Time for Breed Conservation programmes? My latest “Best of Health” article

Best of HealthSeptember was a busy and interesting month for Breed Health Coordinators. They had their annual conference at Stoneleigh and were among the first people to get sight of the KC’s Genetics and Diversity reports.

Quite a lot has already been written about the KC’s Genetics and Diversity reports with a range of comments from “good news” to “it’s the end of the line for some pedigree dogs”. No prizes for guessing which commentators were at opposite ends of that particular spectrum!

From my perspective, the availability of more data is always good news. There are, however, challenges. Firstly, what we have is a report (or a series of reports at breed level) and it will only have value if somebody can make use of it. It needs to be read, understood and acted upon by the people within individual breeds.

There is a clear role here for Breed Health Coordinators and their associated Health Committees. They need to take the report for their breed and distil it into some key messages using language that will be accessible to breeders and owners.

Each report includes data on 25 years of registrations, trends in Coefficients of Inbreeding, Effective Population Size and the use of Popular Sires. Taken in the round, rather than cherry-picking individual elements of the data, provides a unique insight into the current situation faced by each breed. A breed with growing registrations, but declining EPS and increasing COI will need a different response to a numerically small breed with stable registrations and an already high average COI, but with a variety of recent imports.

What is the picture for your breed?

A potentially useful technique from the world of Systems Thinking is General Morphological Analysis (GMA). This is a method for structuring and analysing complex problems and can be used for developing scenarios, for example when considering options for improvement. It’s also helpful when looking at the relationship between ends (e.g. COI, EPS) and means (breeding strategies).

Taking the data from the KC reports and developing a GMA matrix could result in something like this for “ends”. Each column is for a set of data in the diversity reports and each row describes a range of results that might be found for a breed (e.g. colouring the text to show current status for an individual breed):

Registration Trend COI (Current Mean) COI Trend EPS Popular Sire Use
Declining (>25 p.a.) >25% Increasing 0-25 Extensive; increasing
Declining (5-24 p.a.) 12-24% Static 26-50 Extensive; static
Static 6-11% Decreasing 51-75 Extensive; decreasing
Increasing (5-24 p.a.) 2-5% 76-100 Moderate; increasing
Increasing (>25 p.a.) 0-1% >100 Moderate; static
Moderate; decreasing
Negligible; increasing
Negligible; static
Negligible; decreasing

In practice, this needs to be developed collaboratively, with involvement of the interested parties (genetics experts and breeders) to agree the criteria and “levels” that describe the current situation for any breed.

What actions are needed in your breed?

The second challenge is that there is no “one size fits all” response. Having looked at the data sets for each of the 6 varieties of Dachshund, there are definitely different strategies required. Wires have benefited from numerous imports and have a relatively high EPS, but the breed has a history of Popular Sires. Smooths and Longs have declining registrations and could benefit from imports to increase their gene pool. Mini Longs are declining in popularity, have an increasing level of inbreeding and are also adversely affected by Popular Sires and this appears to be a worrying combination of factors. Mini Smooths have exploded in popularity in the past few years (TV adverts seem to be a causal factor here), but also have an issue with Popular Sires which could create a problem in the future.

For the Dachshunds, a recurring theme is the use of Popular Sires and, I suspect, that will be a theme in many other breeds. While the FCI guidance on Breeding Strategies (*) provides suggestions on how many litters/puppies any individual sire should have, this sort of approach is typically not welcomed in the UK. It seems unlikely that this type of “regulation” would be acceptable to, or popular with, UK breeders in most breeds. Whether any degree of self-regulation is likely to happen, I doubt. I fear that the desire to use the latest, greatest, import or top-winning dog will outweigh any considerations for the future viability of most breeds.

The KC’s website has a page devoted to “managing inbreeding and genetic diversity”. In theory, this could be developed into a GMA matrix for the “means” to address the “ends”. Each column represents “levers that can be pulled” to influence genetic diversity, with rows showing some of the available options. For example, here are some of the options (which range from the “denial” options to the “nuclear” ones!):

Manage Popular Sires Use COIs before Breeding Use Health Tests Use DNA Tests Use Sub- populations Use a different breed
Don’t restrict use Don’t consider litter COI Don’t carry out health tests Don’t carry out DNA tests Inbreed to a line/ family Don’t outcross to another breed
Provide guidance only Breed above COI average Ignore health test results Don’t breed from Affected dogs Breed to other lines Outcross to another variety of the same breed
Recommend limits for use Breed below COI average Take health tests results into consideration Don’t breed from Carrier dogs Breed to dogs from another discipline (e.g. working) Outcross to a different breed
Set rules for use Only breed from Clear dogs Breed to an imported dog
Only mate Affecteds/ Carriers to Clears

Some of these are options that can be influenced or regulated by the KC and Breed Clubs, while others are choices available to individual breeders.

If you wait for the perfect set of data, you’ll wait a very long time!

A final challenge associated with the KC’s Genetic Diversity reports is that some people will simply criticise the data and argue that the conclusions are based on dodgy data! We’ve had this criticism before; we know the KC’s COI calculations are based on available pedigree information and, in the case of imported dogs, that may be from as little as 3 generations.

Tom Lewis and Sarah Blott countered that criticism with a letter to the dog press in December 2013. They said “We know that truncating the pedigree when calculating COIs leads to an underestimate of the rate of inbreeding in a breed. We can then be deceived into thinking the breed has an acceptable rate of inbreeding when, in fact, it does not.

Overall, that one factor probably means COI values quoted in the reports are underestimates for those breeds where there have been multiple imported dogs. All the more reason to acknowledge the lack of genetic diversity in many breeds and agree, at breed level, what actions are required.

Unless breeders wake up to the implications of the past 25 years’ breeding strategies as demonstrated by the KC’s reports, we will see the inevitable consequences of Darwinism in action. Some breeds are already defined as “vulnerable”; the KC reports highlight others that really ought to be implementing conservation programmes. If we were looking at Pandas, Rhinos or Tigers there would be worldwide conservation programmes in place and global cooperation. Breeds such as the Otterhounds have already recognised this risk and are trying to do something about it.

It’s not the KC’s responsibility to make change happen; they have provided the data and can influence the direction of change, but it’s down to breed club communities and individual breeders to act now for the benefit of their breed.

 

* FCI Breeding Strategies: “As a general recommendation no dog should have more offspring than equivalent to 5% of the number of puppies registered in the breed population during a five year period.”

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