Breed Health Coordinators’ Symposium 2014 – my Our Dogs “Best of Health” article

In mid-September the KC held their annual Breed Health Coordinator Symposium and this was attended by around 100 BHCs.  I think this was either the fourth or fifth such event and it was certainly one of the best attended.

Philippa Robinson of the KarltonIndex ( was ‘master of ceremonies’ and also made the introductory presentation. She started by saying “You are BHCs at the most exciting time in the history of pedigree dogs”. This was clearly meant to be something of a challenge and I’m sure caused a few pricked ears among those BHCs who feel they are lone voices in their breed.

Philippa’s presentation was titled “Breed health: a vision for the future using insights from the past”.  She presented a timeline of canine history, running through landmark events such as the founding of the Veterinary College (1791), the Kennel Club (1873), Charles Darwin’s Origin of the Species (1859), BVA Hip Dysplasia Scheme (1965) and the launch of MateSelect (2011).

The Pedigree Dogs Exposed TV programme also appeared on the timeline in 2008 but was by no means identified as a stand-out event. In fact, the timeline clearly showed that the number of events (and work being done on canine health improvement) increased markedly during the first decade of the new millennium.  Of course, much of that increase in activity is related to the phenomenal progress made by science during that period, for example the sequencing of the canine genome and the emergence of DNA tests for health conditions caused by recessive mutations.  Also during that period there have been significant changes in the legislative landscape (e.g. The Animal Welfare Act which became law in 2007).

Philippa then asked “What is your vision for the future of your breed?”.  She reminded the BHCs that in one of the 2013 group exercises some were saying they felt overwhelmed by the role because  they were surrounded by apathy, politics, inertia, stubbornness and  willful ignorance.  She suggested that thinking about our breed’s timeline can help us recognise what has been achieved and set some aspirations for the future.

There is so much more going on now and so much more available in the way of support and resources. For example, BHCs now have toolkits to provide guidance on developing Health Strategies, running surveys and developing their communications and social media approaches. (All these are available as free downloads on the KC website:

However small an action might seem, what BHCs and their breeds do do today is writing history. Imagine what we can all achieve in the next few years!

Philippa asked the BHCs to do a quick individual exercise and think about the timeline in their breed’s history and where they would like it to go.  I think most people found this to be a useful exercise which gave some perspective to what they had least done and what still needed to be done.

I was inspired by this exercise to develop it further for Dachshunds and we now have an online Timeline, albeit still under development ( Luckily, I and my Health Committee colleagues have good memories, so the task was relatively quick and easy.

“Dan O’Neill rocks!”

That was the verdict of one of the BHCs writing on our Facebook Group after the Symposium. Dan talked out the VetCompass project (which I have written about before) and how it was set up to address the lack of evidence on pedigree dog health.  He explained how epidemiology used data to help us understand Risk Factors and their relationship with Health Outcomes (e.g. Illnesses).

The VetCompass project now has around 5000 vet practices who provide a huge amount of (anonymised) data which can then be analysed.  The data are from transactions in first referral practices and include not only consultations related to illness, but routine items such as the purchase of flea treatments. This covers around 800000 dogs and the database is growing every day.

VetCompass publishes reports and provides feedback to vets and other stakeholders to empower owners, breeders to make better decisions.

‘demography is destiny’

Dan showed several charts with trends in breed popularity. These clearly showed that the decline of pure-breds and rise in cross-breds began early in the new millennium. Further analysis showed that the majority of the cross-bred increase could be attributed to the so-called Designer cross-breeds and this was well underway before PDE hit the TV screens.

Cavaliers, Boxers, Ridgebacks were all declining in popularity before 2008 and Brachycephalic breeds such as Pugs and French Bulldogs have actually seen a massive increase.

Breed specific surveys are another powerful use of the VetCompass database. Dan showed how data on Great Danes could be analysed to help understand not just their declining popularity but also their range of weights and growth rates.

Disorder based studies can also be done with VetCompass and Cruciate Ligament disease was shown as an example, drawing on data from 97 clinics and 171000 dogs.  This showed 953 cases, i.e. 0.56% prevalence and Rottweilers had the highest individual breed prevalence, with 68% of those dogs having had surgery.

There was a wide age range of incidence – median age 7 – which suggests multiple risk factors including genetics and environmental.

Breed specific studies are also possible with VetCompass and Dan talked about some analysis from Cavaliers.

Of 3600 CKCS in the database, a group of 1749 were studied and showed a Median age of death 10.5. Heart disease was number 6 in the list of conditions diagnosed in first referral practices. Mitral Valve Disease was number 9. The top five conditions were diarrhoea, dental disease, otitis, conjunctivitis and anal sac impaction.  Syringeomyelia was reported with a prevalence of 1.7% and came in at number 28 in the frequency of cases.

Common learning across breeds…

The discussion sessions among the BHCs flagged up some recurring themes:

– openness, or the lack of, by breeders about health issues

– data and the need for good evidence about health matters

– lone voices; being a BHC can be a lonely role

– the increasing impact of imports and a lack of awareness of health test results among the buying public

– the impact on demand for puppies caused by “celebrity owners”

– working breeds being taken on as pets and not getting exercise or mental stimulation and then ending up in rescue

Bonnie Wiles, KC Breed Data Coordinator, made a brief presentation on a proposed KC Health Survey which is currently in its design phase. This will enable a comparison to be made with the 2004 KC survey and will be e-mailed to around 384000 contacts on the KC database. The survey is likely to be launched at Discover Dogs in November.

At the end of the day, Philippa repeated her assertion that “You are BHCs at the most exciting time in the history of pedigree dogs”.  I felt, and I am sure many others did also, that Philippa was absolutely right.



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