Who is responsible for Breed Conservation? – my May 2016 “Best of Health” article

Best of HealthI wrote previously about the value of the KC’s Genetics and Diversity reports which were published in September 2015. By way of summary, these tell us, for each breed:

  • Annual trends in KC Registrations, which clearly highlight the diminishing popularity of some breeds (e.g. Cavaliers, Smooth Dachshunds) and the scary increase in popularity of others (e.g. French Bulldogs, Pugs, Mini Smooth Dachshunds)
  • The Effective Population Size (EPS) – a measure of how many unique animals are in the breeding population (and nothing to do with how many dogs are being registered)
  • Trends in the Coefficient of Inbreeding (COI)
  • Use of so-called Popular Sires, which typically results in a loss of genetic diversity in a breed

Each report includes data on 25 years of registrations and, 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.

In this article, I want to reflect on how these reports might be used and who should be using them.

For successful, sustainable, change (read “improvement” and “breed conservation”), there are five requirements:

  • Pressure for change – does anyone recognise the vulnerability of a particular breed?
  • Vision for change – do people have an idea of what “good” would look like?
  • Capacity for change – are enough people in the breed prepared to invest time and effort for the benefit of the breed (even if it is at the expense of their personal ambitions)?
  • Actionable first steps – do people know what actions they can actually take, that will make a difference?
  • Reinforcement and recognition – how will success be identified and built upon, to drive more of the desired behaviours?

Is your breed “vulnerable”?

One of the great things about the KC diversity reports is that they give us a potential framework to assess breed vulnerability, using the various parameters investigated. Here’s an example; note that the criteria are for illustration only and would need to be more fully developed in collaboration with population geneticists.

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

What would good look like?

The answer to this depends, to some extent, on where your breed is starting from. If you have declining registrations, an adverse trend in COI and extensive use of Popular Sires, your desired end-state is likely to be quite different to a breed that is growing in popularity.

Using the “vulnerability grid”, you could make some decisions on what is necessary and potentially achievable for your breed. You might need to put some brakes on the use of Popular Sires, or find ways to introduce more dogs into the breeding population (remember my article on “pet power”).

Does anyone want to address your breed’s challenges?

Breed conservation can only be tackled by collaboration between breeders initially, and then by action taken by individual breeders. There needs to be a consensus on the answers to the first two questions (above). Different breeds might reach this consensus in different ways. Some have active Breed Councils, Health Committees and Breed Health Coordinators; others hold regular breed conferences and seminars. A review of the diversity data needs to get on the agenda at an appropriate forum where it can be discussed and prioritised.

What actions can actually be taken?

The KC’s website has a page devoted to “managing inbreeding and genetic diversity”. There aren’t that many “levers that can be pulled” to influence genetic diversity. The columns in the table below show the main approaches available, with rows showing some of the available options (which range from the “denial” options to the “nuclear” ones!):

Manage Popular Sires Use COIs before Breeding Use Clinical 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.

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.

How do we reinforce the right choices?

It seems unlikely that any type of “regulation” of breeding practices along the lines recommended by the FCI 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 and an obsession with winning in the show-ring will outweigh any considerations for the future viability of most breeds.

We are going to have to “nudge” people in the right direction by making the consequences of “good” and “bad” choices more visible. How about:

  • Including COI data on KC pedigrees and puppy registration documents
  • COI data for each litter listed in the Breed Records Supplement
  • ABS accolades for litters bred below the breed median COI, rather than number of litters bred
  • Annual reports of Popular Sire usage in the Breed Records Supplement – no. of puppies sired and average litter COI
  • Annual reports of EPS and COI changes
  • Annual awards for breeds/clubs/breeders making the most improvement in improving genetic diversity (some new categories in the Pawscars or the dog press “Top …”?)
  • Eliminating Control Schemes that reduce genetic diversity by preventing breeders from registering puppies unless they are from DNA Clear parents

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.

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