Best of Health – my 2nd article for Our Dogs

Best of health (2)

By the time you read this, Crufts will probably be a distant memory for most of you, but I hope you enjoyed your day out. As usual, there was lots of discussion about the TV coverage and a general consensus that Clare Balding is one of the best presenters we’ve had.

It was interesting to see how the TV focus on the health of pedigree dogs had changed this year. For the past couple of years we’ve seen Nick Blaney from the KC’s Dog Health Group get quite a lot of airtime on health matters, along with Prof. Sheila Crispin and KC Chairman Prof. Steve Dean. This year, Nick’s role seemed lower key and less time was devoted to ‘defending’ pedigree dogs or promoting all the good work being done by the KC, breed clubs and breeders. Has the tide turned and we no longer need to be defensive, or is it as some of our more vocal detractors suggest that it’s back to ‘business as usual’ for the KC while the suffering of pedigree dogs caused by show breeders continues unabated?

I certainly think there’s evidence for the former argument. You just have to read the Dog Health Group’s 2013 Report to see how much time, money and effort is being put in by the KC and breed clubs, together with the work of the AHT and funding by the KC Charitable Trust.

Obviously I was pleased to see the TV piece on the success story of the development of the Lafora Disease DNA test for Mini Wire Dachshunds. Sue Holt’s short interview by Kate Beavan was clear, concise and got the point over to puppy buyers that they should only buy from tested stock. I understand from our Discover Dogs team that the next day they were inundated with owners and potential owners asking about the screening programme. That short piece on TV may have done more to influence the demand side of the equation and be of more value than any amount of effort to persuade breeders to adopt the test.

The only reason the Lafora success story got on air was that Gill Key, who runs the Laforadogs Support Group for owners of affected Mini Wires, wrote to Kate Beavan to tell her about it the week before Crufts. Now, while I am pleased for the Lafora Team, it does make me wonder if there is a strategy for identifying, capturing and sharing all the other good news stories.

I am pleased to be able to share more good news because my first ‘Best of health’ article prompted Anji Marfleet, Breed Health Coordinator for Keeshonds, to share one of their success stories on the BHC Facebook Group. Anji wrote…


This is what keesies have managed so far: Although PHPT (Primary Hyperparathyroidism) testing is now listed as a Requirement on the Assured Breeder Scheme both clubs would have preferred it to state that only dogs who are PHPT negative (either tested or hereditary) are bred from.

Sample collections for the research started in 2002 and in 2006 the gene responsible was found and a DNA test developed at Cornell University. The North of England Keeshond Club started to keep an open registry of dogs’ status in 2007, but in 2010 the KC finally recognised the test and agreed to list all dogs tested.

Since the breed in 2007 and subsequently the Kennel Club in 2010 have kept a list of tested dogs and their status, virtually every Keeshond in the UK now used for breeding is PHPT negative (either tested or hereditary). In fact, to date, there have only been 2 litters since 2009 where one parent’s status was unknown and the puppies subsequently not registered hereditary clear. That is 14 puppies out of approximately 360 born. Among all these litters are more than a dozen dogs who have come from abroad and bred from in the UK – they have all been tested negative.

Most people are now familiar with genetic diseases and the gene that causes PHPT in the Keeshond is an autosomal dominant gene. An abnormal gene from one parent is all that is necessary to potentially pass on the disease to the offspring, regardless of whether or not the other parent also carries the PHPT gene. With an autosomal dominant gene, there isn’t a carrier status. Either a Keeshond has the PHPT gene, or it doesn’t.

By only using negative dogs (either tested or by descent) we have now made PHPT virtually history in our breed; not just here in the UK but also worldwide.

I mentioned earlier that the KC’s Dog Health Group has published its 2013 report and I was particularly pleased to see an extensive contribution by Penny Rankine-Parsons, BHC for French Bulldogs. Over five pages in the report, Penny describes the journey her breed has been on, highlighting their position as one of the High Profile Breeds (now Breed Watch Category 3) and the explosion in registrations over recent years. The French Bulldog team has worked closely with the KC to understand what they needed to do in order to meet the criteria for removal from the HPB list. They then put evidence together against each of the removal criteria and presented that to the KC, culminating in the General Committee’s agreement to move the breed to Breed Watch Category 2. The report ends by listing five activities planned or underway to build on what has already been achieved and to make further improvements which they openly acknowledge are still needed.

If I was on the Health Committee of one of the remaining HPBs I’d be queuing up outside Penny’s door to learn from her experience and she has certainly been very generous in sharing their learning that from what I know.

Another news story showing the value of good health data seems to have stayed below the radar. Dan O’Neill and the VetCompass team continue to analyse the database of records from first referral veterinary practices and recently published a paper (*) summarising their findings on the health of the UK dog population. If you’ve not heard of VetCompass before, it’s a project being run by the Royal Veterinary College which now has first referral practices providing data on their consultations so it can be pooled and analysed in order to understand more fully the prevalence of health issues in dogs, cats and other small animals. The latest paper concludes “The most prevalent disorders recorded in dogs attending primary-care veterinary practices in England were otitis externa, periodontal disease and anal sac impaction. The study identified some evidence that purebred dogs had higher disorder prevalence compared with crossbred dogs. Substantial variation was shown across breeds in their prevalence of common disorders. These results suggest that breeding reforms should target commonly diagnosed complex disorders that are amenable to genetic improvement on a breed-by-breed basis for the greatest population impact.

There are several important points here. Firstly, the paper shows that the argument for all pedigree dogs being riddled with genetic diseases simply doesn’t stack up. Yes, some breeds are particularly prone to some diseases, but that means a targeted approach is required. A blanket accusation that Breed Standards are the root of all evil and that changing them is needed to solve all the problems is clearly flawed. Secondly, it raises the issue of husbandry and basic care of dogs. With Otitis Externa, periodontal disease, impacted anal sacs and overgrown nails being the top 4 conditions, owner education on how to care for a dog has to be high on the list of solutions. None of those require huge investments in developing DNA tests, nor do they suggest that Breed Standards should be changed! They do suggest that organisations other than the KC and Breed Clubs have a major role to play. Rescue and re-homing organisations, together with the vets, should be on the front-line of ensuring owners and potential owners know how to look after their dog at the most basic levels of diet, exercise and grooming.

Of course, the KC and Breed Club community are well-placed to help in relation to the welfare of registered pedigree dogs. Providing puppy handouts and advice packs for new owners should be normal, good practice, for all breeders. The welfare standards laid down in the KC’s Assured Breeder Scheme provide a good model for everyone to follow and, taken together with the supporting ABS Guidance information, could be the basis of a comprehensive owner education programmme.

(*) Prevalence of Disorders Recorded in Dogs Attending Primary-Care Veterinary Practices in England Dan G. O’Neill1, David B. Church, Paul D. McGreevy, Peter C. Thomson, Dave C. Brodbelt

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