December 10, 2009 09:00 PM

When Professor James Serpell was sitting in the green room of the Today show, moments before he was to appear on TV to discuss the new documentary Pedigree Dogs Exposed, a stranger told him about the puppy that she and her husband bought as newlyweds. It was a registered, pedigreed shih tzu that they adored. Sadly, she explained how the dog began to have problems with its hind legs, only to get progressively worse. Poor breeding had resulted in a spinal abnormality, and many thousands of treatment dollars later, the dog was still suffering.

Serpell, whose work focuses on the welfare of companion animals, says that it’s a classic story, one that he hears all the time from owners of pedigree dogs, who make up about 70 percent of dog owners in the U.S. “For your average pet owners, I think they believe that if they obtain a pedigree dog, they’re buying quality,” Serpell tells PEOPLEPets.com.

The controversial documentary making its U.S. debut on BBC America tonight aims to dispel that idea. “There is an illusion that an American Kennel Club pedigree certificate is some kind of guarantee of quality,” says producer Jemima Harrison. “And it isn’t.”

Pedigree Dogs Exposed, which looks at the sometimes horrifying health problems of purebred dogs, caused an uproar in the U.K. last year when it first aired. The Kennel Club and breeders felt that the film was too sensational and biased against them, while pet owners were shocked to find that their pet’s problems were not just restricted to their household.

“They’re under our nose, in our living rooms – we’re so used to them,” Harrison tells PEOPLEPets.com. “We’ve become rather desensitized to the amount of suffering they endure because dogs are amazingly stoical. They put up with a huge amount that we’ve lumbered on them.”

The Kennel Club alleged that the documentary treated it unfairly. Ofcom, an independent British regulatory body, ruled that the club was not given enough time to respond to certain allegations in the documentary, and that certain club statements were represented unfairly, but that “this did not result in any overall unfairness” to the club.

Since the documentary aired, the Kennel Club has instituted changes in regulation – among them, the mating of first-degree relatives has been banned, and 78 breed standards have been revised to reduce or reverse physical exaggerations.

Serpell says that consumers need better representation and education, and that breeding rules in the United States must change in order to shake up the genetic pools of many breeds whose dogs are all very closely related.

The American Kennel Club asserts that it “strongly opposes the breeding of dogs by those who do so without regard for the dogs’ welfare,” and in its online Canine Health Resource Center, states that “while the purebred community diligently and scientifically monitors canine health issues, there is no such corresponding or comparative effort concerning mixed breeds or dogs in general. Therefore there is no definitive evidence of the superior health of mixed breed dogs.”

For Harrison, who also runs a small rescue, the situation seems more dire. “I think pedigree dogs are at a turning point: The choice is to really address the issues and turn them into the beautiful and healthy creatures that we love, or to hide our heads in the sand and carry on as we’ve been doing, which I think will lead to their extinction.”

Pedigree Dogs Exposed airs tonight at 8 p.m. on BBC America. It is available for purchase on DVD, and you can watch clips of the documentary on YouTube.

Will you watch Pedigree Dogs Exposed? Let us know your thoughts below!

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