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A breed standard is a list of points used to describe a breed of animal, such as a cat, dog, cow, horse, goat, or sheep, among many others. The guidelines in a breed standard are used to determine which animals will be accepted or admitted into the breed, and which ones will be rejected. Breed standards are designed to protect the integrity of purebred animals and their heritage by ensuring that only the finest representatives of the breed are identified as members of the breed.
A typical breed standard includes a brief description of general traits in the breed, like temperament and intelligence, followed by specific “points of conformation,” or physical characteristics to look for. Most breed standards also outline which colors and coat patterns are acceptable in the breed. As a whole, the breed standard describes a specimen which is believed to be the epitome of the breed. Some breed standards also include a note about acceptable variations and mutations, while others adhere to a more strict standard.
When an animal is judged against a breed standard, the judge usually applies points in a variety of categories. Animals with the highest number of points will win in shows where the breed is exhibited, and animals below a set number will be excluded from the breed. It is very rare for an animal to get a perfect score, largely because the animal described in the breed standard is a fictional ideal, rather than a real animal.
Breeders who work with purebred animals generally try to breed and raise specimens which adhere to the breed standard as closely as possible. Historically, animals which did not meet the standard were often destroyed. Today, breeders are more likely to sterilize such animals so that they cannot dilute the breed, and to sell them as pets. These animals will not be certified as purebreds, but they often have many of the desirable traits associated with the breed.
Breed standards are published by a number of organizations. Groups which keep studbooks, such as the American Kennel Club, usually include a breed standard with their studbook listing. For the average person and animal, breed standards are not usually a topic of much interest, but for breeders, changes to breed standards and particularly remarkable living examples of a breed standard are cause for much discussion.
Adherence to breed standards has been cited as a problem by some breeders, because some breeds of animal are becoming overbred and experiencing a variety of genetic problems. Relaxation of breed standards could allow greater genetic diversity, ensuring that these breeds stay healthy so that future generations can enjoy them.
Genetic diversity has nothing to do with a relaxation of breed standards within any breed. Genetic diversity is the conservation of historic breeds, not the dilution of their genetic material or the outcrossing to individuals exhibiting traits foreign to its Breed Standard.