Working Together Toward Better Breed Health
by C.A. Sharp
First published in Double Helix Network News, Winter 2009
The mythic heroes of yesteryear single-handedly performed mighty deeds: Paul Bunyan felled entire forests with one swing of his ax, Beowulf slew Grendel, and Hercules cleaned the Aegean stables (a dirty but doubtless necessary job.) But outside of myths, few great tasks can be accomplished by a single person; they require a community. A community might be a large as a nation or as small as a handful of cooperating dog breeders.
Genetic health issues are a significant concern in purebred dogs. Lack of focus and discord within our ranks are the biggest impediments to major progress in reducing the incidence of these diseases. No one person, in a single breed or within dogdom as a whole, can counter this trend. It takes a community.
Genetic health issues exist in all species, including dogs. We in purebreds need to accept that every dog has a few “bad” genes. The difference between mixes, which the public mistakenly believes are paragons of good health, and our purebreds is that if we work together and do our homework we can reasonably predict what traits we are or are not likely to get in a particular litter. This allows us to take effective steps toward reducing the frequency of unwanted traits, whether in conformation, behavior or health. This isn’t true of mixes whose random and unplanned breeding makes any but the most obvious physical traits difficult-to-impossible to predict.
Because it is possible to predict which purebreds are more likely to produce particular traits – including genetic diseases – we can, through breed-specific communities, take effective measures toward reducing the frequency with which they occur. Cooperation between members of a community, be it a handful of like-minded breeders or the membership of a national breed club, can make this possible.
Breed health issues affect everyone, so the more people are encouraged to pull together, the better off that breed is. The Portuguese Water Dogs and Bernese Mountain Dogs are fortunate to have a significant number of breeders and owners focused on health. Their breed clubs make health a priority. Both these breeds are small in population and struggle with small gene pools. Even so, their dogs are better off than those in more populous breeds where health issues are not a priority. The PWD and Berner clubs achieve this through positive efforts.
Getting compliance with health initiatives can be difficult and frustrating, but draconian measures will only drive people out of your community, if not out of your breed. In fact, that is probably why Incorrigibles, who militantly discourage discussion of health issues, resort to bully tactics: They make people who point out inconvenient truths sufficiently uncomfortable that they shut up or go away. The Incorrigibles may then continue business as usual with no bother about pesky health issues. It only takes a few well-placed and persistent Incorrigibles to wreck havoc on a breed’s health. On the other hand, if health advocates enact restrictive rules or engage in loud public finger-pointing to enforce compliance, they may encourage people to give up or cover up to avoid hassle. Positive approaches and peer pressure are far more effective at making meaningful and lasting changes in attitude than bullying or by-the-book rules enforcement.
The “10-Steps”program operated by the Australian Shepherd Health & Genetics Institute, Inc. (ASHGI) was created as a positive approach to dealing with health issues. It not only suggests proactive steps individuals can take but discourages punitive behavior toward others. While the steps were written with Australian Shepherds in mind, they could easily be adapted to other breeds of dog or even other species.
There are also positive purebred health programs that cross breed barriers. The AKC Canine Health Foundation and Morris Animal Foundation have funded millions of dollars of research. No small amount of that money has come from dedicated breed people and clubs. The Canine Health Information Center (CHIC) program of the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals (OFA,) which currently includes over 120 breeds, is a major high-profile effort to make health information publicly available. Only with the open exchange of information on health traits can breeders can make informed decisions that will reduce the frequency of inherited disease. Breed clubs should make every effort to encourage participation in CHIC. If CHIC certification becomes as much a given as hip and eye exams are for many breeds, our dogs will be much better off.
Hereditary disease is everyone’s problem: Breeders, competitors, pet people, and the trainers and handlers of working and field dogs. Each of us we must cooperate within our separate disciplines and areas of canine interest, with our local and national clubs, and between breed clubs. We must foster cooperation with non-breeders because they are the ones who have most of our dogs. We should all be on the same team. Knowledge of the genetic status of non-breeding dogs is as important as that of those which are bred. Owners need to be made aware that the control of genetic disease is as important to them as it is to any breeder and encouraged to share health information on their dogs.
Breeders should strive to maintain open lines of contact with all their puppy people. Stud dog owners need to keep in touch with the owners of bitches that the stud has covered. Groups of breeders often form informal cooperatives for a wide variety of reasons; one of those reasons should be minimizing the frequency of genetic health issues through information exchange.
Regional clubs are an ideal resource for networking, distributing important information and educating members and the general public. Putting on quality trials and shows is important, exciting and fun, but health events and member health and genetics education are equally important. Regional clubs can offer health clinics and other events. Members can join together under the club banner to present their views on important health-related issues to their national clubs.
National clubs’ health & genetics committees should take the lead in public education about breed health issues and provide their membership and affiliate regional clubs with up-to-date information on breed health issues. If affiliated with AKC or other all-breed clubs, they should interface with those organizations regarding health issues. The AKC established its Canine Health Foundation (CHF) to provide education, assist breed clubs with health initiatives and support important health research. AKC member clubs should make a positive working relationship with CHF a “must.” Individual breed clubs also need to form alliances with other breeds to tackle common health issues. Few breeds have the sort of large well-funded foundations that benefit the Golden Retrievers or the Boxers, but by working cooperatively, smaller breed organizations can achieve important results.
Most breeds have only a single national breed club and, perhaps, a related foundation. But for those with multiple national clubs or registries, and for all breeds which exist in more than one nation, cooperation on health must be pursued even if there are other issues upon which neither side is likely to agree. To present one very convoluted example: The Australian Shepherd has two strong national breed clubs in the US, the breed’s country of origin. Each club has a foundation. There are also two independent health organizations in the US and somewhere upwards of a twenty other established clubs in other countries, most of them affiliated with or seeking affiliation with their national all-breed registry. Obviously all these groups have their own priorities and concerns. Some are to some degree antagonistic toward each other, but a few years ago when epilepsy was recognized as a serious breed health concern an international grass-roots effort lead to a large collection of research samples and cooperation among key clubs, foundations and organizations to provide funding for a research project that involves an international collaboration. Is all now peace and bliss in the Aussie kingdom? No. But if we have put our differences aside to meet a common health goal once, we can do it again. And so can people in other breeds far less fragmented than ours.
Develop a game plan
You can’t make progress unless you know where you are going. Health and genetics committees and breed health organizations need to identify the most significant health concerns then develop a set of best practices for breeders to follow.
Experienced breed people will know which health issues are most common, but without conducting a survey, important information may not be available. Long-time Aussie breeders recognized that cancer has become a more frequent occurrence, but since there are so many different cancers and so many potential environmental causes no one felt cancer was a breeding concern. In 2007, ASHGI completed a cancer-specific survey. While numerous types of cancer were reported, nearly half the dogs entered had either hemangiosarcoma or lymphoma. Subsequent examination of pedigrees demonstrated that these two cancers were familial in the breed, indicating some degree of heritability.
Targeted surveys like ASHGI’s cancer effort can be useful, but periodic comprehensive health surveys are vital in every breed. The surveys need to encompass a broad range of health issues and might also include other problematic inherited traits, like non-standard colors or other disqualifying faults. Surveys need to be part of a club’s long-range planning: Because populations change over time, comprehensive surveys should be conducted about once a decade.
Putting a survey together, gathering the data and ultimately doing statistical analysis can be a daunting task. Contact other breed clubs or breed health organizations that have done surveys to ask about their experiences. CHF provides guidelines to help with survey development and OFA offers a survey service. In addition there are individuals and universities which will help develop surveys and analyze the data for a fee. (Ask for references.)
One of the greatest difficulties with surveys in the past was getting sufficient response. Today, web-mounting improves access and response. Paper copies can also be made available for those who cannot or will not utilize a web-mounted survey. Unless your breed has a small population and is largely in the hands of club members, encourage survey participation by non-members. The broader range of responses you get, not to mention larger numbers, the more useful the data will be.
Collecting the data electronically via a web-mounted survey form also saves a lot of time and effort during the data analysis phase. Proper statistical analysis is vital and if your club does not have someone with that expertise, you may need to hire someone to do it for you.
Once key areas of concern have been identified, get the word out to the entire breed community, including pet owners. Let breeders know what health issues are of greatest concern, how to recognize them and how best to avoid producing them. Provide up-to-date information on screening and diagnostic testing. For owners, make treatment information available. Encourage participation in research on those diseases and provide financial and logistical assistance to the scientists doing the work.
Develop a recommended testing and screening protocol and promote it to breeders. ASHGI has developed one for Aussies It could readily be adapted for other breeds.
Stay on message and on target
We must, within our various communities, reach a consensus on important health related goals and set priorities. Once that is accomplished we must work together to communicate the importance of those goals to the wider breed and canine communities with which we intersect.
The message should not be confined to a single health issue. Eye disease may be the primary health concern now, but in a decade it might be epilepsy or cancer. What is important isn’t the detail, but the approach. If your message lays the groundwork for constructive action for individuals as well as groups, it can be translated to new concerns as they arise.
The message cannot be overly optimistic. Building unreasonable expectations does only harm in the long run. Solutions to entrenched health issues are never quick or easy. Science takes time and may require multiple studies before a breakthrough is made. Health issues will never disappear, but they can become infrequent given sufficient scientific knowledge of the disease and a willingness among breeders and owners to do what is necessary to reduce disease frequency.
If the message is not clear or continually shifts focus it will not hold the attention of those who most need to hear it. And it can provide ammunition to our critics.
The Devil in the Dark
Purebred dogs are under assault from extreme animal rightists who would like to see all domestic animal populations managed to extinction. Some of the major extreme-AR players have mounted well-funded PR campaigns proclaiming all purebred dogs to be hopelessly riddled with disease. They market their views to large numbers of well-meaning but ill-informed people who have come to believe that every purebred is hopelessly riddled with disease while mixes and cross-bred dogs are uniformly healthy. This message resonates with a public that, rightfully, disdains those who cause needless suffering to animals. No matter the inaccuracies in the argument, it makes us look bad.
AR extremism is a purebred dog issue: The extinction they plan for all our dogs is the ultimate health problem. Genetic diseases exist in mix-breeds and whatever-doodles, too. But our detractors will grab onto breed health information and beat us about the head with it if we let them. A recent, scathing (and, in this writers’ opinion, biased) BBC documentary on purebred dogs used individual animals with significant health issues to imply that all dogs of those breeds had horrible health issues and, by extension, all other purebreds as well. Our breed and all-breed organizations must stand ready to answer these accusations with facts. Have proactive health programs in place to demonstrate your dedication to improving health.
Our failure to adopt substantive and proactive health initiatives in some breeds and a lack of public education about what is being done in purebred dogs leaves us open to criticism. We need to work toward getting a more positive picture before the public and at the same time put our houses in order.
We may have to accept that some of our traditional practices, like cropping and docking, may need to be abandoned. These surgeries once served practical purposes but today are largely cosmetic. John Q. Public and his kids aren’t buying long tradition as an acceptable defense. This gives the AR extremists a handy bat to bludgeon us with.
Breeds with extreme features that are associated with health issues are under attack already. I don’t personally feel that any breed should be mandated into extinction. However, the breeders and breed clubs for those breeds may need to think long and hard about a return to historic standards of breed appearance dating to the time before high-quality veterinary surgery and professional dog groomers were available to maintain those breeds in their current state.
Health issues are our Achilles’ heel. If we aren’t diligently and publicly making efforts to improve health, from the big all-breed registries down to the individual breeder, we will remain open to AR attack and the restrictive legislation it encourages.
Hang together or hang separately
The harshest critics of purebred dogs and the Incorrigibles within our own ranks are adept at divide and conquer. It is vital that we who care about the future of purebred dogs work together, despite breed differences, never mind what registry we use, across international borders and without regard to the thousand and one political wrangles among ourselves. We must not tolerate Incorrigibles, who would prefer to keep hereditary disease in a closet. We must continue to build on the successes achieved so far.
To paraphrase Benjamin Franklin, we’d better hang together toward meaningful and substantive improvements in purebred health or the AR extremists will be only to happy to hang each one of our breeds separately. And extreme AR sensibilities aside, we owe no less than good health to our dogs.