Wednesday 23 March 2011

Silent Witness?

Illustration: Kevin Brockbank

In early 2007, I visited Bristol Vet School to ask for their help.  I was looking for case histories of dogs suffering from inherited disorders that were common in specific breeds, such as breathing problems in short-nosed breeds, something vet schools deal with every day.
It was a friendly meeting during which the problems in pedigree dogs were acknowledged. But at the end of it, Bristol Vet School apologised and said they couldn’t help. The reason?  They didn’t want to damage their prospects of Kennel Club research funding – an important source of money for  a cash-strapped vet school.
We found this again and again while making Pedigree Dogs Exposed – silence bought either by money or because of the profession’s long standing relationship with the Kennel Club. There were a few individual vets who were prepared to speak out publicly about what they saw as a serious animal welfare issue but the veterinary establishment was, largely, unwilling to bite the hand that fed it.
It has not always been the case. In 1963, former BSAVA president Graham Oliver-Jones addressed the profession’s annual congress with these words: “We have recently been to the House of Commons on your behalf and met many members of both Houses. We told them of our tremendous interest in the abnormalities of some of the dogs that we are called upon to treat; and explained that our concern is that dogs are being bred and born into this world to suffer throughout their lives from certain conditions which probably could be prevented.”  
In fact, the BSAVA organised an entire symposium in 1963 on “Abnormalities and Defects in Pedigree Dogs” and six accompanying papers were published, one by dalmatian breeder, Eleanor Frankling, who wrote: “…the tendency among breeders today is to adopt an attitude of “the more the better” over any desired point. If, for instance, small eyes are demanded as they are in the Chow standard, then “the smaller the better’’ and the foundations of entropion are there. The Alsatian stifles are described as “well turned”. I love the Alsatian and owned one when it was a noble upstanding animal. The angulation in hock and stifle is now so extreme that the hocks are practically non-existent and the animal walks almost on its metatarsals. It is short-legged and slinking.”
Yep, more than 45 years before Pedigree Dogs Exposed
Now let’s fast-forward to May 1981, when vet Simon Wolfensohn, in an article entitled “The Things We Do To Dogs” had this to say in the New Scientist: “Man is apt to refer to dog as his best friend, but it’s doubtful whether dog can return the compliment. Our strange ideas about the appearance of our canine companions have afflicted many breeds with physical deformities which at best cause the dogs considerable inconvenience and at worst result in a lifetime of visits to the vet. Some breeds have developed their own hereditary disease because their short-sighted breeders have been more concerned with their appearance than their general state of health.” Wolfensohn then went on to highlight the problems of impoverished gene pools, popular sires and incestuous matings as well as conformational handicaps such as short noses (pekes and pugs) and short legs (basset hounds) - in fact, the exact same criticisms we made 27 years later in Pedigree Dogs Exposed.
Now let’s jump to 1988 and a report by the Council of Science which stated: An increasing number of hereditary problems are being recognised in companion animals, especially dogs. Many of these are the consequences of inbreeding or breeding for genetically defective animals. Some are the result of deliberate selection for abnormal or unnaturally accentuated physical characteristics for fad or fancy…. Collectively, such breeding practices are a distortion of the generally assumed responsibility man has for companion animals. Greater efforts should be made to discourage breeding for physical malformations, particularly those requiring corrective surgery.
Then, 11 years later, the Federation of European Vets, of which the BVA is a member, published a resolution which urged vets  “not only to treat individual animals humanely but to bring to the attention of the breeding organisations and competent authorities in their countries the need for action to alleviate the welfare problems which can be caused by selective breeding.”

And did they?  No, they didn’t. The veterinary profession as a whole kept its head down, a largely passive observer to the systematic destruction of animals that it has sworn an oath to protect. 
There were some changes. Following the criticism in the 1960s, the British Veterinary Association got together with the KC and established both the hip and eye schemes. After Wolfensohn’s high-profile criticism in the 1980s (repeated on television), the Kennel Club reviewed its breed standards.  Same again in the 1990s and again 10 years later – always in response to criticism. The problem was that these initiatives were nothing like enough. In many breeds, health continued to deteriorate. 
I believe the single biggest reason for this is because the Kennel Club has adopted the policy of keeping its friends close and its enemies even closer. 
Thus, various high-ranking veterinary professionals have been courted by the Kennel Club, none more influentially than Mike Stockman, who was president of the BVA in 1978/9. Stockman was a breeder (of Keeshonds), judge and exhibitor and he was a high-ranking KC official, including Chairman of Crufts.  
Stockman joined the Kennel Club in 1967, not long after that first major criticism. In fact, he referred back to that early criticism in an article in 1984: “The dog world, or at least its pedigree component, reacted with a hardly surprising anger and the authors of the paper were soon extremely unpopular,” he remembered. Sounds strangely familiar!
Stockman  and his wife Val, was involved with the Kennel Club until he retired in 2002. Stockman oversaw the 1980s review of breed standards that so spectacularly failed to halt the ride of exaggerations and his influence survives today in the shape of his daughter, Caroline Kisko, who is the Secretary of the Kennel Club.
“It is so important to the canine fraternity to have links of this kind with the veterinary profession,” wrote KC Chairman Ronnie Irving in his obituary of Mike Stockman in 2007.  
This is not to suggest that veterinary links are always a bad thing. Undoubtedly, there are many times – such as the establishment of new clinical screening programmes  - that require liaison.  My fear is that the KC doesn’t do it for just this reason; it does it to ensure influence and deflect criticism.  
Many critics over the years – including vet Emma Milne (author of The Truth About Cats and Dogs), MP Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (an increasingly powerful voice for change) and outspoken judge Steven Seymour, have revealed how they’ve been invited to the Kennel Club for lunch and a reassuring little chat about how actively the KC is addressing problems.  
Currently, the KC boasts some big-name vets  - including Mike Herrtage (Dean of Cambridge Vet School), Sheila Crispin  (who despite being Chairman of the new, independent Dog Advisory Council, still sits on the KC’s Dog Health Group and is an Honorary Member of the KC) and past-president of the British Veterinary Association, Nick Blayney. My heart sank recently to learn that the current president of the BVA, Harvey Locke, had joined the KC’s Dog Health Group, too. 
I am at a loss to understand why a vet would actually want to be an honorary member of an organisation that has done so much damage to dogs? It's not really a badge to wear with pride, is it?
I am not questioning these vets’ integrity. No doubt they all think they can change things from within - indeed,  both Sheila Crispin and Harvey Locke have said exactly that to me and of course I can see the merit in this. But the fact remains that sitting at a KC table sipping KC coffee out of KC cups has allowed the KC to exert a pernicious influence in the past. After all, what other explanation could there possibly be for all the above-named vets looking me square in the face and saying that things can’t change overnight when it’s been more than half a century since the alarm was first raised? 
There’s also the small matter that that every single KC initiative aimed at addressing health issues has been prompted by outside criticism. Really, every single one of them. 
Notwithstanding some good and brave vets who have spoken out, I believe history will  find the veterinary establishment guilty on this issue.  The profession has betrayed dogs by allowing itself to be seduced by Kennel Club history, cash, platitudes, front-row seats at Crufts and a half-decent lunch at Clarges St. It has also been paralysed by fears that it will offend breeders who are a good source of income, as indeed is the un-stemmed flow of dogs suffering from largely preventable inherited disease and physical handicaps inflicted on them by some breed standards.  Undoubtedly, many vets have also become inured to the problems that walk into their consulting room every day - as sharply observed by Canadian vet Koharik Arman in the Canadian Veterinary Journal in 2007.
 “What is the point of new animal welfare legislation if we continue to turn a blind eye to the worst of these breeding practices?” wrote one, anonymous, vet in the Veterinary Times shortly after Pedigree Dogs Exposed.  “I don’t want to see another decade of boxers that are the oncologist’s nightmare.
“If we believe that ‘first, do no harm’ is the correct moral position for our profession then surely we should feel strongly enough to require those who set the standards for breeders to embrace the same moral imperative. Alternatively, we can all go back to work with a sigh and enjoy the tiny frisson of intellectual superiority that flares briefly with the next encounter with flawed genetic manipulation of pet species.”
If the veterinary profession doesn’t want to have its hands stained permanently with the blood of pedigree dogs, it needs to step up to the mark. And I'm pleased that this year, there have been much stronger statements regarding purebred dog health from the veterinary hierarchy.  BVA president Harvey Locke strongly challenged the Kennel Club recently over Cesaerian Sections (the BVA believes that no more than one should be allowed; the Kennel Club has set the limit at two. Ish)  There are clear hints, too, that Sheila Crispin's Dog Advisory Council will take a strong stance if necessary. And, later this week, the Veterinary Times publishes an article in which both the British Veterinary Association and British Small Animal Veterinary Association call jointly for "urgent action" to address the obvious conformation problems seen in the Neapolitan Mastiffs at Crufts.  (Not available to the general public online but I will blog the substance of it on Friday.)
The veterinary profession needs to keep this up - and also address how vets can help constructively in terms of education of the puppy-buying public and, particularly, in data surveillance (on which more another time).
This article is an updated version of the one that appeared in the January 2011 issue of Dogs Today magazine. Dogs Today is now available internationally for iPad and iPhone for the bargain price of 59p for the app, which includes one edition free.


  1. ...- "and also address how vets can help constructively in terms of education of the puppy-buying public"...

    Yes, it would be ideal, wouldn't it. Unfortunately too many of the vets are totally unaware of any of the breed specific health tests, diseases - hereditary or not. They are unaware and unable to advise dog owners on breed specific genetic tests available for hereditary diseases...

    One of the most heard sentence by a wannabe breeder sadly is " yes, my vet says my bitch is in perfect health and I can breed from her"...
    So, presuming the said "healthy bitch" is a labrador - it too often has unscored hips & elbows, unchecked eyes by an ophtalmologist, lack of prcdPRA, CNM or EIC genetic tests - BECOUSE the vet hasn't the faintest idea of these existing tests...

    The KC "recommends" some health tests in its site. Obviously it only reaches those in active search of information.

    I really don't know which body should educate who as no-one seems to handle the total picture on canine health issues!


  2. Well I know my vet wouldn't advise anyone to breed their lab without doing all the checks (but then she has labs herself), but I agree that the advice (if any given at all) can be very patchy/subjective at the moment.

    There are some moves afoot to address this - and, actually, I think it has the potential to be a huge opportunity rather than a burden to the vets. At the mo, I don't know any brand new potential owner who would ask a vet about what dog to buy. They may, perhaps, ask if they are already reg'd with a vet and are in there with an existing dog. But I can see a future where vet surgeries could supply a great service in this respect and in doing so bring in more custom for themselves. At the moment, most vet surgeries do not have very much kerb appeal in terms of bringing in the public. But that clearly has the potential to change.


  3. To be honest I'd rather deal with a vet who's sold his soul to the Kennel Club than a vet who's sold his soul to the dog food companies.

    And yeah, how dare the Kennel Club donate money for health research to, you know, scientists doing health reasearch for dogs?

  4. At least the vet school was honest about why they couldn't help you.

    This is a big problem.

    When science becomes so subservient to the powers that be that real inquiry can't go on, it is always bad for science.

    This is very sad.

  5. Its a difficult situation for vets. Stand up for what you believe and a breeder can just find a different vet...its a balancing act...

  6. Did you approach any of the other vet schools, or just Bristol? You don't seem to have an across the board viewpoint of all the schools - just one. Seems a strange way to comment.

  7. "And, later this week, the Veterinary Times publishes an article in which both the British Veterinary Association and British Small Animal Veterinary Association call jointly for "urgent action" to address the obvious conformation problems seen in the Neapolitan Mastiffs at Crufts"

    It will be intersting to see if the vets have examined the neapolitan mastiffs at crufts and to see if their comments are evidence based or just plucked out of the air. Strangly you mention a couple of ethical principles and as yet I have seen little of ethic's applied to these blogs or many of the posts. My Neapolitan Mastiff won best puppy at crufts and have not been apporached by any vet to review him, yet I have a number of vets who rate him both in terms of breed standard and in health. And have the appropiate documention to prove so.

    Chris Cooper

  8. My experience of vets is limited - 3 in my life. All very nice people working in busy, primarily equine and agricultural animal practices, who couldn't give a hoot about the Kennel Club or breed standards. For me, they have prescribing power, but absolutely no knowledge of my breed (Dalmatian). Thankfully, all I need is the prescriptions - routine flea, tick and mite stuff and vaccinations, nothing more sinister! So, I think we're dealing with 2 levels of vet - those in local practice and those in the veterinary schools (the establishment?).

  9. I think the main problem lies in the fact that most people do not see the vets as a source of information BEFORE they get a new dog. Once they get a new dog they then choose to go to the vets for routine vaccinations, wormers etc, or because they now find their dog has a problem and vets are there to help treat it.
    Vets do offer "puppy clinics", but again this is once you HAVE the dog. I suppose they could start some "thinking of getting a new puppy" clinics where they advise people on the right choice of dog, what health checks their chosen breed, genetic and conformational problems the breed is prone to etc.
    They could maybe do evening talks to their clients, give out leaflets and do display boards too.
    However, I think most clients would just think it is easier to choose what puppy they get themselves, sadly in many cases based on what the dog looks like, and if they go the extra mile and do some research they can do it at home on the internet.
    Then we get a dog taken to the vets with an breed related illness. Lets take my dog Olive the pug. Taken to the vets at 10 weeks old because I was worried about her breathing being strained. I was told "this is quite normal for a pug, and as she grows it will improve".
    A classic example of how vets today have become desensitized to problems. Olive then went on to have 3 anaesthetics over time for various issues. Finally one vet mentioned her soft palate and when I took her to the RCVS Potters Bar low and behold she was diagnosed with laryngeal collapse grade 3.
    I do believe vets lack the knowledge on pedigree dog genetic and conformational related disorders. I do believe they are unaware of the various health tests that are out there.
    When someone walks in to the surgery saying they want to breed from their dog, yes the vet can give advise on what tests they should do, even turn around and say they do not think the clients dog should be bred from but I think they feel they have to be careful not to offend, not to lose the client who can just walk out and go to another vets.

  10. As said, I see real potential for vets to re-invent in this respect. A vet-a-pet advice service, or somesuch. Could be all kinds of incentives/freebies/tie-ins offered (perhaps even things like discounted insurance via a tie-in with PetPlan etc) that would make it genuinely attractive to those wanting to get a dog - and of course it would bring in good business for the vet. I really do feel that, currently, the vets are missing a trick here. They could play a much bigger educative role - not just in terms of health but in terms of general dog ownership, too.

    Could, perhaps, be done to inc an interactive computer terminal at vets - and with those with high street locations, it could even be built into windows so the passing public can use, something already being done by some estate agents. That way the info can be standardised.

    Would be very interested to hear some views from vets if they're reading.


  11. "And, later this week, the Veterinary Times publishes an article in which both the British Veterinary Association and British Small Animal Veterinary Association call jointly for "urgent action" to address the obvious conformation problems seen in the Neapolitan Mastiffs at Crufts"

    And they need to look at the best of breed pug too.

    There was me thinking the amendments to the breed standards would improve the dogs. This dog clearly has a heavy over the nose wrinkle, whites of the eyes showing, eyes not even straight, nostrils the same size as my pugs too.
    Sorry but NOTHING has changed.

  12. Reading? Laughing more like! Maybe I've been out of the South East for too long. But, get real. I guess my practice is rural, so passing trade is non-existent. The vets are helpful enough to put up posters for customers advertising puppies and kittens for sale. Does that count as advice? I don't think so. They've also handed out my phone number to people with problem Dalmatians. I'm not dissing the practice, I have no complaints, I'm just pointing out a huge reality gap. I agree that vets are missing a trick, but there must be a reason for it. For example, pet fees versus farm animal fees? Just a thought.

  13. So what happens when a vet gives the ''go ahead'' on a particular puppy, and the said pup develops a problem later.....litigation against the vet?

  14. "We found this again and again while making Pedigree Dogs Exposed – silence bought either by money or because of the profession’s long standing relationship with the Kennel Club"

    That is quite an assumption. Ever think they just did not want to be associated with you and your program? and rightfully so.. many smart people don't want their picture on the cover of the National Enquirer either.

  15. I have to agree with Skeptical, sounds like lawsuits against vets to me. No vet even with the clearest background of a puppies parentage can predict future health, be it genetic or recessive. Some conditions only surface at older stages in dog's life, as a potential pet owner, I see this as a gamble.

  16. Skeptical wrote: "So what happens when a vet gives the ''go ahead'' on a particular puppy, and the said pup develops a problem later.....litigation against the vet?"

    I am sure vets would want to be very careful about recommending a particular puppy. In fact, vets have recently been advised to no longer sign documents drawn up by breeders confirming that a pup has been vet-checked because of the worry concerning litigation. This is because breeders' paper work can over-state the extent and breadth of such a vet-check. Instead, I believe a standardised document is being drawn up making clear that the vet-check offers no guarantee of future health.

    So vets will no doubt be extremely cautious but in this particular instance we are talking about providing general breed information, not recommending a particular puppy. Although don't forget that new owners do sometimes get their pups vet-checked in response to puppy contracts which offer a short period in which to return/seek legal recourse should there be a problem and so are already vulnerable to some extent.

    I have heard many in the dog world saying that many vets know very little about some individual breeds and I am sure that is the case.

    I am suggesting, therefore, that some effort is put into ensuring there is much better breed info made available to vets that they can pass on to their clients.

    And, obviously, I do not mean the shockingly-bad breed health manual for vets recently produced by the KC.


  17. What if the vet simply advised that (statistically) the purchaser's best bet would be a more or less random-bred Jack Russell pup provided the seller was keeping the mother as a family pet in the home and all her vaccinations were up to date?

    I think part of the problem for vets is that there are simply too many inter-related issues (not necessarily listed here in what I think is their order of importance:

    Breed standard related problems
    Simple harmful mutations (which CAN be removed by health tests and everyone agrees should be dealt with).
    Polygenic problems.
    Effects of inbreeding.
    Effects of breed related problem genes getting out into the wider dog population (e.g. almost anything large being crossed with a Staffordshire).
    Socialisation issues.

  18. wondering why kate price bought a pug when she's so clued up on dog health-related issues? was it an experiment? clearly she should have known it would only lead to heartache?

  19. "What if the vet simply advised that (statistically) the purchaser's best bet would be a more or less random-bred Jack Russell pup provided the seller was keeping the mother as a family pet in the home and all her vaccinations were up to date?"

    One would hope that if a vet was placed in a position of recommending a particular breed, then he would not just be focussing on any potential health issues. Perhaps the random bred Jack Russell may be deemed the least likely to suffer from hereditary 'defects' but this type of dog will be far from suitable for a lot of homes. A generic dog does not suit all and sundry, however healthy it is. Health is of course important but it is EQUALLY as important to take into account the temprement and characteristics of the breed. Terriers, no matter how healthy, are not for all.
    You will also never remove personal preferences from the equation. Humans are a very visually orientated species. Whether you're talking about a spouse, car, pair of shoes or dog, appearence counts for a lot. You might be able to persuade someone towards a Welsh Terrier rather than a Lakeland, but no one who wants a small, pretty, long haired dog is going to seriously consider a greyhound or lurcher.

    In addition to whether or not a breed has significant/prevelant health issues, the suitability to the prospective owner's requirements is paramount. The healthiest dog in the world will not be advantageous if it is totally unsuited to the owner's lifestyle.

  20. As a good friend of the late Mike Stockman I find you comment rude and nasty you have no right to question his record in the word of dogs or as vet, its sad world when such nasty and untrue things are said just to premote such a blod, shame on you