgi. As a young vet the sight of one entering your surgery immediately put you on guard. Yes, they bit! Not anymore. I am well informed that one import was responsible for this aggressive trait, and it has taken many generations to eliminate those genes from the population.

It is no wonder the world is rushing off to buy designer dogs. They have regrettably been duped by show dog breeders, who as the old world expression goes ‘sold them a pup’. There is too, an underlying belief that by crossing two different breeds together we will automatically get rid of ‘all the nasties’ that these show dogs have. Not so my friends. I have seen a nine month old ‘Groodle’, where both hips were so badly dislocated the dog could not stand on its own. There are plenty more stories like this one.

As the noose of regulations starts to draw more tightly round the neck of genuine breeders there is an even greater need to consider the ‘good of the breed’, first, and then the dollars in the bank.

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