“Best of Health” – My February article for Our Dogs

Mastiff & Neapolitan Mastiff Health Improvement Day


Best of HealthLast month I was invited to the KC’s Mastiff and Neapolitan Mastiff Health Improvement Day which was held at the the KC Building in Stoneleigh.  There were about 50 people there, which I thought was a good turn-out for a weekday (Monday) event.

Frank Kane introduced the day by talking of his fondness for the mastiff breeds and his experience of judging some great dogs overseas.  He explained that the KC wanted to support those breeds currently in Breed Watch Category 3 (formerly “High Profile Breeds”) and this event was part of that support.  He emphasised that type AND health were important and he expressed his hope that the day would be an empowering one for all the enthusiasts present.

The first presenter was Dr. Tom Lewis from the KC who spoke about Population Genetics.  He introduced us to four factors that cause breeds and populations to change:

  • Selection, which is a cornerstone of animal husbandry
  • Loss of genetic diversity (caused by inbreeding and genetic drift)
  • Migration (from outcrossing)
  • Mutation (gene copy errors)

The use of DNA tests for simple genetic diseases was given as an example of how breeders can make selection choices, based on their knowledge of mutations, to avoid producing affected dogs.  Hip dysplasia was discussed as an example of a complex condition caused by multiple genes and environmental factors.  Selection decisions are therefore not as straightforward with complex conditions as there is a continuous spectrum of phenotypes.  Tom explained that breeders should remember that, in complex conditions, the genetic risk is fixed at conception and then subjected to different levels of environmental factors (diet, exercise etc.).  Recently developed tools such as the KC’s Estimated Breeding Value calculators for HD could therefore be used by breeders to help select for reduced genetic risk.

Tom illustrated the problems faced by the Spanish Habsburg dynasty as a result of generations of inbreeding, where they had a higher rate of infant mortality than the peasant population.  He said that inbreeding poses a risk both to individual dogs and to the breed as a whole.  Breeders can use the Coefficient of Inbreeding (COI) to identify the probability that two copies of a gene will be identical by descent.  Mating unrelated dogs can effectively “cross out” the risks associated with breeding at high COI levels.

Selection is key to risk reduction

Aimee Llewellyn, was the second speaker from the KC’s Health Team and she talked about “breeding towards moderation”.  She pointed out that Breed Standards are only one factor contributing to how a dog looks. Others, such as fashion, ignorance, puppy buyer demand, puppy farmers and “more is better” judging all contribute.  She also mentioned that sometimes there is simply a gradual, barely noticeable “slip-slide” from what was once considered to be correct (and healthy) breed type.

Aimee’s advice for the mastiff breeders and owners was two-fold: firstly education (of buyers, owners, breeders, vets etc.) and secondly, cooperation. She said everyone has a responsibility and a part to play.  Neither being an ostrich with your head in the sand nor allocating blame are helpful.

Participants were reminded of some of the challenges facing their breeds from a health perspective:

  • Risks related to conformation of the eye such as exposure to trauma, chronic damage caused by inadequate blink, entropion or ectropion
  • Excessive folds of skin may cause inflammation, irritation and infection
  • Excessively long ears can lead to infection

Selection is key, Aimee said, and is a balance between breed characteristics, temperament and health. Change won’t happen overnight, but every breeder has criteria for selection and every selection decision affects the available genetic material, sometimes for good and sometimes for bad.  She challenged breeders to ask themselves a couple of key questions: “should these genes continue, to improve the breed?” and “how can I reduce risk, for example by knowing family histories, using lower-risk lines, using imports or breeding from litter-mates?”  One practical suggestion was not to endorse puppies sold as pets against breeding as they could be an untapped genetic resource.  Similarly, delaying the neutering of pet-owned puppies could also be beneficial by keeping additional genetic options available for longer.

Aimee summed up her presentation by suggesting four key questions breeders should ask themselves:

  • Have I done all the recommended health tests and checks?
  • Does the proposed mating benefit the breed?
  • Are both dogs in good health?
  • Is the conformation you are working towards an improvement?

Clearly, these questions are relevant for every breed, not just the mastiffs.  They helped generate lots of discussion over the subsequent lunch break.

Neo PuppyOver lunch, one of my highlights of the day was the opportunity to meet (and cuddle) some of Kim Slater’s Neapolitan Mastiff puppies.  They say beauty is in the eye of the beholder and I’ll readily admit a mastiff wouldn’t be my first choice for a pet, but there is no denying how seriously attractive Kim’s puppies were.  They definitely stole the show for attention and were fantastically well-behaved.  A credit to their breeder and I can really understand how the breed has such devoted owners.

Educators, persuaders and instigators

The “graveyard slot” after lunch fell to Penny Rankine-Parsons who is Breed Health Coordinator for the French Bulldogs.  Her breed successfully demonstrated progress with health improvement to the KC last year and was reclassified as a  Breed Watch Category 2 breed.  So, Penny was the ideal person to share her breed’s experiences and learning with the mastiff owners who are in the earlier stages of their health improvement journey.

Anyone who has heard Penny speak before will know that she would be an excellent choice to help inspire others and she did not disappoint.  She took a light-hearted approach to her presentation, but clearly got the message over that, with commitment, steady steps in health improvement are perfectly feasible.

She said that, like it or not, the High Profile Breeds had received a wake-up call. She also said that, in many ways, they were lucky because many of their problems were visible ones.  As such, they were more obvious and therefore easier to explain to people than perhaps some other breeds.

Penny described the role of the Breed Health Coordinator (BHC) as educator, persuader and instigator.  A BHC has to be prepared to put his or her head above the parapet, to generate ideas and make things happen.

Two of the messages I took from Penny’s talk were that however tough the challenge might seem, peer pressure and consistent, open communication can be very powerful.  Publishing all test results in an open register creates peer pressure; there are no hiding places and it is obvious which breeders and stud dog owners are committed to health testing.  Around 800 certificates have now been issued in the French Bulldog Health Scheme and they are achieving a 75% return rate.  Importantly, 25% of owners now realise their dog has some degree of health problem that they perhaps were not aware of previously and can choose to do something about it.

Collaborative working to improve health

The last presentation of the day was by Kim Slater, who was formerly BHC for the Neapolitans.  She introduced the concept of collaborative working to improve health, the history of the CACEP project and its aims of rebuilding the Mastinari community to work towards a common goal.

According to its Facebook page, CACEP has been created for the positive promotion of the Neapolitan Mastiff in the UK and around the world.  CACEP intends to propose a cultural revolution and perspective to the world of the Neapolitan Mastiff, spreading the idea of a dog with great strength and character as well as its beautiful head and expression. CACEP intends to spread the idea of a Neapolitan Mastiff with athleticism, who is functional, which with good type, balanced with gains in health and longevity.

There is an active scientific committee which is setting out protocols for healthy dogs, covering hips, elbows, hearts and skin.  I understand that, in the spirit of collaboration, Penny Rankine-Parsons has shared details of the FB Health Scheme with Kim who has offered this to CACEP Italia.  The hope is that something similar can be introduced worldwide and would form the basis of health data on the breed using an internationally recognised process.

After all the presentations, the final part of the day was set aside for networking and Q&A.  There was a real buzz about the attendees as they reflected on the day’s discussions and considered what actions they could now take.  So, despite the fact that Mastiffs and Neapolitan Mastiffs may only be “niche” breeds with relatively small UK populations, success will be dependent on worldwide efforts, many of which are already underway.  It will require collaboration and teamwork; relying on one or two individuals to drive it will not be enough.

I came away feeling that, with so many positive and committed Mastiff breeders and owners, there is every chance that their breeds can have a bright and healthy future.


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