Sunday 31 July 2011

Truffle hound helps root out childhood epilepsy gene

The Lagotta Romagnola:fit for function?
The first-ever gene for idiopathic epilepsy in dogs has been found by Professor Hannes Lohi  at the University of Helsinki, heading an international team of scientists.

The mutation - in a gene called LGI2 - appears to be unique to the Lagotta Romagnolo, the appealingly-shaggy Italian breed known for its excellent truffle-hunting skills.  The Lagotta suffers a form of juvenile epilepsy marked by seizures causing tremor, trembling, shaking and wheezing which, typically, set in at around four weeks of age and last for up to two months before stopping completely. The researchers believe the same gene could be responsible for a similar type of epilepsy found in children.

"Remission is so reliable that the epilepsy is considered by many breeders as an unfortunate particularity of the breed and often disregarded" write the authors of a new paper published online in PloS Genetics.

This is indeed the case. Here's what  the Lagotta Romagnolo Club of GB  has to say about the condition (known in the breed as BFJE - Benign Familial Juvenile Epilepsy - although not on the Club website which has had no health updates since, er, 2003. There, they're still referring to it as a "cerebella anomaly").

"So do Members have to worry about their dogs developing this anomaly? ABSOLUTELY NOT," they insist. "It is only when breeding that the Anomaly may be produced.  Furthermore if we followed (and by we I mean everyone in the world breeding Lagotto) the usual advice in eliminating an inherited disease – namely do not breed from a suspected carrier’s descendents, siblings or parents Lagotto would cease to exist as a breed."

A little shocking but probably true. As the researchers report:  "The popularity of the breed fluctuated with the truffle industry and in the early 1970s underwent a strong genetic bottleneck to near extinction, when a group of dog lovers decided to save it."

No surprise, then, that the researchers have found that one in three Lagottos carry the mutation, which is an autosomal recessive. This means that a dog usually has to inherit two copies of it (one from each parent) in order to be affected.  However, the researchers also found that of the 28 affected dogs in the study for which they had DNA samples, two of them (7%) had only one copy of the mutation. This means that carriers can occasionally suffer, too.

In truth, an epilepsy that invariably resolves by the age of four months is not the most serious of problems  - although the researchers still hope that breeders will avail themselves of the new DNA test for Lagottos developed by the Finnish team and offered through Lohi's company Genoscoper Oy (Ltd) for €85.

Sadly, there are other neurological problems in the breed: "The study revealed another form of epilepsy in the breed, unconnected with this mutation and with an age of onset in adulthood. In addition, the breed has a progressive juvenile ataxia (lack of motor coordination) with similar onset and symptoms to juvenile epilepsy except that it does not remit -- ataxic puppies have to be euthanized usually by the first year of life. More samples are needed for both adult-onset epilepsy and ataxia to enable us to investigate their genetics further," says a primary author of the study, Eija Seppälä, PhD.

Epilepsy is the most common neurological disease in children - occuring in 1 in 200 children aged between two and 10 years old. 

It is also the most common neurological disease in dogs - in some breeds 10 times more common than it is in humans.

Meanwhile, two other new canine epilepsy studies report interesting findings - the first that neutered male dogs may be more likely to have epilepsy; the second that giving epileptic dogs essential fatty acids (long recommended by some as an alternative treatment for epilepsy in humans and dogs) made no difference whatsoever.

Characteristics of epileptic episodes in UK dog breeds: an epidimiological approach (A Mount et all, Vet Record, 2011) looked at a cohort of 1260 epileptic dogs from 78 known breeds as well as a group of crossbred dogs.  The researchers found that epilepsy was more common in male than female dogs. This is in line with previous studies but, in a new finding, the researchers found some evidence that neutering may be a risk factor for epilepsy in male dogs. Previously, neutering has been believed to reduce seizure in epileptic dogs.

The authors urge caution re over-interpreting the results as the data come from a laboratory-based recruitment as opposed to a clinical study - but it is nevertheless interesting, especially with the growing awareness that there are health costs as well as benefits to neutering.

The researchers found also that just four pedigree dog breeds - and crossbreeds as a group - accounted for more than half of the cases of epilepsy in their study:

Crossbreeds - 20.5%
Labrador Retriever - 11%
Border Collie - 10.5%
German Shepherd - 6.5%
Staffordshire Bull Terrier - 5.2%

In a separate study (Effects of essential fatty acid supplementation in dogs with idiopathic epilepsy: A clinical trial, Helen Matthews et al, Veterinary Journal, article in-press) researchers found that giving dogs Omega 3 oil - recommended by many as a natural/supplemental treatment for epilepsy - did not help.

"The effects of essential fatty acid supplementation (EFA) on the control of idiopathic epilepsy in dogs were investigated in a blinded, placebo-controlled trial," write the authors. " Fifteen dogs were treated with triple purified Ω-3 oil containing 400 mg eicosapentaenoic acid, 250 mg docosahexaenoic acid and 22 mg vitamin E per 1.5 mL at a dose of 1.5 mL/10 kg once daily for 12 weeks, followed by a 12 week placebo period of supplementation with olive oil. Owners recorded seizure frequency and severity and any adverse events. EFA supplementation did not reduce seizure frequency or severity in dogs with idiopathic epilepsy."

There was one exception though, according to co-author Barbara Skelly from the University of Cambridge Vet School. "Our results showed that in the majority of dogs there was no appreciable difference in the response to both oils but one dog did appear to show a dramatic response and therefore a larger scale investigation is probably merited."

That's probably enough to reassure all the proponents of EFAs....

"Don't let the buggers win!"

Astonishing it took so long, really, but this morning Facebook disabled* [see edit below]  the "Stop the BBC Making Another PDE" site where, since it set up a few weeks ago, its members have been flinging unsubstantiated - and very often defamatory - allegations at all and sundry they think are "anti-pedigree".

The news was posted by the site's leader, poodle breeder Mike Davidsohn, on his Napoleon Web Ring Facebook site about an hour ago.

Click to enlarge

Davidsohn appears to be operating under the illusion that there are dark forces at work behind the scenes plotting to stop their right to protest. But a right to protest does not include the right to post unfettered, careless vitriol.

I am sure there have been many complaints to Facebook - and I would guess that the final straw will have been complaints from the commercial breeders of designer dogs that yesterday they named and accused of being puppy-farmers. 

There was a prune of the more offensive posts after I highlighted them here, but after a few days of trying to behave themselves, it descended once more into an ugly bitch-fest.

They're nattering about how terribly unfair it all is here.

Edit 11/8/2011: Facebook has now confirmed that it was a technical glitch that resulted in the site disappearing, not the numerous complaints it has received about its content.

Friday 29 July 2011

Designer dogs - destined for disaster?

So thinks Elaine Geeson writing in this week's Dog World.

The thrust of Geeson's article is that designer dogs are being produced without care  - and that crossbreeding should be regulated.  "We now have tests to carry out before pedigree dogs are bred from in the hope that any malfunction can be ironed out and the breed will go from strength to strength," she writes. "Where are these guidelines and recommendations for the cross breeds, and who checks or regulates the truth behind all the spin given out on some of the advertisements given with crossbreed dogs?"

She's right - there are no breeding guidelines produced for breeders of crossbreeds,  something that would, in fact, be dead simple to produce and should be done. I imagine the Kennel Club wouldn't want to be seen as encouraging the filthy practice but this would be a very worthwhile job for the Dog Advisory Council, set up on the recommendation of the three dog-breeding enquiries that followed Pedigree Dogs Exposed. The DAC has a remit that covers all dogs.

Bad breeding is bad breeding across the board, regardless of whether the puppies are purebred or cross/mixed breeds. It all needs to be sorted.

After all,  there are heaps of purebred dogs being produced with no regulation or checks either - in fact, this includes the majority of dogs registered by the Kennel Club (only 12-13% per cent of KC puppies are born under the auspices of the ABS - of limited worth, anyway, for the 60 per cent or so breeds for which there are no health-test requirements). Then there's another undetermined number of purebred dogs produced outside the Kennel Club - perhaps as many again.

Geeson writes: "Diseases with serious consequences are in cross bred dogs. We have people breeding from bitches on consecutive seasons. A breeder who recently learned of a puppy she produced having Addison’s at seven months old repeated the mating of the parents on the dams next season. They are advertised on the internet, along with other cross breed dogs that do not have any come back."

Again, this is true of any number of purebred pups of dubious breeding from unhealth-tested stock being sold on various websites.

But yes, there are many ridiculously-named designer crossbreeds being produced with little care and attention by the unscrupulous, money-grabbing, uncaring, or just plain ignorant. And they are bought in some numbers by a gullible public.

This, apparently, is my fault because PDE told the world that purebred dogs were in trouble and that, on average, crossbred dogs are likely to be healthier - and never mind that this is true. (Although, if PDE was really so influential, by what madness have Pug registrations increased so hugely since the film?)

Geeson believes that designer crossbreeds have got off far too lightly in terms of media condemnation. As it happens, I'd agree. It is easy to be seduced by the undoubted appeal of a Puggle (to my view an improvement on at least one of its parent breeds) or the shaggy if sometimes over-enthusiastic bonhomie of a Labradoodle (or "labramongrel" as some of the most ardent purists call them in an effort to discredit them  - oblivious to the fact that to many outside of the insular world of purebred dog breeding 'mongrel' is no longer a pejorative term).

Puggle (above) or Pug (below). Which one would you rather be?

Science tells us that designer crossbreeds may benefit from some hybrid vigour - and those born of a union that includes one conformationally-extreme parent breed (such as a bulldog) are often an improvement on that parent thanks to nature's bent to normalise physical extremes given half a chance. They are almost always a half-way house (as, again, science predicts). No Puggle is as brachycephalic as its Pug parent and as a result it invariably has improved eye anatomy and and fewer respiratory problems.

But of course this doesn't get the people that produce them off the hook. All breeders have a responsibility to ensure that the puppies they produce have the best possible chance of a happy, healthy life and this, above all else, means breeding from sound stock.

Yep, F1 crosses will be exempt from recessive conditions that may lurk in their parents (as long as those conditions are not common to both breeds) and there is some good evidence that their immune systems may be better-braced to deal with onslaughts that might fell their inbred purebred cousins. But with more people breeding on from the first generation crosses, there's no doubt that health history and clearances for breed-specific problems are increasingly important. Then there are the conditions - hip dysplasia, thyroid problems, epilepsy - that are across many breeds and therefore likely to crop up in even first-generation crossbreeds, too.

So Geeson is right: something does need to be done about it. It's just that I'm not entirely convinced that she is highlighting the problem just because she's concerned about these crossbreeds' health and welfare.

That crossbreeds are being bred and sold for a lot of money is a source of continual irritation - fury even - to many of those that breed purebred dogs.  I can, of course, understand the frustration about people making a fast buck for little investment when many pedigree breeders put a lot of time, care and expense into their breeding decisions. But most of the ire is reserved for the very act of mating one breed with a different one. And that's just irrational. We need, then, to separate out the justified concern from the bigotry - for the latter is, at best, unthinking and, at worst, very ugly.

Have a look a what Geeson has written about Labradoodles on the Standard Poodle Club website. And note this: "It has been agreed at our AGM that members, or those causing detriment to the breed by cross breeding with other breeds are not considered suitable for membership, as they do not have the breed at heart."

Goodnesss. Can't imagine that plays well with the average pet owner.

There's a classic - and revealing - thread on the anti-PDE Facebook site today expressing outrage that someone might be allowing their champ Samoyed to be used on an agility Border Collie in order to produce a "black Sam".  Here's a sample:

• "Just been on a Samoyed forum I'm a member of, apparently someone is trying to Breed Black Sam's by cossing them with Border Collies ! I'm trying to get more information ..all I know so far is that the Bitch ( BC ) is an agility ch and the Dog ( Sam ) is a Show Champion !!........... who is there right minds ... Would use there CH Dog !!! and how guillable are people that they would believe it !!!"

• "Words fail me..................all I can see is the Samoyed being messed up and no true black Samoyed can come of this. Brainless idea.."

•  "I am INSCENSED/ FURIOUS and any other word you can think of!! I won't let this drop now, enough breeds have been tampered with, I'm not going to let it happen to Sam's !

• "THAT Woman has a lot to answer to now - i wonder where she will be when the kennels are full as none will be eligible for breed rescue.. "
(Ey up, my fault again...)

• "Why would you want to make a Black Sam anyway? And to cross it with a Border Collie so the dog is burning hot in the summer and freezing cold in the winter. And want to herd sheep while pulling a sled. I see how those two breed compliment each other."

• "Sadly it seems no breed can be left alone!It just makes me speechless with anger that someone can spend all that time,effort and money into making up a ch to produce mongrels!I was amazed and dissapointed when i heard of a person i know well allowing her studs to other breeds,now i know how she affords to do the things she does,i am so naive sometimes!!!!!"

• "No no no! leave our Sams alone! They are perfect as they are!"

"Let's call this what it is.....the breeding of mongrels. I will not give not give credence to these people by dignifying what they are doing with a name apart from money-making puppy farming."

"And let's not loose sight of this, this iis due in much part to Ms Jemima Harrison dissing pedigree dogs and claiming crosses are healthier. I wouldn't like to be her when she arrives at the pearly gates......there'll be no excuses there for all the little dogs that have been born and lived hellish lives, and ended up murdered at some dog shelter...  I don't know bow she sleeps at night. I sure as heck couldn't if I'd caused all those poor dogs all that misery. At least the puppy farmers used to have to wait for the right sort of dog to put to the right sort of bitch. Now, poor wee bitches are forcibly raped with anything. And make no mistake....they don't have romantic liaisons."

And so on. 

It has always struck me as racist - the same kind of unthinking, recoiling shock that people used to express about mixed-race marriages. They really do see the deliberate breeding of two different breeds as an unholy union - and the people who breed them as evil when, logically, they can only be as good or bad as any other breeder.

It makes my skin crawl.

Friday 22 July 2011

Hate, hope and the HSUS

The "Stop the BBC Making Another PDE" Facebook site (which now includes AKC Chairman Ron Menaker as a member) yesterday scored what they think is an enormous scoop.

Rather belatedly, they've discovered a blog post here, and the accompanying debate, about whether or not I should speak at the Purebred Paradox conference in Washington in April that was co-sponsored by HSUS.  My attendance was considered controversial by many for the reasons explained in the post and the comments reflect this. Most (although not all) thought I shouldn't go and said so strongly.

Now the anti-PDE FB site has found and proudly cached it - as if, perhaps, I've left up all those negative comments up there by mistake for the past three months, rather than because I might actually invite debate.

Here's the somewhat surreal exchange on the Facebook site - which, as you'll see, includes a berating for the "cowardly person" forwarding me material from the site. Their problem with this? It is giving me an opportunity to rebut all the lies and misinformation being posted there - on my Myths Busted page (see tab above).

Anyway, at least it gives me an excuse to write, rather belatedly, about what actually happened at the conference (which was also sponsored by the RSPCA) and what my conclusions are.

Yes, I did go and, yes, HSUS did pay for my flight and a modest hotel room (as it did for all the other speakers). This was not quite enough to buy my soul.

The conference was, essentially, an academic meeting (links to abstracts and speaker biographies here) marking the launch of the Humane Society's new Institute for Science and Policy  and I spoke alongside some very eminent names, including Professor Sir Patrick Bateson.There was a lot of support for good breeders from many of the speakers and much constructive talk at a workshop on the second day on how to encourage breeders to adopt better practice.  A real beacon on this was, and is, Brenda Bonnett whose inspiring presentation on Disease Risk for Disease in Purebred Dogs was the highlight of the conference for me - just brimful of humour, good grace, and empathy for dogs and breeders.

Other notable speaker/attendees included Ake Hedhammer, (who is organising a Dog Health Workshop alongside the the 6th Canine and Feline Genomics Conference in Sweden next year),  Gail Smith (who founded PennHIP), Wayne Cavanaugh (President of the UKC), vet/labrador breeder Fran Smith (whose many pertinent qualifications include being President of the Orthopaedic Foundation for Animals), vet Patty Haines (who has served multiple terms on the AKC Board of Directors), vet/author Bruce Fogle (co-founder of Hearing Dogs for Deaf People) and geneticist David Sargan from Cambridge University. All good people with a genuine interest in dogs.

There were fewer than 100 people there all told - a disappointing turnout that was undoubtedly as a result of the HSUS involvement. But I am pleased that at least some breeders braved it - including Sharyn Hutchens of Timbreblue Whippets, who has written a thoughtful report of the conference and its consequences.

So what did I think of the HSUS interest in the pedigree dogs issue? Well, I met several HSUS staff who clearly care very deeply about animals (although I did sigh a little at the wide-eyed insistence from one of their staff that allowing a cat to venture outsde was the very height of animal cruelty. He was horrifed to hear that most cats in the UK get to be, well cats - although, in truth, I think he was mostly trying to point out that in getting to be cats not so many birds get to be birds).  And Andrew Rowan, Chief Scientific Offcer of HSUS, did his best to reassure that their approach would be firmly rooted in science not animal-rights-fuelled rhetoric.

But I have to be honest.. and after three  months of thinking how on earth can I say this without causing offence to my hosts:

Thank you for the vegan muffins - but if you really care about the dogs, please butt out of this one. 

The HSUS hierarchy is clearly frustrated that dog breeders see them as the enemy.  But, let's face it, this is a bit like Hannibal Lecter whinging that it's unfair that everyone thinks he's going to eat them.  Sure, he claims he prefers a pre-packed T-bone from Tesco's these day, but..

(Apologies for the carnivorous analogy here - not entirely appropriate given HSUS's culinary sensitivities)

Yes, HSUS has been less vocal on the mandatory spay-neuter issue recently, and it's a long time since any of their number has said anything ridiculous about keeping domestic animals being tantamount to slavery - but HSUS still pursues punitive local ordinances that persecute and alienate good breeders. Really, this means that there there is just too much bad blood for HSUS to take this on as an issue in an effective way for the dogs.

But I am glad I went to Washington.  A big thank you to Professor James Serpell from the University of Pennsylvania for organising the conference and for  inviting me.  I hope it was helpful for HSUS to hear how complex and nuanced this whole issue is from the many excellent speakers. I also hope it was helpful for the scientists, too often divorced from the on-the-ground reality of dog-breeding, to have more grass-roots imput (and also, particularly  to understand why dog people do not want the HSUS to be involved).

As for the anti-PDE Facebook site.. Let's get this straight: you are entitled to campaign for what you believe in.  It is, after all, all that I ask too.  Lobbying for better representation of good breeders in PDE 2 is a legitimate pursuit (although a few emails would probably be as effective).  But stop the silly bitchy stuff  - which last week extended to horrendous personal slurs of Beverley Cuddy and her exemplary Don't Cook the Dog campaign (started after two police dogs died recently in a hot car) simply because she is editor of Dogs Today - a magazine for which I write a regular column.

This quite unbelievable post,  is STILL up on the Facebook site.

Tuesday 19 July 2011

Flights of fancy, flights of danger

Nope... that ain't going to work

Cathay Pacific has joined a long list of airlines that will no longer fly brachycephalic dogs such as Bulldogs, Pekes and Pugs, because of the risk of the dogs dying during the flight.

The move comes in the wake of US Department of Transport figures released a year ago which showed tha short-faced dog breeds such as Pugs and Bulldogs represented about half of in-flight dog deaths on American airlines - with Bulldogs accounting for 25 of the 108 deaths of known breeds, far more than any other breed. which lists more up to date figures (although still only for the US), claims that 86 of the 149 dogs that have died during air travel since May 2005 have been brachycephalic.  Last year alone, there were 39 pet deaths on American airlines. Almost 70% of the deaths involved brachycephalic or short-nosed dogs, with Bulldogs and Pugs making up the majority of the dog types.

Announcing the new rule, which came into effect yesterday (July 18),  Cathay Pacific said:  "Brachycephalic (snub-nosed, short snout or flat face) animals, including brachycephalic dogs and cats, will not be accepted for carriage as check-in baggage until further notice. There has been increasing concern in the industry that brachycephalic animals have high potential risk of breathing trouble during air transportation, causing negative health impact to the animals."

Says "Overheating, or the inability to cool themselves properly, is a major issue for brachycephalic dogs that travel in the cargo hold area of planes. Traveling in an airplane cargo hold can be a very nervous endeavor for any pet, and while the area of the plane that they use to transport pets is climate controlled the experience could be too much for your short-nosed pet.

"Many airlines have more stringent temperature requirement for transporting brachycephalic pets that you should pay special attention to. And while overall pet travel is very safe, your short-nosed pet is at a higher risk for problems.

"Make sure you have your veterinarian check your pet out for air travel, never use sedatives, and don't fly your pet if you think it might be too much for them to handle. You know your pet and are in the best position to make a decision if it will do well on a plane."

American Airlines has not flown brachycephalic dogs since November 2010. Its banned list includes the Boston Terrier, Boxer, Bulldog, Mastiff, Dogue de Bordeaux, King Charles Spaniel, Japanese Chin, Lhasa Apso, Pekingese, Pug, Shar Pei, Shih Tzu and Tibetan Spaniel. The airline also refuses to carry four brachycephalic cat breeds: the Burmese, Himlayan, Persian and Exotic Shorthair.

British Airways has banned brachycephalic dogs since 2009.

Wednesday 13 July 2011

A whisker plot?

Illustration: Kevin Brockbank
Wilhelmina was a blue merle Sheltie who was only four years old when she lost most of her sight. Although she could still make out light and dark, her vision was probably the equivalent to seeing through several layers of tracing paper.
Her owner, Bruce, asked dog neuropsychologist Stanley Coren for advice on how to help her. “My recommendations included leaving items of furniture in their same places so that she could form a consistent “map” of her environment and using scents or textured materials such as throw rugs to mark areas,” recalls Coren in his book, How Dogs Think.  “Willie adapted well and would zoom around the house like a sighted dog most of the time, with only an occasional stumble or collision that reminded the family that she was blind.”
But then disaster struck. On returning home one day from the dog groomers, Willie ran up the steps to go into the house and collided with the door jamb. “As she made her way through the house she banged into a chair and table leg. Now, looking a bit distressed and confused, she began to slow down and move quite tentatively,” remembers Coren. “A bit later, when she went to drink some water, her head actually missed the bowl completely and she bumped her nose on the floor.”
Her owners were distraught and called Coren fearing that she had suffered some sudden mental deterioration.  In fact, it turned out that the dog groomer had cut off Willie’s whiskers, something that had never been done before, and it had robbed her of what Coren believes are an important sensory tool. As they grew back, Willie recovered her ability to navigate round her world to the considerable relief of her owners.
Although we call them whiskers, the proper name for them is “vibrissae” and they are nothing like the non-functional whiskers men sometimes grow on their faces -  or like any other kind of hair that grows on us.  Indeed, we should think of these thicker, stiffer hairs more as “feelers”  - as they are on cats, rats, mice and many other mammals, including seals and even whales.   They are rooted four times deeper than a normal hair, surrounded by erectile tissue and fed with many more nerve fibres and a much more substantial blood supply.  In fact, they are sometimes called “blood hairs” because they bleed when they are plucked out.
And plucked out they sometimes are (although more commonly, trimmed, clipped or shaved) by some dog groomers and owners as part of the grooming process or for preparing dogs for the show ring. According to some experts, we shouldn’t be doing it.
“Many dog fanciers are unaware of the importance of vibrissae to the dog,” says Stanley Coren. “Dogs of many different breeds routinely have their vibrissae cut off in preparation for the show ring. It is argued that this gives the dog’s head a 'cleaner' look.  Amputating vibrissae is both uncomfortable and stressful for dogs, and it reduces their ability to perceive their close surroundings fully."
Coren believes that the vibrissae serve as “an early warning device that something is near the face, protect the dog from colliding with walls and objects, and keep approaching objects from damaging the dog’s face and eyes.”
You can check this for yourself, says Coren, by tapping gently on the vibrissae of a dog. In many dogs, with each tap, the eye on the same side of the face will blink protectively and the dog will tend to turn its head away from the side tapped.
“Dogs have several sets of vibrissae,” explains biologist  and saluki breeder, Dr John Burchard. “The ‘whiskers’ on either side of the
 muzzle are familiar to everyone. They are called ‘mystacial’ vibrissae (from 
the same root as ‘moustache’). On closer examination you will also notice a
 system of seven ‘hair warts’ forming a sort of crown surrounding the head, 
giving the dog information about where it can safely stick its head, and where 
it can't. There is one tuft of vibrissae just above each eye, two 
on each cheek (one upper, one lower) and one under the middle of the chin. In a
 dog with a normal shaped head, those seven tufts of vibrissae form a roughly 
equal spaced circle all around the head, providing important information about
 the surroundings in a zone where the animal cannot see.”

That these special whiskers are of vital importance in some mammals is in no doubt.  A large part of the brain is dedicated to processing the nerve impulses from vibrissae. If vibrissal papillae are damaged in newborn mice, it results in abnormal brain development. Rats are fantastic swimmers – able to swim for up to 48hours - but in one experiment (Richter, 1957), rats that had their vibrissae removed before being put into water swam frantically for a minute or so before giving up and sinking to the bottom of the tank. An autopsy revealed that they hadn’t drowned; they had died of a cardiac arrest, apparently unable to cope without their whiskers. Likewise, it has been found that blindfolded cats can still find and neatly despatch their prey if their whiskers are intact – but not if they are removed. (Paul Leyhausen, Cat Behaviour, 1979)
“They are highly innervated (supplied with nerves), so if they touch something or if the wind blows on them, there will be feedback to the dog’s brain,” says Debra Eldredge, DVM, of Vernon, New York, author of the Dog Owner’s Home Veterinary Handbook (Wiley, John & Sons, Incorporated, 2007).
In his 1982 report “Whisker Trimming in Show Dogs” (download pdf here), Professor Thomas McGill, a psychologist and Newfoundland breeder, tells the story of a top-winning Vizlsa who sustained  facial injuries when hunting during his youth when he was also being shown (with his vibrissae removed), but not once after he retired from the show-ring and his whiskers were allowed to grow.  
McGill also reports how, according to one obedience trainer, removing vibrissae appeared to interfere with young gundogs’ ability to retrieve. “When the dumb-bell is thrown for them, they approach it, begin to pick it up and then drop it and return to the handler.” This was particularly likely to happen if the vibrissae were growing back after being cut for the showring - apparently caused by the discomfort of the vibrissal stubs hitting the dumbbell.
There are very similar anecdotal reports of horses sustaining facial and eye injuries after their vibrissae have been trimmed (again, done mostly for the show-ring where some exhibitors talk of their horse or dog losing marks for not having their whiskers removed).  Some owners claim their horses use their vibrissae to detect whether or not an electric fence is on.  One handler tells of a mare who refuses to eat for two days after her whiskers are shaved off; another of horses reacting almost like they have been shocked when the stubble of re-growing vibrissae bump into things.
The concern is such that the British Horse Society now advises that they should not be removed and in Germany the practice has been banned in horses on the basis that it is sensory deprivation.
On the other hand, many owners (of both horses and dogs) say that their animals don’t mind their vibrissae being removed – even plucked -  and insist that it makes absolutely no difference to them or their abilities.
“If I thought for a minute my dog's lives were in any way negatively 
impacted by whisker trimming, I wouldn't do it. I just don't see any 
evidence of an issue. I genuinely don't,” says Carolyn Horowitz, who breeds, shows and works her Manchester Terriers.
“We routinely do whiskers on our dogs, and they don't so much as twitch when you touch them or even when we shave them off.  My guys are perfectly functional hunting with or without whiskers.  I think the issue is pretty silly, frankly.
“I'm not suggesting everyone run out and clip off their dog's whiskers, rather there are much bigger fish to fry in the quest for canine welfare than worrying whether a couple of thousand dogs on the entire planet have their whiskers trimmed off when actively showing. “  
Carolyn’s view is widely echoed by showdog owners who choose to trim their dogs’ whiskers – and also by groomers who insist that it doesn’t harm the dogs in any way.  Supporting them is the fact that dogs do not yelp when they are removed (the nerve supply is just to their base; the hair itself contains no nerves) and many dogs do appear to function perfectly well without them.  Also, no one has done specific research on how important they are to the dog – it’s all assumption based on data in other animals and anecdote. 
Vibrissal function is less highly developed in dogs than in several other 
mammalian groups and 
probably less than in wolves,” agrees Dr John Burchard. “But that doesn't mean they are non-functional.”
Just for a minute, close your eyes and imagine what it would be like to be stuck in a pitch black room with no arms and fingertips to help you find your way.  What would you use to help you navigate?  Your feet? Your shoulder? Or perhaps you’d dip your head and use your hair as a buffer? This is one of the roles vibrissae play for dogs and not just in the dark.
I asked the British Veterinary Association what it thought.  “The BVA has not had the opportunity to debate this issue in any detail and therefore does not have a formal policy,” replied BVA president Harvey Locke. “However, I can say that whiskers should not be trimmed, shaved or removed for cosmetic reasons and in cases where the muzzle is clipped for cleanliness every effort should be made to preserve the vibrissae. They are a sensory organ with innervation so it is reasonable to assume that their amputation causes discomfort.”
In the US, Thomas McGill campaigned so strongly on the issue that it has resulted in some breed standard changes. The AKC Newfoundland standard now reads: “Whiskers need not be trimmed” while the Vizsla standard reads: “Whiskers serve a functional purpose; their removal is permitted but not preferred.”
Breed standards here in the UK make no specific reference to the wisdom or otherwise of removing whiskers, but last December the Kennel Club did issue a statement saying that it did not believe any dog should have its whiskers removed for purely cosmetic reasons, and also expressing  concern that whisker removal was becoming more commonplace in clean-faced breeds. 
“As humans we are so accustomed to 
our own more limited sensory abilities that we tend to underestimate the sensory 
abilities of other species,” says John Burchard.
I consider plucking vibrissae to be animal abuse. Clipping them is not quite so
 bad but I still find it disgusting. It is commonly done to Whippets in the show
ring - and a Whippet is surely one of the dogs with the very least need of any 
kind of trimming.”
Stanley Coren agrees: The vibrissae of dogs serve an important function and this becomes even more important as the dog ages and his eyesight dims. Removing the vibrissae simply to make the dog's face look cleaner I believe is unnecessary and harmful to the animal. Unfortunately, as you have mentioned, few dog groomers seem to be aware of this, and even worse, many judges in dog conformation shows still give preference to dogs who have had their vibrissae removed. I even had a dog judge tell me that I should have whiskers removed from my dog, adding the bizarre comment "You don't want your dog to look so hairy do you?"
This article is adapted from the version that appears in the July 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 10 July 2011

New health test requirements for ABS breeders

Better late than never...eye testing now recommended for Neapolitan Mastiffs

The Kennel Club has recently added 29 new breed health test recommendations and requirements for dogs bred under the Accredited Breeder Scheme - and made some changes to some existing requirements/recommendations.

The list includes:

Add requirement – DNA test for PRA cord 1.

This good to see - and an indication of the Dachshund Breed Council's growing commitment to health. Now, let's just stop the weighing of the mini-dax at UK shows and introduce some other measure that does not encourage exhibitor to withhold food or water from their dogs to ensure they make the desired weight.

Add requirement – DNA test for GPRA-crd3.
Change from a requirement to a recommendation – eye testing.

Could any Glen breeders explain why eye testing has been downgraded to a recommendation rather than a requirement - especially when Peter Bedford states expressly on the Club website that "the presence of the [crd3] test does not mean that regular eye examination should stop...As a breed you have already developed the discipline of eye examination and you should continue to be certain that another problem does not become entrenched within the breed. Without the crd 3 test the Glen was in a mess, but the feeling of euphoria that the test`s advent has created should not allow common sense to be thrown out with the bathwater. Eye examination is essential to ensure that our delightful breed remains free from other potential ocular disease."

Add recommendation – hip scoring.
Add recommendation – eye testing.
Add recommendation – seek breed club advice on heart testing.

And about time too, is all I can say... And hopefully these tests will be mandatory before long for the Neapolitan. Only two NMs were hip-scored in the whole of the UK last year; only 36 have ever been hip-scored and the five-year breed mean is a whopping 45, meaning that many breeders are continuing to breed from untested stock that very likely have dreadful hips.  Mastino eyes are often poor, too (cherry eye/entropion/ectroprion) and heart problems are the reason for the very high number of young deaths in the breed.

Add recommendation – seek breed council advice on hemivertebrae checking.

Pug Breed Council? Absolutely no web presence as far as I can find, so not sure how anyone is supposed to check with them. And as for the UK Pug Dog Club - there is no mention there whatsoever of hemivertebrae - other than a tiny snippet of a legacy document that pops up if you do a search on the site for hemivertebrae. This indicates that the club used to advise that dogs with slipping patella, cleft palate, entropion, hip dysplasia and hemivertebra should not be bred from. Sadly, that advice has now been removed.

Add recommendation – eye testing.

This is added to hip-scoring (mandatory) and an existing recommendation to DNA test for PDP1. I note that the Clumber Spaniel Club says: "The results of KC/BVA eye tests for Clumber Spaniels are not published therefore the Club has established a voluntary database for the results".  And how many dogs are on that database? Nine. (Five of them from one kennel - Michelmess - who should be congratulated for their openness despite two of their dogs have less than perfect results).

Perhaps now that eye-testing is officially recommended for ABS breeders, the results will be listed on the KC Health Test Finder?

Add requirement – DNA test for PRA cord 1.
Add recommendation – DNA test for PFK.
Add recommendation – bitches under 20 months not to produce a litter.
Upgrade from a recommendation to a requirement – gonioscopy testing.
Upgrade from a recommendation to a requirement – DNA test for fucosidosis.

A sign of how health conscious Springer breeders are - or of the increasing number of health concerns in the breed? Or perhaps both? Any Springer owners want to comment?

Add requirement – DNA test for NCL.

Pleased to see this, knowing some of the back story of a pet owner of Tibetan Terriers who lobbied both the breed club and the Kennel Club to get this DNA test added as a requirement.

The updated list of all requirements and recommendations for the Accredited Breeder Scheme can be found at: