Pet Fertility Clinics Are On The Rise, But They May Not Be Staffed By Vets

You want to take me where and for what, now? Maryna Vechirka/Shutterstock

It’s hard to explain to your pet, after they’ve clocked on that you’re taking them to the *whispers* V-E-T and are giving you that look of betrayal, that you’re doing it because you love them, and you trust the vet with their life.

An investigation into the rise of pet fertility clinics in the UK, however, has revealed a worryingly high number are not run by vets, or do not have any vets on staff, despite offering veterinary surgical procedures, including some that are banned.

The investigative feature, published in Vet Record, reported a jump from one canine fertility clinic in the UK in 2015 to 37 currently operating. The boom in clinics has jumped along with the number of puppies being born via canine surgical artificial insemination (AI), a procedure that was banned in 2019.

Surgical AI involves putting an animal under general anesthetic, making an incision in the abdomen, and inserting semen directly into the uterus, rather than using a catheter to administer semen – a procedure that before being banned under animal welfare laws, you would hope was carried out by trained veterinarians.

Data from the Kennel Club showed that in the past three years at least 1,604 puppies were born using AI, compared with 1,153 during the proceeding 17-year period. It’s thought this is down to the rise in popularity of brachycephalic breeds – squashed-face breeds like pugs, French bulldogs, and chihuahuas, many of which suffer health issues due to selective breeding.  

However, the investigation found two clinics still advertising this procedure.

Of the 37 fertility clinics identified as specializing in dog fertility, 20 offered a stud from brachycephalic dog breeds that have an 80 percent chance of requiring a cesarian in order to give birth – but did not have vets on staff to carry out this procedure.

The authors acknowledge that this doesn’t mean the clinics weren’t potentially bringing in vets to perform the surgeries, but they also found many of the clinics recommending “self-whelping”, where the birth is not aided by a vet, despite these particular breeds almost always needing assistance to give birth successfully as they struggle naturally, again thanks to their selective breeding.

Artificial insemination is not unethical in itself, Madeleine Campbell from the Royal Veterinary College, said in the feature, as it can help maintain genetic diversity, and allows animals geographically far apart to breed without the need for stressful travel. "However, if artificial insemination is being used to achieve pregnancies in animals which for heritable anatomical reasons are not capable of either breeding or giving birth naturally, then that has negative welfare implications and is of ethical concern,” she said.

"Furthermore, if Vet Record's investigations imply that non-vets may be undertaking acts of veterinary surgery such as caesarian sections, then that is obviously worrying, and would be illegal.”

In an accompanying editorial, the authors point out that though there is no evidence the two clinics advertising the illegal procedure carried any out after the ban, the fact they were still advertising it raises the question of who, if anyone, is regulating these clinics?

The Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons regulates vets in the UK, but it cannot regulate those outside the veterinary profession. The authors urge owners to get educated about who can carry out procedures on pets and which reproductive procedures are both legal and ethical. If you proclaim to be a pet-lover, don't cut corners if it's putting animals at risk, and any concerns about non-vets undertaking acts of veterinary surgery should be reported to the police.

While the UK (and possibly other countries) needs to look into creating laws to regulate this burgeoning canine fertility industry, author Josh Loeb suggests in the meantime they "should be considered not as veterinary but rather as 'pseudo veterinary' clinics."

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