Sunday, 19 December 2010

Shar-peis. On a roll

Last week at the APGAW meeting at the House of Commons,  I showed the Kennel Club's Bill Lambert this photograph, taken by award-winning photographer Tim Flach and featured in his beautiful book "Dogs".

© Tim Flach
Bill was adamant that this dog did not meet the breed standard and that a responsible breeder would not be breeding a Shar-Pei this wrinkly. Note, incidentally, the stitch above the pup's right eye - there to prevent the eyelashes from turning in and ulcerating the eye.

In fact, this pup was bred by a Kennel Club Accredited Breeder, Ines Spraggon/Alarcao  ( And this stud dog of theirs, Solo, is advertised on their website as "going to Crufts" (so presumably qualified for Crufts 2011). In other words, these are not BYB/pet-breeders.


The website blurb boasts that Solo has "a type to die for".


As it happens, the Bohobloo website has an unusually honest and blunt section on Shar-pei health for which they should be congratulated.  And I have no doubt that this breeder is telling the truth when they say how much they love and care for their dogs. But the fact remains that many of the health problems listed are directly linked to the conformation of the dog. There are many dogs on this website that are VERY wrinkly and laden with unnecessary, dysfunctional padding.

By the way, the Kennel Club currently has another Tim Flach photograph - this stunning pic of a Puli - on the wall at Clarges St.

 © Tim Flach
Bet they don't have the Shar-pei one, though.

Saturday, 18 December 2010

Not fridges. But still no excuse for selling any old crap

There was a meeting to discuss the dog breeding issue at the House of Commons last week, called by APGAW - the All Party Group for Animal Welfare. APGAW comprises a cross-party group of MPs which,  in the wake of Pedigree Dogs Exposedproduced this report on Dog Breeding last November.  In it, the MPs gave the Kennel Club a year to get its house in order, pointing out that self-regulation is always preferable to legislation but not ruling out legislation if self-regulation didn't work.

So how has the KC done? Well there's been quite a bit of bark - with several announcements, and money and time spent on measures designed to tackle exaggerations and genetic problems - but nothing like enough bite.  I welcome KC initiatives like Breedwatch and Mate Select and better policing of the Accredited Breeder Scheme, but it is - as ever -  not what the KC is doing, it is what it is not doing.

Nowhere is this more true than the shameful state of affairs regarding general KC registration. Keeping your dogs in desperate conditions? No matter! Using a staple gun to "tack" your puppies' eyes yourself? Don't worry! Still using that champion sire despite the fact that he is carrying a deadly condition? That's OK - we'll still reigster the pups!  (These three examples sent to me in the last couple of days).

The KC will still register almost ANY puppy from ANY breeder on its general register (with a few caveats that do nothing to ensure that the pups are healthy or have been raised in good conditions).  The KC continues to issue pedigree certificates to the shittiest breeders producing deformed, diseased and occasionally dying dogs. And when challenged (as I and many others have done endlessly) the KC mantra is: "But our rules don't give us any option."

This is what the KC's Bill Lambert told me at the APGAW meeting on Tuesday, after I'd stood up and talked about the dreadful state of affairs in Sharp-peis.  I had taken with me a flyer that included this advert.

As you can see, the advert boasts: "We have four very, very wrinkly Shar peis for sale".  Bill assured me that the KC breed standard didn't require this amount of wrinkle, and that is true. But as you can see, these pups are KC-registered. "Don't you see that the KC registration legitimises their production?" I asked. Bill gave me that old KC chestnut about being able to influence/educate breeders if they remained under KC auspices. This is pure bull. The KC continues to take the registration fees from pet-breeders like this while doing absolutely nothing to influence/educate them.

We came to a bit of an impasse. Bill complained that I never say anything positive about the Kennel Club. This is not entirely true but I concede I am rarely more than lukewarm in any praise - because so much more needs to be done and because they still don't get how big the problem is and how much needs to change to put it right. 

But I was feeling generous on Tuesday evening. "Bill," I said, "we might be at polar opposites on this, but perhaps we can take some comfort from the fact that we do both care about the dogs."

He looked at me. "I think that was probably true of you at the beginning. But now you're just...." He grimaced and left the sentence trailing. 

Last time I try to be nice.

At the meeting, Sheila Crispin (Dog Advisory Council) made the point that there was a desperate need for the consumer to be better-educated about how to buy a healthy dog. She pointed out that people go out and buy a dog with less care than they'd put into buying a fridge. It's a point my friend Patrick Burns makes strongly too. They are both right and, indeed, I recently upset a pet owner when I suggested she needed to take a little bit of responsibility for deliberately choosing (as she admitted) the runt of the litter - a GSD pup that turned out to be a pituitary dwarf. (That's not to let the breeder off the hook, by the way - she should have known the pup was a dwarf.)

But, surely it's not unreasonable for puppy-buyers to expect some minimum standards to be in place? After all, we have a reasonable expectation that anything you'll find for sale on the high street  has been produced to a minimum standard - and that if it goes wrong, there is consumer protection in place to ensure you can get it fixed or get your money back. We do not demand that fridge-buyers have a degree in fridge-choosing and we do not berate them with "it's your own stupid fault" if they've gone out and bought a fridge that died on them a week after they got it.

The following day, Bill sent me an email accusing me of "sensational" and "unsubsantiated" figures regarding the incidence of Shar-pei Fever (I had told the meeting that it was estimated that up to 30 per cent of the breed was affected).

This is what the KC always accuses you of if they don't like what you say. But I don't make up figures. I wrote back to him and gave him this link, detailing what the condition's leading researchers, Linda Tintle and Jeff Vidt, estimate the frequency to be.

"A survey done at the 1991 CSPCA National Specialty and data from records at my own and Dr. Jeff Vidt's practice suggests that the incidence of FSF in Shar-Pei is about 23-28% affected.  I believe the incidence may be higher now," writes Linda Tintle, DVM.

As such, I reckon "up to 30 per cent" is perfectly fair .

Relating back to the conversation about the KC registering anything, Bill also wrote: "If the KC was able to refuse registration what would it achieve? Those unscrupulous breeders would continue to thrive, breeding non registered dogs! It is far better to attempt to keep them with us and try and educate them. I gave you examples of problem breeds that are thriving without KC support. Would you rather us abandon those breeds that have problems rather than try and work with them?  We can be whiter than white but all it will mean is that even more pups will be bred badly."
I emailed back to ask him what, exactly, was the KC doing to educate the breeder who is advertising her KC-reg'd shar-pei pups on Pets4Homes as "very, very wrinkly"? And added: "This KC endorsement legitimises their production. It's time it stopped and for the KC  to truly stand up for the dogs. Make the KC stamp a real badge of quality. At the moment you are being dragged through the mud through breeders like this, and it provides way too much ammunition for people like me."

Time for another poll.

Should the KC refuse to register puppies if they have not been bred to minimum health and welfare standards?

Meat and bones

This is a traditional Shar-pei - still being bred by a handful of dedicated breeders in the Far East. As you can see, there is minimal wrinkling and the dog looks supremely fit and functional. Compare her to the Westernised version of the dog, below.  Yep, this is how we have 'improved' the Shar-pei, and many feel now that the breed is on the brink of viability because of their health problems (around one in four of the breed suffers from Shar-pei Fever, the complications of which are killing way too many young Shar-pei). Unfortunately, there is as yet no DNA test (although researchers believe they now have a candidate gene) and so many lines are affected that some top breeders don't even try to avoid breeding dogs that are likely to have the condition.

The traditional  dog is known as a "Bone-mouth" Shar-pei; the show-type as a "Meat-mouth". Here's why.

Note the difference in the eyes, too. It's obvious the traditonal Shar-pei is much less likely to be blighted by entropion, a problem so endemic in the western Shar-pei that pups routinely have to have the skin folds around their eyes stapled or stitched to prevent eye damage.

If there is anyone west of Hong Kong breeding traditional Shar-pei, I would love to hear from them.

Sunday, 12 December 2010

Who's Your Daddy?

Illustration by Kevin Brockbank
Something extraordinary happened recently. In the pro-KC, pro-show newspaper Dog World,  a poll showed that the vast majority of those who responded were in favour of a limit on the number of times a top-winning dog could be used at stud. I know, in the greater scheme of things it may not seem a very big thing. But it is, I promise – at least if you are a dog.
Until very recently, the prevailing view in the show world was that a champ dog should be used as often as possible, to pass on those winning genes to as many of its puppies as possible.  It’s not just that the puppies cop a higher price – it’s that breeders genuinely believed that it is the right thing to do.  I even remember the Kennel Club’s Secretary Caroline Kisko sounding rather astonished that anyone would think otherwise. “If you have a very healthy sire then why would you not want to breed him quite widely?” she said in November 2009, apparently oblivious to the independent reports which had wholesale condemned the practice.
Much of this attitude is based on the notion that if a dog was a big winner, it must be a good thing. But of course we now know better.  We know that judges can award prizes to dogs for all kinds of reasons other than their true worth, and that the show-ring itself is often a very poor judge of health.  We also know that dogs can silently carry all kinds of genetic problems that may be passed on, unwittingly, to their offspring. And we also know that dogs are often used at stud when they are very young – way before some horrible inherited condition that may lay lurking manifests itself.
A 1968-vintage German Shepherd, Canto von der Wienerau (right), sired several litters before he dropped down dead at the age of four and his progeny were very widely bred.  Today, every single case of haemaphlia A in  the breed can be traced back to Canto. The condition is now rare in the breed, but it’s difficult to eradicate completely as it’s carried silently by the females and there is, as yet, no DNA test that can detect carriers. In other words, it’s been a nightmare for breeders that they could have done without. 
Top dog Zamp... tragically dead at 8. But of what?
Another German Shepherd, Zamp vom Thermados, who won Best of Breed at Crufts in 2008 (and many other top prizes), is listed on one database as fathering 750 puppies – the owners of  which must be a little nervous following Zamp’s premature death aged just 8 earlier this year.  There has been no official announcement of the cause of death, despite a lot of people wanting – indeed needing - to know given that his progeny are now, in turn, being bred from.   Here’s hoping it was from something that was not hereditary. 

The story is repeated in many other breeds – with many top dogs siring hundreds and hundreds of puppies, blithely passing on horrific problems down the line.  In fact, it’s happened no less than three times in the blighted Basenji – a breed that began with only a handful of founders (despite there being thousands of them in their native Africa).  Of those, some were used far more heavily than the others and within a few years basenjis were dying from a horrible condition called haemolytic anaemia (also known as PKD). Fortunately, a DNA test was quickly developed. Unfortunately, breeders were so intent on cleansing the condition from the breed that they didn’t just stop breeding from affected dogs – they refused to breed from carriers too (which could have been bred safely to ‘clears’), rendering an already too-small gene pool even smaller.   One of these dogs became a top AKC champion and had hundreds of puppies – only to be diagnosed when he was about eight years old with Fanconi Syndrome, a kidney condition that can be life-threatening. By then, Fanconi’s was widespread.
The same has happened with Progressive Retinal Atophy (PRA), too – a once rare, and blinding,  condition now not so rare in the breed.  In fact, the health problems in Basenjis have been so severe that the American Kennel Cub has sanctioned the import of a few more native dogs from Africa. Sadly, they have not been universally welcomed, especially by the breed purists who view the imports as mongrels.
In the Congo, the breed’s name translates as “village dog”.  Doesn’t sound quite so grand now, does it?  Although it many ways it should – the native Basenji is a triumph, a true survivor.  And there’s a big lesson to be learned from them: the native Basenji is instantly recognisable and it breeds true – as is the case with other landraces, such as salukis, who have existed for hundreds and in some instances, thousands of years without help nor hindrance from kennel clubs or the show-ring.
Now, at last, the mood is changing.  As I reported a couple of months ago, the Hungarian Viszla Club was even bold enough after Crufts 2010 to express their concern about Crufts winner Yogi (left) who has fathered more than 10 per cent of the breed in recent years.  Then, there is the DogWorld poll – which voted 240 in favour of introducing restrictions against just 45 against.  And, recently, the FCI (which is the umbrella organisation for most overseas kennel clubs – the KC and AKC not included) has proposed that limits should be introduced.
Some kennel clubs already have in place guidelines concerning popular sires (notably Sweden and Finland). The SV, which oversees German Shepherds in Germany, rules that stud dogs may not cover more than 80 females a year (but clearly that’s still an enormous number of puppies and at an average of €800 a jump, no mean income, either.)
The KC here, though, despite being under some pressure, has decided to not introduce any blanket bans. “This has been muted in the past, “ says Caroline Kisko. “The Americans brought it in and it caused absolute havoc in their registration system – it went from having one and a half million registrations per year to less than half that – those dogs being registered by other organisations.”
In fact, this is not true. The AKC has not brought in any limits on popular sires. It did introduce some extra paperwork and a paternity test for those wanting to breed more than a certain number of litters but this was a a move designed to stop dodgy breeders faking pedigrees.  In truth, breeders in the US are still free to use their stud dogs as profligately as ever.
 But the KC is adamant. It does not want to introduce a blanket ban, preferring instead to champion its upcoming “Mate Select” programme. When this finally  comes online (and there’s no due date yet),  it will help guide breeders away from stud dogs that have been heavily used – but it certainly won’t stop them. If they want to use the stud dog du jour they can do so with no penalty.
The KC talks vaguely about possibly introducing something a little tougher at some point down the line but I don’t think this is enough - particularly when the KC is still dragging its heels over educating its electorate about popular sires.  For the third time of mentioning in recent columns, there is still nothing on the KC website warning about the dangers of these canine casanovas.
So forgive me for continuing to hammer home this point.  To those breeders thinking of using a top dog that has already been well-used, please consider a less popular alternative, for the sake of the breed. However healthy a dog appears to be, remember that inbreeding in and of itself can cause problems and the overuse of one or more dogs in a breed almost inevitably leads to inbreeding down the line.
And to those considering a new puppy, please don’t be seduced by the name of a top-winning dog (usually written in red) on a pedigree – instead use it as a good excuse to ask searching questions of the breeder. And if they look blank when you mention the term “popular sire” or try to argue that you can’t have too much of a good thing, walk away.
This article is reprinted from the July issue of Dogs Today Magazine. 

Thursday, 9 December 2010

DogsLife study - enrol your pup!

© Poole Hall Labradors

Earlier this year, the Dogslife study was announced with some fanfare.

The idea? A lifetime study of 20,000 Kennel Club registered Labradors, asking pertinent questions about health, weight, diet and exercise.

So enthusiastic was the Kennel Club about this study that the KC Charitable Trust threw a whopping £100,000 at it to fund it for just one year.  

For slightly less than £100k (like, say, a tenner) I can predict with confidence that the study will find that being overweight increases the likelihood of joint disease and decreases longevity. This has, in fact, already been established with the Purina study, which found that Labradors kept lean lived almost two years longer than lardier ones.

But there are other good questions to be answered by this study - and not least the role diet plays in health and longevity. Reckon kibble poisons dogs and a raw diet is the road to rude good health (or, indeed, vice versa)?  Here's a chance to prove it.

I'd urge everyone with a Kennel Club-registered Labrador born since 1st January 2010 to enrol. And not least because the researchers wanted 20,000 and so far have recruited, um, just 631 owners.

Perhaps Poole Hall Labradors in Shropshire (pictured above) could encourage some of their puppy buyers to enrol their pups? Haven't checked their 2010 stats yet, but these Kennel Club Accredited Breeders registered no less than 126 litters - 880 puppies -  between January 2005 and September 2009.

That's an awful lot, isn't it?

Monday, 6 December 2010

So now girl v girl...

There have been a couple of complaints that on my last blog post I compared a male US show labrador to a UK working female and that might have exaggerated the differences between the two types.

Fair point.

So here's a picure of a 3-yr-old US show bitch from the same breeder...
© Riverlane Labradors
..compared with the original working UK bitch:

Sunday, 5 December 2010

Lab or flab?

A reader sent me the link to this US show champion Masti... oops, sorry, Labrador.

© Riverlane Labradors

Compare this to a typical UK working Labrador, which actually does the job for which it was bred.

What are the show breeders thinking?

I wrote about the supersize problems in show Labradors in the June 2010 issue of Dogs Today Magazine:

Illustration: Kevin Brockbank
"Afficionados of working Labs believe the show dogs are far too lumbering to do a proper day's work. They refer to the show dogs as 'Rottadors'. The show fraternity, meanwhile, call the working Labs 'Whippets'. believing them far too slight to be 'proper' Labradors and that their type is more true to the revered standard.

"The big question is: does it matter? Is there anything inherently wrong with simply having the two different types, as long as both types are able to emjoy long and healthy lives? I think the answer is probably no - with a couple of caveats.

"First, I believe it is a general kindness to Labradors to keep them lighter on their feet, given their propensity to hip dysplasia/arthritis - and I mean structurally, not just in terms of keeping them lean. I have seen too many show-type Labs slowed to hobbling, stiff-legged painfulness as they grow older.

"And second, I think it matters because of the continuing delusion among show breeders that they are breeding the 'correct' dog despite the fact that it doesn't do the job it was bred to do and looks absolutely nothing like the dogs that the original breed standard was written to reflect."

A pdf of the whole article is downloadable from here. It can be reproduced for non-commercial use as long as myself, illustrator Kevin Brockbank and Dogs Today Magazine are credited.

Pugs. Let's face it.

My dog's got no nose...
There's an interesting report  in Dog World this week on the health seminar the Pug Dog Club recently organised.

Breed notes writer Alison Mount writes:

"Opinions were sought on which areas of health that most frequently affect Pugs should be covered and it was agreed that orthopaedic issues, DNA testing and research techniques and eye problems should be the topics."

Now it's great that the Pug Club is discussing these issues - and particularly what sounds like a new impetus to tackle the hemivertebrae (abnormal spine) problem in the breed.

But... didn't they forget something?  What about the fact that Pugs can't breathe properly because you've bred the poor things with such ridiculously flat faces? The Pug, along with other bracycephalic breeds such as the Peke, is plagued by bracychephalic obstructed airway syndrome (which often requires a surgical procedure to correct). According to the breeders, however, the cause is nothing to do with the flat face and no doubt the Comments section below will rapidly fill with Pug breeders telling me just that.

"It has been proven in Pekes that a longer muzzle does not help the breathing, it is the nostrils that count," says Adele Nicholson, Secretary of the Pug Dog Club.

Proven? Show me the proof!

There is none, of course - just anecdotal evidence from breeders of bracycephalic dogs suffering the collective delusion that they've done nothing wrong in distorting a dog into such a freakish shape. And so they maintain that the length of the dog's muzzle has nothing to do with the breed's inclination to respiratory distress. The breeders say it's all about the size of the dog's nostrils so all they need to do is breed for bigger/more open ones. Sure, that has something to do with it. But it's only part of the story.

Don't take my word for it. Here's what the Animal Health Trust had to say about it to one pug owner who asked:

"Pugs are an example of a breed that has been selected to an extreme of conformation (very flat face), with all the problems that accompany it. You are right, a longer muzzle would help with the airflow; but this is a breeding issue, that can only be resolved with inverting the selection process and breeding pugs towards a longer nose. Nostrils can be "opened" with a surgery (the surgery for brachycephalic airway obstruction syndrome will include opening the nostrils and shortening the soft palate) but the muzzle cannot be prolonged surgically in one individual animal obviously."

Meanwhile in Germany, a few breeders have got together and said enough is enough. They're breeding a pug with a longer muzzle.  The tagline on the MPRV website says: "Qualzucht? Nein Danke!"

It translates as "Torture breeding? No thank you!"

MPRV pugs with longer muzzles

Following Pedigree Dogs Exposed,  the Kennel Club here in the UK amended the Pug breed standard. It no longer demands a "short" muzzle; just a "relatively short" one.  Will this be enough to encourage the UK breeders to breed a dog with a less abnormal anatomy?

Debatable. Breeders want the very flat faces. And the breed standard still points out that a double-curl in the tail is "highly desirable", despite an obvious link to hemivertebrae.

Hemivertebrae in a pug
The tail is part of the spine. But Pug breeders insist there is no connection between one of the breed's biggest health problems (vertebrae which are wedge-shaped rather than rectangular therefore causing a curve) and the desire for a double-twist in the tail which is achieved through, er, vertebrae which are wedge-shaped rather than rectangular therefore causing a curve. Vets of course, know otherwise. More info here.

So... what are the chances of the Pug Clubs deciding that they should drop the double-twist as it comes with a health risk? About the same as breeding for a longer muzzle, I expect.

Friday, 3 December 2010

"We don't want a bunch of scientists telling us what to do"

Cesky Terrier: dying for some new blood?
Kennel Club Chairman Ronnie Irving was criticised for saying this in Pedigree Dogs Exposed, but it's how a lot of dog breeders feel.  This week, Cesky Terrier breeder Sheila Atter says pretty much the same thing in her Dog World column.

She writes:

Take for example the latest big idea – the Advisory Council that is headed by Professor Sheila Crispin. I have to confess that when it was first announced that the members of this council would include ‘ordinary’ people whose qualification was simply that they had practical experience as dog breeders I was most impressed. The many different qualifications that were asked for from people who were actually being sought to serve on the council were refreshing and gave us hope that here was indeed a body that would understand the viewpoint of breeders and exhibitors.

Instead, what do we have? The answer is, sadly, more of the same. The names are depressingly familiar, as are their areas of expertise. True there is the token dog breeder – I hope she is a strong and determined lady as I fear she will have great difficulty in getting her point of view across. She will have to battle against the academics, the RSPCA representatives and the scientists. 

Ah yes, the scientists! That’s where the parallel universe comes in. I wonder if anyone has ever told them (not that they would believe it) that dog breeding is not an exact science. An honours degree in genetics does not make you a good dog-breeder. 

Understanding and making use of COIs, EBVs, AVKs may help you to produce healthier puppies but all of these are just tools, and there is absolutely nothing that can take the place of years of experience, an in-depth knowledge of the bloodlines within a breed and the instinctive gut-feeling that a particular mating is ‘right’ that marks out the great breeder from the rest. 

As it happens, I agree in principle. And  I am pretty sure that every scientist on the new Dog Advisory Council would, too. As Paul McGreevy, from the University of Sydney, once said to me: "Dog breeders are very good at what they do. The problem is that what they do is often not very good."  He then went on to say that if you could channel all that skill and expertise into doing the right thing, dog breeders would be an unassailable force.

Of course dog breeders are happy-enough to run to the scientists when they want a DNA for a problem that is plaguing their breed. So why this deep distrust?

There's a clue from Sheila a little later in the article:

Yes, genetic diversity is important. No-one knows that more than I do – my breed has none and it’s a constant battle for responsible breeders to maintain what diversity we do have.

Here, I think, lies the root of Sheila's fear about scientists. Deep-down, she knows they will tell her that her beloved Cesky Terriers are so inbred that the breed needs to consider an outcross.  And athough the scientists are of course not there to force an outcross on this and other very inbred breeds, the idea of mongrelising their beloved breeds by bringing in new blood makes many dog breeders recoil in horror.

But Cesky Terriers really are extremely inbred. A brother/sister mating, for instance would produce puppies with a co-efficient of inbreeding (COI) of 25 per cent. But many Cesky Terriers have COIs of 80 per cent and higher.  This makes them virtual clones of each other.

Thanks to careful selection and a bit of luck, the Cesky is a breed that is not plagued with many obvious inherited disorders. But cancer is an issue (a condition that may be more prevalent in the breed because of inbreeding) and the Cesky has not escaped one of the other costs of inbreeding: reduced fertility and smaller litter sizes. Longevity too, is compromised. Although the sample size was extremely low, the 2004 KC/BSAVA health survey results for the Cesky found a median age of death of 8yrs 5months - the lowest of all the terrier breeds according to Dr Kelly Cassidy's Dog Longevity website (the border terrier, in comparison, on average lives to 14).

A careful outcross programme has the potential to fix these issues. Usefully in this case, the breed's parent breeds (the Scottie and the Sealhyam) are still there to outcross to. Yes, these breeds have their own problems, but the alternative, surely, is even more scary?

I hope that the attitude towards outcrossing changes. Success stories like Bruce Cattanach's Bobtail Boxer project and the Dalmatian Backcross Project are trail-blazing and should inspire, rather than scare dog-breeders.

The scientists are there to help, not hinder. Really.

Thursday, 2 December 2010

How to breed dogs with stronger immune systems?

© Kevin Brockbank

Two summers ago, the small rescue I run brought over a black collie cross boy from Ireland. He had landed in Dunboyne pound near Dublin as a stray and never been claimed.  We specialise in retrievery crosses and he seemed a nice chap so I was sure we could find a home for him.  Deep into researching the evolution of the dog at the time, I called him Darwin. 

Like all the dogs that travel from Ireland, he arrived in the very early hours of the morning and it was clear right from the start that he was lovely – sweet, unassuming and affectionate.  He trotted a little tentatively into our garden and then started rolling over and over on the grass with delight. Within half an hour he was playing beautifully with our Tickle who takes all the new dogs under her wing. 

It was still really early, but my other half Jon who tries to feign disinterest in the new rescues, popped a head out of the bedroom window to have a peek, then came down and made us a cup of tea. We sat down on a step outside to drink it and Darwin came over to plant a kiss on my face.  I reached up to stroke him under his neck and found a golf-ball-sized lump. There was one on the other side too -  clearly enlarged lymph nodes. I quickly checked and every other lymph node on Darwin’s body was up like a hard rock.  My heart sank.  

I knew Darwin had been unwell in Ireland – he’d gone down with something in the pound, as many do. But he’d bounced back with antibiotics. I took him to our vets who gave him the once over and then looked up at me with raised eyebrows.  “I think it’s lymphoma,” she said confirming what I already knew in my heart.  But she gave me some antibiotics and we took him home. 

There was no question of us subjecting Darwin to any heroic treatments. The prognosis for lymphoma is poor, even with the most advanced care. It is rare that it can give a dog much more than a few more weeks and we felt this little chap had been through enough without subjecting him to the rigours of chemotherapy.

Darwin was a little star. He fitted in seamlessly with us; he loved his walks, loved his food, loved my dogs and even managed to put on a kilo – yay! In the evening, he’d creep up on to your lap, tuck himself into your neck and sigh, like he was the happiest dog in the world.   At night, he would sneak up on to the bed and curl up small. We pretended we didn’t notice. 

I allowed myself to hope – a little – that the diagnosis was wrong. But the lumps didn’t go down, and although he was active and playful, when he was in repose, you could tell he wasn’t well. He was also unnaturally hot. 

Two weeks after he arrived with us, Darwin was much quieter on his walk. That evening, he ate his supper then went to lie in his favourite spot on a rug in front of the television. His breathing was fast and shallow. I picked him up and laid him back in my arms on the sofa. He snuggled into my chest and closed his eyes.  He was baking hot and although he would respond a little if I stroked or talked to him, it was an effort. I knew it was time.

Darwin: ? - 21/6/08
I called the vet and Darwin slipped away, ever-so gently, before, even, the needle was withdrawn from the vein in his leg.

Of course one rails against the injustice of a two-year-old dog being taken by cancer. But we also felt blessed by this little man for both the pleasure he gave us and for the sheer joy with which he lived his last two weeks, away from the horrors of an Irish pound and whatever life it was that had led to him landing there. 

I tell this story because it is easy to forget that crossbreeds can suffer from horrible diseases like lymphoma too, and not all cancer in purebreds is down to the inheritance of breed-specific cancer genes. But purebred dogs as a whole, according to one recent Italian study, do suffer twice as much cancer as their randomly-bred cousins and some of these cancers are breed specific - as are other canine health issues that we now think are the result of immune systems that have been compromised by inbreeding. 

Our immune system is why we don’t die of a cold, or the tiniest of scratches. It is probably the case that all living beings get cancer every second of every day; it’s just that our immune system stamps on it. It is our own personal army of sentinel soldiers who are on the lookout for any breach of your defences. Once spotted, a counter-attack is launched to repel the invader – be it bacteria, virus, parasite or cancer.  

An optimum immune system has a large armoury of diverse weapons – different genes – primed to take on the enemy.  Inbreeding, however, reduces the number of different weapons at the immune system’s disposal because related individuals are likely to be genetically very similar.  It’s a bit like nature’s version of scissors-paper-stone. A mating between close relatives could easily result in a double-dose of  scissors – making the progeny invincible against paper, but pretty damn useless against stone. 

Inbreeding affects the immune system in another way too: it reduces the ability to distinguish “self” from “enemy”. And that can be deadly. The Tasmanian Devil, for instance, is being decimated by an infectious cancer that the small marsupial’s immune system simply doesn’t see as a foreign invader.  Likewise, the immune system might suddenly start attacking its own tissues, wrongly identifying them as an enemy. The result are autoimmune diseases such as Addison’s Disease, atopy, hypothyroidism and various inflammatory disorders

There is some good news, though. Finnish and UK university scientists in collaboration with a private company, Genoscoper, have worked out how to test a key part of the genome involved in coding our immune systems – an area scientists call the ‘major histocompatability complex’. (A bit of a mouthful even for them, though, so it’s shortened to ‘MHC’.)  For £150, you can send off a mouth swab from your dog to the Genoscoper lab in Helsinki and back will come a list of the “haplotypes”  that make up a part of your dog’s MHC. 

What’s a haplotype?  It’s simply a bunch of linked genes that are inherited as a group. Just like with single genes, you have pairs of them – one inherited from each parent.  It’s been found, for instance, that Salukis have at least 35 different haplotypes  across the breed as a whole. Nova Scotia Tolling Retrievers, however, have only five different haplotypes at their disposal in the part of the MHC that Genoscoper tests.

Some haplotypes are associated with specific diseases but, in general, the more haplotypes there are in the breed, the better. In other words, you’d expect Salukis to be healthier than in Tollers. And, indeed, that’s the case. Tollers suffer from a number of serious immune-mediated problems, notably systemic lupus erythemotosis (SLE) and a rheumatic condition named after the breed - Toller Disease.
In Bearded Collies, only seven haplotypes have been found and they too suffer a lot of auto-immune problems, including symmetrical lupoid onychodystrophy (SLO) which affects the development of the dogs’ claws.

Whippets, meanwhile, have been found to have 13 haplotypes and are, generally, considered a rather healthier breed.

There are two ways in which the Genoscoper test could be a real help. First, it can be used to get an overall measure of the MHC diversity of a breed. Fifteen forward-thinking breed clubs have already done this and as word spreads, many more are considering it.  It’s not cheap because Genoscoper needs 50-100 DNA samples for each breed at a cost of £150 per swab (although Genoscoper will discount for larger numbers). But the result is a genuinely-useful benchmark that breed clubs – and perhaps kennel clubs too – can use to help guide them in planning an overall breeding strategies for a breed.  It’s already known, for instance, that some haplotypes are much more common than others. Identifying and breeding from dogs blessed with rare haplotypes could bring in some much-needed diversity to a breed without the need to outcross to a totally different breed.

The second way the Genoscoper test can help is by giving individual breeders a way to produce puppies with the strongest-possible immune systems. How? Well, let’s say a breeder has narrowed the choice of stud dog for her bitch down to three great possibles.  The Genoscoper test will allow her to choose the one that has the most different MHC haplotypes – and also allow her to avoid doubling up on haplotypes that are associated with particular health issues (such as SLE in Tollers and SLO in Beardies) in much the same way as a standard DNA test. In fact, studies show that dogs that inherit indentical haplotypes from each parent - even if those haplotpes are not associated with a particular problem - are at an increased risk of auto-immune disorders.

Ironically, the Genoscoper test will never help randomly-bred dogs like sweet Darwin, the victim of an unlucky throw of the dice.  And there is much more to understand about how our dogs’ immune systems work - and particularl how it interacts with other genes. Undobutedly, the MHC plays a big role in how dogs deal with various disorders, but it is not the whole story. Even the strongest immune systems may not be able to cope if the genetic dice are really loaded, or if the environmental onslaught is just too great. But I love the idea of the Genoscoper test and the hope it offers.  

Geneticists warn us that it will be impossible – and indeed not always desirable – to eradicate all dodgy genes from our dogs even if it was possible to identify them all.  So what a wonderful idea it is to approach it from a different angle; to boost our dogs’ immune systems so that they are better able to deal with the various onslaughts that life and genetics throw at them – including those diseases for which at present there are no DNA tests.

More information on Genoscoper’s “DLA Diversity Test” (as they call it), from

This article is reprinted from the August 2010 issue of Dogs Today Magazine. A pdf of the article can be downloaded here . Permission is given for its reproduction (for non-commercial use) as long as myself, Dogs Today and illustrator Kevin Brockbank are credited.

The Dalmatian Club of America kills dogs

Armstrong: 21/11/2003 - 30/11/2010

Armstrong the Dalmatian who I blogged about two weeks ago was put to sleep on Tuesday, his quality of life no longer tolerable. He was just seven years old.

Armstrong died because he suffered, horribly, from a breed-specific problem (urinary stone disease) that could have been bred out of the breed by now if idiots who believe that purity is more important than health were not over-represented in the Dalmatian Club of America .

It is not too late for future Armstrongs.  If you'd like to let the Dalmatian Club of America know how you feel, please email their president, Meg Hennessey

Armstrong's owner Shelley Gallagher is determined that her beloved dog's death won't be in vain.

"He loved visiting his cancer kids every week (below), so I had him wearing his therapy dog collar and hospital ID badge when we went to the vet to end his suffering.  His whole life was based in helping others, and now his passing will continue that. 

"Armstrong's legacy is that he will be the face of the stone issue and why it is so important to breed the NUA dals.  It is incomprehensible to me how someone can hear his story and watch the videos of his surgery and still claim that stones are not a real issue in the breed. "

For more information on the efforts to rid Dalmatians of this painful, debiliating and - at times - lethal disease, click here