Friday 12 November 2010

Endangered breeds - out of favour, out of time

19th century Skye Terrier
Winding up to Discover Dogs this weekend, the Kennel Club has trotted out its usual spiel about endangered breeds - those that attract less than 300 registrations a year - urging pet owners to buy them to save them from extinction. But small numbers spell big trouble in terms of tiny and inbred gene pools and/or the risk of inherited disorders. My advice? Steer well clear. Dog breeds often fall out of fashion for good reason - sometimes because the work that prompted their creation no longer exists (as in the Otterhound); other times simply because they just ain't that attractive or distinctive. Sure, celebrity ownership influences a gullible public (something else the KC is whinging about) but that's just life.

Imagine coping with that coat on Skye in winter....
The KC refers to them as "vulnerable native breeds", making them sound rather special. They're not. They're out of favour and out of time and if no one wants them beyond a handful of show-breeders trying to preserve them in aspic (as is often the case) we should let them go. And don't you get misty-eyed about the demise of Greyfriars Bobby (the Skye Terrier that, legend says, sat on his master's grave for 14 years). The dog no longer works, breeders have selected for a more and more impractical coat and there are other similar terrier breeds with much larger gene pools.


  1. As an Owner of both a popular breed and a Native Vulnerable breed I have to share one thing. The Native breed has less health problems as a breed, not because of the limited gene pool, but due to the lack of popularity. This has meant that less dogs have been bred, and many of those with issues have been left out of the breeding programme. Popular breeds have been bred for the money, have often and health issues overlooked.

  2. Thanks Jo. I agree that popular breeds are often bred for the wrong reasons and in the wrong way, but then I think some native breeds are too - and breeding within very small gene pools brings a whole set of problems. The Irish Red and White Setter is a case in point - juggling several health problems in the breed and increasingly few options for breeders trying to do the right thing. As a result, they end up compromising.

  3. I am hoping that with more pet people questioning breeder ethics and breeding strategies, that less problems will occur in the future. I am a breeder, and am very aware of health, construction and fit for purpose need to be balanced so that all dog owners can enjoy their dogs. I understand that occasionally problems will occur, but hopefully we will see fewer of them.

  4. Charles Henderson15 November 2010 at 15:02

    Jemima said <.
    Please define the several health problems. Dont include CLAD and vWD because these have been dealt with under KC Control Schemes.

  5. << As a result, they end up compromising. >>
    How are breeders of Irish Red & White Setters compromising and what are the several health problems they are juggling with?
    This is a breed I had considered but am now having second thoughts!

  6. Anonymous - for an overview of the health of Irish Red and White Setters go here:-

  7. I too would like to know what you think are the 'several health problems' Irish Red & White Setters are supposed to be'juggling with'.
    As the health of the breed has been monitored by me in an official capacity in the national breed club for the 30 years the IRWS has been in the UK since its rescue from extinction in Ireland, I can confirm that only three conditions have been discovered, that, if not dealt with, may have become a breed problem.
    Through the informed support of breeders and owners, two of these conditions have been virtually eliminated and the other one is under active research at the AHT today.
    What do you mean by 'breeders trying to do the right thing and ending up compromising'?
    I suggest that Irish Red & White Setters maintain their health record by having few 'pet breeders' and no commercial ones. Those who do breed stick to the strict code of practice regarding health checks on breeding stock, place their puppies in suitable homes and remain in touch with their puppy-buyers for advice and support.

  8. Margaret Sierakowski, Dalriach15 November 2010 at 22:03

    Its nonsense to say only three conditions have been discovered in IRWS. CLAD and VWD have been eliminated in the UK by DNA testing breeding stock, and research is being done on a DNA test for PPC (hereditary cataract).
    Recently late onset PRA has also been identified in IRWS
    But these are not the only conditions found in IRWS. What about hip dysplasia, monorchidism/cryptorchidism, bloat , megaoesophagus, epilepsy, thyroid problems, heart defects, tail kinks ? While none of these is widespread , they all occur in the breed .
    And how comprehensive is the breed's health data base in reality? Only recently it was noted in the breed newsletter with concern that breeders are NOT reporting all problems
    When buying a puppy or finding a stud dog, it isnt always easy to get information about conditions , other than the four for which the KC keeps records. And for hip dysplasia, the official records DON'T show all cases of HD, since some breeders choose not to submit all X rays for scoring
    Yet the club website boasts about how breeders are committed to openness anout all health issues.
    I remain more than slightly cynical :))
    The health pages on breed club websites are invariably about presenting their breed as healthy, and all breeders as committed to breeding healthy dogs, health problems are always under control because of testing and their prevalence underestimated.
    And I cant think of any breed club website that advocates breeding for genetic diversity as a better alternative to more and more DNA testing as gene pools shrink

  9. Jemima

    My two breeds are German Shepherds and Cardgian Corgis.

    The two GSDs here have 0/0 elbows and 1 has a hip score of 7 and the other has a score of 4.

    My cardigan's are hereditarily clear of PRA and all those over 1 are hip scored and they scored 9, 11 and 13.

  10. VNBs can have low registrations for other reasons. Please don't tar them all with the brush.

    Take the Norwich Terrier, which is a delightful breed that can live up to 14 years or more and isn't (to the best of my knowledge) plagued by any serious genetic health problems.

    These dogs have small numbers due to two simple factors:

    1) The popularity of other breeds. Why wait/pay for a Norwich puppy, when there are backyard-bred Cairns/Westies/Norfolks/Yorkies advertised in papers and rescues every week. The average Joe dog buyer picks a breed on mostly looks and whether they will suit a lifestyle, and will go for the more easily available breeds every time. Which is their loss, because they get dogs riddled with skin and behaviour problems. Our Norwich is 6 years old, and up until this year has had no health problems whatsoever. This year he had to have his teeth professionally cleaned (our fault) and an inter-digital cyst removed from his paw, but that is the full extent of his medical history.

    2) The average size of a Norwich litter is 2-3 puppies. Compare this with Labradors which can have eight or more at once. So, even if we did want more people to buy our lovely breed (I'm an owner, not a breeder), there aren't enough puppies to go around. Therefore, they remain relatively unknown, owned only by a lucky few who were willing to wait for one to come along. They also stay safe from puppy farmers, as there is no profit this breed. And so they stay in the hands of responsible breeders who health test and only breed puppies when they believe it will better the breed and give it a future.

    I for one would hate to see this wonderful breed die out, but I am also glad they are not 'common' and that they are safe from the problems that mass producing a breed can bring. I know that a lot of other people in the world if VNBs feel the same.

  11. The KC and the BVA carried out a major study of the health of pure bred dogs in 2004.The response rate from owners of IRWS was the highest at 64%. The analysis of the results for IRWS is at

  12. Sky terriers commonly came in a drop-eared variety.

    Greyfriar's Bobby had drop-ears. I've seen a photo of a modern drop-ear, but they are very rare.

    The Skyes have been bred to be pets for a long time. Caius wrote of them being bred as lap dogs to accompany the spaniell gentle (toy spaniel) in other parts of Scotland.

    The have an interesting connection with the golden retriever, too. The founder of the strain of wavy-coat that eventually became the golden, the 1st Baron Tweedmouth, was better known in Skye terriers than retrievers. His daughter, Ishbel, who became Lady Aberdeen, was a major Skye terrier fancier and was widely celebrated in contemporary Kennel Club literature (even though she is responsible for introducing the golden retriever to North America while her husband was governor-general of Canada.)

  13. Interesting that facts are taken out of context to labour points. It has been recommended that a look at the IRWS website Health Matters page - overview would be beneficial. Here as well as explaining the three hereditary conditions dealt with in the breed, there is a list of conditions, similar to Margaret's, that can be found in the breed - but not in enough numbers to constitute 'a breed problem' - and are certainly found in all breeds and mongrels in varying degrees.

    Yes, Late Onset PRA has been found in the current examination of old dogs (a breed club health initiative)but only two confirmed cases and one 'could be'. This out of a cohort of 40+ old dogs and as this is a result of BVA/KC/ISDS Eye Scheme testing the results are published in this quarters' KCBRS.
    Cynicism over having to exhort breeders/owners to report health problems there may be - that's the nature of human beings - they need constant reminding and urging. It would certainly be to the advantage of this VNB, if the most prolific breeders of the decade contributed to breed health monitoring with the dedication of the owners of their puppies.

    With all the criticism that abounds of breeds that do all they can to combat health issues, we never get any practical suggestions of what more can we do.

    Which reminds me - Jemima, where do you get your information of the IRWS breeders 'juggling several health problems.... and compromising..'? We have asked you what health problems and compromises you mean, but you haven't replied.

  14. Margaret Sierakowski16 November 2010 at 18:06

    To me, making compromises means having to use dogs in one's breeding that really one would prefer not to use because they dont meet all the criteria that I want to meet when breeding - the dogs should be free of structural faults and free of the more serious genetic problems in the breed, should be good type and colour, have good temperament and proven working ability. Its almost impossible to find dogs who meet ALL the criteria in a small breed like ours.
    Further I would prefer to breed litters with lower COIs, but that is also difficult in a small breed . Sometimes I find myself linebreeding and producing litters with higher COIs than I like , in order to meet the other criteria I'm looking for.
    That is about making compromises. One cant get everything one wants in a small gene pool

  15. Then Margaret, you should find the soon-to-be-launched KC "Mate Select Programme" to be a useful tool. It looks very promising, especially for breeds with limited numbers. It will give options that could draw breeders away from linebreeding - that in itself does no favours for the gene pool.
    I think, though, in even numerically large breeds, you would be fortunate indeed to find all your criteria met with in a choice of several studs or even one!

  16. May I politely suggest that is Margaret S is having so many problems with the health of the breed she stop breeding as many as she does. If you look at the breed supplements over the last few years, you will find prolific breeding of the Dalriach's straying not far from her own very few early dogs, how does this help any breed?

  17. Margaret Sierakowski, Dalriach16 November 2010 at 21:16

    And will the KC Mate Select programme take proven working ability into account?
    If it doesnt it will be of no use to people who breed working dogs

  18. Margaret Sierakowski, Dalriach16 November 2010 at 21:52

    I'm not yet having many problems with what I breed. But inevitably I will end up with problems if I dont outcross. My problem is finding safe dogs to outcross to
    The KC mate select programme isnt going to tell me which stud dogs are producing monorchids/cryptorchids, bad mouths, tail kinks, epilepsy, bloat etc because they dont record this kind of data.
    They cant tell me which stud dogs are producing hip dysplasia which is being hidden because X ray plates are not being sent for scoring
    They cant tell me which dogs have poor temperaments
    All the KC knows is the results of DNA tests for two conditions in the breed, and the results of eye tests and hip scores for some dogs, not all
    And they can work out COIs (the accuracy depending on the reliability of pedigrees of course)
    All of which I can work out for myself, and I do

    And lets keep away from the usual IRWS reaction, if one hasnt got an answer to an argument, lets resort to personal attack and smear
    But if you must, I have a thick skin :))

  19. I saw this report on the daily mail. Although the Glen of Imaal Terrier and English Toy Terrier have only one known or speculated inherited disease, the total number of conditions and predispositions of the 16 "rare breeds" mentioned totals 139. Encouraging an increased popularity and therefore more breeding of these dogs with already reduced gene pools will not improve their health.
    Can we not remind people that Dogs are a species, dog breeds are not, and no dog is endangered. Dogs that look a certain way may be a bit rarer, but if ensuring we keep these dogs is detrimental to their health we ought to be a little more open minded.

    I love all dogs, I have dedicated my life to animals as a vet, but after watching my little cavalier cross struggle and die of heart disease is not something anyone or any dog should go through. I am by no means saying all of those breeds are going to suffer, but we must learn that our obsession with pedigrees and the purity of pure-bred dogs is not doing them any favours.

  20. Since when was a Cavalier cross a pedigree ? and does'nt this underline the fact that cross breeding is no panacea either !

  21. My dog was a cavalier cross border terrier. She was a stray and I rescued her at approx. 3 months old. DNA parentage testing confirmed that she was a cavalier cross border terrier, although it was pretty obvious before we had that done. We had thought that being crossed had freed her of the diseases so prevalent in cavaliers (as crossing does half the chance of the dog inheriting and displaying the phenotype of the disease). However she did inherited the cavaliers predisposition to MVD and the disease progressed very quickly.
    No, cross breeding does not cure the problem, especially as in cavaliers where so many are affected by the condition. However, careful breeding as has been seen in NUA dalmatians can help. Common sense must be used in dog breeding, of course simply cross breeding an affected animal will rid it of the disease.

  22. *above comment corrected:

    Common sense must be used in dog breeding, of course simply cross breeding an affected animal will NOT rid it of the disease.

  23. Ms Harrison, may I draw your attention to the Working Day arranged by IRWS members recently, photographs can be found on which show IRWS in action in deep snow. I should say that 5 of the 7 dogs present are principally show dogs and at least two are multiple cc winners, all the dogs, including the irish red setter showed every instinct to work. I dn't think unhealthy dogs could move as the action photos show or could manage without flagging for the several hours they were out.

  24. An IRWS not able to run freely as shown in the photos will have some underlying condition which would not be breed related. Ive got photos of my friends KC registered cavaliers running in the snow like that, one of them is deaf and has mild syringomyelia and the other two have heart disease. Even if these dogs did have an inherited disease (not that I am saying they do) you wouldn't be able to tell from some snaps in the snow.