Friday 25 May 2012

UK crossbreeds live longer than purebreds

Er no... probably not.

Based on the studies already out there, we stated in Pedigree Dogs Exposed that the average mutt lives longer than the average purebred. It caused a furore - and still, today, the dog fora are full of breeders stating categorically that it this a myth. I've discovered that it's pointless to provide a long list of references which show that they are wrong. They simply won't believe it.

But if the preliminary results from VetCompass  - the UK's amazing new veterinary surveillance scheme -  are borne out, it will be much harder for breeders to maintain that purebred dogs on the whole live longer than mutts. Based on death-data for nearly 5,000 UK dogs,  it found that, overall, crossbreeds live "significantly" longer than purebreds with only the Border Collie and Springer Spaniel living longer according to the data (but with the difference so small the researchers say it is not statistically significant). (Download pdf of the poster here)

Overall, the data show that purebreds die 1.22 years younger than crossbreeds.

Here's the figure showing the most popular breeds.

Now there are limitations to this data - most critically, perhaps, that the crossbreed data does not split the dogs into weight categories. This is important because we know that big dogs live less long (on average) than small ones.  Previous studies that have split the dogs on weight have found that size-for-size, crossbreeds still live longer but that 1.22 years  gap could be skewed either way if small or large dogs are over-represented in either the crossbreed or purebred category.

But the weight data is available because VetCompass "mines" its information (anonymously) from an increasing number of UK veterinary practices and they, of course, do record weight. When I broached the issue with Dan O'Neill from VetCompass, he said that the full analysis of the data with this weight-variable included is in progress. 

The study also found that being neutered was associated with increased longevity - although the reasons for this are unknown. (It could be, for instance, that neutered dogs are less likely to be euthanised for behavioural issues rather than that being neutered is protective disease-wise or perhaps owners who neuter their dogs just look after them better.)  And, extremely interestingly, the study found that insured dogs live less long than non-insured dogs.  This sounds kinda counter-intuitive - and wondered if it might be due to increased veterinary intervention having the opposite effect to the one desired. But Vet Compass's Dan O'Neill warns me against confusing association with causality. "Perhaps people insure the dogs that are likely to have problems and don't insure or let lapse those that are healthy," explains Dan. "Or perhaps better welfare standard come from euthanasia  - so shorter relative longevity -  rather than letting animals live to the bitter end which may result in longer longevity but less welfare."

This preliminary data from VetCompass - which has now enrolled over 250,000 small animals in the UK, including over 125,000 dogs - reveals how incredibly powerful this kind of veterinary surveillance is going to be in answering questions about dog health more definitively than has ever been possible before.  

The Kennel Club too, has woken up to its potential and the KC's Charitable Trust has recently committed funding to a study to look at the health of KC registered dogs - as opposed, presumably, to non-KC purebreds and crossbreeds.  The results of that looks set to dispel - or confirm - some long-held beliefs.

In the meantime, just for fun, I've compared the above VetCompass data with the longevity data from the KC's 2004 health survey ("Methods and mortality results of a health survey of purebred dogs in the UK", VJ Adams et al, JSAP 2010) for those breeds for which the data is available (which excludes Jack Russells as they are not a recognised KC breed and German Shepherds on account that they never sent back any survey returns to the KC...). It makes interesting reading. 

Overall, I'm surprised at how closely matched they are because the KC survey relied on breeder/owner reports and, traditionally, self-reporting introduces bias. (Kelly Cassidy found, for instance, that owners often overestimated how old their dogs were when they die - see link here).  Since the vet data is more objective, it looks like the KC survey had limited bias in its responses - or perhaps the bias cancelled itself out.  My concern about the KC survey was always that it might have painted an overly-rosy picture given that the survey forms went out to just breed clubs which might have a vested interest in downplaying health concerns. Conversely, I know many breeders believe that only those who have had dogs with problems are much more likely to complete a health survey.

Nevertheless, there are a few notable differences between the VetCompass and the KC survey data, which would seem to relate to the fact that the VetCompass data comprises the more generalised purebred population. For instance, we see that the KC-registered Border Collie, Springer  and Greyhound all live a year less long than the general population - perhaps reflecting increased longevity in the working dog?  Conversely, the KC-registered Staffie and Cavalier King Charles Spaniel live a whopping two years longer than the general population. I would guess that the Staffie difference might suggest better temperament in the KC-registered dogs, while the CKCS difference could relate to the numbers of puppy-farmed Cavaliers outside of the KC population. 

Fascinating stuff!

Saturday 19 May 2012

Pekes... an apology

Yesterday, I blogged about how today's Pekes can't clean their nether regions themselves - or help with their own puppies as they are being born - because we've bred them into such a dysfunctional shape.

I owe them an apology.

It isn't just Pekes.

It seems that other bracychephalic breeds can't do this either - notably many Pugs, French Bulldogs and Bulldogs. And, according to the many YouTube videos that come up if you search for "[breed] can't reach itchy butt" [what a way to spend a Friday, eh?], it's hilarious!

And there was me thinking it was a total bloody disgrace.

In the interests of balance, here's a video of a Pug that can - just - reach behind to help deliver a rather impressive litter of pups. Bizarre choice of music and OTT sentiment, be warned. But rather affecting, nonetheless, especially when Dad comes to say hello to his pups. Just such a shame they have no choice other than to be Pugs.

Friday 18 May 2012

Pekes - is this really true?

From this...
... to this, the modern Show Pekingese
I was sent the top picture (and the ones below) of vintage Pekes a few days ago.  They are from Country Life Illustrated dated 16th September, 1899, and they are of Pekes owned by Lady Blanche Gordon Lennox who bred the first Pekingese champion in the UK, Goodwood Lo. "They illustrate this breed before it was ruined," says my correspondent, a breeder not quite brave enough to allow me to publish his name, who says he has given up trying to breed a healthy Peke and is instead focusing on Tibetan Spaniels - which, of course, look very like the vintage Pekes. "They are my pride and joy... so strong, agile and strong."

As you can see, the 1899 Pekes have a bit of muzzle, noticeably wider nostrils than many modern Pekes, much less coat and normal-sized eyes which are less vulnerable to injury than in today's version of the breed which has huge eyes in such shallow eye sockets that under pressure they can sometimes pop out. 

"It is about time, after the 20th century when the breeders through selection made their dog muzzles non existent because of fashion and competition, that Pekes and Pugs get the muzzles back that so rightly belong to them," says my correspondent. " I have every book published about Pekingese, and in the beginning of the1900, the breeders advertised their stud dogs saying that they sired progeny with flat faces, they decided then this was a virtue without realising the sad consequences it was going to result in."

Of course, the above health problems are all well-known. But my correspondent then told me something I didn't know about the modern Peke that had me shaking my head in despair.  He said that the modern Peke has such a large head on such a short neck that they are unable to get round to clean their nether regions - or help with their puppies as they are being born.  I went back to ask for more info and back came this reply:

"Think about it... a thickset little Peke bitch in labour with a flat face, hardly no neck and quite a bit of thick coat, so very little flexibility left there, very difficult to turn around and reach. How can they get to their vagina to clean themselves or welcome a puppy? I'm afraid that this can be quite common. Very, very few newborn puppies, if any, would survive if the owner weren't there to assist, open the membranes etc. The bitches don't care very much when the pups are born. It is a bit afterwards they can realise their responsibility as mums. Besides, even if mine were considered quite "plain" and I had my soundness ambitions, almost every second whelping resulted in a c-section which was very depressing. This is my experience. Of course Jemima, people whelp their bitches at home and would never dream of airing such problems.

"They used to say that Pekes are little lion dogs, but no lion is heavy in front and light behind - it's just the mane. The Peke connoisseurs want them pear shaped. The Pekingese themselves are lovely, it is just a pity that they have made them prisoners in their own bodies."

"In contrast, the bitches of my Tibetan Spaniel litters  have started to clean the puppies before they were fully born.

So how common is this, really? Do all Pekes struggle in this respect - or is this breeder's experience unusual?

Wednesday 9 May 2012

Stockholm here I come

Reasons to be cheerful...

This morning's email brought more details of the the 1st International Workshop on Enhancement of Genetic Health in Purebred Dogs being hosted by the Swedish Kennel Club in Stockhom in early June.

I am inordinately excited about attending the workshop because of its remit - which is not to to try and convince anyone there are problems, but to find practical and collaborative ways forward to improve the genetic health of our dogs.

The 140 attendees - comprised mainly of scientists, vets and representatives of various international Kennel Clubs - include some big names in the world of purebred dogs from more than 20 different countries.

There are 13 national Kennel Clubs attending -  the UK, Sweden, USA, Italy, Germany, Portugal, Norway, Latvia, Denmark, Mexico, Estonia, Finland and Uruguay, plus several representatives from the FCI, including Kari Järvinen (often to be found judging here in the UK) and Nicolas Schwab from the FCI Breeding Commission.

From the UK, there are Steve Dean and Aimee Llewellyn from the Kennel Club, vets Bruce Fogle and Bob Gore, geneticists David Sargan (University of Cambridge), Cathryn Mellersh and Tom Lewis (AHT), and Rowena Packer from the Royal Veterinary College. From the US, there is Danika Bannasch (UC Davis),  Jerry Bell (Tufts), Bernard Unti (HSUS), Urs Giger (UPenn), Shila Nordone (AKC Canine Health Foundation) and Fran Smith (President OFA). Australia, meanwhile, is represented by Clare Wade (University of Sydney) and Karyn Orzeszko (Dogs Victoria). 

Companies/commercial organisations attending include Optigen, Nestle Purina, Agria and Mars Veterinary.

I have either met or corresponded with many taking part and it makes my spirits soar to see so many key people attending. Big congratulations to Åke Hedhammer and Sophia Malm from the Swedish Kennel Club for organising the workshop, which they announced at the HSUS conference in Washington a year ago. The difference here, of course, is the buy-in from so many international Kennel Clubs (noticeable by their absence at the Washington conference because of the concern regarding its host) and other key dog figures. 

I am attending not as a reporter, but as a delegate hoping to contribute usefully in various ways, including on the role of the media, but will blog highlights from the Workshop as appropriate.