Monday 31 January 2011

Dalmatian Club of America - last throes of resistance?

Not much winds me up like the Dalmatian Club of America's resistance to introducing the backcrossed LUA/NUA Dalmatians. (Background here.)  The Club's eugenicistic obsession with purity is at a clear cost to the dogs who suffer a painful and sometimes fatal health problem. 

No longer able to ban discussion of the LUA/NUA Dals (yep, they really did that) the DCA is pulling out all the stops after experts commissioned by the American Kennel Club to examine the issue concluded:

"Because the introduction of the low uric acid dogs into the AKC registry gives Dalmatian breeders a scientifically sound method of voluntarily reducing the incidence of the condition, this committee strongly recommends some controlled program of acceptance of these dogs. Where the strict health and welfare of the breed is the over-riding concern, no other argument can be made."

Phew. Job done, then.

Er, not quite, because the AKC decided to refer the decision to the Dalmatian Club of America - the very people opposing this ingress of mongrel blood. (The current generation of backcrossed Dals is 99.7 per cent pure, by the way)

So what does the DCA do? It publishes an article suggesting that the 10 distinguished members of the AKC advisory committee got it all wrong.

Contrary to what those vets and scientists think, the DCA wants its members to know that:

• Descendants of the backcross project are not purebred enough.
• Abnormally high levels of uric acid do not often lead to the formation of crystals and stones.
• Urate stones are not a significant problem in the breed.
• High levels of uric acid is not a predisposing factor in the formation of urate stones.
• Introduction of LUA Dals into the AKC genepool could have a negative impact on the health and welfare of the breed.
• It would be extremely challenging to come up with any plan to safely integrated LUA Dals into the AKC population of Dals.

Bollocks, of course.

You can read more in the latest edition of The Spotter (from page 47 onwards...)

This is going to be an interesting one because the case for introducing the LUA/NUA Dals is just SO strong that I think the AKC might be able to make a stand on this one.  As the KC did in the UK, despite a lot of resistance from the purists here, too.

Or am I being a hopeless optimist?

Sunday 30 January 2011

DNA blessings - and curses

Illustration © Kevin Brockbank

How extraordinary it is that the raw potential for everything about us and of course our dogs is encoded in something so small that until very recently even the most powerful microscope could not see it.  And yet today we can send off a drop of blood or a mouth swab from our beloved dogs and find out what’s going on inside them at a level that would have been considered quite unthinkable just a few years ago.
Without the discovery of DNA thousands more dogs would be suffering needlessly – from blindness, horrible neurological conditions and a host of other debilitating, painful and sometimes deadly diseases. And that’s because the discovery of DNA in 1953 has led – in the blink of an eye really – to tests that can help us avoid breeding dogs that will inflict these blighting problems on their puppies. 
Today, there are DNA tests for a growing number of conditions in our dogs. Most aim to give us an answer to: “Will this dog develop this condition?” And many more are on the way thanks to increasingly-sophisticated technology that can identify genetic mutations faster than ever before. No doubt about it – DNA tests are a modern miracle.
Good breeders have embraced the concept of DNA tests with great gusto. Many have helped contribute financially and have donated blood/cheek swabs to the researchers. And thanks to the current greater emphasis on health in pedigree dogs, there has been a many-fold increase in the number of breeders contacting the Animal Health Trust (UK’s main DNA-test development centre) to request and offer help in developing new DNA tests.
One of the most recent breakthroughs, for instance, has been a new test for Primary Lens Luxation (PLL) , a painful, blinding condition found in miniature bull terriers and Lancashire heelers.  “Both breeds have both been terrifically supportive and we absolutely  couldn't have done the work without them,” says the Animal Health Trust’s Cathryn Mellersh.  “They have volunteered DNA and information from their dogs and I have every confidence that they will use the test to its full advantage.”
The PLL mutation is very common in mini-bulls so the chances of puppies being affected are very high.  Now with this test, breeders can be sure that the puppies they produce will not go blind.  Mini-bull breeders must be whooping with joy – and with good reason.
But there’s been something niggling me for a long time: a fear that we are relying far too much on DNA tests to bail us out of the trouble in which pedigree dogs find themselves in, and that this gift from the geneticists is a double-edged sword.
The niggle turned to real concern at the recent publication by the Kennel Club of a press release entitled : “Eradication of inherited diseases in dogs moves a step closer”. The opening paragraph then went on to say: “The Kennel Club Charitable Trust strengthened its campaign to eliminate inherited diseases in dogs last week, as it signed its formal agreement with the Animal Health Trust (AHT), to jointly create the Kennel Club Genetics Centre and revealed some of the exciting findings so far.”
Eradicate? Eliminate? Now I’m all for optimism but there are more than 500 genetic diseases in dogs (and twice that number according to some estimates) and we currently have DNA tests for only around five per cent of them   The KC press release went on to say that the AHT will be looking to develop a further 25 tests in the next five years – all welcome, but still only a handful in the greater scheme of things.
In fact, any talk of elimination of inherited disease in dog is not just hopelessly premature – it’s dishonest. There isn’t a hope in hell of eradication and why anyone sanctioned the KC press release’s headline is beyond me.  Genetic disease is a fact of life (ironically a statement often used by those defending what they see as the ‘attack’ on pedigree dogs).  Really, the most we can hope for is to reduce problems to an acceptable level and DNA testing, while a wonderful tool, will only ever be part of the answer.
In the past few years, the Kennel Club has set great store by DNA tests, hence its considerable funding for the Animal Health Trust.  And you can understand the appeal. Quite simply, DNA tests appeared to offer the hope that you can fix problems without changing, fundamentally, the way we breed dogs. In other words, that we could continue to inbreed dogs to achieve the specific look/traits we want without paying the price in doubling up on the genetic disease that also tends to spread with inbreeding.  
But there are problems. First up is that the ability to look deep into our dogs’ DNA has revealed much more than dodgy mutations; it has shown us the nuts and bolts of what we’ve done to the dog genome – which is, essentially, to knacker it through inbreeding in the pursuit of certain traits that often have little to do with health. There is a price to be paid for this as it is increasingly obvious that inbreeding impairs our dogs’ immune systems, making them increasingly vulnerable to infection, allergies and other immune-mediated problems, even cancer. A group of Italian researchers has found that purebred dogs are twice as likely to suffer from cancer as their random-bred cousins.  A shocking statistic.
Second, all the current DNA tests are for conditions that are, in a genetic sense, simple. Most are caused by single mutations that are pretty easy for the gene hunters to spot.  But lots of problems in dogs are much more complicated than this.  We know, for instance, that there are likely to be many genes involved in hip dysplasia and that diet and exercise play an additional role in whether or not a dog is affected clinically.
Five years ago when I spoke to the KC’s genetics advisor Jeff Sampson about this, he was confident that there would be useful DNA tests for complex disorders like hip dyslasia. But today the emphasis is shifting towards developing Estimated Breeding Values (EBVs). This, essentially, is a breeding tool that assesses risk using nifty computer programmes into which can be fed all kinds of different information about a breed  – population size, the level of inbreeding, health-test results and so on. All breeders need to do is type in the names of the two dogs they wish to mate and out will pop an EBV score which will reveal if it’s a match made in health-heaven, or health-hell. The KC will be rolling out the first stage of this - Mate Select - at Crufts in March.
The beauty of EBVs is that they should be reliably predictive independent of DNA tests, although DNA data can be incorporated if and when it becomes available.  The hope is that EBVs will be better than what we currently have for complex disorders.  In the case of hip dysplasia, for instance, the early evidence is that EBVs are better at predicting an offspring’s hip-scores than the hip scores of the parents, which is how we tend to do it at the moment.
I like the idea of EBVs because they have the potential to look at the whole dog in the context of the whole breed.  I think we need to think more holistically about genes, too. Because although we talk merrily about the gene for this and for that, genes are not discrete entities that just do one thing . Genes can and do play many roles  - both individually and in combination with other genes. And neither are they pantomime goodies or baddies. 
 “It is risky to focus on just one gene at a time,” says biologist and saluki breeder John Burchard. “The idea 
that there are ‘bad’ genes and ‘good’ genes and that you can eliminate the ‘bad’ 
ones while keeping the ‘good’ ones is at best a dangerous over-simplification. Genes do not exist, or act, by themselves.”

The classic example of this is the genetic mutation that predisposes Africans to sickle-cell anaemia. It turns out that this mutation is life-saving in another respect: it protects against malaria.  So this mutation is both good and bad.  Now we don’t go much for genetic engineering in humans – but if we had decided to try and breed it out, millions more would die of malaria. We need, therefore, to be very careful about playing God with genes. 
This is particularly true with DNA tests for what are known as “heightened-risk” genes.  While some DNA tests are pretty conclusive – ie. if the dog has the mutation (or a double-dose if it’s a recessive condition), they will almost certainly develop the disease.  But others are not definitive.  Boxer breeder and geneticist Bruce Cattanach is currently struggling with the new “heightened-risk” DNA test for degenerative myelopathy (DM) in boxers.  “The test will tell you which dogs have two copies of the mutation and are theoretically likely to develop DM,” says Bruce. “The problem is that although British-bred boxers have tested positive for the mutation, we have no reports of DM in boxers in the UK.”
The problem may be because DM is a late-onset condition. Perhaps boxers are simply not living long-enough to develop it? Or perhaps, as is very likely, other genes yet to be identified are exerting an influence?  So do breeders remove otherwise good dogs from the gene pool simply when it’s by no means certain they would develop the problem? It’s a very tough choice.
“It's also exceedingly unlikely that
 this gene does nothing else other than affect the probability of DM,” adds saluki-breeder John Burchard. “One of the
 things it almost certainly does is form part of the "environment" in which other 
genes function. If you start tampering with that, the law of unintended 
consequences is all too likely to rise up and bite you in the arse.

 That's the danger of overenthusiastic DNA testing - most of the time we are 
indeed still tinkering in the dark.”
That said, it’s clear that some mutations do much more harm than good and we’d be well shot of them. We need to do it carefully though and over several monitored generations to be sure we’re not losing something important.  It’s for this reason that witch-hunts against dogs who are just carriers of a particular condition (but not themselves affected) are misplaced.  There is no reason why these dogs cannot be bred from, as long as it’s to a “clear” as none of the puppies will be affected. Some may themselves be carriers but as long as they are themselves DNA tested and bred carefully, there is no risk.  In this way, we will not further impoverish the small gene pools that threaten some breeds.
Finally, there’s the issue of cost. DNA tests through the Animal Health Trust currently cost about £50 each. As more tests come on-stream, DNA testing could become prohibitively expensive for breeders of some breeds.
“If I want to know if an adult Borzoi has cardiac problems, the least expensive way to do it is to take him to a lure course and test run him on an 800 yard course,” says Bonnie Dalzell, a US breeder of wonderfully-fit and functional working Borzoi “If he can do that a full racing speed twice in a row his heart is probably OK. Currently there are so many different ways that cardiac problems can be caused that the idea of having genetic testing for all of them is very difficult and could add up to thousands of dollars.”
The AHT’s Cathryn Mellersh predicts that one day breeders will be able to submit a single sample that will be run against all the known problems at a much cheaper cost than doing them all individually. She also points out that knowing that your dog, for instance, will not develop a blinding eye problem may negate the need for expensive annual eye tests.
But a reality-check is still in order. DNA tests are a wonderful resource - truly. But they are in themselves no guarantee that a dog is healthy because they measure just a tiny part of the whole dog. They are also no excuse for not tackling the fundamental reasons why genetic disease has become so prevalent in some breeds of dog – essentially a kennel-club system that to-date has promoted inbreeding and placed too much emphasis on how a dog looks.   But that, we hope, is changing…
This article is adapted from the version that first appeared in the December 2009 issue of Dogs Today Magazine

Saturday 29 January 2011

Pekes - some progress?

Danny the Peke
We gave Pekes a hard time in Pedigree Dogs Exposed, mainly on account of the 2003 Crufts winner looking like a Tribble. Ah, and the fact that the dog had needed a soft palate resection the year before in order to breathe and was so prone to overheating that he had to sit on an icepack when it was warm - in common, indeed, with many Pekes.

After the film, the Pekingese was the breed that the Kennel Club was the first to act on. It changed the breed standard in order to encourage breeders to return the dog to something more like the Pekes of old - ie, less coat and more muzzle.

A Tribble
There has been a mixed response.  While many accept that the breed's health does need to improve, many fought hard to retain the description of the breed's "rolling gait" in the breed standard (in fact a side effect of being achondroplastic - a dwarf) and some diehards refuse to accept that the breathing problems in the dog are to do with the Peke's very flat face.  The Peke Clubs, then, have decided to help fund research to find a gene for Bracychephalic Airway Syndrome.
100 years ago... a Peke from 1911


Now it is certainly true that some Pekes with very flat faces can breathe much better than others. But that is surely due to the variation in the amount of bunched-up tissue inside blocking the airways - something that is never going to be controlled by a single gene for which a DNA test can be developed.

It is hard not to see this as a ridiculous time-and-money wasting exercise so hopefully it won't take too long for the researchers to conclude that this is not the way to go.

A much better initiative from the Peke clubs is a new health survey - UK based, but open to all Pekes, wherever on the planet they may be.  Here's a chance for Peke owners to really help the breed by establishing what the main health issues are.

If you have a Peke, please take a moment to fill in a simple online survey form here. 

And spread the word on the Peke lists and forums.

The survey closes February 15th, so be quick!

Friday 28 January 2011

Their Own Worst Enemy - Part 1

I'm currently dealing with a case (about which more to come another time) involving a breeder who among many other misdemeanours has failed to hand over a pup's papers to the person who paid £900 for the dog.

The puppy-buyer contacted the Kennel Club who confirmed that the puppy is KC-registered but said there was nothing they could do. Even though the new owner has a sales contract that proves unequivocally that the dog is hers, the Kennel Club is unable, apparently, to furnish her with the dog's KC registration certificate. The KC also refused to write to the breeder - telling the new owner that they had no duty to do so and, instead, she should seek recourse through Trading Standards.

The rather astonished puppy-buyer pointed out to the KC that there is a clause in the Kennel Club's Code of Ethics which asks that a breeder "...will ensure that all relevant Kennel Club documents are provided to the new owner when selling or transferring a dog, and will agree, in writing, to forward any relevant documents at the earliest opportunity, if not immediately available."

The puppy-buyer also pointed out that, at the foot of the KC's Code of Ethics, it states:

"Breach of these provisions may result in expulsion from club membership, and/or disciplinary action by the Kennel Club and/or reporting to the relevant authorities for legal action, as appropriate."

The puppy-buyer asked if the KC could, therefore,  put some pressure on the breeder who has clearly broken the KC's code of ethics.

And back came this reply:

"The code is the KC saying how we would like people to behave. If people choose not to abide by the code then we cannot take action. We do not plan to discuss the matter of the certificate with the breeder - your recourse is through the normal legal channels. Due to the current volume of work in the office I cannot give further priority to your messages and any future email will have to be dealt with as written correspondence and you will need to allow at least 28 days for reply."

How to win friends and influence people, eh?

Tuesday 18 January 2011

Hybrid vigour... fact or fiction?

Illustration: Kevin Brockbank
So which is healthier -  posh pedigree or humble mutt? It’s this question more than any other that makes breeders of the purebred dog hyperventilate. And you can understand why. Surely, after years of honing their beloved breeds, their dogs are vastly superior in terms of health than their crossbreed cousins – especially, God forbid, than those awful designer dogs.
The breeders on the show-focused Champdogs website certainly think they know the answer. They recently had a big whinge about the prices of Labradoodles, Cockapoos and other money-earning crosses and, over 100 posts later, they emerged having convinced themselves that their purebred dogs had to be healthier. Phew!
“There’s no such thing as hybrid vigour in dogs,” was one comment, oft-repeated. “You only get hybrid vigour if you mate two species together and all dog breeds are the same species.”
Well no. While it is true that a lion/tiger cross would produce a hybrid animal, the term hybrid vigour is used more usually in science and agriculture to describe the rude health/better yield you get by breeding animals or plants of different varieties. Indeed, we enjoy the benefits of it every day in our food. Your morning toast? Very likely to be bread made with hybrid wheat. Your steak for supper? It may say Aberdeen Angus on the packet, but it only has to be 60 per cent purebred to be allowed to use the moniker. Same goes for eggs, chickens, corn-on-the cob and many other foodstuffs. The reason farmers use crosses is because the wheat grows stronger, the maize grows sweeter, the poultry thrives better and the cattle grow bigger. Indeed, the hybrid vigour so dismissed by dog breeders is one of the things keeping our farming industry afloat (if barely). That’s not to say that farmers don’t maintain purebred lines too – they do. But it’s often a more expensive business because the yield is less.
In fairness, one informed poster acknowledged this. She wrote: “You can get hybrid vigour when crossing two separate 'types' which have been kept pure in their own gene pools for some time. The theory is that over time, 'inbreeding depression' sets in with any closely-bred/line-bred strain, which is immediately lost when crossed to a different strain.” This is exactly right. But she then added:  “Of course if you cross two breeds that get epilepsy, or two breeds prone to hip dysplasia, or PRA (progressive retinal atrophy) - all you're going to get is epilepsy, HD or PRA. No amount of hybrid vigour can wipe away recessives present on both sides.”
This post goes hand-in-hand with another one that’s repeated with depressing regularity by breeders on many websites – and that is: “If you mate two different breeds the puppies will be cursed with all the problems of both breeds.”
Again, it’s not the case – although there is some truth in this.  Many conditions in dogs are recessive. That means that both parents must carry and pass down the genetic mutation that causes that condition for the pups to be affected. If they’re different breeds, this is much less likely, as confirmed by the Animal Health Trust: “Because of the small gene pool in purebred dogs, inherited diseases resulting from single gene mutations are more likely to occur than in their cross bred cousins,” said the AHT in a recent press release.
Of course if both breeds suffer from the same condition, the pups could be affected. There’s very good evidence, for instance, that Labradoodles  are just as likely to suffer hip dysplasia as their purebred parent breeds.  The breed mean hip score for Labradors is 15 and for Standard Poodles it is 14 while the Labradoodle’s average hip score is 14.  Over 400 have now been tested  via the KC/BVA scheme– more than many Kennel Club breeds, including the Boxer and Dalmatians – and clearly the cross doesn’t bring any benefits in terms of joint disease. This is as you might expect, but it isn’t a given. Both Springer Spaniels and Irish Setters suffer from the eye condition PRA, for instance, but it’s caused by different mutations. The Springer x Setter pups, therefore, will not go blind.
There’s another point here, too: dogs from genetically-different parents are likely to have stronger immune systems. This may not help with avoiding genetic disease, but it most certainly helps in terms of withstanding infections, parasites, viruses, auto-immune diseases and allergies. So here again, crossbreeds tend to have the advantage.
Next up on Champdogs was this old chestnut: “All my pedigree dogs are perfectly healthy but my mongrel has lots of problems, including epilepsy.”  No doubt this is the case – but I could chip in with evidence that all my mutts enjoy rude health whereas my purebreds are more sickly. It doesn’t prove a thing. To know which is more representative you have to compare a lot of crossbreeds with a lot of purebred dogs. Has that ever been done? Champdogs didn’t think so: “The claims about crossbreeds being healthier than pedigrees are based on unproved statistics” wrote one poster and no one chipped in to point out that they were wrong.
And they are wrong. There are several scientific studies which have explored the issue and found either no difference or that crossbreeds are healthier overall [see below].  However, “overall” means comparing all purebreds with all mutts and if you compare all mutts with individual breeds, it’s clear that some of the smaller, hardier breeds are healthier.
The same goes for longevity, too. Overall, mutts live – on average – a little longer. In fact, they’re likely to be at our feet for up to two years longer according to one key study. But this doesn’t mean that mutts outlive every breed – they don’t. That’s because small dogs tend to live longer than large ones and that endures across the purebred/crossbreed divide. Some terriers, miniature poodles and whippets live longer than the average cross.  So breeders of these breeds really could justifiably claim that their dogs are healthier than most mutts. But it’s not a very fair comparison because if you split the crosses into size categories, the crossbreed benefit manifests once again. In other words, small crossbreeds live longer than small pedigree dogs (and the same is true for medium and large dogs too).
Insurance company data also confirms the crossbreed health benefit. Most charge lower premiums for crosses and mixed breeds. This isn’t because they’re “anti-pedigree” – an accusation often levied at anyone who dares sing the health-merits of the average mutt. Nope, it’s bottom-line not opinion that cuts ice with the actuaries. They’ve calculated the risks by looking at their data (ie claim history) and priced their premiums accordingly.
For all these reasons, we felt able to say in Pedigree Dogs Exposed that crossbreeds are – overall – healthier than their purebred cousins. Of course this isn’t to say that every mutt enjoys rude good health – they don’t. I wrote recently about losing a lovely collie cross to lymphoma at the age of two and you don’t have to look very far to find crosses suffering from many of the same conditions that blight our purebred dogs. It’s just that, statistically, they’re less likely to be sick. In fact, as I’ve mentioned before, one recent Italian study found that purebred dogs were twice as likely to suffer from cancer than crossbreeds.
“Ah but,” cry responsible breeders, “studies comparing mongrels and purebreds lump all the purebreds together. If you just compared the dogs we breed – carefully selected and fully health-tested – you’d find that our dogs are healthier.”
What the breeders are claiming here is that the disease statistics are being skewed by all those dodgy purebred dogs being produced by backyard breeders and puppy farms.  This sounds plausible, but is there any evidence that it’s true?
No, there isn’t. Actually, there’s next to no evidence to suggest that it isn’t true, either, so the jury is out on this one.  I’ve only found one survey that did the comparison – of Scottish Terriers in America – and it disproves the breeders’ claim. In 2005, Great Scots Magazine did the biggest-ever health survey of Scotties (785 dogs) and found absolutely no difference in disease-rates or longevity between “well-bred” Scotties and others.
“I expected to find statistically verified greater health in the well-bred group,” says Joseph Harvill, publisher of Great Scots Magazine. “That has been the classic claim of show breeders. But I found no significant difference in health benefit between the two groups and it raises real questions to me about the validity of the show breeders' health claims.” In fact, more recent studies by the Scottish Terrier Club of America's Health Trust Fund looking at cancers  - especially bladder cancer from which Scotties are 30 times more like to suffer than other breeds – support the findings. “There is no safety among show dogs,” insists Harvill.
It’s only one study though and you can’t apply the findings across all breeds. It may well be that, in other breeds, show-bred dogs are indeed healthier than the rest of the population. But the show-breeders can’t simply assume this without data to support the claim.
So there we are.  On the evidence we have to date, pedigree dogs can fairly boast predictability of type, looks, character traits and temperament. But in terms of health and average longevity, the humble mutt rules – with the possible exception of working dogs that have been carefully and sometimes ruthlessly bred for fitness and function – a process that in many ways mimics natural selection. Racing greyhounds, for instance, do not suffer from hip dysplasia.
It is the case that not all mixed breeds are created equal. If we breed crosses in the same way as we breed pedigree dogs (as certainly happens with some designer dogs) it’s asking for trouble.  One reason why randomly-bred dogs enjoy a health benefit is that they get to choose their own mates (a process by which nature ensures that only the fittest get to breed). Further, if the individuals dogs are in poor health (genetically or otherwise) and we then go on and inbreed the offspring, we’re on a hiding to nothing.  In other words, just being a crossbreed or mutt is no guarantee of superior health and if a breeder of Labradoodles, Goldenoodles, Cockapoos, Puggles or any other cute mix tries to claim otherwise, vote with your feet and walk away - particularly if they insist there is no need to do any health-tests because their pups will be the automatic beneficiary of hybrid vigour.  It ain’t true.

References (researched and collated by Dr Hellmuth Wachtel):
• B.N. Bonnett, A. Egenvall, P. Olson, A. Hedhammar, Mortality in Swedish dogs: rates and causes of death in various breeds, The Veterinary Record, 1997. ("Mongrels were consistently in the low risk category")
•  P.D. McGreevy & W.F. Nicholas, Some Practical Solutions to Welfare Problems in Pedigree Dog Breeding, Animal Welfare, 1999. ("Hybrids have a far lower chance of exhibiting the disorders that are common with the parental breeds. Their genetic health will be substantially higher.")
• A. Egenvall, B.N. Bonnett, P. Olson, A. Hedhammar. Gender, age, breed and distribution of morbidity and mortality in insured dogs in Sweden during 1995 and 1996, The Veterinary Record, 2000. ("Mongrel dogs are less prone to many diseases then the average purebred dog.")
•  A. R. Michell, Longevity of British breeds of dog and its relationship with sex, size, cardiovascular variables and disease, Veterinary Record, 1999. ("There was a significant correlation between body weight and longevity. Crossbreeds lived longer than average but several pure breeds lived longer than cross breeds, notably Jack Russell, miniature poodles and whippets”.)
• G.J. Patronek, D.J. Walters, L.T. Glickman, Comparative Longevity of Pet Dogs and Humans: Implications for Gerontology Research, Journal of Gerontology, Biological Sciences, 1997. ("The median age at death was 8.5 years for all mixed breed dogs and 6.7 years for all pure breed dogs For each weight group, the age at death of pure breed dogs was significantly less than for mixed breed dogs.")
• H.F. Proschofsky et al, Mortality of purebred and mixed breed dogs in Denmark, Preventive Veterinary Medicine, 2003. (Higher average longevity of mixed breed dogs. Age at death when split into three age bands: mixed breeds 8,11,13, purebreds 6, 10, 12)
• Marta Vascellar et al. Animal tumour registry of two provinces in northern Italy: incidence of spontaneous tumours in dogs and cats. BMC Veterinary Research 2009. (“In both dogs and cats, purebreds had an almost 2-fold higher incidence of malignant tumours than mixed breeds.”)
• Agneta Egenvall et al. Mortality in over 350,000 Insured Swedish Dogs from 1995–2000; Breed-Specific Age and Survival Patterns and Relative Risk for Causes of Death. Acta Veterinaria Scandinavica, 2005. (No difference overall, but mongrels low-risk for locomotor problems and heart disease.)
This article first appeared in the October 2010 issue of Dogs Today Magazine.

Friday 14 January 2011

Caveat emptor...

Cherry eye... don't worry, it's 'normal'
Was forwarded this link to an internet puppy-selling site in Canada... which reassuringly offers a lifetime guarantee,  including against genetic disorders.  A closer examination, though, reveals that it includes some amazing get-out clauses and conditions.  It does not, for instance, cover heart murmurs, invertebral disc disease or luxating patellas and..."You must follow PUREBRED BREEDERS, LLC recommended nutritional program, including feeding only premium dog foods and vitamin supplement listed in the paperwork that we give you at the time of purchase. You must retain all receipts for food and vitamins to show you are abiding by this guarantee."

But the wording that most caught my eye was this:

"English Bulldogs are only covered for a period of one (1) year from original purchase date. During which time, this guarantee does not cover what in Bulldog breeds we consider normal: Cherry Eye, Entropion, "loose hips", skin allergies, elongated soft palate, small trachea, stenotic nares."


A guppy is not a puppy

Image: Wikipedia Commons
But, nevertheless, a new study just out provides yet more evidence of how, given half a chance, nature goes to considerable lengths to avoid inbreeding.

It's been discovered that female guppies  - which practice polyandry (taking multiple mates) - have a mechanism by which they can slow down the sperm of closely-related mates. Amazing!

"It's new and interesting," said Bob Montgomerie,  an evolutionary biologist at Queen's University in Ontario, Canada, who was not involved in the research. "If females can prevent fertilization by a close relative, they aren't wasting energy forming a zygote that will likely die due to the accumulation of harmful mutations."

Researchers have long suspected that polyandry evolved in some species as a strategy to reduce breeding with relatives, but lack of evidence for how the females bias paternity after mating has caused the hypothesis to remain simply that. 

Read more in The Scientist.

It's a wierd concept to some dog breeders who have grown up to believe that inbreeding is a good thing but there is a wealth of evidence that the females of many species avoid mating with close relatives.  Dog breeders also often try to justify inbreeding by swearing blind that male wolves inevitably mate with their daughters - but this simply isn't true. There's evidence that all wild canids avoid inbreeding.  And although they will mate with relatives if there's no option,  it appears some at least have the ability to limit the damage. A study of an isolated population of wolves on the Swedish peninsula found that females were somehow able to choose mates that were, genetically, the least related even if, on paper, they were similarly related (Report on Science Daily).

Wild African dogs also practice inbreeding avoidance. A study of a single population in Kruger National Park showed that male and female wild dogs that formed new packs did so only with unrelated members of the opposite sex (Girman et al). This was true even though most males and females dispersed to territories very near their close relatives. Indeed, the researchers found no evidence for inbreeding in the Kruger population.

The domestic dog, however, appears to have, largely, lost this ability - bred out of them by artificial selection imposed on them by us. For every story of a bitch turning her nose up at a brother or father's amorous advances, there is another of one absolutely determined to keep it in the family.

Of course, that doesn't make it right...

Thursday 6 January 2011

Fitness tests for the unfit fifteen

KC puts a lid on the Basset's baggy eyes. Ish...
In the face of continued strong criticism about the state of some breeds, and in response to campaigners who have long argued that the show-ring must reward something other than looks, the KC announced today that, from 2012, fifteen troublesome breeds must pass a vet-check before they will be awarded the big prizes. 

It is, of course,  astonishing to anyone outside the wierd world of dog shows that animals with obvious health problems could ever win. But it's a depressing fact that dogs that are lame, have sore eyes, skin problems and even breathing issues are sometimes rewarded by judges. This is sometimes because the health issue is so ubiquitous in the breed that judges no longer see it as abnormal (red and baggy eyes in Bassets and Bloodhounds, for instance), or because the judge believes that "type" (the essential "essence" of a breed as defined in the breed standard) in some way over-rides a corneal ulcer or obvious respiratory distress.

The KC announcement seeks to address this, and also - significantly - is designed to distance the KC from the damage that these breeds continue to do to the KC's reputation because of the fodder they provide to critics like me.

“The majority of people involved in showing dogs, including the 15 high profile breeds, are doing a good job in moving their breed forward and many judges are ensuring that health is paramount when they judge. This work should be applauded and recognised," says KC Chairman Ronnie Irving.

“Sadly though, a few judges in some breeds simply can’t or won’t accept the need to eliminate from top awards, dogs which are visibly unhealthy. Neither we who show dogs, nor the Kennel Club which must protect our hobby, can reasonably allow that state of affairs to continue."

In other words... It's them, sir, not us! Pretty outrageous, really, given the role the KC has played in the development of all these breeds - analagous to Henry Ford blaming a deathly fault in the Model-T on the workers that built it.

The 15 breeds are: Basset Hound, Bloodhound, Bulldog, Chow Chow, Clumber Spaniel, Dogue de Bordeaux, French Bulldog, German Shepherd Dog, Mastiff, Neapolitan Mastiff, Pekingese, Pug, Shar-Pei, the St Bernard and - da-daa - the Chinese Crested. I'll be demanding all the credit/blame for the inclusion of this last one as it was me who drew the KC's attention to the fact that breeders are resorting to ridiculous means to ensure their dogs are entirely free of hair in all the right places.

Still,  I'm not getting too excited. The vet checks are being done by KC-appointed show-friendly vets, not an independent group appointed by the British Veterinary Association. One of these, Andreas Schemel (seen right), is a breeder, judge and staunch defender of the right to breed pugs with ridiculously flat faces. What he would consider normal in brachycephalic breeds such as the pug, peke and bulldog is likely to be entirely different to a vet operating outside of the KC bubble.

Finally, it is only 15 breeds and there's nothing in the new initiative to stop a dog with a non-visible hideous genetic problem from winning rosettes and then (as we saw in Pedigree Dogs Exposed) going on to sire the next generation of sick pups. And why on earth do we have to wait another year before obviously sore, lame, squinting and gasping dogs are barred from being awarded prizes?

As one commentator on the Dog World reporting of the announcement this morning opines: "Listen to my one hand clapping."

Monday 3 January 2011

The bald truth about the Chinese Crested

The top dog for 2010 in the Dog World/Arden Grange table (UK) is the Chinese Crested Ch Vanitonia Unwrapped (left), who clinched the title by winning best in show at the LKA, reported Dog World just before Christmas.  Vanitonia Unwrapped - pet name "Nora" - is believed to be the first dog to take eight Best in Show awards at UK all-breeds championship shows during one show season, and she is still less than two years old.

I've been having a low-level exchange with the Kennel Club about the 'Cresties" for a while now. My beef? That the dogs are being shaved and
depilated to look like they're hairless when they're not.

I spend enough on my dogs without having to buy them jumpers, too, so the hairless Chinese Crested is not a breed I have ever been interested in. But my hackles rose when I read an editorial about grooming them in Dog World a few weeks before Crufts last year. The writer wrote openly about how many of the dogs are not really hairless and so to meet the breed standard that calls for a smooth, hairless body the hair is removed.  She then went on to explain how to shave the poor little mites and then apply a depilatory crème as if it was the most normal thing in the world.
It isn’t - as you can see from the pictures of the very sore-looking Cresties below.

The Chinese Crested comes in two varieties. There’s the  ‘powderpuff” which has a full coat – and, indeed, is rather appealingly scruffy. And there's the "hairless" which can, in fact, be born with a varying amount of hair.  If it's sparse, they're known as a 'true hairless' and if they have more, they're known as a 'hairy hairless'.
True hairless  (Photo: Tommy Gildseth, CC-BY-SA)

The hairy hairless can be very hairy indeed...
It’s the hairier Cresties that have the best ‘furnishings’ – the luxuriant mane, tail and ‘socks’ that make the dogs look like My Little Pony. The ‘true hairless’ has much less hair in the 'right' places and so is nothing like as showy.  Indeed, the true hairless is usually pretty obvious in the ring because of this – and also because of the primitive dentition that comes with the hairless gene.  Certainly, a judge only has to look in the dog's mouth to tell the difference between a dog carrying the hairless gene and a shaved powderpuff (which sadly does happen).  So, the less hirsute ones are the genuine article and the ones with fluffy 'furnishings' are, mostly, dogs from which a lot of body hair has been removed. Sad to say, almost every bald dog I saw in the ring at Crufts was a fake. And the reason? These are usually the ones that win.
Worse, I was contacted shortly before Crufts last year by a groomer who told me that some breeders are waxing the dogs and even using epilators – both of which pull the hair out from the roots. Ouch.  It made the breed top of my watch-list for last year’s Crufts - and I'll keep an eye out this year, too.
I dream of the day when I contact the Kennel Club to tell them of such issues and they write back thanking me for drawing it to their attention and reassuring me that they will do everything in their power to make such abuses stop.  Oh, and then actually stop it.
It started off promisingly enough. This is the email I got back from the KC’s Sara Wilde: “We are very concerned at the suggestion that owners may be using depilatory creams and thereby causing harm to their dogs.  This is clearly against Kennel Club rules which are in place to ensure dogs’ welfare and we will be monitoring the situation at DFS Crufts.

“We have also recently written to the breed clubs to highlight our concerns.  You will, I am sure, be aware that our Breed Watch pages highlight the specific issues of clipper rash and razor burns in Chinese Crested Dogs and thus the judge at Crufts (as well as other shows) has had this matter highlighted to them.  At Crufts there will be clear notices displayed in all grooming areas reminding exhibitors of KC rules relating to preparation of dogs for showing and these areas will be monitored by the stewards as in the past.  Our policy of random testing for banned substances in the coats of dogs remains in place.”
Two hours after this email, another one landed in my inbox - this time a post from a closed Chinese Crested list, forwarded by a concerned Chinese Crested owner who is also horrified at the practice of denuding the dogs. It read: “…I have just had a member of the KC general committee on the phone and they have had insider info that Jemima Harrison will be targeting Chinese Cresteds at Crufts. They also have undercover cameras with the intent to film people shaving their dogs. This will be used in the next programme due to come out. PLEASE, i urge everybody, put differences aside and all pull together. For the good of the breed be on the look out and DO NOT shave at CRUFTS. please tell as many as possible.”

Now there IS no "next programme", we were not filming at Crufts and the KC had no reason to think that we were, although it’s certainly true that there are now any many people who will send me photographs and videos of things that alarm them.  But I did go to Crufts and I did visit the Cresties to see for myself what was going on.

I walked round with vet Pete Wedderburn, who writes a column and blog for the Daily Telegraph. Pete took the Crestie pictures above of very sore-looking dogs.  He was particularly shocked at this male's clearly raw testicles.

Afterwards, on one of the main Crestie internet lists, they chatted about how, although the KC had warned there may be spot-checks, there had been none on the Chinese Crested.  So much for the promised monitoring.  
I nagged the Kennel Club about this again recently. Their reply: "[It is] in hand, Jemima, and will be announced in due course."

But I will be surprised if they take steps to stop this because many Crestie exhibitors see absolutely nothing wrong with denuding the dogs. They don't want things to change.

I should say, by the way, that I have no evidence to suggest that Vanitonia Unwrapped is shaved and depilated for the show-ring.

But others most certainly are and, helpfully, one American exhibitor has posted a how-to-guide online.

Sunday 2 January 2011

The other PDE - Pug Dog Encephalitis

Some good news from UC Davis. They've developed a new DNA test for Pug Dog Encephalitis (PDE), a nasty condition also known as necrotising meningoencephalitis (NME). It claims the lives of about one in 100 Pugs.

PDE/NME is an inflammatory disease of the central nervous system that is usually progressive and fatal. Symptoms include seizures, depression, ataxia, abnormal gait and blindness.   Female, fawn Pugs younger than 7 years of age are more apt to develop NME than older, non-fawn males.

Last year, researchers found that pugs that have two identical copies of particular markers have an increased risk of developing the condition (an observed risk of 12.75 over  their lifetime compared to a risk of just 0-1.08 for Pugs that have only one or no copies of these markers). (Reference here.) Now UC Davis has made a test available to Pug owners and breeders.

It's important to note that this isn't a "definitive diagnosis" test, just an indicator of risk.  Only one in eight of those dogs with two copies of the risk markers will develop PDE. But it is useful nevertheless and, interestingly, the markers are located at or near what are known as DLA class II genes - genes that code for the immune system. Genetic diversity in this area of the genome is considered a particularly good thing, as I have documented here.

In other words, using this test to help identify dams and sires that won't produce pups that have two identical copies of the PDE/NME markers could prove to be beneficial in other ways too

More info from UC Davis here.

The Terrierman hangs up his blogging boots

For the past five years, Pat Burns' Terrierman blog has been compelling reading. He is, depending on your view, either a bold, sharp and provocative read for everyone interested in dogs, or an arrogant, opiniated sod who can be breathtakingly rude.

Yesterday, Patrick annnounced that he is moving on to pastures new. He is wrapping up his trail-blazing blog - he says maybe not permanently, but I fear this is a sop to devotees like me who are gutted that he's hanging up his blogging boots; akin to a jilting lover trying to dump you gently by saying they just need a bit of break. Honestly, it felt like a death in the family when I read the news this morning. Patrick's brilliant  Inbred Thinking, written in May 2006, is a seminal work and was one of the main triggers for my own dog reform journey. But there is very much more than this to treasure on his blog archive which I hope will be preserved. If you haven't already discovered him, get over there now.

Behind the scenes and from across the Pond, Patrick has also been an inspiration and motivator personally. He's made me laugh, often, and more than once made me wince with some sharp observation or (mostly deserved) criticism. I have learned a great deal from him.

I am looking forward to meeting him and his dogs for the first time in April when I go to a conference in Washington where I have been asked to speak on what's happened since Pedigree Dogs Exposed.

In the meantime... Pat Burns - thank you.You will be missed.

In tribute to the Terrierman who has a much stricter Comments policy than me, no anonymous comments allowed on this one... If you want to praise - or be rude - stand up and put your name to it.

Cavaliers - a leap too far?

This flying cavalier is Minnie-May who will be five years old on 25th January and she is living proof that some dogs with syringomyelia (SM) can enjoy a reasonable quality of life.

"Her pedigree name is Miletree Minnie-May" says her devoted owner, Sandra Collins, who I met at Discover Dogs in November where she was helping to raise awareness of syringomyelia on the Cavalier Matters stand.  "Minnie was two years old she first visited the vet when she was unable to go up the stairs or jump up on furniture.  The vet said she had a muscle strain - probably from doing agility (which we do just for fun).   Over a 18 month period she had another two or three similar instances.  She also had several different quirky behaviours - rubbing her head, rolling, shaking her body, scooting, although none of these were being done with any significance.  I also noticed that she was becoming quite head-shy and a couple of times had yelped when being fussed by people.  I had seen Pedigree Dogs Exposed which brought the SM problem in Cavaliers to my attention.  At that time I was sure Minnie was not affected.  However, when she suffered a further instance of "muscle strain" in February last year, I mentioned SM to my vet. I was by now feeling uneasy as Minnie was starting to refuse to do a couple of obstacles on the agility course for no apparent reason.

"She had her MRI last April  and  you can imagine my feelings when Minnie was diagnosed with Chiari like Malformation (CM) and Syringomyelia (SM) with a 7mm wide syrinx at C2.  Although an MRI of her whole spine was not done it is envisaged that she probably does have more syrinxes.  A full MRI is due to be done soon.  

"Minnie is now on a cocktail of medication, which currently seems to be managing her pain quite well.   As well as the devastating emotional effect this diagnosis has on all of the family and the fact that it is progressive, there is the financial effect.  Thank goodness we have good insurance cover as her medication costs over £100 a month, of which we get back 85% from the insurance company.  There is also the main fact that we now have a dog that we are continually watchful of as she is going to spend the rest of her life with this condition and not being able to tell us when she is feeling pain or discomfort.   Then at some point we may have to make the decision of whether or not to undertake surgery. 

"I spoke to veterinary neurologist Clare Rusbridge about Minnie continuing agility.  Her advice was to treat her as normal and to let her do as much or as little as she wanted.  Minnie enjoys her agility - as you can see from the photograph taken at Chiswick House Dog Show in September last  year.  We were doing a display and a fun competition which Minnie went on to win."

Meanwhile, I hear that after months of effort by researchers, vets and the Kennel Club (the latter finally doing the right thing after years of stubbornly refusing to acknowledge the seriousness of the condition), several cavalier clubs are refusing to endorse the new KC/BVA SM screening programme. But perhaps that's not surprising given that some top breeders continue to breed from under-age dogs.

In an effort to combat early-onset mitral-valve disease as well as syrinomyelia in cavaliers, the breeding guidelines ask that no cavalier is bred before they are 2.5yrs old and only then if both parents are a minimum of five years old, free of a heart murmur and, ideally, SM-free too (or at least only low-grade).

How depressing, then, to hear that that one high-profile cavalier breeeder has recently used one stud dog at least nine times before they were a year old.

Anyone know any more about this, or exactly why some of the cavalier clubs are questioning the validity of the new SM screening scheme?

Saturday 1 January 2011

Breed health: KC whitewash v iPhone honesty

Last year, and with no small fanfare, the Kennel Club launched its Veterinary Practice Guide to Dog Health, hailing it as "a resource to assist veterinary surgeons and all practice staff gain a greater familiarity with more detailed information on the two hundred or more breeds of dog recognised by the Kennel Club, and the health and welfare issues that you may encounter with each one."

In truth, it is laughable -  a PR exercise containing almost no health information at all. (To check it out for yourself, have a look at the 20 breeds here.) Also, with the exception of DNA tests for progressive retinal atrophy available from Optigen,  the manual only lists  DNA tests available from the Animal Health Trust, despite many other useful tests being available through other reputable centres worldwide.

The KC then further insulted the vets by insisting that ownership of one of these esteemed manuals, available from the KC's Marketing Department, was dependent on a visit from a KC representative. Bet they couldn't wait.

I know of one curious vet who asked for a copy of the manual way back in September and still hasn't received it, so maybe the KC is hastily revising it to make it less derisible.  In the meantime, vets (indeed anyone interested in finding out more about breed-specific health problems) could do worse than download US vet Craig Dixon's new iPhone app Breed Health for Dogs

Let's compare the two offerings.

Here's what the KC has to say about the Pug.

Apparently, the pug doesn't suffer from any health issues at all! And there was me thinking the breed was riddled with problems!

The new iPhone app is much more helpful. For a start, it covers 40 breeds compared to the KC's 20. And for the pug it lists no fewer than 15 health problems:

Demodectic Mange
Fold Dermatitis
Upper Airway Syndrome
Legg-Calve-Perthes Disease
Pug Encephalitis
Eyelid Entropion
Eye Exposure Keratopathy Syndrome
Periodontal Disease
Degeneratvie Myelopathy
Sick Sinus Syndrome
Keratoconjunctivisitis Sicca (Dry Eye)

It then goes on to make the following recommendations:

4-12 months of age
• Gene test for Degenerative Myelopathy
• X-rays of head, neck & spine for Upper Airway Syndrome and Hemi-Vertebra
• Surgical repair - for Upper Airway Suyndrome and Fold Dermatitis (if needed)

1 year of age
• Eye exam for Distichiasis, Entropion, Cataracts & Exposure Eye Keratopathy - repeat yearly
• Skin exam for Demodectic Mange

2 years of age
• Teeth Cleaning - repeat every 2-3 years
• Skin exam for skin allergy evaluation for Atopy and Demodectic Mange
• Eye exam for Distichiasis, Entropion, Cataracts & Exposure Eye Keratopathy

...and so on. The app also gives simple descriptions of all the conditions. Now it is not without some glaring errors and omissions - it doesn't list syringomyelia for cavaliers, for instance, and doesn't suggest checking for heart murmurs until a cavalier is 7 years old, which is way too late. It would also be helpful to know the prevalence data for particular conditions where known (even if just listed as "rare", "occasional" or "common").  But it's a useful start.

The Breed Health for Dogs App for iPhone and iPad costs £1.79/$2.99 - cheap enough to buy and send feedback to its authors via They promise support for other smart phones soon.