Breed Health Improvement: finding the balance – “Best of Health” March 2021

I was pleased to be invited by the Whippet Breed Council to present a webinar at the end of February as part of their current online education programme. I had to smile when it was first advertised and billed as “an evening with Ian Seath”. I couldn’t help thinking that second prize was “2 evenings with Ian Seath”. Nevertheless, over 80 people signed up to attend. The webinar was titled “Breed Health Improvement: finding the balance” and my invitation was prompted, apparently, by reading the interview Gay Robertson wrote for the Kennel Gazette.

The plan was to talk about approaches to breed health improvement and why every breed needs a health strategy. The Whippet Breed Health and Conservation Plan is still under development with the Kennel Club but there is useful data already available from previous health surveys. The challenge is knowing where it will be best for breeders to put their effort. The presentation covered areas where it might be useful to focus attention and discussed how breeders can make use of DNA tests and clinical screening programmes, as well as some of the pitfalls to be aware of. There was an opportunity for a question and answer discussion after my presentation.

A single source of the truth

I started with a quick reminder of the KC’s approach to developing Breed Health and Conservation Plans (BHCP), of which there are now around 100. A BHCP summarises the current state of a breed with data on registrations, health, genetic diversity from surveys, insurance data and research papers. As such, it provides a single source of the truth for all aspects of a breed, which then leads on to action plans and guidance for breeders and owners.

One of the useful sources of data that I shared with the Whippet people was the 2014 KC Breed Health Survey. I asked the participants what they thought the top 3 causes of morbidity and mortality were for Whippets. 

Most people thought heart murmurs, cryptorchidism and pancreatitis were the top 3 health conditions. The actual data was cryptorchidism, lipomas and colitis. They were more correct on the mortality data; they thought old age, traumatic injury and autoimmune conditions were the top 3; in fact it was old age, lymphoma and traumatic injury.

That proved to be a useful reminder that our personal experiences and perceptions need to be tested against the data. It also points to what I call the need to triangulate in on the priority issues in any breed, using evidence from multiple sources: surveys, published research and, of course, experience and common sense.

Do you need to do anything?

Having discussed why it might be important for a breed to take ownership of its health strategy, I suggested there were 5 potential areas to focus on for action plans:

•Conformation and exaggeration

•Temperament and behaviour

•Genetic diversity

•Simple genetic mutations associated with health conditions

•Complex, multifactorial conditions

Those in the webinar prioritised these as follows:

I have written before about conformational tipping points and illustrated this in my presentation with graphics showing a range of types in Dachshunds and in GSDs. Not being a Whippet expert, I wasn’t sure what aspects of conformation might lend themselves to a tipping point perspective.

In discussing temperament and behaviour, I found it interesting that the Whippet Breed Standard describes them as being “highly adaptable in domestic and sporting surroundings” and having a “gentle, affectionate, even disposition”. That sounds like an ideal companion; great as a pet but equally able to do its original work.

Breeding by numbers?

Discussions about genetic diversity inevitably lead to questions about the Coefficient of Inbreeding and, I had found the current Whippet breed average is 9.9%, according to the KC website. The inevitable, but wrong, question is whether that’s a good or bad number? The important thing is to understand the risks that come with inbreeding and the KC’s advice is that, where possible, you should produce puppies with an inbreeding coefficient which is at, or below, the annual average for the breed and ideally as low as possible. In general, the lower the COI, the lower the risk of a dog having health issues caused by recessive mutations (alleles that are identical by descent at a locus). The COI data and trial mating COIs are tools in the breeder’s kitbag and it’s very clearly not just about “breeding by numbers”. Breeders have many options these days to import bloodlines from overseas but also shouldn’t overlook the possibility of matings with dogs from different sub-populations such as sporting vs. showing lines.

Moving on to talk about simple genetic health conditions, it was worth reminding people that nearly 700 inherited disorders and traits have been described in the domestic dog and that all species carry genetic mutations. With ever growing numbers of DNA tests, it will become more difficult for breeders to decide which ones are relevant and how to use the results. My go-to resource these days is the IPFD’s Harmonisation of Genetic Testing database where, in addition to listing the available tests, they are now describing “relevance ratings”. These provide a view of whether any particular test has proven associations with clinical disease in particular breeds.

Many of the Whippet folk are already familiar with the KC’s hip and elbow screening programmes, which are used to assess breeding risks for complex, multifactorial conditions. Some Whippet breeders are also carrying out heart screening. The KC’s advice is to make “balanced breeding decisions” that take into consideration the qualities and compatibility of both the sire and the dam, as well as the implications of a dog’s screening score or EBV.

Needless to say, I made the point that “health tested” does not mean “healthy”!

4 steps to a viable breed future

In my summary, I referred to the 4 steps listed in the KC’s Breed Strategy Guide: Lead, Plan, Engage and Improve. This is a continuous cycle, but starts with good leadership. That, clearly, is a role for any Breed Council to take on, with their Breed Health Coordinator (BHC) as a key contributor. In my opinion, it is essential that there is a team working on breed health and this is not a task that is left to the BHC. In all breeds, there needs to be wide scale commitment from Council and Club officers to support their BHC and to build on the knowledge and plans contained in a Breed Health and Conservation Plan.

I’d like to reiterate my thanks to the Whippet Breed Council for the opportunity to present at this webinar and for their donation to Dachshund Health UK.

My slides from the webinar are available online at https://www.slideshare.net/Dog-ED/whippet-breed-council-health-webinar

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