Saturday, 3 October 2015

RIP the Otterhound

Oh great. So now the Kennel Club is celebrating how endangered the Otterhound is?

Like it's some kind of badge of honour?  Like there's some value in the breed's rarity? 

The sad truth is that the Otterhound is about to be consigned to history and the Kennel Club is doing nothing to stop it. Obscenely, the KC has the bald cheek to compare the Otterhound to the seriously endangered giant panda and white rhino while mustering none of the effort we see conservationists make to save wild species.

And how ironic that KC twitter handle... because if the KC really loved dogs, it would be doing so, so much more to ensure their future.

The population data released by the Kennel Club last week revealed that the Otterhound is on its last legs - only 22 puppies born last year in the UK, and very few born abroad.  They're all horribly inbred.  There is no job for them any more. And no demand for a big, shaggy, sometimes smelly dog which - the KC helpfully reveals in its Discover Dogs lowdown here - has a tendency to kill small furry things and can rarely be let off lead safely.  Oh, and they slobber. 

The breed club in the UK has a good health rep in Janice Ashworth and there is a lot of helpful health info/ongoing surveys on the breed club website (you can find them here). But, goodness, they make for depressing reading. 

The reports suggest that the breed suffers from a high rate of epilepsy, cancer and hip dysplasia. The breed's mean hip score is 46.5 - severely dysplastic. In fact, the Otterhound has the worst hips of any breed in the UK and they are getting worse (if you look at just the last five years, the mean hip score has risen to 51). Breeders are continuing to breed from dogs with hip scores over 100 because there are so few dogs they feel they cannot be fussy. There is an increasing number of reports of low-litter sizes; almost certainly due to inbreeding depression. Average COI has risen almost 2% in the last two years (up from 16% to 17.9%) The breed has an effective population size of 33 - genetically unsustainable.

And while there was some talk a couple of years ago of an outcross to save the breed, that seems to have died a death. Like the breed itself is doing.

In 2012, the breed's UK health rep Janice Ashworth said: “Outcrossing is certainly one option that we are very keen to look at, because we do need to increase the number of dogs that are contributing genetically to the very small population of dogs within our breed. We look forward to working with the Kennel Club and the Animal Health Trust to find solutions that will protect our breed in the future.”

Since then? Nada. Zilch. Nothing. I imagine that however keen Janice may be to explore crossbreeding, she has had little or no support from breeders. It is the equivalent of the zoos of yesteryear - happy to parade highly endangered species for the public to see, while doing nothing to protect and preserve them.

That changed. Why can't this change too?

Why aren't the KC and breeders working with conservationists who understand this stuff and have brought many species back from the brink?   Why aren't there specific breed conservation plans? Why aren't you talking to those who are successfully managing rare livestock breeds? Seriously, in breeds like the Otterhound, we are way beyond softly-softly advice to limit the use of popular sires and encouraging breeders to DNA test.

Am I the only one who feels any sense of panic?

Now, I don't have a problem with the breed going extinct. It's the manner of the Otterhound's extinction that sticks in the craw. The dogs are dying fitting, limping and painfully in the hands of breeders who will look you in the eye and tell you they love the breed but who in reality are the agents of their destruction through their obsession with blood purity and their unwillingness to embrace modern science.

RIP the Otterhound. Like all dogs trapped in closed gene pools under the auspices of kennel clubs... you deserved better. 

Tuesday, 22 September 2015

BREAKING NEWS: a quarter of UK dog breeds so inbred they could face extinction

The Kennel Club today releases data which shows that half of all Kennel Club breeds are in trouble - and a quarter of them are so genetically impoverished they may not survive.

Those in peril include much loved UK breeds such as Irish and English Setters, the English Springer Spaniel, Cocker Spaniel, Bull Terrier, Otterhound, Bearded Collie and the Yorkshire Terrier.

Now this is not what those attending a press conference at the Kennel Club today (Tuesday 22nd September) will be told by KC spin doctors.

But it's what the data actually show.

Nope, those attending the event will be told how bloody marvellous the KC is for exploring the population structure of their 200-or so breeds and that the future is looking rosier for many breeds. Significantly, they will be told that the rate of inbreeding they've found is "sustainable", implying all is well in the world of pedigree dogs.  Because that, you see, is the conclusion of the authors (being paid by the Kennel Club incidentally) of a new paper published in Canine Genetics & Epidemiology this week. (Read it here.)

Nothing could be further from the truth - and the evidence presented in the paper does not support its conclusion.

All this new paper shows is that the rate of inbreeding in the UK has slowed a bit in recent years in some breeds  - probably due to the relaxation in quarantine rules which has allowed more imports, and a greater general awareness of the damage caused by inbreeding in the wake of Pedigree Dogs Exposed

While this is a bit of good news, the overall picture is bleak.  Many breeds are  very inbred and many breeds suffer a high burden of genetic disease. The paper documents a horrific leaching of genetic diversity in the 1980s and 1990s and not even a slowing down of the rate of inbreeding in recent years is going to claw that back.

That's because Kennel Club breeds are trapped in closed gene pools, treated as isolated species by breeders. Many KC breeds are founded on just a handful of founders - sometimes even just two dogs. The whole thing could be ameliorated with some judicious crossing to other breeds. But all but the most enlightened breeders view mating one breed to a different one as an anathema. Breed purity is still everything to most.

This paper looks at the rate of inbreeding in 200 or so Kennel Club breeds in the UK to establish what's called their "effective population size" - a measure of genetic viability used by conservationists managing small populations. The higher the EPS (or "Ne" as population geneticists call it), the better.

Conservationists consider an EPS of below 100 to be an indication that a population is endangered. Anything under 50 is considered genetically unsustainable - at "imminent risk of extinction" according to Franklin (1980).  In fact,  some modern conservationists argue that an effective population size of 100 should be considered an extinction risk  and anything below 500 is a concern e.g. here)

And yet 55 per cent of KC breeds in this new study have an effective population size of less than 100 - and 24%, almost a quarter, are under 50.

Over at the Institute of Canine Biology, Carol Beuchat has helpfully produced a graph showing how the breeds with more than 50 registrations a year shape up according to this paper. If you take the conservative estimate that a minimum effective population size of 500 is needed to ensure sustainability, only two breeds make the grade. (Read Carol's take on this paper here.)

Click to enlarge

The true picture could be even worse. This is because the data include imported dogs for which only limited pedigree data is available.  This will make the picture look rosier than it really as apparently unrelated imported dogs will often be quite closely related if you go a little further back in the pedigree.

Of course, this data looks only at UK breeds and the global situation could be better. Certainly, while the English Setter is on its last legs in the UK, there are zillions of them globally which may offer a way out of the genetic cul-de-sac. But this is not true for every breed.

Now the degree of threat to individual breeds will depend largely on the disease burden in those breeds - and that varies considerably. Some breeds with very small populations appear to be relatively healthy; while some much large breeds are not.  I hope today that the Kennel Club is going to announce some kind of coherent conservation plan for all breeds to help manage the genetics.

This paper is a great opportunity to highlight that so much more needs to be done and the attempt at positive spin by the Kennel Club is a great disservice to dogs.

The 29 breeds in the UK facing extinction (all with an effective population size under 50)

Airedale Terrier
Bearded Collie
Bedlington Terrier
Boston Terrier
Bull Terrier
Rough Collie
Long-haired Dachshund
English Setter
Wire-haired Fox Terrier
Irish Red and White Setter
Irish Setter
Kerry Blue Terrier
King Charles Spaniel
Lakeland Terrier
Lancashire Heeler
Lowchen Little Lion Dog
Manchester Terrier
Norfolk Terrier
Norwich Terrier
Curly-coated Retriever
Clumber Spaniel
Cocker Spaniel
English Springer Spaniel
Field Spaniel
Sussex Spaniel
Welsh Springer Spaniel
Tibetan Spaniel
Welsh Terrier
Yorkshire Terrier

There is no panic at all about this in this paper. And yet a supporting infographic produced by the Kennel Club actually makes it pretty clear.
Click to enlarge
Don't get me wrong - the KC should be congratulated for commissioning this study. The accompanying infographics are good (the work, I suspect, of Dan O'Neill from VetCompass as they're very similar to the ones he produces for that). And I am pleased to see a new (I think) page on the KC website that for the first time explores outcrossing as something for breeders to consider as well as highlighting the problem of popular sires - have a look here.

I am just completely thrown by the paper's conclusion - and so should you be.

Again, over half the breeds studied had an effective population size less than 100; and almost a quarter had an effective population size of less than 50.

So, tell me, on what basis can this paper justify its take-home message that the rate of inbreeding in today's Kennel Club registered dogs is sustainable?

Individual breed reports are available here.


NB: this is just a preliminary report on this important paper. I will continue to add/tweak.

Sunday, 20 September 2015

The dog delusion

The stench of cognitive dissonance is never so pungent as it is when a bunch of Neapolitan Mastiff show breeders and owners get together.

Last month, there was a UK get-together of the UK branch of CACEP. 


CACEP is a group of Neapolitan Mastiff breeders and owners "devoted to the revival of the true Neapolitan Mastiff", as Sheila Atter reported in last week's DogWorld.

There, she gave CACEP's mission statement:
  “'The Neapolitan Mastiff of the future will be a dog chosen from individuals with strong muscle tone, dryness and muscularity of the trunk, athleticism with balanced type, general wrinkles, divided dewlap that best represent the unique expression of our breed. 
 "“CACEP will demonstrate to the latest generations of fans, who often have a distorted idea of Mastino Napoletano, made up of excess hypertypical dogs, that the Neapolitan Mastiff is not done with too much skin and too much weight, but of muscle, power, strength and physical endurance. This is the Neapolitan Mastiff that our ancestors gave us. This is the Neapolitan Mastiff that we have a duty to choose and leave a legacy to our children.”
Oh, and....
“...the Mastino Napoletano must have the soul, the psyche of the true Neapolitan Mastiff, an indomitable dog, indifferent to pain, with a powerful bite, with courage. A dog capable of being an incorruptible, unsurpassed guardian of humans and defender of property. A terrible opponent for anyone."  
Goodness! Well, I suppose they could sit on a burglar... suffocate them with their wrinkles?
Drown them in slobber, perhaps? But at least it's a relief to hear that they're breeding them to not feel pain given the state of their eyes.

You think I'm joking?

The UK arm of CACEP is the initiative of Kim Slater, former health rep for the main UK Neapolitan Club who gave up the health co-ordinator's job because...well, various reports, but essentially I think her frustration with the resistance within the breed club to embrace real change.

Slater talks a good game when it comes to health. She has done a lot to encourage breeders to health-test their dogs - and that is something. There was even a vet and Philippa Robinson of the Karlton Index at this event, the latter doing a health survey.  But pin Slater down and she confesses to liking "typey" dogs (i.e. dogs that anyone outside of the breed would consider overdone).  And, in truth, if she was really that concerned about Neapolitan Mastiff health, she would ask the KC to de-register the breed on the entirely valid grounds that the show-bred version of this breed is a disgrace to dogdom.

But no. Slater wants to be seen to be proactive on health while still embracing a dog that is very over-exaggerated. That this is somehow justified because of the dogs'  "ancient" roots is laughable.

Now there were certainly Mastiff-type dogs on Roman murals. But they looked like this:

Not like this.

The breed was, in fact, recreated in the 1950s  - see Terrierman's excellent piece on that here. They remained clean-lined, reasonably moderate, imposing dogs for the next 20/30 yrs.  The dogs below are from the 1960s and 1970s and they have real presence - particularly the first two. You'd think twice about entering their property, wouldn't you? And while they're big and solid, they still look athletic. You can also see their eyes and they have open nostrils (many of today's show-dogs are stenotic).

But then the show-ring really got hold of them. And before long, we ended up with a dog that couldn't even see an intruder, let along intimidate one.

Oh. And every single one of the modern dogs above was bred by or belongs to the man that Kim Slater invited over to judge at the CACEP event in the UK.  Here he is, on the right at the CACEP event - Nello Vacarro of the Della Rupe Mastino Kennel.

Vacarro is from Rome and looks rather scarier than his dogs, so hope I'm not risking life and limb by calling him out here. His Facebook page is open (well, as I write this) so you can see for yourself what kind of dogs he likes.  Now there are one or two recent more moderate dogs there but, really, way, WAY too many that look like the ones above - and this one below with red pits for eyes.

Have a look, too, at the "magnificent"trophy awarded at the CACEP event.  As I pointed out in the Comments section on Sheila Atter's DogWorld piece - all I see is a sad, mutated, mutilated dog. And, boy, those roses....!

The whole thing is completely delusional. 

If the 2014 KC Health Survey reports findings as bleak as I expect with this breed (it isn't just the hideous conformation, it's that they're lucky to make five or six years old before keeling over), I will be breaking a personal rule and launching a petition - to persuade the Kennel Club to de-register them until breeders can demonstrably show the dogs can lead longer, less-encumbered lives.  

Seriously, anyone who buys into the current sleight of mouth should be ashamed of themselves. And that includes those facilitating this nonsense by trotting round the CACEP event with clipboards.

Sure, the KC registers only about 60 a year. But these are almost all show-bred and if there wasn't a show-ring for them to lumber round, there would be no incentive to breed them.  

The absolute quickest and kindest way to cure the Neapolitan Mastiff's problems is, quite simply, to not breed them.

Watch this space.


Australian breeder of Alaskan Malamutes fined for misleading puppy buyers

A breeder of Alaskan Malamutes in Australia was last week found guilty by a court in Queensland for telling puppy buyers that hip dysplasia is not genetic - and fined AU$22,000.

The court heard that Peter and Faith Dykstra, of Sandown Alaskan Malamutes, have sold several dogs that have been diagnosed with hip dysplasia and when challenged have told their puppy buyers it's their own fault for feeding the wrong diet. Despite receiving numerous complaints from puppy buyers, they continued to advertise their breeding programme as "15 years free of genetic defects".

Now this one is interesting, as hip dysplasia is undoubtedly multi-factorial. It is increasingly clear that diet and exercise can play a role in the development of HD. But of course that's no excuse for not testing your stock - especially when you're producing a lot of puppies, as this breeder has.

A quick Google search finds a petition trying to close this breeder down, signed by over 6,000 people. It alleges that many dogs sold by Sandown have gone on to develop a number of health and behavioural problems, not just hip dysplasia.  There's also a closed Facebook group for those who've bought dogs from them (find it here) and a website with some of the horror stories.

However, the Dykstras were cleared of puppy farm allegations in May 2014 when inspectors found that the dogs were kept in reasonable conditions - although they did have too many and were instructed to reduce numbers. At that time, Peter Dykstra claimed he and his wife were the victim of an vicious campaign of lies and threats that had brought his wife to the "verge of a nervous breakdown".  A report detailing the 2014 case, in the Gympie Times , includes this (my bolding):

RSPCA Queensland senior media advisor Michael Beatty said the RSPCA was "only too well aware of" the Sandown Malamutes issues.
"We have attended the facility and found no breaches of the Animal Care and Protection Act which covers such issues as overcrowding, shelter, feeding, adequate shade and water etc," Mr Beatty said. "Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry also attended and they came up with similar findings. However we're also aware that there is public concern over hereditary disease issues. 
"I'm afraid that this does not come under our jurisdiction and there is nothing that we can do legally to address complaints of this nature."

And that is still the case legally in Queensland - and indeed the UK, too. The Dysktras have only been caught out because the court ruled that they misled consumers.  So although some might see this as a warning shot at breeders who don't health test, it isn't really. The court hasn't told breeders the Dykstras that they can't sell untested stock - just that they've got to be honest with buyers.  The court instructed them that from now on they must provide written notice to prospective buyers, at least 48 hours prior to sale, stating that their breeding stock has not screened for hip dysplasia.

It's unclear if the Dysktras are still breeding but if they are,  it's probably not a huge concern. There are still lots of idiot consumers who won't give a rat's ass - well until their dog goes lame or starts fitting and who will then blame everyone other than themselves.

You can read the release from the Queensland Government about the case here.

Thursday, 3 September 2015

Sometimes just impossible to resist

A new paper, just out, highlights the role of inbreeding in the Poodle's immune-mediated issues.  It's published in a journal that the KC helps fund, but there is no mention of this important research anywhere on the KC's social media - including on the Discover Dogs link they give above.

As the paper says: 

"Standard Poodles suffer from a long list of autoimmune diseases including immune mediated hemolytic anemia, immune mediated thrombocytopenia, Evan’s syndrome, immune pancytopenia, chronic thyroiditis, temporal-mandibular myositis, and chronic active hepatitis. However, the two most vexing autoimmune disorders are sebaceous adenitis (SA) and Addison’s disease (AD)." 

Read the whole thing in Canine Genetics + Epidemiology here

Still want a Poodle? Well, this is a fab, rather under-rated breed - and it's a proper dog outside of the silly show-grooming.

And, if you read the paper, you'll see that there's a new canine diversity test on the block - offered by UC Davis - that has the potential to improve the genetic lot of Poodles and other breeds. (More on that another time.)

But, at the moment, a well-bred Poodle cross - perhaps even a not-so-well-bred Poodle x - is almost certainly a better bet health-wise.

Tuesday, 1 September 2015

Cavalier campaigner blasts the KC

It's Puppy Awareness Week (1st-8th September) in the UK and the Kennel Club is already in full flood urging people to take care how they buy puppies.

This included a mail-out last week asking for help "putting bad breeders out of business".

The mail-out has incensed Cavalier campaigner Charlotte Mackanass who today has sent a swingeing open letter to the Kennel Club demanding it puts its own house in order.

Mrs Mackanass accuses the KC of making inadequate demands of breeders, even those on the KC's elite Assured Breeder Scheme. She also alleges that the Kennel Club itself registers puppies bred by puppy farmers, highlighting one breeder that registered 11 litters of Cavalier puppies in just three months.

Mrs Mackanass writes:
"This is a wonderful idea. Puppy farmers need to be stopped. As a dog lover, I would love to help put the bad breeders out of business and ensure that puppies are bred by those who truly care about their welfare. I would also gladly help give potential puppy owners vital information about the most responsible way to find and buy a puppy. 
"This is a subject close to my heart as, having sought advice from the Kennel Club on where to find a responsibly-bred Cavalier puppy and then buying from a “top” breeder on the recommendation of a breed club Puppy Advisor, my little dog was diagnosed with severe Syringomyelia (SM) aged two. In hindsight, she started showing symptoms as early as six months. It transpired that the Kennel Club registered parents of my puppy had no recorded health tests and, to this day, the breeder has been unable to provide evidence that any of the required or recommended health tests were done despite the well-documented inherited health problems in the breed.
"It took me 18 months to find my next puppy from genuinely responsible breeders. Why so long? Because most Cavalier breeders, despite what they claim, do not test their breeding dogs or follow the breeding recommendations designed to reduce the incidence of the two most severe and painful health conditions.  
"These experiences have meant that I cannot, in all conscience, spread the word about buying from a Kennel Club Assured Breeder. I know only too well that the Scheme requires very limited testing, which in no way addresses the serious inherited health issues and the non-compliance of breeding protocols by the majority of Cavalier breeders. 
"I’m afraid that the Kennel Club itself first needs to put in place stringent steps to prevent the KC registration of litters from Puppy Farmers. Caroline Kisko, the Secretary of the Kennel Club, has recently said “We want to stress to people they should never pay money to someone they suspect of being a Puppy Farmer”. Your own KC website defines Puppy Farmers as “high volume breeders who breed puppies with little or no regard for the health and welfare of the puppies or their parents”. It must therefore be of concern to all who support the PAW campaign that one such high-volume breeder is shown as registering 11 Cavalier litters in three months in your latest Breed Record Supplement. The 11 mothers and four stud dogs have no health tests whatsoever shown on your website. 
Mrs Mackanass is backing a petition asking the Kennel Club to only register Cavalier puppies from parents that have screened for syringomyelia and heart disease.  Currently, the KC registers thousands of Cavalier puppies ever year bred from untested stock.

The KC does demand more of Cavaliers bred under their Assured Breeder Scheme. But these represent only a small percentage of Cavalier puppies the KC registers and, astonishingly, only eye-testing is mandatory - screening for SM and heart disease is only a recommendation. (See here).

Writes Mrs Mackanass:
"I would like to draw the Kennel Club General Committee’s attention to a petition that has already gathered over 16,500 signatures. It promotes an idea that would identify responsible Cavalier breeders and so remove Puppy Farm dogs from KC registration:   "By implementing the suggestion that only litters from health-tested Cavalier parents are accepted for registration the KC would ensure that irresponsible breeders, who will not pay for health tests, are unable to register their poorly-bred litters. Buyers could then be confidently directed to the Kennel Club as truly being the place to find responsibly bred puppies. As a really significant bonus, the information on health testing would go to researchers so better testing and breeding methods can be devised?
Yours faithfully Charlotte Mackaness

The KC's standard response to such demands is that if you ask too much of breeders, they will "go elsewhere".  It also argues that not enough is known about syringomyelia and that screening, which is expensive, does not guarantee an SM-free puppy. This is true enough - and it is also the case that estimates vary wildly about how many Cavaliers are affected. One recent paper put the incidence at only around 2 per cent while others have suggested that the brains of 70 per cent of older Cavaliers are abnormal.

However, what is in no doubt is that while some Cavaliers show no or only few symptoms, for others  this can be an extremely distressing condition - agonising for the dogs and expensive for their owners and not even the Kennel Club would argue otherwise.

There is also evidence that mandatory screening in Sweden has helped reduce the incidence of SM.

Says Charlotte: "Beebee started showing symptoms around six months. The most obvious was yelping when picked up. From the start, she’d always been a quiet puppy and not particularly boisterous. She didn’t jump on furniture, always trotted by my heels on walks rather than running off. For a long time, we just assumed it was her personality. As time went by the yelping became more frequent, she’d always roll on her tummy when greeting people (she wanted fuss but not her head touched) and she became extremely withdrawn. An MRI revealed severe CM/SM. Beebee is now on a high dose of neuropathic painkillers that cost well over £100 a month. She rarely yelps and is generally much more active and outgoing than she was. However, if you met her you’d probably think she was much older than three. She behaves like a rather delicate old lady."

Beebee - an "old lady" at 3 due to SM
There is also is still no official screening scheme for the Cavalier's most prevalent health issue: mitral valve disease - despite a KC commitment to the development of one more than nine years ago.

Please sign the petition here.  Seventeen thousand people - including celebrities - already have. Sooner or later, the KC is going to have to give in and do more for this blighted little breed.

More info and discussion to be found on the Cavaliers are Special Facebook page.