A focus on Health Surveys – my latest Our Dogs “Best of Health” article

Best of HealthThis month I want to focus on Health Surveys; partly because the KC recently launched its major survey of pedigree dogs as a follow-up to the 2004 one, and partly because a couple of Breed Health Coordinators have been kind enough to write about their experiences.

The KC’s 2014 Pedigree Breed Health Survey was launched at Discover Dogs and is open to owners of all dogs, either living or deceased (since 2004), that are on the Kennel Club breed register. Led by Dr Tom Lewis, Quantitative Geneticist at the Kennel Club, the KC hopes that the results of the survey will provide a clear picture of the prevalence of current health concerns and will enable evidence-based decisions to be made to improve dog health.  It will certainly be another useful set of data to compare and contrast with the results already available from the RVC’s VetCompass project.

The survey will provide data on health, breeding and behaviour, as well as morbidity, and will run until 25 December.  The survey is available at www.thekennelclub.org.uk/pedigreebreedhealthsurvey and is being e-mailed to almost 400,000 owners of Kennel Club registered dogs, of all breeds. That should mean it achieves a better response rate than was the case in 2004 when the survey was paper-based and issued via Breed Clubs.

In designing the survey, the Kennel Club collaborated with breed health coordinators (BHCs) to highlight any health concerns for which breed clubs are particularly interested in finding the prevalence. There was certainly a fairly active discussion of this on the BHC Facebook Group when the BHCs were given access to the early draft versions for comment.   As an example, one of our concerns in analysing the 2004 survey of Dachshunds was that Epilepsy and IVDD were grouped together in the “Neurological Conditions” category and it was not possible for us to identify the different prevalences from the available report.  Additionally, we couldn’t identify Lafora Disease as a specific condition from that report.

Veterinary and epidemiological advice on the survey has been provided by Dr Dan O’Neill at the Royal Veterinary College and Katy Evans at the Animal Health Trust.  The behavioural section of the survey was developed with the expertise of Dr Lucy Asher and Naomi Harvey at the University of Nottingham.

That leads me neatly onto the reflections of Lesley Bloomfield and Louise Scott who are joint BHCs for English Springers.  Their Health Survey Report was published earlier this year (https://sites.google.com/site/englishspringerhealth/ess-health-survey-2013) and they took advice on their Behavioural questions from Dr. Rachel Casey (Bristol University).  They told me…

In compiling our English Springer Spaniel Health and Behavioural Survey, our aim was for the resulting data to be of potential use in clinical, scientific or epidemiological studies – simply collecting data for the sake of it was never the intention.  Having looked at a number of other breed surveys, it was apparent to us that questions about Behaviour and Temperament in particular were usually very generalised and reliant on owners basing their answers primarily on subjective judgements. For example, asking whether owners consider their dogs to be “aggressive”, “nervous”, “excitable”, etc. is not only open to personal interpretation, but is also likely to differ substantially between various breeds, depending on what owners may perceive to be the “norm” within any given breed. Likewise, asking whether a certain type of behaviour is seen “frequently”, “occasionally”, “sometimes”, etc. is also very much open to individual interpretation of what those terms might actually mean.

“Our concerns about the pitfalls of such questions led us into looking at how canine behavioural research is currently being developed.   This, in turn, led us to source an appropriate expert in this field, who would be able to advise us on how this section of our survey could best be formatted in order to achieve a much more robust, objectively based and ultimately more valuable set of data.  We were very fortunate to collaborate with Dr. Rachel Casey, Senior Lecturer in Companion Animal Behaviour and Welfare at University of Bristol School of Veterinary Sciences, resulting in the compilation of a set of 15 questions, each of which was designed to establish the different ways in which dogs typically respond to common events, situations and stimuli in their environment, by posing specific scenarios. These included, for example: “This dog chews or destroys items when left alone and/or all family members are away from home” or “This dog withdraws, pulls back, crouches low or hides away when approached by unfamiliar people”.  For each scenario, owners were then specifically asked whether they “never see this behaviour”, they “see this behaviour, but it occurs less than once a week”, or they “see this behaviour once a week or more”.

“In many ways, we feel this formatting makes behavioural questions more straightforward for owners to answer, yet at the same time provides a much stronger and more meaningful set of data. It allows for clear analysis, with easy comparison of different patterns of behaviour in the responses to each of the questions.  Most importantly, it offers a standardised way in which behaviour patterns can be evaluated across all breeds, thereby improving the recognition and understanding of breed specific traits.

Finally, Sue Worrall, BHC for Chesapeake Bay Retrievers has shared some learning points having just published her breed’s Health Survey.  Sue said…

The aim of our survey was to find out what problems there are in Chesapeakes in the UK. Every so often you hear that a breed is rife with this, or conversely, that a problem doesn’t exist at all, but where is the evidence to support it?  Also, if you are going to do a detailed survey, it would be useful to be able to concentrate on the problems that you know exist in the breed, rather than every conceivable problem that might affect a dog. So it seemed a good idea to begin with a checklist questionnaire to assess what problems occur in our dogs, and how common those problems are. Also, for a first survey, it seemed a good idea to keep it as simple as possible!

“There are obvious limitations to such a survey, but the results are still really interesting. They confirmed that, as expected, Chesapeakes are a generally healthy breed. The most commonly reported condition was kennel cough. The most commonly reported group of conditions was musculoskeletal. None of this is particularly surprising, and it is already recommended that Chesapeakes have hips and elbows x-rayed and scored before breeding.

“It’s given us a good basis for the more detailed survey that will follow. However, we’ll probably wait until after the KC health survey has been completed now, so that owners are not overloaded with survey forms to fill in.

What have I personally learnt from doing this:

  • I’ve learnt that analysis of even the simplest survey data requires a good knowledge of spreadsheets!
  • That not everyone is interested in the results.
  • There are lots of people outside the breed who are willing to help you.

You can read Sue’s excellent Survey Report at: http://www.chesapeakebayretrieverclub.co.uk/healthsurveyreport.pdf

No doubt some people will be asking why we need all these surveys, or if we need them at all.  There is, of course, a danger of people suffering from “survey overload”, but the key here is to ensure the communication of the aims and uses of each survey is really clear.  The KC’s survey is a major epidemiological survey and will have the potential for a multitude of detailed analyses.  Any of those could result in new insights into the health of pedigree dogs overall, but also of individual breeds.

In contrast, the surveys being run by Breed Clubs, largely led by their BHCs, are more narrowly focused and generally less ambitious in scope.  Nevertheless, their great value is in the active engagement of owners by the Breed Clubs and the encouragement of owners to participate in current and  future health improvement work.

My glass is always half-full (!), but it is worth sounding a note of caution in relation to any survey.  You may have heard the phrase “weighing the pig will not make it fatter”.  The health survey equivalent is “surveying the breed will not make it healthier”.  Health improvement ONLY comes from individual breeders and owners making conscious decisions to do something differently.  That might mean using health test results to inform breeding decisions, or using the KC’s Mate Select to avoid over-use of so-called Popular Sires, or to contribute to a reduction in Breed Average Coefficient of Inbreeding and thereby reducing the risk of spreading undesirable traits and inherited diseases.

Having said all that, please support the KC’s Health Survey and any surveys initiated by your Breed Club.  As a final thought, Rule 2.5 of the Assured Breeder Scheme says ABS members must “Participate in any breed health survey or reasonable health initiative in their breed(s).”  It would be great to see that added to every Breed Club’s Code of Ethics as an expectation that all Breed Club members would recognise that collection of health data is an urgent priority and they would willingly assist in this process.

P.S. Dachshund owners – please remember to submit Health Reports and Cause of Death Reports.

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