Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Nein! German Kennel Club gets tough re Bulldogs

Extroardinary news from Germany. Following the airing of what has been hailed as "the German PDE" (watch it online here), the VDH (the German Kennel Club) has announced that it is taking over the English Bulldog breed club.

The reason? Bulldog breeders' reluctance to acknowledge and tackle the breed's many health issues.

Full details have yet to be released, but one imagines that the VDH is only going to permit the breeding of Bulldogs that meet a certain criteria from now on. What these criteria will be remains to be revealed. Hopefully some kind of measure of genuine fitness, not just the passing of the usual health/DNA tests - and hopefully also to include some limits of C-Sections as here in the UK.

In the UK after Pedigree Dogs Exposed the Kennel Club made a number of changes to the Bulldog breed standard, despite core resistance from breeders.

The KC also cites the Bulldog Breed Council here in the UK as evidence that Bulldog breeders are pulling together re health. In fact, the Council runs a Health Testing Scheme which encourages breeders to have their dogs checked by a vet, particularly before breeeding. Some breeders and bulldog puppy ads do now menton that their dogs have been checked under the scheme. What they might be a little slower to volunteer is that there is no pass or fail of this test.

I also see the Council has not changed information I highlighted last time I blogged about Bulldogs. Here are some snippets:

What is the average life expectancy?

The average life expectancy is between 8 and 10 years, some live much longer past 14 others unfortunately like any living creature can develop illness and reduce its life expectancy.
Average life expectancy 8-10 years? This is stretching it a bit given that the KC/BSAVA survey in 2004 found the median age of death to be 6.29 years. There is mention of a further 2006 survey on the Breed Council website but no results published there and there is no current health survey.

I find it astonishing that the KC simply doesn't insist that breeds such as the Bulldog that are on the high-profile list run an ongoing health survey - or otherwise make more effort to gather and collate information on health issues, as does the excellent Dachshund Breed Council.
Are Bulldogs Healthy?
The Breed Council with its responsible Breed Clubs and their members have developed a basic voluntary health examination prior to breeding. It should be noted that despite all the negative publicity given to this breed with regard to health, the bulldog does not normally suffer from any one of the general canine diseases that the BVA and the KC routinely require or recommend screening.
This is weasel-wording - as well as untrue. The Bulldog's mean hip score is 45 (ie. dreadful) and hip dysplasia is most certainly a "general canine disease that the BVA and the KC routinely require or recommend screening." Of course, according to Bulldog breeders, Bulldog hips are a special case to which the normal rules do not apply - ergo they don't need to be tested and they seem to have convinced the KC of this, too. In fact, only three Bulldogs were hip-scored in 2010 - and only 25 have been tested since the hip scheme began. Last year, the KC registered around 5,000 Bulldogs.

The KC does not require Bulldogs bred under the Assured Breeding Scheme to have undergone any tests at all. The KC merely recommends the Council Health Testing Scheme which, of course, the dogs do not actually have to pass.

This despite this breed being - unquestionably - in the top five unhealthiest breeds.
Can Bulldogs mate naturally?
Of course they can!! Breeders prefer to handle them during mating, as is the case when most pedigree dogs are mated, to ensure there is total control of the situation avoiding any accidental damage occurring to either of the valuable animals involved. There is a great deal of nonsense being printed about this procedure however no artificial means are necessary.
Well yes, they can sometimes mate naturally. But they very often don't - artificial insemination is really common in this breed and it's done to reduce the stress on both dog and bitch. This - and their unnatural conformation - is also why they are handled when they are mated naturally and it can take three to tango: one to hold/support the dog; one to hold/support the bitch and - and, often, one unsqueamish soul to guide the penis into the vagina.

Here's what one outspoken Bulldog breeder has to say on the matter.

Or see for yourself:

Can Bulldogs give Birth Naturally?
Many bulldogs can self whelp, many do, however conditions such as primary inertia and small litters can cause the need for veterinary intervention, some breeders also prefer to trust in today’s skilled veterinarians and modern advances in surgery to avoid any possible whelping problems and request that bulldog puppies are delivered by Caesarean Section. If you have bred puppies before in any other breed it is quite possible to try to safely self whelp a bulldog bitch as your past experience would identify if you needed to seek help. Whelping a Bulldog as your first breeding experience without experienced help is not recommended for novices
The 2004 KC/BSAVA health survey found that more than 85 per cent of the breed is delivered by C-section; the result of breeding for a dog whose conformation is often incompatible with mating or giving birth naturally.

From next year, the KC will no longer register puppies from bitches that have had more than two C-sections. This will, hopefully, encourage the breeding of bitches that can free-whelp and it was good to see some notices on the Bulldog benches at Crufts earlier this year boasting that particular dogs had been born or given birth without veterinary intervention. A small glimmer of hope in a breed that continues to cause great concern.

The German Kennel Club's statement on the Bulldog (in German) can be found here.

Thursday, 25 August 2011

So, what do you get if...

...you cross a Champion Standard Schnauzer with a German Pinscher?

Well, in the first generation you get this...

and this...

... and this

Then let's say you then take the most Pinscher-like of the litter and mate her
 to a top purebred Pinscher. Then what do you get?

Well, in this second (F2) generation you get this..

And now let's mate a bitch from another second-generation outcross litter to
 another Finnish Champion purebred Pinscher. 

And then, amazingly, you get...

Finnish Champion Yarracitta Ketschuppibaby
Finnish Champion Yarracitta Kaneliprinsessa

Yep, in a litter of of nine, two were made up to Champions and another four won titles competing directly against top purebred German Pinschers. In fact, Yarracitta Kaneliprinsessa was awarded "The Most Successful  Show Bitch" in both 2009 and 2010 - a title awarded every year by the Finnish German Pinscher Club.

This Finnish outcross project, which started in 1998 but which I had never heard of before this week, is testament to just how successful careful outcrossing can be - and just how quickly you can get back to type by backcrossing. 

And these dogs don't just look the part. There is at least some evidence that they are more robust than some of their purebred counterparts.

The outcross has been done because of concerns regarding genetic diversity and inbreeding. During the second world war, the German Pinscher was very nearly lost. There were no registrations at all in West Germany between 1949 and 1958, but the breed was eventually re-established in the 1950s  using a bitch from East Germany who had survived. She, along with a Miniature Pinscher bitch, was bred to two male oversized Min Pins. These five dogs were bred 14 times in various permutations to reconstruct the breed. 

Within 10 years, over 500 dogs had been bred. But there became increasing concern about inbreeding, particularly in Finland where the breed is popular.  "The biggest problem in Pinschers is the high frequency of hereditary cataract (HC) and adverse reactions to vaccinations," says Finnish researcher Katariina Maki. "Incidence of HC is estimated to be at lest 16.5 per cent with adverse vaccine reactions seen in 20-25 per cent of the purebred Pinscher population in Finland". 

In 1996, the Finnish KC accepted a proposal from three Finnish kennels to cross the breed with a Standard Schnauzer.

Why a Standard Schnauzer? Clearly, they look very different, but they were once the same breed (the Wire Haired and Smooth Haired Pinscher) with two coat varieties that eventually split into two different breeds. They also do no not suffer from hereditary cataract or are known for adverse vaccine reactions.

The German Pinscher/Schnauzer outcross project

So far, there have been one F1 litter, two F2 litters, three F3 and three F4 litters - with the F4 dogs now accepted on to the normal FKC register, considered purebred.  Fourteen of the dogs have taken part in the FKC's temperament tests, with slightly better results than purebred Pinschers.  The frequency of hereditary cataract is 10.5 per cent (compared to 16.5 per cent in the purebred population) and although there have been a few vaccine reactions, these have been very mild compared to the purebred population (in which they are often severe).  Subsequent generations could see these rise, of course, as the "dilution" effect of the Schnauzer diminishes, but given the success, there is presumably no reason why further outcrosses could not be incorporated into the German Pinscher gene pool.

You've gotta love those Finns - probably one of the most genetically-aware nations on the planet given the geographical isolation that has led to their more than fair share of genetic problems in their human population. 

Monday, 22 August 2011

Dachshund Breed Council - sing it loud, sing it proud

© Håkan Dahlström Photography

Some much-needed good news - and a beautiful picture....

I praised the Dachshund Breed Council briefly last week, but the progress the breed has made on health issues in the last year or so is truly impressive - and definitely worth a blog-post all of its own.

The Council was set up shortly after Pedigree Dogs Exposed and now has a dedicated website offering a lot of very well-presented information on health and genetic diversity.

Points to praise include:

• comprehensive information on breed-specific problems
• the opportunity for anyone to sign up to the DBC newsletter (you don't have to be a breed club member)
• clear guidance on how to report health problems
• an ongoing health survey
• a comprehensive breed health plan

Also rather special is the news that the Council has invited two pet owners to work with the Genetics and Welfare committee. "It was felt that having pet owners' perspectives on health matters would add a useful dimension to our work (and give us two more pairs of hands to help out!", says the Breed Council.

One of these is Gill Key, who has a mini-wire with Lafora's and runs the excellent Lafora Dogs website - please check it out to read about the new subsidised testing scheme for this inherited form of epilepsy in the mini-wire.

A big hat-tip to Ian Seath who I know has been the driving force behind the Breed Council and the health website.  I urge other breed clubs to check out the site to see just how great it is.

Thank you to brilliant Swedish photographer Håkan Dalström for allowing me to use the above picture of his mini-wire Lukas for free. Do check out his other pictures of Lukas and Dachshunds on Flickr here. They are gorgeous.

Now, all we need is for those who love this breed to learn to love them just that little bit more with shorter backs and longer legs.

Blood money

Junior - before facelift                   © rossparry.co.uk
Junior - after facelift                    © rossparry.co.uk

The story of Junior the Bloodhound who had to have an £8000 £800* facelift to save his sight ran first in a Yorkshire paper last Wednesday and has been picked up fairly widely by the nationals, most lazily repeating a factual error contained in the original copy.
"Junior the Bloodhound had a rare disorder, had not grown into his skin properly, and the weight of the excess flesh above his face caused it to fold and cover his eyes. The problem resulted in a disorder called entropion, which could have resulted in permanent blindness if left untreated," wrote Dan Bean in the York Press.
If Mr Bean had done a little research, he would have discovered that excessive facial skin and entropion are common in the Bloodhound. In fact, the the second hit if you Google "bloodhound entropion" is from the new UFAW website on Genetic Welfare Problems in Companion Animals and it offers a very comprehensive overview of the problem:

Breed: Bloodhound
Condition: Ectropion, macroblepharon and entropion 
Outline: Bloodhounds have been selected for excessive drooping facial skin, and because of this are prone to eyelid abnormalities. The lower lids may be everted (turned-out). This condition is known as ectropion. Conversely, the upper lids may be inverted (turned-in); a condition called entropion.  Ectropion disrupts the function of the lower lid in protecting the eye and drainage of tears and entropion causes chronic abrasion of the surface of the eye.  Both conditions predispose affected individuals to forms of chronic conjunctivitis causing episodes of varying degrees of discomfort and pain throughout their lives unless eyelid conformation can be surgically corrected (which may be difficult). Animals should be chosen as pets or for breeding only if they have normal eyelid conformation or these diseases are likely to be perpetuated.  
Junior (son of the 2009 Crufts Best of Breed, Trailfinder Fortitude) was very unlucky to suffer from this condition, according to the operating vet, Gary Lewin from Penrith in Cumbria.  Junior's owners say Mr Lewin had done this procedure (whether entropion or facelift is unclear) on "500 spaniels" but had  never before seen this problem n a Bloodhound.

I emailed Mr Lewin last Thursday hoping for some clarification before running the story here. After all, spaniels (with the exception of the Clumber) are not dogs that one associates particularly with entropion. I also suggested that if it was true he hadn't done the procedure on a Bloodhound before that it might only be because they are rare (only 50 registered with the Kennel club last year) rather than their lack of need. I will add his reply if he gets back to me.

Poor Junior. The dog suffered for five years before getting some relief from what must have been an agonising problem. 

"We got him when he was just a puppy and noticed he seemed to be in a lot of pain in his early life," says his owner Denise  Smart. "He could hardly see and he used to get grumpy as a result.

"We have four other dogs and he was really twitchy with the others when they came up behind him.

"We took him to the vets and he had an eyelash removed because they thought that might have been scraping against his eye, but it didn't make much difference.  Then they thought of his eyelashes was too big and they tried working on that, but that didn't solve the problem either."

So in the end, major surgery was the only option. All the papers, by the way, wimped out on including pictures of Junior immediately post-surgery despite the Ross Parry news agency making them available.
But here's one of them - just so that we are under no illusion regarding the possible consequences of breeding dogs with extreme skin laxity (the Shar-pei is another breed that sometimes need facelifts for the same reason).  I accept it is unusual for a Bloodhound to need surgery this extensive - but more minor ops to fix drooping skin folds that can cause eyelashes to rub and ulcerate the eye are not that rare.

                                                                                                             © rossparry.co.uk
The procedure is one of an increasing number being done to correct the defects that we have bred into dogs - as Petplan revealed last week. This story, too, was mis-reported -  missing the point that it is utterly horrific that we're breeding dogs that need surgery in order to be able to see and breathe - and instead headlining the story as a "surge in plastic surgery for pets". It is not, of course, anything of the sort.
"According to the UK’s largest pet insurance provider, claims worth £1.5m were paid out in 2010 for nose surgery on cats and dogs, an increase of 25 per cent over the last three years," wrote the Telegraph on Thursday. "Petplan also paid out over £1m for eye-lid lifts on young dogs and almost a quarter of a million pounds for dental work on household pets. The company said that the rise in cosmetic surgery allows animals to live “healthier and more active lives”.
So, just to re-cap.. since Pedigree Dogs Exposed aired three years ago, there has been a 25 per cent increase in surgery done to relieve breathing problems in dogs and cats.

Some of this may be because of greater availability of the surgery and/or because vets may be recommending such surgery more often. But not all. And it is good evidence that there is still a long way before we can be justifiably be proud of the dogs we produce in the UK.

* Edit 22/8/11 @ 23.25pm: correction re price of the facelift - £800, not £8,000 as originally reported by the Yorkshire news agency (and all the national that carried the story).  Operating vet Chris Lewin has not got back to me but I see he has added a comment correcting re the cost to the Daily Mail's version of the story, so have amended above.

Can Dogs Smell Cancer?

A short break in normal service to bring you a film we made in 2006 for the BBC which has never been seen online before. It is prompted by the news last week that German researchers have found that dogs can detect lung cancer from breath samples to a more than 70 per cent accuracy - and, moreover, were able to distinguish cancer from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

Some reports stated that it is the first time it has been shown that dogs can detect lung cancer from breath exhalate - but as you'll see in the film, it isn't...

Can Dogs Smell Cancer? documents the whole history of dogs' ability to sniff out disease and we think it is a remarkable story.

It is a film I waited 20 years to make, after I covered the first anecdotal report of a dog detecting cancer as a print journalist (the story of Dalmatian Trudi who sniffed out a melanoma). I waited because I wanted the film to go beyond the anecdotal and it took all that time for anyone to conduct any scientific trials exploring the phenomenon in a controlled way.

There are many amazing sequences in this film... the incredible dogs at Florida State University who could detect chemicals at dilution of 1-2 parts per trillion... the dashed hopes of the team from Cambridge University when Bliss fails on the ultimate test... And then there is yellow labrador Kobi towards the end of the film. Hard to watch without a shiver running up your spine...

The film was shot, beautifully I hope you'll agree, by the unsung hero of Passionate Productions,  Jon Lane - my partner in work and love.


Can Dogs Smell Cancer? from Jemima Harrison on Vimeo.

Saturday, 20 August 2011

Will this Toller x litter save the breed?

Hey, pay attention at the back... You're making history!

Well, maybe...

Having focused recently on irresponsibly-bred crossbreeds, it is a pleasure to report an outcross that could not be more thoughtfully-bred - and which offers hope to a breed some researchers say is in real trouble.

Although you may not be surprised to hear that not everyone agrees.

These pups (there are seven altogether, all males) are the result of a planned mating between Tessa, a Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever, and an Australian Shepherd dog called Dakota. It is the first stage of a journey embarked on by German breeder Alexander Däuber to restore what he thinks is much-needed vitality to the Toller.

The spark for Däuber was, in part, the publication in 2010 of a paper by Finnish researcher Katariina Mäki who looked at the Toller's genetic diversity.

Mäki found that the average Toller was the equivalent of a full-sibling to any other Toller and that today's Tollers go back to just nine founders (and 50 per cent of them to just two founders). Mäki also found that the breed had an effective population size of just 18.  To put this in perspective, anything below 100 is considered of real concern by conservationists - and anything below 50 considered unsustainable, at least in wild species (although there are some exceptions that seem to be doing well, such as the Iberian Lynx).

Separately, other Finnish researchers found the Toller to have a low number of DLA haplotypes - (just 11 found so far) something that is thought to compromise the immune system's ability to mount a defence against disease, parasites and other foreign pathogens. Worryingly, one very common haplotype, found in 70 per cent of the breed, is strongly associated with imune-mediated rheumatic disease (IMRD), commonly found in the Toller.  Similar to lupus, it can cause persistent lameness, stiffness and palpable pain in joints. The breed is also predisposed to a related steroid-responsive meningitis arteritis (SRMA) marked by a high fever and neck stiffness.  Together, these two conditions have been dubbed "Toller Disease".

Mäki's conclusion - supported by several other geneticists, including Federico Calboli at Imperial College, London and  Professor Irene Sommerfeld-Stur in Vienna (one of the very first diversity proponents) - was that an outcross should be explored.  Their statements supporting the outcross can be downloaded here: CalboliSommerfeld-Stur,  Mäki.

But the news was met with outrage from many in Tollers who vehemently oppose an outcross, feeling it is either unnecessary or would be the ruin of the breed (or both). And they have support from two very high-ranking geneticists: Clare Wade at the University of Sydney, and Danika Bannasch at UC Davis in the US.  Both breed and show Tollers themselves.

"I have been actively involved in research on inherited diseases in the NSDTR for eight years," says Danika Bannasch.  "This 'need' for an outcross is ridiculous. I have no issues with outcrossing when there is a clear purpose and scientific reasons for doing - ie the Dalmatian backcross. Tollers are in very good shape from a population genetics standpoint."

(I have asked Dr Bannasch for a more detailed explanation of why she believes Tollers are in such good shape genetically and will add here when she replies.)

Professor Wade, meanwhile, believes that the breed is being 'targeted' due to Toller breeders' willingness to assist researchers (they have, she says, been very proactive breed in terms of donating DNA and other information). "My observations are that the occurrences of genetic disorders in this breed are well below the norm for high population size breeds, let alone rare breeds. I am appalled that this breed is being targeted simply because the breeders have been open and interactive with scientists," she wrote in a statement opposing an outcross. "Any claims that this breed requires urgent out-crossing are ridiculous and I truly hope that such claims will be ignored."


Here are the facts re the Toller's genetic diversity:

• Nine founders
• An average kinship of 26 per cent (the equivalent of full siblings)
• Just 11 DLA haplotypes found - a possible indicator of immuno-incompetence.
• Evidence of a dysfunctional immune response in the high frequency of immune-mediated rheumatic disease (IMRD) and steroid-responsibe meningitis arteritis (SRMA), together known as "Toller Disease".

I confess I reserve a special sceptism for scientists who are also show breeders (while also acknowledging that it might also give them special insight in the breed) and find that Wade's claim that Toller breeders are being unfairly 'targeted' verging on paranoia.  I also find myself reacting strongly to words like "appalled" and "ridiculous" - not the measured response one would hope for from scientists.

And, really, why such an outcry? Is the sky really going to fall in - especially given that this outcross is being done with full transparency and with such apparently worthwhile aims?

Australian Shepherd dad, Dakota
Alexander Däuber has gone ahead despite the protests. He even managed to get approval from the German Kennel Club (VDH) - well, sort-of.  Initially, the VDH refused to sanction the outcross, but changed its mind after a high-profile debate on German TV and in the face of the quality of the support Däuber had garnered from the scientific community (Wade and Bannasch aside). However, Däuber felt that the conditions on which the VDH insisted were unreasonable - notably a requirement to run a DNA analysis that would have cost Däuber €20,000 (and which no other geneticist other than the VDH's considered necessary).

Toller mum, Tessa
Däuber has, then, gone ahead using a non-VDH registered Australian Shepherd as his stud dog. (A breeder who allows his VDH-registered dog to be used would risk expulsion but given that only 20-30 per cent of German puppies are registered with the German Kennel Club there was a good choice of non-registered dogs).   Däuber has, wisely, used two older and health-proven dogs for his project - dad Dakota is six years old, with no health problems reported in his previous litters; mum is Däuber's own Toller, Tessa, who will be six in October. Both have been tested (and cleared) for all the health tests required in either breed.

The Toller x pups are now about a month old and Däuber says he has been struck by their vitaltiy. "They were more active in the amniotic sac and they quickly found their mother's teats and began to suckle. Many of the pups in my previous eight purebred Toller litters have been weaker, had less energy and had problems starting to breathe."

Däuber's aim is to try several different outcrosses - believing that the health of the individual dog is as important as the breed. On the cards are Toller x Retriever and Toller X Spaniel litters. He will then breed the best of the pups back to purebred Tollers - and expects to be back to full Toller 'type' within four generations. (In fact, it will probably be rather quicker given how similar an Aussie is physically; fine-tuned working abilities may take longer, though) "My goal is to improve genetic diversity and bring 'new' genes into the population," says Däuber. "I want to breed healthy Tollers with better vitality & fitness."

Däuber's story is being featured in an eagerly-waited documentary - being hailed as "the German PDE" - which airs in Germany this coming Monday (22nd).  Easily-offended purists should refrain from clicking on this link to the TV programme. I am pretty sure it shows Dakota and Tessa "tied", mid illicit union.

Oh, what the hell, let's reproduce the picture here:

And here are some more pix of the gorgeous pups... whose progress you can follow on Alexander Däuber's website here:

© Alexander Dauber

 More to come on the Tollers shortly...

Edit 21/8/11 @ 20.42pm: removed reference to Alexander Dauber being President of the German Toller Club (the club has now disbanded).
Edit 23/8/11 @ 12.40: removed reference to Tollers possibly having fewer DLA haplotypes than other breeds - there are others with fewer - and added clarification/qualification re effective population size.

Sunday, 14 August 2011

M is for..?

I know I am going to get flak for posting this video, spotted on YouTube. These dogs' breeder, David Payne (Videx), has never been slow in telling anyone (including me) what he thinks.

So I shall mostly let the footage speak for itself. These are Milo, Merk and Minder - 6-month old showline GSD pups from the Videx "M" litter that the Kennel is running on. Keep watching until the end, for the shots of Minder coming out of the paddling pool (at about 3m 30secs).

I like Minder - not for the way he moves (which, sorry David, but I think is bloody awful) but for his obvious love of water, evident from a very early age. There's another video of him on YouTube showing him at just 10 weeks old, already lovin' that paddling pool.

Here for comparison are two working-line GSD pups of exactly the same age.

The debate about the conformation of show GSDs was raging for a long time before Pedigree Dogs Exposed highlighted the issue. But the film (and pressure from vets and others) undoubtedly pushed the Kennel Club into taking some action. The breed was not on the KC's health "watch-list" prior to PDE.

A series of meetings between the KC and the GSD breed clubs followed and, er... Well, what? If a plan of action was drawn up, it has never, to my knowledge, been published.

Meanwhile Ch Korzwin Randy (pictures here) won Best of Breed at the West Yorkshire GSD show at the end of June under judge Sue Belfield. This dog has a very high hip score of 50 (3/47). I understand his breeders have said that they will never breed from him (poor Randy... not the best of names given the circumstances). But I'm afraid I still don't get how such a dog becomes a Champion - particularly given the GSD breeders fine talk about how important health tests are.

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Tolerating the quiet

There's a depressing comment by Ceksy Terrier breeder Sheila Atter in an exchange of comments in response to her Dog World column this week.

"In my breed there are no required tests, eye testing is 'recommended'," she writes. "Personally, I heart, eye and patella test. Almost every other Cesky Terrier breeder (except one in the US) thinks that I am not merely completely barmy, but doing the breed a grave mis-service as any mention of health-testing will apparently convince the general public that we have problems in our breed. None seem to be able to understand the argument that health testing actually proves something about the health status of my dogs. I was even 'ordered' at the last AGM not to mention health problems in my DW breed notes as this was 'harming the breed' "

I can't tell you how many times I've heard similar things said in other breeds and it makes my heart sink. But well done for Sheila for being brave enough to say this.

Here's a little PR advice to breed clubs that take this stance: it doesn't work because it doesn't fool anyone.  I spend quite a lot of time trawling breed club websites and it's the ones that are most open and honest about health problems that are the most reassuring (with one or two exceptions). We don't want to hear health problems minimised. We want them acknowledged and we want to know what it is being done about them - and how we can help. To see how some other clubs are doing, check out the Karlton Index  - which, for instance, praises the Dachshund Breed Council for its proactive stance on health.

Worth a revisit is Omerta: The Breeders' Code of Silence written by Sierra Milton in 2004, way before Pedigree Dogs Exposed. I don't agree with everything in this article (Jerry Bell's views about outbreeding do not tally with those of many population geneticists for instance), but Milton's heartfelt plea to break the silence is strong and pertinent.

"We can break the silence by commending those with the courage and determination to talk about problems, share successes and knowledge instead of ostracizing them. Omerta fails if every puppy buyer and stud dog user demands that proof of genetic testing is shown. The Code of Silence fails when we realize that it is not enough to breed winning dogs or to command the highest price for puppies or to have a stud dog that is used fifty, sixty, a hundred times; we must take back the passion with which we all first embraced our breeds and passionately work with determination toward a future where the numbers of genetic disorders are reduced each year."

And she concludes:

"It is hard work and takes great courage to develop a breeding program using scientific methods and tests, but the hope of a better future should drive us all to that very commitment. The key is being able to work together without fear of whispers or silence. Omerta, the code of silence, can be broken if more of us decide that we are not going to tolerate the quiet any longer." 

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

Post-PDE - have the vets done well?


The current issue of the Veterinary Record includes an interesting report on a topical debate that took place last month at a British Veterinary Association Council meeting. The motion: "Pedigree Dogs: the sequel - haven't we done well?"

Speaking for the motion was vet Steve Dean, the new Chair of the Kennel Club, who argued that many steps had been taken to address the problems - including health schemes, the Accredited Breeder Scheme, the new genetics centre at the Animal Trust, a limit on the number of C-sections, and that the KC will no longer register the progeny of mother/son, father/daughter and full-sibling matings.  Dean highlighted the collaboration between the various dog health 'stakeholders' as another positive step.

Professor Dean also urged: "We have focused very heavily on the registered pedigree dog, but that leaves something like 2.5 to 3 million dogs that are bred by puppy farmers that are unregistered, outside of any efforts that we're puting in, and that perhaps needs to be considered in future."

I'm not sure where Dean gets his figures from - but it's certainly not true that every dog bred outside of the KC system comes from a puppy farm, while the KC  by its own admission (when pushed) grants KC registration to an unknown percentage of unhealth-tested puppies produced in appalling circumstances. (There are no checks of premises or any health requirements for almost 90 per cent of the puppies the KC registers).

But Dean is still advocating the softly-softly approach. 

"Professor Dean noted that the issue of regulating commerical dog breeders was being considered by the Advisory Council on the Welfare Issues of Dog Breeding, which would need to take into account that putting constraints on those with good breeding standards, whom they wished to encourage, could be counterproductive," writes the Veterinary Record.

Arguing against the motion was Dan Brockman from the Royal Veterinary College, who as a specialist in brachychepahlic airway syndrome has to deal with the unfortunate consequences of selective breeding on a daily basis.

The profession, he said, had to some extent turned a blind eye to the problems and that, while he welcomed new impetus: "There's a lot more work to do and we've barely scratched the surface."

Vets, he suggested, needed to look at the population as a whole and play a role in educating the consumer so that the profession was not "sleepwalking into a perpetuation of demand for breeds that are inherently diseased".

Professor Brockman also questioned : "Do the breed standards as they currently exist include or embrace pathological states? If we think they do then as a profession surely we can't just sit back and let that continue?"

In terms of control strategies, Brockman pointed out that while some efforts to eradicate disease required much expertise, others could be dealt with by more straightforward means. There was, he said, a potentially simple fix for brachycephalia: "We outcross these dogs with dogs with noses."

Come now, Dan - then you'd just have mongrels. Sure, mongrels that can breathe but....

As Barry Offiler, Chair of the Peke Club, told the Times not long after Pedigree Dogs Exposed: “If it’s got a muzzle it won’t be a Pekingese, and if we have to breed dogs with a muzzle which breed do we cross with them?  We are talking about a breed that is popular worldwide. This will prevent us showing dogs abroad and will stop overseas competitors entering Crufts. We all support improved health, but we don’t know what damage the muzzle might give to the breed.”

So who won the BVA Council debate  - Dean or Brockman?

"From a show of hands, it was clear that a majority of Council members felt that there was still much to do," reports Vet Record.

Facebook ghosts and ghouls

Not me, guv...
The Kennel Club yesterday released a new Code of Conduct for those that show (don't hit the judge; don't let your dog eat anyone else's, that kind of thing) and it includes a section offering guidance to those using "social media such as Facebook". The KC warns: "Be sure that what you post today will not come back to haunt you."

The KC's advice includes:
Does it Pass the Publicity Test
If the content of your message would not be acceptable for face-to-face conversation, over the telephone, or in another medium, it will not be acceptable for a social networking site.
Think Before You Post
There’s no such thing as a “private” social media site. Search engines can turn up posts and pictures years after the publication date. Comments can be forwarded or copied. Archival systems save information even if you delete a post. If you feel angry or passionate about a subject, it’s wise to delay posting until you are calm and clear-headed.
Be Accurate
Make sure that you have all the facts before you post. It’s better to verify information with a source first than to have to post a correction or retraction later.
Correct Mistakes
If you make a mistake, admit it. Be upfront and be quick with your correction. If you’re posting to a blog, you may choose to modify an earlier post—just make it clear that you have done so.
The timing is interesting given the problems (which I've blogged about here and here) with a high-profile Facebook site, run by poodle breeder Mike Davidsohn, aimed at stopping the update to Pedigree Dogs Exposed being made. 

The site disappeared a few days ago - apparently due to a technical glitch -  but has now popped up again under a slightly different name.  No problem with that, of course, as long as they campaign fair and square. But despite claims to being new and reformed, within a couple of days they had yet again started on the personal attacks - this time targeting Dog's Today editor, Beverley Cuddy, after Davidsohn found out that she had been asked to judge at a charity dog show at the weekend. Bev's crime? She employs me as a columnist and three years ago she appeared in PDE calling time on the health problems in pedigree dogs

Davidsohn, who admits to going into newsagents and re-arranging the dog magazines so Dogs Today can't be seen (and, amazingly, he's 55, not five), was so incensed that he decided to try to subvert the dog show - and also use the opportunity to have yet another pop at Beverley's inspired Don't Cook Your Dog Campaign. This has gone from strength to strength in the past couple of weeks, with support from just about everyone in the dog world - bar Davidsohn and his supporters who just can't bring themselves to put the dogs over and above their personal grievances.

Here are a few posts from the resulting discussion.


Then, finally, a voice of reason...

 It falls on deaf ears..

There's been a mixed reaction on the site to the KC's new Code of Conduct. Davidsohn was quick to point out that they are guidelines only and that "it is not in their remit to govern what we say and do on the Internet" but others have, sensibly and strongly, pleaded for the bitching to stop. 

The problem, of course, is that all the good intentions seem to last for about two seconds.  But then, as another poster points out:

Monday, 1 August 2011

Cavaliers - the agony and the agony

Just to absolutely secure the Cavalier's pride of place in PDE2 (oh, OK, they'd be in it anyway) comes an announcement from the KC and the British Veterinary Association revealing that there's an impasse with breeders over the proposed official MRI screening scheme for syringomyelia (SM) in Cavaliers and other affected breeds such as the Griffon. The reason? Breeders have refused to accept full publication of the results. The scheme, then, is now officially "on hold".

Oozing thinly-disguised frustration, the statement says:

"The British Veterinary Association (BVA) and Kennel Club (KC) have been in discussions regarding a Canine Health Scheme to screen for chiari-like malformation and syringomyelia (CM/SM) for a couple of years. Both organisations agree there is a need for such a scheme and it has a significant amount of public support. Considerable work has already been undertaken to develop the scheme in consultation with expert neurologists and radiologists.

"There has been much discussion within both organisations regarding the publication of the results of the proposed scheme. The BVA firmly believes that the results of the CM/SM scheme must be available in the public domain to assist breeders in making breeding decisions and to assist puppy buyers in choosing a healthy dog. The existing Canine Health Schemes operate in this way.

"The KC has concerns regarding the attitude of breeders and owners towards publication of the results and does not yet have a mandate to support results being put in the public domain.

"As a result of this, the Scheme is currently on hold, but the KC is actively endeavouring to resolve the issues with breeders and breed clubs."

I hear that the Kennel Club intitially supported the breeders, but the BVA stuck to its guns and insisted that the results were published - resulting in a stalemate that threatened to de-rail the entire scheme. Perhaps recognising the PR-suicide of having to announce that the scheme had been shelved before it even launched because of intransigent breeders, the KC has now invited breeders to a KC meeting at the end of August in an effort to broker a deal. 

So if this fails, who is going to take the lead here for the sake of this breed? Or is everyone going to pass the buck saying, ah well, we tried...?  Because, let's face it, at the moment it looks for all the world as if breeders are truly determined to fuck-up a Kennel Club breed, there's absolutely nothing anyone can do about it. 

For what it's worth, I do not think that the Cavalier Coven (the small but sadly-influential core of mainly show-breeders blocking health reforms) is representative of many other breeds. And I'm amazed that right-thinking breeders haven't lynched them for bringing so much bad PR on dog-breeding. 

Among the Coven's recent classics was the throwing out of a motion at the Club's AGM, put forward by Cavalier health campaigner Margaret Carter, that those on the Club Committee should set an example by actually adhering to the breeding guidelines (for both SM and mitral-valve disease) endorsed by the Club. 

Meanwhile, the latest research indicates that 70 per cent of the breed (however-bred) shows evidence of syringomyelia on MRI and that almost every Cavalier has an abnormal skull (chiari malformation - CM). Both these conditions are known to sometimes cause excruciating pain in humans.

Dogs are very stoical and pain-symptoms can be very easy to miss, hard to read unless you know what you're looking for. 

Have a look at this picture. It is of Molly, who has syringomyelia.

On the left: before pain meds; on the right: after.
Molly is owned by the indefatigable Tania Ledger, who as a result of her experience, set up the charity Cavalier Matters to provide simple, straightforward information and advice to pet owners coping with a Cavalier with SM.

This is Molly's story:

"The first sign of trouble was when Molly was three months old - for no apparent reason she would yelp, and on several occasions she screamed very loudly.   We took her to the vets on numerous occasions, checking all sorts of things without result.

"We were careful when walking as she never seemed to be able to walk very far without becoming obviously exhausted.  Sometimes she would stop and refuse to walk.  More often than not she would have to be carried home. 

"Eventually the vet decided she should have her hind legs x-rayed as he suspected she might have a problem with her hips. The results showed she had dysplasia in both hips and luxating patella. We made sure her weight was down to take the pressure of any joints.  She seemed fine for a while.

"Molly then started to limp on her front left leg, the vet guessed she may have ligament problems in her shoulder.  We took her to hydrotherapy, hoping to strengthen the muscles around the joints. 

"Gradually Molly became more lethargic and listless and we got to a point where she would not walk at all.

"I finally decided to take her to leading orthopaedic surgeon, Noel Fitzpatrick. He guessed immediately Molly had SM - confirmed by an MRI. He  told us she would probably die within the next few months. You can imagine how upset and shocked we were.

"Then I remembered Pedigree Dogs Exposed, managed to find a copy and contacted neurovet Clare Rusbridge. Clare immediately put Molly on Cimetidine and changed her pain medication. The change in Molly was amazing. All of a sudden we had a waggy-tailed little dog that appeared to smile.  She started to bring us presents on our return home, she would goad and play with Dougall, our other Cavalier, and overall became a really cheeky little monkey. At 18 months old, Molly was given the gift of a life with quality.

"Occasionally Molly’s medication has to be altered. I can tell if Molly is not well, her eyes become dull, she become listless and very remote. The expression of her face changes.  When I look back at all her photographs, you can see a dog suffering pain, simply by the expression on her face.

"When Molly was diagnosed after her MRI, I decided to MRI Dougall.  Dougall was a very quiet dog, we assumed lazy - until his MRI showed he had Chiari.  Dougall is now on the same medication as Molly and is a completely different dog - although he still suffers dreadful sensitivity in his back.  

"We rescued another CKCS 15 months ago.  Dotty appears to be healthy - her general behaviour is completely different to Molly and Dougall. She constantly wants to play and bounces around like a little toddler. The difference between them is remarkable!"

The pedigrees' chum?

I have, in the main, a good relationship with those who work their dogs. That is because those who use their dogs for sport, catching or retrieving their supper, herding or guarding their stock, home or family, understand implicitly about breeding for function - and, particularly, how form follows function, not the other way round.

That's not to say that there aren't problems in working dogs - there are. But conformation issues are rarely an issue.

This article, by David Tom, was published in Shooting Times a couple of weeks ago. To pre-empt the inevitable comments, I am pretty sure that is a Komondor, not a Hungarian Puli, on the bottom left of the article (rap ST's knuckles not mine, please!).

I love this picture of my flatcoat Maisie. She often turns her right ear like this when you talk to her. It makes me laugh every time. Which is am sure at least partly why she does it.

PS: for overseas readers, the title is a play on Pedigree Petfoods' 'Pedigree Chum' brand of dog food - sold only under this name in the UK, I think.

Click to enlarge