Wednesday 27 April 2011

Bigger is not always better

Did you know that no common mouse has made it beyond its fourth birthday while Asian elephants can live beyond 80? That’s because large mammals usually live longer than small ones.

Humans (actually all primates) are a bit of an anomaly - our maximum lifespan is longer than expected for our size and more than many bigger animals.  Frenchwoman Jeanne Calment, the oldest known human, managed 122 years and 164 days.
But oddest of all, perhaps, are dogs. And that’s because the rules are completely reversed: smaller ones live longer than big ones and the difference is extremely marked.
In the 2004 Kennel Club breed health survey, there wasn’t a single large or giant breed in the Top 14 of the longest-living breeds. At the other end of the scale, eight of the 11 breeds that lived less than 8 years were either giant or large breeds.
The giant breed with the highest median age-of death was the Newfoundland at 9.67, while the Great Dane could muster only 6.5yrs, the Dogue de Bordeaux only  3.83 yrs and – worst of all with an average lifespan of just  2.33yrs  - was the Neapolitan Mastiff (although this was based on very few survey returns – 90 were sent out and only 9  were returned, almost certainly skewing the data).
The longest living breeds included the Lakeland Terrier (15.46 yrs),  the Toy Poodle (14.63yrs)  and the Tibetan Spaniel (14.42 yrs) – all small breeds.  The oldest dog in the survey – at 22 years old – was a Border Terrier (a breed with a median age of death of 14).
It is not completely linear - quite a few large-ish (if not giant) breeds do muster a respectable lifespan. Border collies, Dalmatians and most spaniels often make it to 12.5yrs. And there are some exceptions in the small-dog category:  the Japanese Chin averaged just 9.25yrs, the Pomeranian 9.67yrs and the Cesky Terrier just 8.42 yrs - half that of many other terrier breeds (and probably reflecting the very high level of inbreeding in the Cesky).
The KC survey had its limitations: it wasn’t random (so may not be representative of the breed as a whole) and some breeds returned very few survey forms. The oldest Leonberger in the KC survey for instance, was 12.67 (from a sample of around 200 dogs), whereas the excellent International Leonberger Database now has data on more than 3000 Leos and the eldest recorded died at 17.
But, overall, the evidence is pretty strong and every other survey has found much the same:  large dogs die younger than small ones. Given the reports of some very big dogs living well into their teens, it’s not that they’re incapable of living longer. It’s that something causes them to die prematurely.
But what? There are two main theories. The first is that the bigger and heavier the dogs are, the greater the strain there is on the skeleton and vital organs such as the heart that have to work that much harder. In other words, bigger breeds simply wear out more quickly.
And if that’s not true of elephants, it’s because elephants have been honed for millennia by natural selection to be the size they are.  In contrast, many dog breeds are only 200 years old or less. They may have evolved so rapidly thanks to human selection that it’s possible some body systems have had a hard time keeping up.  There is some evidence of this in the mismatch between skull and brain size that is thought responsible for the neurological problems in Cavalier King Charles Spaniels.
Elephants also grow much more slowly than dogs. And this ties in with the second theory – which is that giant dog breeds die younger because they grow too fast. Clearly, small breeds mature a bit quicker than large ones but the difference is not that great given the huge difference between a Chihauhua and a Great Dane (the equivalent, incidentally in human terms of some adult humans being just 2ft tall and others 31ft!)
Giant breeds suffer more than their fair share of problems associated with both this rapid growth and from being so darn heavy. These include joint problems such a hip dysplasia and bone cancer. The bone cancer often seen in big dogs is the same type that hits human adolescents and it is strongly associated with the teenage growth-spurt. Many breeders of large and giant dogs are aware of the problem – and try to limit it by feeding a lower-protein food and limiting exercise, but there may be more they should be doing.
In a 2007 paper, Dutch scientist Frietson Galis asked the question: “Do large dogs die young?” (abstract here)The answer was yes overall. I asked her if she thought we should be breeding smaller dogs. “We think that health could improve by selecting for slower growth, she says. “The problem is not so much the size, it’s that they have selected for the fastest growing individuals.”
Surprisingly, Galis found from one large database (although not another) that smaller individuals within a breed lived very slightly less long than larger ones – the reverse of what one might expect. given what we know about dogs. But I still think we should be selecting for smaller big dogs.
Frietson Galis worked out that Great Danes increase in weight 100-fold in their first year, compared to 60-fold in captive wolves , 20-fold in Poodles and just 3-fold in humans.  Clearly, if Great Danes weren’t so big, they wouldn’t have so much fast-growing to do.
Some breeds still doing the job for which they were bred – such as livestock guardian breeds – do need to be a certain size. But in others there really is no good reason, beyond human whim, to breed bigger and bigger dogs.
The problem is that bigger is often seen as better in the dog world, particularly in the show ring.
I grew up with Great Danes – always big dogs, but the Danes in the ring today are much bigger than the dogs I knew and loved in the Sixties and Seventies. The same goes for many other breeds.  
The Berne Natural History Museum in Switzerland has extensive data on the St Bernard dating back to the 1800s. The UK breed standard for the St. Bernard now specifies a minimum shoulder height of 75cm (30in) for dogs and 70cm (27.5in) for bitches and they weigh 65-85kg (143-187lb). But a typical 19th century dog was approximately 60 cm (20in) high and weighed less than 50 kg (110lb) . It is a huge increase.
“Breeds like the Bullmastiff, the Dogue de Bordeaux, the Neapolitan Mastiff and the Mastiff were never intended to be admired and valued because of their size but for what they could do,” says canine historian David Hancock, who has a particular passion for the Mastiff. “No breed of dog benefits from being too big; that is a human desire for dogs to suit their concept rather than the dog's best interests.”
David is dismayed by the fashion for “good bone” as it’s called.  “Strength, power and endurance do not reside in heavy bone, as any dog-sledder will tell you. To breed dogs with bone heavier than nature intended is asking for trouble, as the statistics on hip and elbow dysplasia, cervical vertebral malformation and osteochondrosis sadly demonstrate.”
David recalls the following boast made by a Mastiff breeder advertising his stock in the dog press a fear years ago: 'I am pleased to say that we have now bred the largest and heaviest dog in Britain'. The dog in question was 89cm (35in) tall and weighed over 127kg (275lb).
Unfortunately, some breed standards have encouraged excessive size too, with minimums but not maximums set for some of the giant breeds.  Until the revision of breed standards that followed Pedigree Dogs Exposed, the breed standard for the St Bernard demanded: “Taller the better”.  It has now been changed to: “Size is desirable but only if combined with quality, correct balance and absolute soundness.” Again, it stipulates a minimum height, but not a maximum.
The breed standard for the Deerhound, too, sets a minimum desirable height but no maximum, while the standard for the Great Dane sets both a minimum height and a minimum weight that the dog must have achieved by the age of 18 months (a stipulation that positively encourages rapid early growth).
As recently as 100 years ago, some accounts of Newfoundlands state their average weight at around 45kg (99lb),” says canine historian Scottie Westfall, who writes the Retrieverman blog. “It was a large dog, but not today's giant Newfoundland that can exceed 70kg (154lb).” In fact, the largest Newfie on record weighed a whopping 120kg (264lb).
The breed standard for the Irish Wolfhound even includes this:  “Great size, including height of shoulder and proportionate length of body is to be aimed at, and it is desired to firmly establish a breed that shall average from 81-86 cms (32-34 ins) in dogs.”
It takes a big, tough dog to kill a wolf in a battle,” explains Scottie Westfall. “In proportion to their body size, dogs have smaller heads and teeth than wolves do, so it was necessary to breed really big dogs if someone wanted them to fight wolves. This is probably the main selection pressure that drove the Irish wolfhound to its great size. If we are to believe saga and ancient texts, Irish wolfhounds were originally larger dogs than they are today, and their fighting prowess was renowned.”
Taking the old texts as gospel, then, the breeders have decided to try to breed an even bigger Wolfhound. Given what we now know about the cost, perhaps it is time to re-think this.
Over the years, some breed standards have even upped the minimums, too, as the dogs have got bigger and bigger (the breed standard for the Clumber Spaniel has seen no less that three weight revisions  - all upwards).
Scientists now know that a surprisingly few number of genes govern the huge differences in different breeds of dog. In April 2007, researchers announced that just one gene – called IGF1 – determines a breed’s average size (although other genes and environmental factors account for why one German Shepherd will be a bit bigger than another).
More recently, another gene - HMGA2 – has been found to control a dog’s height with different variants of this gene dictating whether a dog is short, medium or tall.
There are many other things beside size that impact on longevity – including diet, environment , gender and also whether or not dogs have been neutered.  A fascinating study of Rottweillers published in 2009 found that female rotties were more likely than males to be exceptionally long-lived – but not if they had been spayed in their first four years of life.
Clearly, there is much more to unravel.  But given what we know about size and longevity, I believe we should be cautious about growing bigger and bigger dogs. It would be good to see Kennel Club and breed clubs to get together to bring in more limits. In dogs, size really does matter – and bigger is not always better.
This article appears in the April  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.

Sunday 24 April 2011

Good.. excellent... grotesque?

If the following landed in your inbox - as it did in mine recently - who would you guess was behind it?

Or how about this?

Is it me plotting the sequel to Pedigree Dogs Exposed? Or perhaps it's the RSPCA or even the HSUS trying to make a point about "mutant show dogs"?

Surprisingly, it's from the most recent FCI newsletter  - the FCI being the umbrella organisation for more than 80 kennel clubs worldwide (the UK and US being notable exceptions), setting standards and regulating shows. It is, in fact, a progression of a Swedish initiative first published in 2008 designed to alert judges to the need to be careful not to reward obviously-exaggerated dogs.  Then, it highlighted 47 (out of around 300 FCI breeds) that needed attention. Today, there are 46 on the list.

Read the whole thing here - and ask yourself if the AKC - or even the semi-reformed KC - would go into print referring to a Chow with extreme conformation as "grotesque" or admit so bluntly (as does the FCI newsletter) that: "Dog shows and breeding of pedigree dogs are correctly criticized for promoting breed type exaggerations constituting risks and hazards for the heath and soundness of individuals as well as entire breeds."

Wow. Gotta hand it to those Swedes - and, actually, the FCI, too, for its most recent Breeding Strategies which, among other things, recommends... "To preserve, or preferably extend, the genetic diversity of the breed, matador breeding and heavy inbreeding should be avoided. Mating between siblings, mother to son or father to daughter should never be performed. As a general recommendation no dog should have more offspring than equivalent to 5% of the number of puppies registered in the breed population during a five-year period."

Disappointingly, the KC in the UK has yet to issue any guidance regarding popular sires. But one of the direct impacts of Pedigree Dogs Exposed was the decision by the KC  to no longer register the progeny of first-degree relative matings and it is coming under growing pressure to ban  grandparent/grand-offspring matings, too.

In America, meanwhile, you can still mate fathers to daughters, mothers to sons and brothers to sisters and the AKC will still register the puppies - and you can continue to use that top-winning dog at stud as often as you like, and to hell with the genetic consequences.

Shar-pei - will the wrinkles have to go?

© Tim Flach from his book "Dogs"
Breakthrough research recently published in PLoS Genetics has found a link between the Shar-pei's wrinkles and one of the breed's most serious health concerns - Shar-pei Fever.

Shar-pei Fever is an auto-inflammatory condition that experts estimate affects one in four of the breed. The fevers are transitory - usually lasting just a few hours - and feature a roaring temperature, aching joints and, sometimes, very swollen hocks. Shar-pei Fever is also known as swollen hock syndrome for this reason.

Although for most dogs the fevers are relatively benign and do not shorten their lives, it's thought that up to one in five dogs go on to develop amyloidosis - the build -up of amyloid in the dog's kidneys and, to a lesser extent, the liver, spleen and gastro-intestinal tract. It is the result of chronic inflammation and can be fatal. A lot of Shar-pei die, often young, because of it.

Now, after a 20-year hunt for answers, researchers have found that the fevers/amyloidosis are triggered by an excess of hyaluronon (HA) - the same substance that gives the Shar-pei its trademark wrinkles.  It could herald bad news for breeders who feel that a Shar-pei wouldn't be a Shar-pei without its wrinkles (although, in fact, the original dog didn't have them).

Hyaluronon is present in every tissue of our dogs' bodies (our bodies, too) and it performs many important functions, including wound-healing and helping to keep joints lubricated. Ironically, it's also used in medicine to treat inflammation, including rheumatoid and osteoarthritis and, by the cosmetics industry, to help smooth out wrinkles. In over-abundance, though, HA appears to have the opposite effect, resulting in the thickened skin folds found in the Shar-pei and - as researchers have just found - the predisposition to fevers/inflammation.

Production of hyaluronon is controlled by the HAS2 gene and the researchers found a segment of DNA near this gene that, in Shar-pei, was duplicated erroneously, sometimes multiple times - something not found in other breeds.  The researchers found that both hyaluronon production and the risk of Shar-pei Fever/amyloidosis went up with the numper of copies an individual dog had of this DNA segment, suggesting that this area is involved in regulating the production of hyaluronon.  Critically, the researchers found that the much less-wrinkly original "bone-mouth" Shar Pei has a slightly different version of this regulatory gene that does not predispose them to Shar Pei Fever.

The original Shar-pei
So is it just a case of breeding for less wrinkle? 

Well, it's a bit more complicated than that.

The researchers did indeed find that the mutation that predisposes for the fevers is found only in the Western Shar-pei (known as a "meat-mouth" due to the heavy padding round its muzzle). But, again, it is not just the mutation itself that causes the problem - it is how many copies of the mutation the dog has. The more copies a dog has, the more likely it is to develop Shar-pei Fever.

The researchers also found that some very wrinkled dogs had a low number of copies - and some much-less wrinkled dogs had a high number of copies.  In other words, you cannot tell just by looking at the dogs which ones are more likely to develop Shar-pei Fever.

The researchers do seem to be hinting that there could be some correlation between phenotype and Shar Pei Fever - and of course that insticintively makes sense:  more hyaluronon = more wrinkles.  But this has not yet been confirmed.

The good news is that there's a DNA test on the way - one that will reveal how many copies of the mutation an individual dog carries and, therefore, how likely it is to a) develop Shar-pei Fever itself and b) how likely it is to pass on the risk to its puppies. This will provide breeders with a wonderful new tool to breed away from Shar-pei Fever and the amyloidosis that kills.

It is good to see that the Shar-Pei Club of Great Britain has an encouraging statement re the research on its website. Although I found this bit worrying: "Although revealing that one of the breeds unique features in linked to risk for a significant health issue, the Club is resolute in continuing to work to produce Shar Pei which not only look beautiful but live long, happy and healthy lives."

Of course if they really meant this, they wouldn't be breeding such wrinkled dogs in the first place. Shar-pei Fever aside, the wrinkling also predisposes the dog to other health issues - including that most Shar-pei puppies have to have their eyes 'tacked' to prevent their eyelashes turning in and damaging their eyes. And, of course, those skin folds predispose the breed to bacterial and yeast infections.

The breed suffers many other health issues, too - and has a very small gene pool for which it is now paying the price. As the Chinese Shar-pei Cub of America admits: "the reality is that few make it to age 10" (although I am impressed by the Club's Longevity Program which aims to indentify longer-living lines in order to encourage breeders to use them).

Despite efforts by some breeders to prioritise health (and many have donated DNA to the research), the truth is that the breed is in a mess. As I wrote in my March column for Dogs Today magazine (pdf downloadable here): "The cost to the dog of so many genetic and conformation problems is just so high.... I don't think anyone who truly loves dogs should buy or breed Shar-pei - unless it is part of a comprehensive, international breed conservation plan targeted at minimising physical extremes and improving genetic health. I believe this is now needed urgently if the breed is to survive."

I would also like to see the traditional Shar-pei being promoted as a viable alternative. Still bred by a handful of breed enthusiasts, the  original "bone-mouth"  Shar-pei is an un-exaggerated dog that almost entirely outgrows its puppy wrinkles. It is by no means immune to health problems, but not those caused by excessive wrinkling. And, as the new research reveals, it appears to have a very low risk of a painful and very unpleasant death from amyloidosis caused by Shar-pei Fever.

For some helpful discussion on the new findings, led by key researcher Dr Linda Tintle, see this thread on The Chinese Shar-pei Information and Discussion Group

Friday 22 April 2011

The Purebred Paradox - to go or not to go?

I'm getting some flak - publicly and privately - for agreeing to speak at next week's Purebred Paradox conference in Washington DC.  The reason? The conference has been organised by the Humane Society of the United States - which is loathed by dog breeders almost as much as they loathe PETA.

I have been told, frankly, that if I lie down with dogs I will stand up with fleas.  And that was from a friend.

There are three main reasons why the HSUS is hated.

First, and notwithstanding some worthy campaigns that help raise awareness of genuine animal abuses,  the HSUS is seen by some as a direct-mail organisation that hoodwinks good people out of millions of dollars while spending only a very small percentage of its income on the hands-on helping of animals.

Second, the HSUS is behind a lot of local ordinances in the States which are proving restrictive for dog breeders - legislation ostensibly to tackle puppy mills but which hits responsible breeders, too.

Thirdly, it is claimed that the HSUS's CEO Wayne Pacelle once said this : ""We have no ethical obligation to preserve the different breeds of livestock produced through selective breeding. ... One generation and out. We have no problem with the extinction of domestic animals. They are creations of human selective breeding."

Today, Pacelle claims that he didn't say this exactly; and that what he did say was taken out of context. In fact,  today, Pacelle is often photographed holding a leash with a real live domesticated dog on the end of it and yesterday he could be found on his blog talking about how much he likes bulldogs (really?).  But he has not come out and said exactly where he stands on this issue - and yesterday's blog offered a very un-nuanced view of pedigree dog breeding, with no mention of the conference's intended purpose ie. to find a way forward for purebred dogs. It's easy to understand why the dog world so mistrusts him.

I am an animal welfarist, not an animal rightsist. I  believe - passionately - that there is much to be treasured about the purebred dog. I also believe that people should be free to do with them as they wish as long as it doesn't unncessarily compromise the health and welfare of the dog. And, yep, that includes work, sport, hunting - and even showing.

Clearly, then, I do not have a great deal in common with the HSUS on this issue. And Pacelle really pissed me off yesterday by, on his blog, airbrushing Pedigree Dogs Exposed out of the picture and attributing dog-breeding reform in the UK  to "..pressure from the RSPCA and other animal-welfare groups." (Er, hello...?). I suspect this is Pacelle playing politics - he knows my presence at the conference has been a bone of contention.

So why am I attending?

First, I was asked by James Serpell, Professor of Humane Ethics and Animal Welfare at the University of Pennsylvania.  James appeared in Pedigree Dogs Exposed and I like and admire him.

Second, I admire many of the other speakers, too  - including Professor Sir Patrick Bateson (who chaired the most important inquiry into dog-breeding following Pedigree Dogs Exposed) and Professor Gail Smith of PennHIP fame.

Third,  I hope to bring a perspective to the conference that would be missing otherwise - ie some input from the grass roots that academics and vets are rarely privy to - and my belief that purebred dogs are worth fighting for (a surprise message, I suspect, to those who prefer to picture me with horns and a forked tail).

Fourth, the debate needs more airtime in the US if things are to improve for purebred dogs. And they really do need to improve.

Finally, the conference marks the launch of the Humane Society's new Institue for Science + Policy whose work is intended to contribute more evidence-based reasoning to HSUS policy. Indeed, the HSUS report into pedigree dogs published last year really was exemplary - fair and balanced (read it here). If the new Institute is effective, it will drive a skewer through the heart of some the Humane Society's more questionable dog policy - its lack of support for No Kill shelters for one, and its seemingly hellbent mission to rip the reproductive capacity out of any dog as soon as it is weaned.

After all, it will find it hard to tut-tut about pedigree dogs being inbred monstrosities while promoting policy that penalises or makes it impossible for people to keep dogs intact.  It will soon find out too that the science is by no means clear-cut regarding the benefits of spay-neutering. (Read the report here)

The AKC has snubbed the conference (let's keep our head down - la-la-la-la), but I hope at least some breeders will feel they can come as I believe there is much on the agenda that they will find sensible and useful. It's important their views are heard because, at the end of the day, pedigree dog health won't ever be put right by veterinarians or theorists.  Or, indeed, campaigners.

For my report on the conference, please see here.

Edit 23/4/11: clarification re HSUS/humane societies inc picture change

Edit 24/4/11: correction re the amount of regulation facing US dog breeders

Tuesday 19 April 2011

Make way for the mutts - well, maybe

The Kennel Club announced today that it has reinstated what used to be known as the "B register" - a system by which is is possible to bring in "impure" or "unverified" stock in order to enhance genetic diversity.  Using language that is a distinct change of tone, the KC even says that it is "keen to open up its register". 


Well don't get too excited.  There are some hoops to jump through and in truth it's only a small step.

• First, the dog must adhere to the health testing requirements laid down by the Accredited Breeder Scheme (actually, not a huge hurdle as for most breeds there are no recommended or required tests. And even when there are, the dog only has to take the tests; there is - still - infuriatingly -  no requirement for the dog to actually pass them).

• Second, the dog has to run the gauntlet of two Kennel Club appointed judges who will assess whether he or she is a good example of the breed.

• Third: you have to hand over £100 of your hard-earned cash to the KC for the privilege of the application being considered. (And, of course, there are no guarantees.)

• Fourth: even if you succeed, you'll have to wait for four generations down the line before the descendents will be considered "pure".

This is, in fact, the process by which Fiona the backcrossed Dalmatian was registered by the Kennel Club a few months ago. But of course that case was scientically absolutely clearcut and others may be less so - or at least more arguable.

The KC will, I suspect, have to brace itself for protests - and it has given in to these before (famously, over the one-off registration of packhound bloodhounds).   One breeder maintained to me today that she feared the judges assessing the dogs could be put under a lot of pressure to reject the dogs by breeders and breed clubs who vehemently oppose the idea of outcrossing.

But it would be churlish to not acknowledge that this is a move in the right direction. It's just that it is a long way from where we need to be to ensure the future genetic health of our breeds. For that, we need root and branch reform of the way we breed purebred dogs; not just the odd application by the odd forward-thinking breeder.

Ironically, today also marks the publication of the first annual report of the KC's revamped Dog Health Group (set up  a year ago in what proved to be a failed attempt to see off the threat of an independent advisory body). This has lots of interesting info in it for KC-watchers, some of which I will highlight separately, but pertinent to the above is this paragraph.

"Further to the work that the Kennel Club began with Imperial College in 2003/4, the population structures of each breed will now be examined over time, with a calculation of rate of inbreeding (over 40 years) and various breeding dynamics, including an estimated population size. From work done so far, Dr Blott reported that it was apparent that the effective population sizes of at least some breeds were in the realms of rare breeds (<50), but Dr Blott was of the view that there were ways of structuring population strategies to decrease the rate of inbreeding and that tools could be developed to aid breeders’ efforts to do so."

For those unfamiliar with the term, "effective population size" (Ne) is a measure of the  genetic diversity of a particular population/breed/species. When considering wild populations, anything less than 100 is considered criticial by conservation geneticists. Less than 50 - which is what Sarah Blott from the Animal Health Trust is reporting for "at least some breeds" -  is considered by some to be on the road to extinction.

Now,  dogs are not a wild species and we're around to give them a helping hand.  But, really, how bad does it have to get before the Kennel Club fully acknowedges just how serious the situation is in some breeds - and realises that the answers almost certainly lies in a much more proactive effort to bring in fresh blood from outside, not tinkering with breeding strategies within a breed?

It's not as if there's no option. There's nothing to cross a cheetah to in order to save it from oblivion.  But dogs are all the same species and breed boundaries are an entirely artifical construct; something we've imposed on them, very often to their considerable detriment.

What we really need is for whole breed clubs and kennel clubs to fully grasp this nettle and establish proper outcrossing programmes before it is too late.

As, remarkably, the Irish Kennel Club has just announced it is doing in conjunction with the Irish Red and White Setter Club in Ireland.

Now this is to be applauded - an outcross designed as a measure to pre-empt issues down the line rather as a last-ditch attempt to save a breed. Now it ain't a huge leap of faith - the outcross is to working red Irish Setters and not so long ago they were all the same breed.  There is also a precedent in that an outcross was done once before in the Seventies.

The progeny are unlikely to come to a showring near you in the UK anytime soon. The UK show breeders of IRWS don't have much to do with the Irish working dogs and will not be participating in this new initiative. They should, though. Only 90-odd IRWS were registered in the UK last year and the breed has a very limited gene pool.

More details to come...

Monday 11 April 2011

Vet Oscar won by Clare Rusbridge - the Cavalier's champion

The most famous vet of all time in the UK is James Herriott, of "All Creatures Great and Small" fame and one of the most prestigious awards in the veterinary calendar is named after the man behind the fictional name - Yorkshire vet Alf Wight, who died in 1995 from prostate cancer.

James Wight and Clare Rusbridge
This year's winner of the JA Wight Memorial Award, which recognises outstanding contributions to companion animal welfare, has been awarded to neurovet Dr Clare Rusbridge (left) for her work with Cavalier King Charles Spaniels - and particularly for her role in identifying, researching and treating syringomelia in Cavaliers and other toy breeds.

Clare, who appeared in Pedigree Dogs Exposed to raise awareness of the extent of syringomyelia in Cavaliers, is a world-renowned research and clinical neurovet who also specialises in canine epilepsy. She received her award from Alf Wight's son, James.

I have witnessed at first hand Clare's warmth and calm professionalism with her clients - two-legged and four - and it's obvious why they adore her.  She is also meticulous and unwavering in her determination to help Cavaliers - despite a whispering campaign aimed at discrediting Clare and her research by a small minority of Cavalier breeders who have resented her highlighting the problem of syringomyelia in the breed.

I know there are times when Clare has been upset about this, so it's fantastic that she has been recognised for her work by her peers with this important award  - and I am sure my congratulations will be joined by many Cavalier pet owners and supportive breeders who recognise the huge debt of thanks they owe her.

Many congratulations to Clare and her team at Stone Lion Vets in Wimbledon and to her research team, which includes her very proud mum Penny Knowler.

Beware the Hapsburgs

There's an excellent article in The Independent this morning on new research which has found that the Spanish arm of the Hapsburg dynasty probably died out because of  inbreeding -  a deliberate if ultimately kami-kaze policy adopted by the family in order to make sure no one else got their thievin' mitts on their considerable riches and power.

Researchers found that the last of the Spanish line, Spanish king Charles II, was the offspring of a marriage that was almost as genetically inbred as an incestuous relationship between a brother and sister or parent and child. It is likely the reason he was infertile.

"Charles II of Spain was nicknamed El Hechizado – The Hexed – because people at the time thought that his physical and mental disabilities were the result of sorcery," writes Steve Connor. "Now a study into the genetics of his immediate ancestors has found that he was so inbred that he probably suffered from at least two inherited disorders. 

"Despite his deformities and severe health problems, Charles had married twice in the hope of continuing the rule of the Hapsburgs, but he was incapable of fathering an heir and died childless at the age of 39. He was the last of a long line of Hapsburgs and it spelled the end for the Spanish branch of the dynasty."

In fact, it is a bit unfair to compare the Hapsburgs to dog-breeding as of course there was no attempt at all by the family to select for rude good health - the over-riding criteria was just does your name start with "Haps" and end in "burg" and "ah - you have a severely undershot jaw, too! Great!"  (What is known colloquially as the Hapsburg Jaw or Lip - so severe in Charles II that he couldn't chew.) But even if they had made a point of only marrying the healthiest, least-deformed members of the family,  in all likelihood the inbreeding would still have caught up with them sooner or later.

As it has now done with dogs.

Read the rest of the excellent Independent article here.

Here endeth today's warning from history.

Sunday 10 April 2011

Basset Hounds - a request

Oh dear. I have upset the Basset Hounds - or rather their owners.  They think my highlighting the breed in Pedigree Dogs Exposed was unwarranted and that the Basset should not be one of the 15 breeds that, from next year, will be subject to health checks at shows.  It is, they feel, very unfair to be stigmatised this way. And it is, apparently, all my fault.

In fact, the Vice Chair of the Basset Hound Club, Dave Darley, has asked me if I could help undo some of the damage I've done by posting two illustrations to support his (and other breeders') view that the Basset Hound we see in the ring today is "correct".

So here they are.

This first one is from an illustration dated 1880 of some Bassets imported from France.

The second one is an illustration which Dave says shows how the Basset is designed to be a normal dog - just one with short legs:

So where does this leave us?

At an impasse, actually.

I accept that Basset breeders have done a pretty good job of straightening the Queen Anne front legs that were once such a feature of the breed. I also agree that Bassets are a pretty long-lived breed.

But the Comments section on my last Basset blogpost makes it clear that many Basset breeders are in denial about the cost of the conformation they are imposing on this dog in order to meet what they think is the correct template for the breed.

Exposed haws? No, they don't provide little pockets where debris can collect and damage the eye.

Very long ears?  They're needed to channel the scent into the dog's nose (and no matter that all the show Basset ever has to do is find its way to its dinner) and, hey, show me the proof that they damage their ears if they tread on them. 

Dewlap? Yep, that traps the scent, too (well that's what we've always been told)

Loose skin? Needed to protect the dogs from brambles and thorns and, yep, if no hunting pack of Bassets has loose skin it's because they're crossbreeds! 

Skin folds?  Other breeds suffer from yeast and bacterial skin ├«nfections, you know, and we don't accept that it's directly linked to the skin folds - even if the bacterial form is called "skin-fold dermatitis".

Back and joint problems?  Yes, we know the veterinary literature indicates that the breed is prone to both, and particularly arthritis as they age, but it's nothing to do with their short legs, long backs and enormous weight for their size.

The point is that the dogs that actually do the work for which they were developed - which is the whole reason the breed exists - don't look like this. The show-breeders, though, simply dismiss the lighter, longer-legged hunting bassets as mongrels and blithely carry on trying to replicate a dog they've seen in an old painting, no matter what the cost to the dog.

They seem oblivious to the fact that the above painting is, at best, merely a snapshot in time and, at worst, pure artistic license. We have no idea if the dogs illustrated ever did a day's work; if the people who bred them knew what they were doing; or if these dogs, with their strange knees, were really good examples of the breed (indeed, imports were often the dregs of a breed as the country of origin wanted to hang on to their best dogs).

The breeders also insist that Bassets that looks like the one below are still capable of hunting rabbit and hare.

Now, I guess the mind might be willing... but the flesh? Really? Just look how close to the ground this dog's penis is (here's hoping the terrain is Wimbledon tennis-flat..) .  Just look at the excess skin and the droopy pouch of skin on the dog's hocks. That serves what purpose, exactly?

I understand that the Kennel Club isn't much more sympathetic to the Basset breeders than I am.  Again, apparently this is all my fault (and never mind the wealth of veterinary literature that also supports that it's a struggle to breed a dog to this shape without problems). Dave Darley has suggested that I might like to write to the Kennel Club to tell them I was wrong about the Basset Hound.

Sorry, no can do.  But  I  have a suggestion to make which will, at least, buy the Basset Hound Club some time and may even allow them to prove that they should be allowed to keep the dog as it is.

There is no health information - whatsoever - on the Basset Hound Club website and I couldn't find any on the regional clubs' websites, either.  If the Basset breeders want to prove that they are serious about health, this needs to be remedied.

They also need an ongoing breed health survey, properly designed by someone like epidimiologist Vicky Adams, who can help them establish exactly what problems are prevalent in the breed and how they correlate with conformation.  And it needs to be online so you reach as many Basset owners as you can, regardless of where they got their Bassets from (and where they got their Bassets from also needs to be a survey question so you can establish if - as is maintained - that the show-bred dogs are healthier than their pet-bred cousins).

No one is arguing for a Basset ban - just for moderation. And, as infuriating as breeders must find it, if you're going to breed a dog that so many outside of the breed (including vets) see as prone to problems, particularly as they age, I'm afraid you're going to have to go the extra mile to prove that it is not the case.

Here are some American Bassets having a great day out in the snow - all longer-legged; all leaner; all with tighter skin and still, absolutely, Bassets. Now the video is entitled "Hunting Basset Hounds" and am not sure they're really doing that - but I'm in full support of the American Hunting Basset Association's goal of not letting the breed "degenerate into a bunch of overweight couch potatoes."

Not, of course, that Bassets are really allowed on couches. That's because, as the clubs advise new owners,  they are in danger of damaging their backs when they jump off.


Tuesday 5 April 2011

How many more Cavaliers have to fall?

The above video shows a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel called Penny with Episodic Falling Syndrome - a distressing condition induced by exercise, excitement or frustration, in which the dogs' muscles become rigid and spasm, causing the dog to fall over. Affected dogs usually start to demonstrate clinical signs before one year of age, with most cases having their first episode aged four to seven months. The condition can become so severe that dogs have to be euthanised.

Yesterday, the Kennel Club Genetics Centre at the Animal Health Trust (AHT) launched a new DNA test for the condition - and, in a twin breakthrough, also one for Dry Eye and Curly Coat (congenital keratoconjunctivitis sicca and ichthyosiform dermatosis). DE/CC affected dogs produce no tears making their eyes incredibly sore. Their skin becomes very flaky and dry, particularly around the foot, and this can make standing and walking difficult and painful. The syndrome is thought to be unique to Cavaliers and most dogs diagnosed with the condition are put to sleep.

You can read about Cavalier Flossie, who has this condition, on the AHT website.

The AHT estimates currently that around 50 Cavaliers a year are diagnosed with either condition - with only about 3 per cent of the breed thought to be carriers (again of either condition). This means that the DNA tests offer a real chance of eradicating both conditions from the breed without further eroding genetic diversity. As both conditions are recessive there is no need to eliminate carriers from breeding (as long, of course, as they are bred to a clear).

Owners and breeders can access the DNA tests for dry eye and curly coat and episodic falling, from 18 April 2011, through the AHT’s online DNA testing webshop at:

Congratulations are in order to the researchers, but when you add mitral valve disease, syringomyelia, PSOM, luxating patellas, deafness, retinal dysplasia and other health issues in the Cavalier, one has to ask just how many health problems does any one breed have to suffer before one starts to question whether it is morally or ethically acceptable to continue breeding them.

It's a question being asked in the Netherlands at the moment, where an animal rights organisation is trying to bring a legal case against breeders and the Dutch Kennel Club, arguing that health problems are so severe in the breed that breeding Cavaliers should be banned.

I appreciate that people are passionate about the breed - and of course not every Cavalier is doomed to ill-health and an early death. But at what point does one say "enough is enough" - particularly if we are by and large continuing to breed in the same way that created all the problems in the first place (ie inbreeding to a greater or lesser extent within a closed gene pool)?

Some researchers caution against an outcross until the genetics of mitral valve disease and syringomyelia (the breed's two most serious problems) are nailed, but there could be a very long wait for this. Surely we are already way past the point at which a proper, monitored outcrossing programme should be started?

Saturday 2 April 2011

Do you have an epileptic dog?

Then please help Glasgow Vet School by taking part in a survey designed to find ways to  help make the experience a little less traumatic for dogs, their owners and their vets.

The researchers are looking for:

• dogs with epilepsy with either recurrent fits for more than one year with the first fit having occurred between 6 months to 6 years,


• dogs diagnosed by a specialist with the aid of blood examination and MRI.

Questionnaires are available online at:
Password: Epilepsy1! (case sensitive)
Starting date: 01.01.2011
Closing date: 31.05.2011
Alternatively Click here to download a PDF flyer including the above details.

"'Idiopathic' epilepsy  – when the cause is not known – has a high emotional impact on owners and affected vets too. But not much is known about the impact of this disease on dogs’ and owners’ quality of life," writes Annette Wessman from Glasgow Vet School in the Veterinary Record

“We hope the information we gather will help other owners caring for dogs with idiopathic epilepsy as well as vets in communicating issues associated with [the condition]. We believe that the support given by first-opinion practices is immensely important in the treatment of epileptic dogs and this study will also investigate this question.”