Friday 29 June 2012

In defence of a friend

Respect... Carol Fowler dog campaigner

I first met Carol Fowler in 2007 when we were researching Pedigree Dogs Exposed.  She was - and is - kind, softly-spoken, always respectful, a good listener and, delightfully, rather shockable (although this must be a front - as a former English teacher in the state school system, there can't be much she didn't hear in terms of extra-curricular vocabulary). 

Carol often - with due cause it has to be said  - shakes her head in some despair at me for being hopelessly disorganised and late for absolutely everything.  She in contrast is always on time and meticulously organised. We are as different as different can be, and we don't agree on everything by any means, but there's undoubtedly a bond cemented through the common aim of improving dog welfare.

Carol lives in a beautiful little cottage in Gloucestershire with her Cavalier, Rosie. Rosie is her second Cavalier and, like her first, Bonnie, she suffers from syringomyelia, although not as hearbreakingly seriously as Bonnie.  It was this experience that set Carol on the path she is now on.

When Bonnie was first diagnosed, Carol was shocked by her breeder's reaction (they threatened legal action if Carol spoke out about it), shocked by the breed club (little interest in documenting/highlighting the problem) and shocked by the Kennel Club for not having instigated any system for monitoring the level of genetic disease in individual breeds despite good evidence that there was a problem.

In her innocence, Carol thought that all she had to do was to raise the issue and that it would be sorted.  She went to her MP and, together, they went to see the Kennel Club.

Carol remembers that they accused her of "pet-owner over-reaction".

Breeders, meanwhile, accused her of having Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy - as if this ineffably decent retired schoolteacher actually wanted her beloved pet dogs to scream with pain.

And throughout all this, Carol steered - and continues to steer - a steady path, never indulging in the kind of irreverent bitching about the dog world that has at times been a feature of gobbier campaigners like me.  Instead, she has remained quietly persistent... writing letters, forging contacts, meeting welfare organisations, lobbying Government, educating herself regarding genetics and reading difficult scientific papers as often as is necessary to ensure she understands them. And she is always, but always, respectful and polite, however frustrated she may sometimes feel deep down.

So I am upset to see that the Chairman of the Kennel Club has trashed Carol Fowler in this week's Dog World in a column that is wanting in other ways too (a post to come on that shortly).

When I first met Carol, she was consumed with just Cavaliers. I remember asking her if she wanted to broaden it out, to champion the health of other breeds too. She didn't at the time, but as I rather expected, she has now - and impressively so with her dogbreedhealth website. Launched earlier this year and aimed primarily at the pet-buying public, the site offers independent, comprehensive information on health and welfare issues and available tests in individual breeds and crossbreeds, plus quite bit of useful general info (including a Beginner's Guide to COI written by me).

Carol has spent thousands of hours putting it together, all unpaid. Her starting point for establishing individual health problems was disease databases and veterinary texts. She then brought together several veterinary experts to review and comment on the drafts for each breed.

Now there is a flaw in this process and that is that the scientific/veterinary literature does not always reflect what is actually going on in particular breeds - a point, indeed, that Professor Dean is correct to make in his Dog World article this week.

As a result, the site was not perfect when Carol "soft-launched" it earlier this year.  Some of the breed descriptions were (and still are, in truth) a bit clunky; there were some errors and it was in need of input from those on the ground in individual breeds - something that Carol states clearly on the homepage is invited.

But, on the plus side, the site brings together the relevant health lowdown on most popular breeds, as well as inbreeding information and what health tests are available (nowhere, incidentaly, does it suggest they are mandatory as Professor Dean claims in his article). Now I'm sure it reads too negatively for some breed enthusiasts, but on the other hand, the breed info offered by the KC's website is often laughably poor.

Let's have a quick compare.

Here's what the KC website says about pugs:

Click to enlarge

When I first saw this, I thought there must be another page to it where they list brachycephalic airway syndrome,  pug dog encephalitis, luxating patellas and the several other health problems to which pugs are prone. But, no, that's it. And, believe it or not, this page is from the dog breed health manual that the KC has produced for vets. The info for puppy-buyers doesn't include any health information on the breed at all.

In contrast, Carol's entry for the pug lists all the health problems above and more.

And how about Professor Dean's own breed, the Border Terrier? Here's what the KC vet manual says:

Click to enlarge

According to the KC, there are no health problems. Nada.  But while it's true that the Border Terrier is a tough, healthy breed compared to most, there are a few health problems - and these are listed on Carol's site. This allows puppy buyers to ask the right questions of breeders and awareness is helpful in terms of recognising a problem should it occur.

So Carol's site - although not perfect - is a genuinely-useful, gloss-free resource for puppy-buyers and Carol continues to improve it.  She really does want it to be as good as possible  and is constantly updating and refining it.

But instead of recognising the enormous effort - all unpaid - that Carol has put into it, and perhaps offering the KC's help to improve it further, here's what Professor Dean has said about it in his article this week:
"It suggests to the unsuspecting public (who believe much they read on the web) that certain health tests are mandatory. However, being based on amateur research there are many errors on this site and as a result misinformation will be provided to the public. This error is further compounded by endorsements from respected organisations who either did not have the resources to check the accuracy of the advice given or lacked the competence to judge it."

I really hate it when big people shit on little people  - especially when the big person is part of an organisation that has been complicit in misinforming the public for decades by painting an over-rosy picture of the health of many breeds.

Let's note, too, that in 2008, the Kennel Club declined an opportunity to explore a disease surveillance scheme that would by now have yielded more accurate data on which Carol's site could be based. (It took funding from the RSPCA to finally get VetCompass off the ground.)

And let's also note that the Kennel Club has actively blocked Carol's attempts to improve her site.

Yes, they really did.

A few months ago, Carol wrote to the KC asking for a list of breed health co-ordinator (HCs) - the aim being to liaise with them to ensure that the information for each breed was up to date and accurate.  By mistake, the KC's Bill Lambert copied Carol in on an email meant for internal consumption. Here's what he wrote to Aimee Lewellyn, who recently joined the KC as Health Information Manager.

"It goes without saying but the HC list is not available, and certainly not to her!"


Now, to be fair, Bill Lambert apologised to Carol - who accepted it very graciously and she turned an awkward moment into a constructive one by directly asking for Bill Lambert's input on his own breed, the Bull Terrier. This was duly given and I trust Mr Lambert is now happier with the Bull Terrier entry - and if not that he'll continue discussion with Carol. After all, the site is here to stay - they might as well help to make it as accurate as possible.

As it happens, I wasn't ever intending to mention this KC faux-pas - after all, you ought to hear what I say about the KC  behind its back! (Exactly the same as I say to its front, as it happens.) I know Carol will be mortified that I have. But I fear Professor Dean's piece this week reveals that, for all the talk of reform, deep-down there is still a core arrogance that resents what many at the KC still perceive as do-gooder outsiders meddling with stuff about which they don't have a clue.

Please. This needs to change. And it could start with an apology from Professor Dean to Carol Fowler.

Monday 25 June 2012

Able Mabel - revisited

In March, I blogged about Mabel, who in my view looks pretty darn good for a Bulldog (post here). It caused a fuss, particularly because the young Mabel appeared to have quite a rounded "cartwheel" topline which some Bulldog afficionados maintained was likely to leave her crippled as she grew up.

Here are some more pix of Mabel, taken in the past few days. As you can see, her topline looks much better now. She has also filled out a bit, but is still a leggier, more athletic-looking Bulldog than you tend to see in the showring; she also has a longer muzzle and a smaller nose-roll than many, good clear eyes and wide open nostrils. The sum total results in a very active dog that can and does race about without suffering on even a warm day.

I'd be interested to hear what the show-breeders think of Mabel now.  Would she have a fighting chance in the show-ring today?

Wednesday 20 June 2012

Canine Alliance In - ad- equacy

This made me really laugh today... The Canine Alliance, remember, was set-up to try to stop the vet-checks at champ shows for dogs in the high-profile breeds. 

But of course all this ad makes you think is: crikey, the eyes of the Basset Hound in the bottom pic confirms why it needs to be singled out for special attention and, quick, let's add the breed in the top pic to the list of high-profile breeds that need to be checked because its eyes are a mess, too.

This landed in my inbox as I was on my way back this afternoon from Brussels and the Eurogroup for Animals AGM where I presented on the problems caused by selective breeding in dogs. Bassets featured in that, too, I'm sure the CA will be delighted to hear.

Friday 15 June 2012

Poodles are not posh

The poncing of the Poodle for the showring has undoubtedly done this breed, in all its sizes, a huge disservice, transforming the original, multi-skilled all-rounder into a hairdressers' dog. Inside most, though, still beats the heart of a super-bright, athletic animal that can do it all: round-up livestock, retrieve a rabbit or a bird, guard the home and nanny the children.

So it's irritating to read Eileen Geeson in  Dog World insisting: "... the Poodle is ‘posh’. It is a showy, fun loving, eye-catching exhibit."

It really isn't. This breed is a jack-of-all-trades and should be celebrated as such.

Worse, Geeson then goes on to write: "Some people have expressed a wish to show their dogs in what is classed as a pet trim, such as the lamb or sporting clip for ease of care and grooming. Also because they may not have the same talent as some of the professionals in the breed who turn out dogs to such perfection that competing with them is a hopeless case. Is that a good enough reason to change?
It is true to say that there are fans of the Poodle trimmed completely off – like a farm dog. We surely do not want to ever see this trimming in the show ring even if it brings great comfort to the dog...." (My bolding).


Are we judging a dog or a topiary contest? 

And did you engage any part of your brain before writing that last sentence?

Trimming Poodles' coats into stupid shapes for the showring is not a new thing. Here are a couple of pix from that amazing source of old pix of dogs, Pietoro's Historical Dog Breed Pictures.


Standard and Toy Poodle, 1938
But of course all sense of proportion has now been lost and to anyone outside the show-ring, the dogs look very silly indeed - particularly the crazy top-knots superglued into place with superhold hairspray.

A dog in there somewhere...

Now many dogs love being groomed but surely not this, not really. And prepping a Poodle for the showring is a really long process. Washing and drying them is done a day or more beforehand because it takes hours. So does the trimming and clipping. And once the process has started, these dogs are confined to barracks for danger that real life may stain their precious coats. Show breeders often tell me their dogs enjoy being hauled from one show to the next; that the dogs love struttin' their stuff in the ring (yep, for just a few minutes in an otherwise long and boring day).  "I wouldn't do it otherwise," they say.

Sure you wouldn't.

The extreme grooming has had other effects too - the Poodle's exaggerated prow used to be all coat. But now the Poodle's shoulder assembly has edged forward. This and a ewe neck is often rewarded because it contributes towards the flashy, hackney gait supposed to be a fault but often rewarded in the show-ring.

I am sure many would love to see the Poodle shown in less freaky coat - like this retriever/sporting trim. It would help remind us that there is a real - and very versatile -  dog in there.

And don't get me started on the breed's genetic diversity problems.

Another blog... another day.

Thursday 14 June 2012

Held together by hairspray

Great piece in Dog World this week - a sharp condemnation of breeding for form not function from Kennel Club Field Trial Committee Chairman member Alan Rountree. Mr Rountree is a respected field trialler and field trial judge who has made up many field trial champions.

A KENNEL Club General Committee member says he is ‘disgusted’ that some of those present at the club’s annual meeting seemed intent on turning shows into beauty pageants’.

Shows should be about selecting dogs who ‘best represent the breed Standards’, Alan Rountree said this week.

In a letter to this newspaper, he said: "The show world needs to come to terms with the fact that it is a minority. In the real world people want fit, healthy dogs, which in the case of my kind of dogs can do a day’s work, day after day. They do not want a dog held together by hairspray, nor one who is in pain because of the extreme construction of its eyes.

"In short, the show world needs to see itself as others see it. The view is not attractive!”

Read the whole thing here.

Wednesday 13 June 2012

Royal Canin: no prizes

Royal Canin have this pic up on their Facebook wall today (link here). It's a "fun" post asking people to guess the breed.

One day, I hope that when the folk at Royal Canin see a photo like they will wince and choose one of a dog with wider nostrils instead - you know, a dog that might have a fighting chance of being able to cool itself through wide-open pipes when the British summer actually arrives.

But then this is the pet food manufacturer that profits from the problems we've bred in to pedigree dogs and cats. It makes, for instance, special-shaped kibble for brachycephalics with the blurb for their pug-specific kibble saying:

"The Pug is a perfect example of the “brachycephalic” jaw type with a very short muzzle. The size, shape and texture of PUG 25 kibbles are specially designed to make it easier for your Pug to pick up and encourage him to chew."

I hate this kind of normalisation of a defective design, although I guess sales might be dented if instead the pack read: "There's something horribly wrong with breeding dogs that can't eat normal dog food. For God's sake, next time choose a dog with a muzzle!"

A while back, when we were working on the promo for Pedigree Cats Exposed, I asked Royal Canin for a packshot of their "specially-designed" food for extreme Persians (have a google - they're worse, even, than the shortest-faced Peke or Pug).

I guess I shouldn't have been surprised that it was refused.

If you also feel that Royal Canin should not be using physically-compromised dogs like the Boxer in the pic above for a bit of "fun", please drop them a gentle comment to that effect here.

Update 14/6: Thank you to all those who contacted Royal Canin to raise the issue. After initially defending the choice of picture with the claim that the stenotic nares above were normal and just part of the natural variance seen in different dog breeds (see comments below), they have now removed the image and the thread from their Facebook wall.

Finally, here's part of an email I received from boxer breeder Dr Bruce Cattanach in response to the blog which I reproduce here with his permission:

I was also fairly ignorant re nostrils at one point, and then I got a dog of my own with pinched nostrils.  I had him operated to resolve the problem, my vet getting help from a Pug vet.  The difference to the dog was unbelievable within hours. I thought my dog with pinched nostrils was actually fine and healthy but I could not believe the immediate difference in the dog when the nares were opened up.  Livelier, bouncier and definitely happier.  In retrospect, one could say he was dampened down and even depressed before the operation but I certainly didn’t recognise this.  He had seemed fine.

Monday 11 June 2012

PDE - Three Years On... the DVD

It's been an embarrassingly-long time in the making, but the DVD of Pedigree Dogs Exposed - Three Years On is now available. You can order from the Passionate Productions website or via Amazon UK (although only the PAL version is available via Amazon).

I confess I was exhausted after we finished the film, so it took me ages to write the blurb for the sleeve.

Then we had a couple of technical glitches.

Then, just as they were ready for despatch, I noticed a line of text missing off the sleeve copy, so it was back to the printers for a re-print.

Apologies to all those who have waited an age for the copies they've ordered - they started to be mailed out at the end of last week and the rest will be despatched today and tomorrow. If, that is, I can continue to keep them safe from the jaws of foster pup Maddie - a setter/collie x youngster that is clearly a plant from the anti-PDE campaigners. She's mad for the DVD boxes.

DVD Maddie... do not be fooled by that innocent face

The plan was to include a couple of sequences that we had to drop from the final UK version for space reasons. We've not had time to do this, but I will make these extra sequences available online in due course.

We can provide a limited number of copies of both films to academic institutions free of charge - please email me directly if you qualify: jem[AT]

Petition to change breed standards - please sign it


In cautiously-optimistic mood about the future of dogs on my return from Stockholm and the 1st Dog Genetic Health Workshop last weekend (report to come shortly, I promise!) I have to confess to gulping slightly when I saw the latest poster - or infographic as they're calling it - from the RSPCA.

This is a very strong, clear graphic with a simple message and a single point of action: sign the RSPCA petition to call for breed standards to be changed.

The reason I winced slightly is because I believe that Kennel Clubs and breeders are beginning to get the message and, from their point of view, it will only increase the chasm between them and the RSPCA at a time when there is momentum to build bridges rather than blow them to smithereens.

But, of course, this poster is primarily aimed at the dog-buying public who are still buying freakish dogs in their thousands. And they do still need to be told that too big, too flat, too wrinkled and too-out-of-proportion causes suffering, and not least because if they start demanding a more moderate dog, it will be a very powerful lever for change across the board. As I believe that this is what reforming Kennel Clubs and good breeders want too, I'd ask them to take this one on the chin.

The breed standards do still need to be changed - as called for recently by the British Veterinary Association's Harvey Locke recently  (download link to Vet Record editorial). As was discussed in Stockholm,  breed standards in the main do not demand exaggeration, but they do in some instances still detail physiological traits that have the potential for harm (eg a lozenge-shaped eye or a double-twist in a tail). There is a lot of potential for breed standards to act as a moderating force eg in ensuring an upper weight limit in giant breeds (or even reducing the current weights/sizes), or demanding a minumum. measurable muzzle length in the brachycephalics.

So I'd urge everyone to sign the RSPCA's petition for a further revision of the breed standards. You can do that here.

NB: the wording on this link is a little nebulous, but I've checked with the RSPCA today and they have reassured that your signature here is a signature specifically (and solely) for this single petition - to call for further changes to the breed standards. They also revealed that 16,000 people have signed it so far.

Tuesday 5 June 2012

Purebred v crossbred longevity - your questions answered

There was a big response to my blog on VetCompass's data comparing purebred to crossbreed longevity (see here), with several questions and some querying the validity of the data. Dan O'Neill from VetCompass has followed the comments with great interest and has kindly agreed to respond.

Over to Dan...

Many thanks to Jemima for posting the VetCompass preliminary canine longevity study and to all of those who commented. VetCompass is a collaborative not-for-profit research project prioritising companion animal welfare. As such, it is important to gauge and include the opinions and interests of breeders and owners into ongoing research. All VetCompass research output aims to have immediate applicability to improve animal welfare and is not designed to just adorn the pages of esoteric veterinary journals.
Although it is not possible to reply to all those who commented, I would like to make a few general replies. The results of most scientific studies contain two main parts. The first is a descriptive component that aims to describe the situation observed, without trying to explain it. In this study, the descriptive component described overall longevity of purebreds versus crossbreds and also the longevity of individual breeds. That crossbreds may outlive purebreds is just a basic fact from this study and does not try to explain why this may be the case. It does not necessarily follow that any differences seen are related to basic hybrid vigour or genetics.
The second part of most studies is the analytic phase where the problem is taken apart and analysed to understand how it works and tries to explain the descriptive findings. There are many factors which may affect the longevity differences seen for crossbreds and purebreds; and these often turn out being counter to what might be expected.  To the point where this study was blogged, we had examined the influence of variables such as sex, neutering and insurance status on longevity. For example, intuitively, one would expect insured animals to live longer than non-insured since higher health care standards should give an advantage in life. Interestingly, the reverse is the case and insured dogs live over 1 and a half years fewer than non-insured. This may be because people insure unhealthy individuals or breeds but, regardless, it does highlight the importance of gathering data before making assumptions. Many commented that body size/weight may explain away the difference in longevity of crossbreds and purebreds. The beliefs are that crossbreds are smaller than purebreds and that small dogs live longer. This aspect is already being studied and will be very interesting to see the effect.
Another comment regarded the selection criteria for breeds included. VetCompass collects data on all dogs attending vet practices. The only criterion for the breeds included was the number of them seen; enough dogs of reported breeds were required to provide statistically reliable results.  Apologies to owners of less common breeds, but these will be included in future studies as the overall dog numbers increase.
The use of median instead of mean age was also questioned. The ‘mean’ refers to adding up all the ages and dividing by the number of dogs. The ‘median’ refers to ranking all the ages and selecting the centre age. The median is a better descriptor for this study because there are two peaks of death, one in year 1 with a higher one at year 14.

A thread also discussed whether vets are made aware when dogs have died at home. In general, vet practices would be aware since clients may bring the bodies to their practice for cremation or at least notify the practice to submit final insurance claims or to stop vaccine reminders being issued.
Finally, in response to the comment regarding 'right censoring': if we were following a group/cohort of dogs from birth to when they died, then right-censoring becomes an issue, because some may not have died during the study period.  However, this study was in essence a cross-sectional study, picking out all animals that had died regardless of when they were born. Right censoring (loss of information on what happens to dogs after the time period of study) is, therefore, not an issue for this study since all the dogs had died and thus none were censored.

So far, over 200 practices are collaborating with VetCompass but I would be very happy for information on the project to be passed onto readers’ vet practices to further encourage vet participation. The more practices that get involved, then the more robust and useful the studies that can use this information.
Finally, may I once again thank the readers of Jemima’s excellent blog for their comment and hopefully you will allow me to delve into your combined wisdom again for future studies. 
Many thanks Dan.  
A pdf containing information on VetCompass  can be downloaded here.