Breed Health – time to look ahead: My “Best of Health” article for January 2020

Best of Health

It’s that time of year when New Year Resolutions have either already been forgotten or are well on the way to become good habits. It’s also the time of year when many Breed Health Coordinators (BHCs) will be reflecting on their achievements in 2019 and looking ahead to plans for 2020. One of my Christmas holiday tasks was to draft our Annual Health Report which is published by our Health Committee in January. Our first one was published in 2009, inspired by the good practice set by the English Springer Spaniel BHCs. It’s a task that has become easier every year because we now have a template to follow and access to plenty of data.

We also have a Breed Health and Conservation Plan which we agreed with the Kennel Club in 2018 and published last year. I’ve written about BHCPs before so I will simply restate my enthusiasm for this fantastic resource. The BHCP pulls together a wide range of information about a breed and, through discussion with breed representatives, leads to an action plan for improvement. Our initial BHCP was reviewed and updated in 2019 so we’re now into our second action plan.

The KC Health team is now working with the third cohort of breeds to produce their BHCPs and, to accelerate the process, issued a template to all the remaining breeds so their BHCs and Health Committees could make a start on the task. It’s probably quite daunting at first glance but, for many breeds, much of the information is already in the public domain (e.g. registration trends and health survey results). As usual, the challenge for all the volunteers working on breed health is how to find the time to do it.

A goal without a plan is just a wish

Our Annual Health Report includes a summary of what we have achieved in the past year and sets out what we want to achieve in the coming 12 months. We don’t succeed at everything we plan to do and that’s a reflection of the real world; some plans turn out to be unrealistic, some simply can’t be resourced and some just weren’t important enough to get done. It can appear, some years, as if the following year’s plan is just “more of the same”. That’s fine, too, as there are lots of things that we just have to keep on doing in order to achieve our overarching goals of breed improvement. These include fundraising, collecting health and death reports, providing information to buyers and owners, and running screening programmes.

I can’t help thinking that now that we’re in 2020, it’s a good time to set a 10-year vision. There’s a neat symmetry about having a vision for 2030. It’s also probably a realistic timeframe to think about because changing the health of a breed inevitably takes time. For example, it took us 9 years to reduce the proportion of litters at risk of containing puppies affected by Lafora Disease from 55% to 2%. That includes the time to develop a viable DNA test, to influence breeders to use it and to reduce the mutation frequency in the population.

My New Year challenge for BHCs is to define what you want to have achieved by 2030. It doesn’t matter whether you call these your Goals or Objectives. The important thing is to describe what will have improved in 10 years’ time. For most breeds, there will probably only be 3 or 4 objectives. For us (Dachshunds), we want to reduce IVDD prevalence, improve eye health and reduce the rate of loss of genetic diversity. There are other things we would like to achieve but it doesn’t make sense to set 10 or 12 objectives. 

Note that objectives are what we want to achieve, not what we plan to do. In order to achieve our objectives we have to have committed breed club leadership, we need to develop evidence-based actions and we need to engage with buyers and owners. What we do each year may be new or more of the same but all of our actions are focused on achieving those objectives.

What do you want to improve?

There aren’t that many things that any breed might want to improve. Generically, they are likely to be several of the following:

  • Reduce the prevalence of particular health conditions 
  • Improve temperament, behaviour or working traits
  • Reduce the effects of low genetic diversity
  • Reduce conformational exaggerations

You also have to be realistic about how much improvement you can achieve. If we were able to halve the prevalence of Dachshund IVDD in 10 years, that would be significant progress, albeit probably not enough. We have data on breed average Coefficients of Inbreeding so it’s possible to set targets for these as well.  Of course, if we reduce overall levels of inbreeding, we will automatically reduce the risk of diseases caused by recessive mutations. Reducing conformational exaggerations is also likely to result in health improvements.

How are you going to get there?

The 3 broad enabling strategies for achieving breed health improvement are described in the Kennel Club’s Health Strategy Guide:

  • Demonstrate leadership 
  • Develop evidence-based plans
  • Engage breeders, owners and buyers

Bluntly, if there is poor leadership interest in improving your breed’s health, you’re not going to make much progress. BHCs typically need to build a team around them to provide support and additional capacity.

A breed’s plans should be evidence-based; that means using information from surveys, research papers and the other data contained in a Breed Health and Conservation Plan.

The final element in making progress is engagement with breeders, owners and buyers. They are the primary groups whose behaviour needs to be influenced if the plans are to be implemented. There are others to engage with (e.g. vets, KC, researchers, judges) but taking action on both the supply and demand side of the dog population is essential. 

That’s probably a good place to end and remember something Dr. Dan O’Neill said at the conclusion of the 4th International Dog Health Workshop: “We need to stop saying it’s all about the dogs. It is clear that it is really all about the people”.

Happy New Decade.

 

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