“The elephant in the room” – my June 2018 Best of Health article

Best of HealthEarlier this month I was invited to make a presentation on Breed Improvement Strategies to the Dog Breeding Reform Group (DBRG). The DBRG is a registered charity that aims to promote humane behaviour towards animals by providing and supporting initiatives to improve dog welfare. It wants to be “a voice for dogs” and was founded by Carol Fowler who now chairs the group. Recently, they were the recipient of the CEVA Animal Welfare Award for Charity Team of the Year 2018.

Several members and trustees were present at the International Dog Health Workshop (IDHW) held in Paris last year, so had already heard my 10-minute version of the Dachshund Breed Council’s improvement journey. Two had also been participants in the IDHW Breed Strategy workshop sessions. This was, therefore, an opportunity for me to talk in more general terms about what a strategy for improvement might include as well as describing our approach in the Dachshunds.

For me, it was also quite timely as our breed is about to meet with the Kennel Club’s Health Team to discuss the development of our Breed Health and Conservation Plan. We’re in the second batch of breeds; the first having included all the BreedWatch Category 1 breeds plus Cavaliers, Otterhounds, English Setters and GSDs. Dr Katy Evans has been leading on this for the KC and it’s a major project which will deliver a fantastic review of available evidence for each breed. I’ve also been working with Dr Brenda Bonnett and others who attended the IDHW to produce some resources on Breed Strategies which will eventually be shared via the IPFD website. I was, therefore, able to include some of that thinking in my presentation to the DBRG.

The language of improvement

There are already a variety of strategy documents produced by KCs around the world, notably the Nordic RAS documents. A strategy for a breed is broader than a plan for addressing a particular health issue. It may include any, or all, of the following: disease, genetic diversity, conformation, temperament and working ability. In my view, a strategy for a breed cannot be taken seriously unless it includes plans for implementation, including: Changing owners’ and breeders’ behaviours; Data collection, analysis and monitoring; Demand-side (buyer) actions.

In general, there are 3 levels which need to be defined in a strategy document:

  • Objectives – the specific improvements that a breed is aiming for (such as reducing the prevalence of particular conditions or increasing genetic diversity)
  • Strategies – the guidance on areas in which action needs to be taken (such as communication with breeders or participation in screening programmes)
  • Plans – the specific actions that will be taken (and by whom) for each of the strategic areas (such as creating educational materials or screening a sample of x dogs)

The danger is that the actions are defined in a way that is too vague for them to be implemented; for example “consider setting-up a DNA bank” or “look into the possibility of running a seminar”.

We published our first Dachshund Breed Strategy in 2013 so an update and publication of a Breed Health and Conservation Plan 5 years on seems like a good revision point. Our Health Committee uses the KC’s Health Strategy Guide which covers 4 elements: Leadership, Planning, Engagement and Improvement.

I didn’t really discuss Leadership much at the DBRG but it is evident that the direction given by our Health Committee in particular and Breed Clubs in general (through our Breed Council) is a significant factor in what we have achieved. Our policy has always been one of actions based on evidence and a determination to be open and collaborative.

Weighing the pig won’t make it fatter

One of the questions raised during the presentation was about data and research: how much is needed before action can be taken? I have previously written about the tactics of the tobacco industry to sponsor ever more research rather than to acknowledge that there was enough evidence that smoking is harmful to health. Similar tactics in the field of canine health improvement (“we need more data”) really just delay the inevitable need for action but, more importantly, result in more dogs being at risk for longer than they should. The well-known quote is “weighing the pig every day won’t make it fatter”.

With Dachshunds, we have more than enough data to tell us what our improvement priorities should be and our Health Committee agrees a current Top 3 plus a Watch List of other issues to be aware of. So, while we have done lots of data collection and analysis (and continue to have an online health and death survey), we invest more time and effort into actions that will lead to improvement.

In my presentation, I spoke about some of our communication, engagement and fundraising activities. Many of these wouldn’t have been possible without social media; we use a combination of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and our websites/blogs. We have 3 Pet Advisors on our Health Committee who spend huge amounts of time providing advice online and sharing links to our website advice pages. We are keen that the Breed Council’s pages are the “Go To” places for the most up-to-date information and advice about the breed.

Exaggerated by definition!

The elephant in the room was the shape of the Dachshund which, by definition, is an exaggerated breed when compared with a “normal” dog. It was great that Rowena Packer was present as she was co-author of a 2013 paperHow Long and Low Can You Go? Effect of Conformation on the Risk of Thoracolumbar Intervertebral Disc Extrusion in Domestic Dogs”. One of the conclusions in this research was that “selection for longer backs and miniaturisation should be discouraged in high-risk breeds to reduce IVDE risk”.

The link between body length and the risk of back disease (IVDD) is by no means clear and we know the causes are multifactorial, involving genetics and lifestyle factors. Some people think changing the Breed Standard will make a significant difference, but change it to what? The FCI Standard calls for a shorter-bodied and longer-legged Dachshund, yet the evidence suggests their prevalence of IVDD is little different to here in the UK. I’m not saying the Breed Standard shouldn’t be changed but it’s not going to lead to major changes in IVDD risk.

Our UK Standard was amended in 2008 to clarify the desired proportions and emphasise ground-clearance. 10 years on and we are still seeing dogs in the show-ring with legs that are far too short, overly-deep chests and long backs that are clearly nowhere near the Breed Standard proportions. These dogs are winning top honours as well so we have clearly failed to change the behaviours of judges and the breeding choices of exhibitors in the direction of less exaggerated dogs. Obviously, judges can only assess the dogs placed in front of them but they are doing us no favours if they don’t mention excessive length or lack of ground clearance in their critiques (assuming they actually know what the Breed Standard requires!).

While the evidence of links between body length, length of leg and IVDD may be uncertain, it is hard to argue that exaggerating the conformation of our breed is good for the dogs. The recent article in Our Dogs about the proposed Animal Welfare Regulations explained how some campaigners believe it could be used to ban the breeding of brachycephalics. This could apply equally to other breeds with exaggerated conformation and a high predisposition to illness. I wonder if it’s time we had a Chondrodystrophic Working Group along the lines of the Brachycephalic one.

Exhibitors (and judges) are a soft target for groups campaigning for improved dog health. We should be leading by example, otherwise, we get everything we deserve from our critics. So, while the conformation of Dachshunds may have been the “elephant in the room” at the recent DBRG meeting, I am pleased that groups such as DBRG are being proactive and challenging us to do better.

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