Make it not be true – “Best of Health” article June 2021

Since publishing the call for respectful dialogue, collaboration and collective actions, Brenda Bonnett CEO of the International Partnership for Dogs has written several blog posts discussing the challenges facing the pedigree dog world. In particular, she has described the need for “tough talk” as well as “open dialogue”, based on what she calls evidence-based reality.

For example, at the recent Embark breed health summit she said “You can’t just say ‘I care about health and longevity but I’m selecting for a big head and a beautiful coat’ and think you are going to get health and longevity.” This came from a panel discussion at the summit and, out of context, it might seem rather blunt but it is entirely factual. Herein lies the dilemma; are pedigree dog breeders serious about the viability and preservation of their breed, or are they more interested in winning awards at dog shows? Clearly, it’s not an “either-or” choice but, all too often, actions don’t match the words.

In another part of the discussion, someone asked: “How do we deal with these people who attack pedigree dogs and say they are unhealthy?”. Ryan Boyko, the CEO and co-founder of Embark Veterinary, Inc. very thoughtfully said “Make it not be true?”. This was not intended as criticism but a practical comment on the need to realise the criticism of pedigree dogs cannot be addressed as if it is a marketing problem; it’s a “product problem”. There’s a well-known phrase from the world of marketing – perfuming the pig – which means making superficial or cosmetic changes to a product in a futile effort to disguise its fundamental failings. Ryan’s point is that until there is evidence that actions by breeders, owners, breed clubs, kennel clubs and vets demonstrably shows the health of pedigree dogs has been improved, it’s no surprise that there will be criticism.

Why is it so difficult to talk about?

In a recent conversation with Brenda Bonnett, I was reflecting on why it is so difficult to get breeders to acknowledge health issues, let alone support health improvement initiatives. It struck me that where there are complex conditions with no simple DNA test to help breeders, there is often a wall of silence and a desire to sweep problems under the carpet. 

There are plenty of examples of breeds with these sorts of situations and health conditions such as epilepsy, cancers, spinal disorders, heart disease and breathing problems. Many of these issues are serious for the dogs but, equally, they can be traumatic (and expensive) for the owners. From a breeder’s perspective, these conditions are a nightmare because, often, they are prevalent right across a breed, leaving people with few options to “breed away” from problem lines. Add to that the fact that many of the health screening tests for these conditions only identify risk, and therefore there is no definitive way to ensure a litter of puppies won’t be affected. In some cases, the existence of these conditions could threaten a lifetime’s work for established breeders and that’s pretty hard to face up to for most people.

As an example of a positive outcome, in Miniature Wirehaired Dachshunds it was known from the 1990s that the breed suffered a form of epilepsy known as Lafora’s Disease. It’s a distressing condition that typically begins around 5 years of age but its severity and symptoms are quite variable so some affected dogs can live to 10 or older. In the early days, with no test available, there was little more than anecdotal evidence of a problem and, as with epilepsy in many breeds, it wasn’t something that breeders wanted to talk about, let alone admit to. Eventually, a DNA test was developed (one of the first for any form of epilepsy) and it became possible to quantify the scale of the problem through a sampling exercise organised by the Wirehaired Dachshund Club. The club put all the results into the public domain in an online open registry. From that point on there was no denying the problem but, importantly, there was a way out of it by careful use of the DNA test to avoid breeding more affected puppies. The breed has moved from a point where around 55% of litters had at-risk puppies in 2012 to now, when 98% of litters are safe.

10 steps to improvement

Some dedicated breeders of another breed with an epilepsy problem in the USA have taken an interesting approach to encourage openness and action. The Australian Shepherd Health and Genetics Institute was set up as a not-for-profit in 2002 to increase and share knowledge about the genetics and inherited diseases in the breed. Specifically, they have set up a “10-steps” programme for breeders to express their dedication to the breeding of healthy Australian Shepherds. Their website also lists breeders who have signed-up to the 10-steps; there’s a small fee ($10-15). There isn’t space in this article to reproduce the 10-steps in detail but they are principles for breeders to subscribe and cover:

  • Open and honest sharing of accurate health information
  • Disclosing health issues in public registries
  • Notifying puppy buyers/owners of any emerging issues
  • Supporting other breeders who disclose health information
  • Supporting research by providing biological samples
  • Using available, recommended health screening programmes (DNA and clinical)

This approach also avoids the compliance focus that is the basis of typical quality assurance schemes, puppy contracts or welfare legislation.

This is an interesting approach which goes beyond most UK Breed Club Codes of Ethics which usually mirror the mandatory elements specified by the Kennel Club. Our Dachshund Code of Ethics, for example, does go beyond the basics and includes statements on the responsibilities of stud dog owners and recommendations for health screening of imports and exports.

I suspect some breeders would find the 10-step statements challenging to subscribe to, particularly in breeds where there are complex health conditions and where breeding decisions are inevitably risk-based. 

What I particularly like about the 10-steps approach is the language it uses; each step is framed as a personal commitment such as; “I recognise…”, “I support…”, I work to…”, “I will…”, “I openly and publicly disclose…”. 

I’ll end with one of my favourite change management quotations from author Libba Ray: “And that is how change happens. One gesture. One person. One moment at a time.”

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