Where do Breed Health Strategies come from? – my “Best of Health” article for April 2019

Best of HealthIt might sound like a daft question to ask where Breed Health Strategies come from but I think it is of fundamental importance for those of us in breed club leadership roles. It’s also not something that just Breed Health Coordinators should be concerned about.

Here in the UK, the Kennel Club has been supporting breeds to develop Breed Health and Conservation Plans (BHCPs). In the Nordic Countries, these breed strategy documents are abbreviated as RAS and JTO. Whatever they are called, they summarise the current state of a particular breed, drawing on a wide range of evidence ranging from registration statistics and breed health survey results to peer-reviewed research reports and insurance claims data. They also summarise agreed action plans to address the identified priorities.

You might conclude that it is Kennel Clubs and Breed Clubs that are driving the need for, and development of, breed improvement strategies. I think we should step back and recognise that there are actually 2 potential driving forces behind this. Firstly, it might be driven by our own clear vision of the value of doing it or, alternatively, there might be pressure on us to do this. It boils down to are you doing it because you want to or because you are told to; i.e. is it a proactive or reactive approach.

Driven by stakeholders?

I hate having to use the term Stakeholders, but it does describe the range of individuals and groups who have an interest in improving the health of pedigree dogs. They include governments, kennel clubs, breed clubs, vets, researchers, breeders, owners, buyers and campaigners (and probably more!).

Kennel Clubs and breed clubs have 2 main choices: either they take the lead and develop evidence-based strategies for health improvement or they will have something forced upon them. If they take the lead, they can shape the direction each breed takes, based on the best available research evidence. If they don’t, they will be at the mercy of others who may be promoting simple solutions to what are actually complex problems. The danger is that, if KC and breed club leadership isn’t proactive enough, we will end up responding to badly-framed legislation (maybe including bans on particular breeds) and a constant barrage of anti-pedigree publicity (like we see in the press every Crufts).

Kennel Clubs in the Nordic countries have been at the forefront of developing breed-specific health strategies and that has undoubtedly enabled them to set the agenda for promoting pedigree dogs. However, even they have not been immune from pressure brought to bear by the veterinary profession which has expressed grave concerns about some of the Brachycephalic breeds. Here, in the UK, the formation of the Brachycephalic Working Group is a great example of our KC and breed club representatives engaging positively with others who are campaigning to improve the health of dogs in these breeds.

I have no doubt that, however proactive we might be, the pace of change will never be fast enough for some people. The late Philippa Robinson, who campaigned for breed health improvement on so many fronts, often used the phrase “trendlines, not headlines”. By this, she meant we should be looking for the evidence of underlying trends that demonstrate improvement and not simply cherry-picking attention-grabbing headlines. She also meant that those of us trying to drive improvement shouldn’t allow ourselves to be overly distracted by headlines. Someone will always be looking to grab the headlines and, with a world of social media, the tendency to try to distill a complex story down to a tweet of 140 characters is not going away any time soon.

“For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple and wrong” – HL Mencken.

The influence of the show ring

Judges and exhibitors have a role to play, too. Most Breed Standards have been modified to ensure exaggeration is discouraged. Further work still needs to be done, in some cases, but I doubt that changing a few Breed Standards will have much impact on dog health. Too many of the puppies in popular breeds such as Bulldogs, Pugs and French Bulldogs are bred by people who wouldn’t know what a Breed Standard was, even if it smacked them in the face.

The KC asks Championship Show judges to submit reports on any visible concerns for Breed Watch Category 2 and 3 breeds (and this is an option open to judges of Category 1 breeds with no visible points of concern). Our KC has regularly argued that the show ring can have a strong (positive) influence on the health of pedigree dogs. That is true but it is easily undermined if judges reward and promote dogs that have either visible faults or obvious exaggerations.

Breed clubs have to take the lead

Kennel Clubs have limited resources and have to prioritise where they invest their time and money. Here, BHCPs were prioritised for the Breed Watch Category 3 (formerly “High Profile”) breeds. At last year’s Breed Health Coordinator Symposium, Bill Lambert told us that there was a “model” BHCP which any breed could use as a template. Effectively, he said breed clubs don’t have to wait for the KC to begin the work of developing a strategy for any particular breed. He fired the starting pistol and gave permission, if anyone needed it, for all of us to take the initiative.

Clearly, an individual breed club community isn’t going to have the time or expertise that Dr Katy Evans brought to the initial batch of BHCPs. But, we all have people who are passionate about their breed and there is a wealth of readily accessible evidence. Somehow, we have to create the capacity and capability at breed level. There are plenty of simple first steps that many breeds are already taking to demonstrate their commitment to improving the health of their dogs. It’s a shame we no longer have Philippa Robinson’s KarltonIndex Awards to recognise, celebrate and reinforce all this good work.

I also feel strongly that breed clubs should be putting their BHCP out in the public domain. The content is mostly information that is already in the public domain. Publishing a single reference point of available evidence clearly demonstrates the culture of openness and honesty about breed health that we should all be encouraging. What have we got to hide?

If we don’t take the lead to create and publish evidence-based breed health strategies because we want to do this, we will have them “done to us”. We almost certainly won’t like these and they will quite likely include requirements that actually have unintended consequences that may make things worse for the dogs.

I’ll be leading the Breed Health Strategies workshop stream at next month’s International Dog Health Workshop here in the UK; co-hosted by the Kennel Club and IPFD. I’ll be reporting on behalf of Our Dogs so look out for daily tweets (@sunsongian) and a full report in the paper.

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