Wednesday 25 September 2013

Poodles - running out of time

Poodles are so broke genetically that only a concerted international effort from those that love the breed will save it, warns the Institute of Canine Biology.

In a strongly-worded open letter to the Poodle Club of Canada, the ICB urges breeders to stop squabbling over cosmetic issues such as the banning of parti-colours or it will be too late for the breed.
"That breeders could even be seriously considering removing dogs from the gene pool of the breed because they have one copy too many of a recessive allele for a purely cosmetic trait is simply breathtaking.  It reveals a profound and fundamental failure to appreciate the very dire genetic situation this breed is in."
The letter in full:
22 September 2013 

Mary Jane Weir  
Poodle Club of Canada

An open letter to the Canadian Poodle clubs: 
We are dismayed to learn that there is organized resistance to the effort in Canada to remove the disqualification of particolor Standard Poodles and their progeny.  
The Standard Poodle has been the subject of extensive genetic research over the last few years.  The data produced by this work are chilling.  
The genetic diversity of the Standard Poodle has been reduced to the point where the immune system is seriously compromised. Without a competent immune system, dogs have no defense against the pathogens that we all encounter on a daily basis.  Further, loss of the ability of the immune system to distinguish between an external pathogen and its own tissue is being manifested as skyrocketing rates of autoimmune disorders such as Addison's disease and sebaceous adenitis.  These are horrible diseases for which there are no veterinary treatments adequate to restore an animal to normal health.  Genetic research can increase our understanding of the underlying pathology of inherited diseases in dogs, but there is nothing geneticists can do to "fix" this problem.  Many of the genes necessary for a functional immune system in Poodles have been lost from the breed's gene pool, and there is no modern technology that will restore it to proper function. 
At this point, genetic salvation of this breed is going to require a concerted effort by breeders to reduce additional loss of genetic diversity to an absolute minimum.  That breeders could even be seriously considering removing dogs from the gene pool of the breed because they have one copy too many of a recessive allele for a purely cosmetic trait is simply breathtaking.  It reveals a profound and fundamental failure to appreciate the very dire genetic situation this breed is in. 
There is no genetic technology that will restore the Standard Poodle breed to the good health that all dogs deserve.  This can only be accomplished by breeders, who must recognize that time is very quickly running out for this breed.  It is going to require a substantial realignment of priorities as well as an extraordinary level of cooperation among breeders around the world.  Geneticists can provide guidance in this process and there are many that are ready and willing to help.  But breeders need to know that it is possible to break something to the point where it cannot be fixed.  The responsibility to get this right is solely yours.

Carol Beuchat, PhDScientific DirectorInstitute of Canine Biology, USA&Department of Molecular and Cell BiologyUniversity of California Berkeley, USA 
Jonas Donner, PhDDirector of Research & DevelopmentMyDogDNA, Genoscoper Laboratories, Finland 
Iwona Głażewska, PhDAssistant ProfessorDepartment of Plant Taxonomy and Nature ConservationUniversity of Gdansk, Poland 
Claudia Melis, PhDResearch ScientistDepartment of BiologyNorwegian University of Science & Technology, Norway
Pieter Oliehoek PhD Conservation Biology & Canine Genetics Institute of Canine Biology, USA
CA SharpPresidentAustralian Shepherd Health & Genetics Institute,

Finally, an organisation with two fully-descended testicles has stood up and called it as it is, rather than continue to pussyfoot round breeders with an appeasing grin and much hand-wringing about the need to keep everyone on board.

I am sure that Beuchat and her colleagues thought long and hard before writing a letter that so doesn't pull its punches. It should be hard to ignore given the quality of those signatures.

But there's no doubt that being this outspoken to dog breeders is a calculated risk. I know I won't be the only one holding my breath in the hope that it won't backfire.

That said...

The whole canine diversity movement was started by scientist and poodle lover , the late Dr John Armstrong. Thanks to his teaching (see The Poodle and the Chocolate Cake, written in 1998) and initiatives such as the Standard Poodle Project, the breed has been well-documented genetically. Indeed, Poodle breeders were among the first to embrace the need to reduce inbreeding - and the ICB's online course for Poodle breeders which started this week is, I hear, very well subscribed.

The ICB is also hosting an ambitious effort to create a global pedigree database for Standard Poodles - in fact being overseen by Mary Jane Weir, President of the Poodle Club of Canada (so one imagines she must be party to the above letter).  I'm a huge admirer of Mary Jane. She knows her stuff and has already done so much to raise awareness about the impact dwindling genetic diversity has on the immune system.

I hope the ICB now throws its weight behind a world genetics congress for the breed.

If Poodle breeders could come together now in an international conservation effort to show the rest of world how it's done, it would be amazing. And a fitting tribute to John Armstrong, who cared so passionately about his Poodles and wanted the world to care, too.

Wednesday 11 September 2013

AKC PR offensive - good luck with that...

The AKC has decided to hire Edelman PR ("the world's largest public relations firm") to improve the image of AKC breeders.

In an extraordinary article for this month's Canine Chronicle (read it here), AKC Chairman Alan Kalter lays the blame for the AKC's decline and dwindling reputation entirely on the AR movement.

He writes:

"Just 20 years ago, a purebred dog was the dog to have in your life. Twenty years ago, a responsible breeder was viewed as a respected resource. Twenty years ago there were virtually no important legislative efforts aimed at eradicating all dog breeding.
"What changed in those 20 years? The noble quest to give every dog a “forever” home was co-opted by the animal rights organizations as a method to raise funds for their mission to completely eliminate pet ownership."

There isn't even a nod  to the fact that the AKC continues to embrace breeding practices that, if not modified, will lead to the genetic annihilation of all the breeds (or at least the AKC incarnation of them).

There's no mention of the fact that AKC shows continue to reward distortion, deformity and disease.

There's no acknowledgment at all of the responsibility the AKC needs to shoulder for chasing registration dollars rather than good health.

Kalter even goes so far as to say:
"As told by AR groups, purebred dogs have been wrongly defined as being plagued with genetic health and temperament problems caused by breeders."
But who else is to blame for Cavaliers with brain cases too small for their brains, or Boston Terriers that can't breathe or breed; or Rough Collies with eyes so small that they verge on micropthalmia?

Neither, when I last looked, was PETA the ones responsible for producing Shar-pei riddled with Shar-pei Fever and entropion, or Flatcoats shot through with cancer - or the growing number breeds falling apart with immune-mediated problems.

And neither is it the HSUS's fault that, for instance, the AKC (English) Bulldog standard still demands a "massive head"- refusing, even to embrace the breed standard modifications introduced in the breed's country of origin.

And, last time I looked, it wasn't the ASPCA that continues to suggest that mating mothers to son/fathers to daughters and brothers to sisters might actually be a good thing.  (See here.)

Instead, the AKC has resolutely stuck its heels in, resisted almost all reform, and fired off disparaging potshots at those KCs that have (partially) woken up and smelled the roses.

The AKC has built its house on sand and continues to stick its head into it. And yet Kalter maintains the concerns raised by critics are all "propaganda" and "fiction".

Sure, the anti-breeder camp overstates its case and blogs like mine tend to focus on the bad stuff.

And, sure, there are dedicated breeders that produce good dogs with love and care under the AKC umbrella.

But not to shoulder any responsibility at all for purebred dogs' falling star?

It is true that purebred dogs are in need of some good PR - and, actually, there's real potential to do a good job. Selectively-bred dogs produced by responsible breeders should be treasured and they do have some advantages over crossbreeds/mixed breeds.

But you don't do it by claiming that black is white.

How do you do it?

For a much smaller fee than Edelman PR, please feel free to ask. Although, gratis, I can tell you this:  it requires change. 

And it does not feature the sleight of brand involved in hiring a PR company to illuminate the good stuff while doing fuck-nothing about the bad stuff.

Friday 6 September 2013

Every breed... every test... every lab.. Today's useful link

Click to enlarge
Want to check what DNA tests are available for your breed (or crossbreed) and which labs worldwide offer them?

You can now, here.

Thank you to PennGen at the University of Pennsylvania, the WSAVA and Waltham. I couldn't catch it out on a test-ride in terms of breed-specific tests offered - although I found the drop-down menus awkward to use and the info takes time to load on luddite internet connections.

But this is only a small niggle. It's a great resource.

Thursday 5 September 2013

Dogs - the elevator pitch

Last year, with little fuss, a bunch of smart dog and conservation people started the Institute of Canine Biology (ICB) - an essentially-online presence designed to act as a conduit between science and dog-breeders.
"The Institute of Canine Biology is an independent, international consortium of outstanding scientists that are working with the global network of dog breeders to manage and reduce the incidence of genetic disorders in dogs."
It's doing that by disseminating research in an engaging way and by offering online courses to dog breeders - both general courses in population genetics, and courses designed for specific breeds.

One for Poodle breeders this month, for instance, includes the latest research into the breed's DLA diversity, a wonderful initiative funded by the Poodle Club of Canada in collaboration with Dr Lorna Kennedy at the University of Manchester.

(DLA analysis looks specifically at genes that code for immune function, of interest to any breed that suffers from immune-mediated conditions as it may provide a way to breed dogs with more robust immune systems.)

The ICB is also hosting The Global Pedigree Project which has the ambitious aim of creating a centralised, free database of the pedigree history of every purebred dog - an international effort that "will bring together pedigree information that is presently scattered among kennel clubs around the world and consolidate it so that the entire history of a breed will be traceable from founders to present day dogs."

The ICB is the brainchild of Carol Beuchat, a biologist and photographer with a lifelong passion for dogs, and she has brought to the party an impressive list of international names.  These include Bob Lacy, a conservation guru who has revolutionised wild animal conservation with two key pieces of software - one that models genetic viability (Vortex); and the other a kind of for managed species (PMx).

I spoke to Bob when we were researching the first Pedigree Dogs Exposed to ask if he might be interested in modelling dog populations. He was, but there was nothing that could be done in time for the film. Bob and Carol have already worked together on a paper looking at the genetic management of Basenjiis (link).

Other interesting names at the ICB include:
  • French geneticist Grégoire Leroy, who has published several key papers on dog breeding, including several looking at vulnerable French breeds
  • population geneticist Katariina Maki who works with the Finnish Kennel Club and is the author of key papers examining genetic diversity in Lancashire Heelers and Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retrievers (the latter much discussed here).
  • CA Sharp, a renowned lay expert on the genetics of Australian Shepherds who runs the fantastic ASHGI (Australian Shepherd Health and Genetics Institute) - a website offering much to breeders of other breeds, too.  Sharp has been a tour-de-force in Aussies for several years.

The ICB has been up and running since spring 2012 and Carol has just written what she calls an "elevator pitch" on what dog breeders need to know (and what the ICB's population genetics courses cover).

Now it has to be said that it would have to be a very high building with a bloody slow elevator to qualify. But, in a nutshell, this is what it's all about:

1) All the useful genetic variation your breed will ever have was in the dogs that founded the breed. This genetic diversity is finite.

2) Every generation, alleles are lost by chance (genetic drift) and also by artificial selection by breeders, who select for dogs with the traits they like, and remove other dogs from the breeding population.

3) Because the stud book is closed, genes that are lost cannot be replaced.

4) So,  from the moment a breed is founded and the stud book is closed, loss of genetic diversity over time is inevitable and relentless.

5) You cannot remove a single gene from a population. You must remove an entire dog, and all the genes it has.

6) You cannot select for or against a single gene, because genes tend to move in groups with other genes. If you select for (or against) one, you select for (or against) them all.

7) Breeding for homozygosity of some traits breeds for homozygosity of all traits. Homozygosity is the kiss of death to the immune system. And as genetic variability decreases, so does the ability of the breeder to improve a breed through selection, because selection it requires variability.

The consequences of inbreeding (in all animals) are insidious but obvious if you look - decreased fertility, difficulty whelping, smaller litters, higher puppy mortality, puppies that don't thrive, shorter lifespan, etc. Genetically healthy dogs should get pregnant if mated. They should have large litters of robust puppies, with low pup mortality. Animals that cannot produce viable offspring are removed by natural selection.

9) Mutations of dominant genes are removed from the population if they reduce fitness. Mutations of recessive alleles have no effect unless they are homozygous. So rare alleles are not removed, and every animal has them.

10) Create a bunch of puppies that have a (previously) rare mutation, and the frequency of that bad allele in the population increases, so the chance of homozygosity increases.

11) Genetic disorders caused by recessive alleles don't "suddenly appear" in a breed. The defective gene was probably there all along. Make a zillion copies, and you have a disease.

12) Using DNA testing to remove disease genes will not make dogs healthier (see 2, 5, and 6).

13) The breed will continue to lose genes (by chance or selection) until the gene pool of the breed no longer has the genes necessary to build a healthy dog.

14) At this point, the breed might look beautiful (because of selection for type), but will suffer from the ill effects of genetic impoverishment.

15) The only way to improve the health of a breed is to manage the health of the breed's gene pool.

16) The health of individual dogs cannot be improved without improving the genetic health of the population. Population genetics provides the tools for genetic management of populations of animals.

17) Breeders can improve the health of the dogs they breed if they understand and use the tools of population genetics.

I am full of admiration for Carol for having the energy and commitment to set up the ICB. It's a fantastic, practical resource for dog breeders and others interested in canine genetics - one of several recent initiatives, as it happens, designed to encourage dog breeders to embrace the bigger picture of breed conservation.

The ICB has just launched on Facebook, too - find and like it here.