Friday, 9 September 2016

Cavalier challenge exposes fundamental flaws

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Dog World columnist Sheila Atter tackles health-testing in this week's issue (see here), broadly supporting cavalier campaigners' demand for an official heart-testing scheme for the breed.

She writes:
Many of us have been urging the formalisation of heart testing for many years. There is already a panel of recognised cardiologists and several breed clubs make use of their services, so it really can’t be too difficult to regularise this can it?

But Sheila has infuriated the campaigners by her lack of enthusiasm for a mandatory testing for the breed's other big problem: syringomyelia:

The problem with syringomyelia is far more complicated, not least because the geneticists can’t really come up with an accurate explanation of the mode of inheritance of the condition. There are many breeders who have been scanning for years, and still cannot predict with 100 per cent confidence whether their pups will be SM free. 
Instead of haranguing all Cavalier breeders – and in particular those who show their dogs – critics such as Emma Milne would do more good by throwing their support behind those breeders who are health testing, nearly always the same it’s show breeders who get all the flak. If the general public were continually urged to steer clear of unregistered puppies, virtually none of which come from health tested parents, some progress might be made.
It has prompted a sharp response from cavalier owner and campaigner Charlotte Mackaness, who has posted in the Comments section:

I read with alarm the suggestion that testing for Syringomyelia was somehow less pressing because of the condition’s complex inheritance. Just like MVD, SM is polygenic with no simple test that can give a guarantee puppies will be unaffected but studies have shown that their chances are greater if their parents are clear. Surely this makes scanning worthwhile because doing something to improve the odds is better than doing nothing at all and simply hoping for the best? Playing that kind of Russian roulette is morally indefensible. 
In my book, any Cavalier breeder who truly has the breed’s future and well-being at heart is scanning and putting the results through the official scheme so, even if for no other reason, researchers have more information with which to learn about SM and the KC may stand some chance of establishing Estimated Breeding Values. 
Ms Mackaness then goes on to tackle Sheila's assertion that the consumer must take some of the blame for buying puppies from untested parents:

Undoubtedly the consumer wields a great deal of power but finding a puppy from properly health tested parents can be a difficult task for even the best-informed and patient of puppy buyers. While many breeders and breed clubs talk a good game when it comes to health, my experience is that very, very few walk the walk. 
And she issues this challenge:
I wonder whether you could find 10 litters registered within the last 12 months bred following the MVD protocol (heart tested clear at 30 months or older with parents aged at least five and heart clear), eye tested, DNA tested and with BOTH parents complying with the MRI breeding guidelines?
I appreciate this might be quite a task given the absence of an official heart scheme and so few MRI scans going through the official CM/SM scheme but it might also lend an appreciation of the barriers and difficulties facing puppy buyers. Perhaps starting with Cavalier Club committee members might save some time as it would be sensible to assume that such people follow the highest possible standards when breeding.
Well, I'll happily save Ms Atter some time in telling her that it is impossible - Cavalier breeders at the very highest level are simply not complying - in no small part because they don't have to.

But the challenge raises a really key issue. We need to make it a whole heap easier for consumers to buy better dogs. Currently, we are asking them to do way too much work - ridiculous in an age where we can order a fridge off the internet with the full expectation that it will work and that we can secure redress if it doesn't.

We've got to stop being disappointed with consumers for not doing the research and opting for instant fixes like the one offered by the peddlers of the puppy in the pic above.

 My suggestions:

• a centralised resource,  offered ideally by the Kennel Club,  where puppy buyers can:

- review best practice for that breed
- see the compliance to this best practice for every litter advertised on the KC's website

• every puppy to be sold with a 2-yr warranty (extendible at the buyer's expense) against preventible genetic defects. Plain and simple and an added value something every consumer would understand.

• speed up the puppy-buying process so that people are not being asked to wait for weeks for a new dog.

• customer reviews: we do this for absolutely everything these days: hotels; sellers on eBay; goods on Amazon. 


  1. Having had three Cavaliers in the past I would never have one now. I had mine in the late 80's early 90's and all had heart problems and that doesn't seem to have improved 😠. In those days Syringomyelia was not a problem and I never heard of it until Pedigree Dogs Exposed. I thought breeders were supposed to improve the breed, what happened to this in Cavaliers?

  2. Thanks for the "family hour" headline. can share this one. -- Rod Russell, Orlando, Florida USA

  3. Jemima, I would agree with your first two suggestions, unsure about the third and puzzled by the last.

    I certainly think that in breeds like the Cavalier the puppy buyer is routinely blamed by breeders for not doing their homework, whereas the truth is that there is only a small handful of breeders that are truly responsible and follow all breeding guidelines. So very many others are expert blaggers who explain away the reasons why they pick and choose what test or protocol they will use.
    When a puppy buyer is faced with a seemingly caring, knowledgeable and well-known breeder who claims their puppies are all from health tested parents and seems willing to show a few certificates, how untrusting can you expect someone to be?
    Well informed UK buyers can spend one to two years searching for a responsible breeder and in the end will either compromise on what they are asking of the breeder or they will reluctantly walk away and buy another breed.

  4. I love your first two bullet points and agree wholeheartedly.

    I wasn't aware that waiting for a new dog was a big issue, though. Do we really want to have a bunch of stock waiting in a warehouse, ready to ship at a moment's notice... when the stock is a live puppy?

    I show in a bunch of different sports at advanced levels. I get a new dog every 7-9 years. For me, buying a new puppy starts with a 2 year process of research and planning, followed by 3-12 months on a waiting list. And if that litter doesn't take or there are too few puppies in the litter, you then get on another waiting list.

    It is sometimes possible to get lucky. My two current dogs (62 titles between them) had been promised as puppies to people who had to back out at the last minute (one had advanced cancer). I was in the right place at the right time and got each puppy with only a few weeks of waiting.

    But I don't understand why it is problematic for a person looking for a household pet to have to wait a few weeks for a purebred. If they are in more hurry than that, they can adopt from the shelter with only a 0-24 hour wait, right? Or is there something I'm overlooking?

    1. I live in Northern Alberta and it has been 20 years (at least) since someone could go to any of our open admission shelters, which home all adoptable dogs by the way, and expect to adopt a puppy.

      Puppies are extraordinarily rare. Our adoptables can only supply ~20% of new dog demand.

      That means that 80% of people cannot even get an adult from a shelter with a 0-24 hour wait.

    2. Hi Anonymous, I live in a highly educated university city in Wisconsin, and we have a beautiful multi-$million open admission shelter. Like yours, our shelter also has virtually no puppies or even adult dogs. Instead, they send a truck down south and bring up a load of mostly pit bulls each week. So the adopter's choice is "what color of adult pit bull of unknown temperament do you want"?

      Still, there are shelters with tons of puppies in many parts of the U.S. and Canada. Also, purebred rescues often have puppies that are born to dogs that came into their rescue already pregnant. This can sometimes happen at shelters, too. But I agree that--depending on where you live--it is increasingly hard to find puppies at shelters. That's a good thing, IMO, but it does limit options for adoption.

    3. I follow the Canadian stats very closely and have been a shelter volunteer since the late 70s.

      There are not shelters with tons of puppies anywhere in Canada.

      In 2014, with regard to intakes, only 3% of healthy cats and 1% of healthy dogs were euthanized in shelters in 2012. Those healthy dogs were primarily made up of dogs prevented from being offered for adoption due to BSL.

      Suggesting people can just go to a shelter to get the pet they want quickly is flippant and creates the false message that our shelters are in a much different position than they are.

    4. Do you people have to use abbreviations for everything? We aren't texting here.

    5. I live next to Spain. There are hundreds of puppies in shelters because people don't neuter their pets here. Unfortunately we can't ship the puppies out to other countries (vaccination requirements etc). Adult dogs and puppies old enough to have been fully vaccinated are routinely sent off to Germany, Netherlands, UK, Scandinavia etc and we still have way more than we can home. Puppies are put to sleep or die of disease in municipal dog pounds every year... it's horrific but it's not the worst fate they could have. Many are simply thrown away like rubbish in bins hours after being born and suffocate starve or are crushed to death :(

      It really makes me lose faith in humanity to constantly be hearing about this stuff :(

  5. Two sides to every question, right? On one hand it's obvious folly to buy a pup as you would a chunk of cheese. Have we a right to expect zero defects in a second-hand car bought from a stranger without so much as a test-drive? Will a marriage after five minutes' acquaintance end up happy ever after? Like marriage, dog ownership is, or should be, a lifelong relationship; and a healthy pup will live longer than most second-hand cars; if we are wise we consider carefully before making any such investment, be it financial or emotional. Buying a puppy is both kinds of investment, equally long-term, and therefore well worth the homework. Though even honest breeders cannot 100% guarantee pups' health, you will at least get after-care if problems arise.

    On the other hand, true, this is a tricky homework even for the form swot. Buyers are told to see pups with mum, so puppy farmers and their middle-men are now arranging bitches to pose as mum in a staged home-breed set-up. Even if the cosy home is genuine, how to be sure of the breeder's good practice? The four suggestions above look to me excellent, except #3. We wait weeks for a new car, why not a new dog? The KC's Assured Breeder Scheme ought to help, yet I know breeders of the highest reputation who won't join for fear of being tarred with the same brush as some ABS members. Right now, it's a toothless watchdog.

    Ms Atter and commenters here make a good point that sight of health test certificates is not such a difficult piece of homework. But for her to imply that because science hasn't found a sure-fire test to predict SM, it never will, is mere ignorance of the nature of scientific progress - it can be glacially slow. And how is that progress to happen without data from scans?

    Ms Atter is wrong too, to complain of show breeders copping all the flak. Speaking as a Crufts regular, it is up to us to set the standard for the rest. We show our dogs because we're proud of them (whatever the judges think!), it's up to us to do all we can to make them dogs to be proud of - in health and behaviour as well as looks. And if the flak invited by those who cut corners for superficial glory gives the impression that we're no better than puppy mills, that is of course regrettable; but understandable.

    1. "tricky homework even for the form swot". Lovin' that...

      Yes, #3 not going down very well as a suggestion. To explain further, I think there are ways of speeding up the process that would not compromise welfare - e.g. the online resource I imagine hosted by the KC also invites would-be puppy buyers to log info about their set-up/lifestyle/experience which breeders could access. In the way that eBay/Amazon works, I think it could include filters that would enable some very precise and quick matchmaking. It could also, perhaps, offer a nationwide home-checking service (something that works brilliantly through volunteer networks in rescue but for some reason has never been set-up for puppy-buying).

      I shall dream on...

  6. "[E]very puppy to be sold with a 2-yr warranty (extendible at the buyer's expense) against preventible genetic defects. Plain and simple and an added value something every consumer would understand."

    Would conformation defects come under gentic defects? If so, that would make an interesting hurdle for breeders of brachy breeds...

    1. I'm pretty sure they don't consider their dogs' brachycephalia a defect, and anyone buying one is unlikely to either.

  7. Hospitals are good at fixing injured people, but sometimes nothing except a transplant will save a dying person.

    Ditto, some of our beloved breeds are dying. Nothing but a transplant can save them, the breed needs "fresh blood", new genes, and a new direction.

    Put your hands over your eyes, and peek at this through your fingers if you must, but consider that it might be time to register first generation crossbreds like "The Cavalier Spaniel" a cross between a CKCS and a health tested Cocker Spaniel.

    I hope that idea didn't make anyone choke on their tea.

    1. They should use working cocker spaniels I reckon if they were to outcross.

      Working cockers have almost no health issues, are very common and diverse, and are also similar in certain features.

    2. Couldn't agree more, have always thought this.

  8. Quite honestly all this "swotty homework" could be a thing of the past if buyers realised that a dog with that head shape forces the brain down the spinal chord causing excruciating suffering. That getting away with it is like winning a lottery.

    Far as I'm concerned there is a good reason there is no handy DNA "test" for SM, its because show breeders don't want to change the shape of the breeds head. It's taken decades, even hundreds of years to compress that skull just so that dogs are born to scream in agony. Now why would anyone want to mess with that pinnacle of fine responsible breeding?

    Otherwise there's a very easy test. A ruler will do just fine.

    This is all just extraordinary to me. A buyer must be versed in a litany of genetic diseases and their tests to up the chances in the lottery that what they're getting from their so called "sanctioned responsible" breeder is only just possibly a healthy pup, after seven months on a waiting list.....

    Dead right it's too long to wait for a pup that could end up screaming in agony and walking in circles gnawing its rump. I wouldn't wait a nano second for the possibility of such misery and heartbreak.

    Going on a list only makes sense for dogs in high demand due to their proven working line, prowess (this doesn't and perhaps never will include just showing dogs) and dogs born to avoid genetic lotteries completely by being genetically diverse enough to be sound, truly responsibly bred pedigree dogs. Registered or not. Quite rightly it makes no difference if they're bred in the front or the backyard. These aren't puppy mills.

    There's a reason truly responsible breeders prefer proven sires and particularly dames, yes it's for sporting ability but also the highly exacting proven health and physical strength required for such.

    In the world of breeding dressage horses there is an increasing outcry at the use of unproven though registered and yes even though 100-day tested young sires used to breed horse for competitions solely for three and five year olds. Because the sires often don't have the proven strength in build not to break down later or pass that on. Bred for short term success based on extremes of movement and looks. The progeny sold for fortunes at auction based on ten minutes in the ring having been forced into a general winning frame incompatible with their tender years! As a result of the financial gains this is increasingly where breeders are aiming their breeding practises. This is a relatively recent phenomenon and one that is already increasingly on thin ice.

    Pedigree dog breeders have been doing it since approx 1803 with the founding of the kennel Club! They dont even test the dogs involved!

  9. There is something fundamentally wrong will any institution that allows, or encourages, this type of problem to continue for this long.

    It is not only cruel to the dogs and the families that buy them, but reflects badly on the clubs and breeders involved. Someone in charge needs to provide leadership and make things happen to fix this mess.

  10. Here's a quiz that I believe typifies the problem in trying to change dog breeding.

    The first part is about Dalmatians, but the second part is about CKCS. Take the whiz quiz.

  11. BE WARNED!! In Australia and many other countries, dogs are classified as property, not people. That makes them subject to Competition and Consumer laws. We have just seen the first legal cases against breeders/pet shops for "dogs not fit for purpose" (and Syringomyelia and heart conditions both fit this profile). In both cases there were damages awarded, but not at the Max possible (A$1M per offence for a corporation or A$250K for an individual). Breeders are already updating warranties to include full return and refund for puppies with congenital &/or genetic based conditions and we have developed industry standard warranties as well. If large and expensive legal action doesn't make breeders sit up and take notice.........

    1. Pity then people don't see the entrenched attitudes of pedigree breeders, through their rules and constitution, as being contrary to competition and consumer laws.
      The stated goal is improvement.
      With rules that forbid members breeding out side the pedigree system and standards, they entrench and promote the belief that any breeding practices outside that system must be, by definition, unethical.
      Such a rule REJECTS any break from standard and pedigree.
      Promotes a belief that can be of no benefit to the stated goal of improvement.
      I believe that constitutes social engineering against competition and consumer rights.

  12. Okay, I've read all the past comments and quite frankly, if a breeder tested for everything a puppy of whatever breed was going to be connected to in its life, then the price of the said puppy would be astronomical!! I an a Cav Owner now and in the future have no issue, that not everything is tested for, give me the big 3 and I as a human owned by one of these sweet reassures, will worry about the rest at the time . Yes I can say this, and stand by it, there was no connection to Our Samson having dry eye, after 5 years he ended up having it, now for some that would mean putting him down, not in my books, any furby that comes to live with me, has a friend for life, these furbys are my children, would you return your child? or worse, put them down, or give them up, if they ended up with a condition you weren't " warned about? Not me!

    Andy Drost, Dad and friend of many a furby

  13. I agree.

    BUT- Opening stud books is essential then, because even if every one did health test for every thing, that would only further reduce any diversity and increase the incidence of 'new' ailments cropping up.
    Increasing price of pups exponentialy, and the degree of expertise required to avoid problems with witrh each generation.
    Achieving the end result ordained in the K.C rules of removing dogs from the environment. One piece at a time.

  14. Cavaliers are a popular breed, there's money in breeding them - root of all evil:

  15. "Charlotte Mackaness,While many breeders and breed clubs talk a good game when it comes to health, my experience is that very, very few walk the walk"
    Couldnt agree more with the above comment, i too have had to leave my breed as Border terrirs are blighted by CECS and SPS and the breed is in denial of it. They may make out their responsible but Dont, dare mention it to any of the so called top breedrs, as they have never seen it in their lines!!! Its disgusting how they treat anyone who needs help for there Border terriers.