Who’s looking at the bigger picture? – My “Best of Health” article for May 2022

Who’s looking at the bigger picture?

It’s very easy to get so focused on what’s going on in your own breed (or breeds) that you lose sight of the bigger picture and wider context of what’s happening in the world of dogs. For some breeds, particularly the brachycephalics, there has been a huge amount of scrutiny for many years. The most proactive breed clubs and Breed Health Coordinators have focused on getting messages across about good breeding practices and the value of health screening programmes. Some, though, are less proactive and are perhaps wondering what new legislation is going to hit them. If their short-term focus is on tinkering with their Breed Standard or uptake of a single-gene DNA “health” test, I suspect they will be in for either a disappointment or a shock. While it may be true that “backyard breeders” are the cause of many health issues through poor breeding practices and a disregard for the Breed Standard, it’s likely that those in breed club communities will be impacted first. Breed club communities and those who show their dogs are an easily identifiable target for criticism.

At a National level, Kennel Clubs have to juggle and balance priorities across multiple breeds. Decisions that are made for one breed can often have wider implications across other breeds. Here in the UK, there was a time when the KC would consider implementing “Control Schemes” in specific breeds. Probably the best-known example is CLAD testing in Irish Setters.

With effect from 1 July 2005, the Kennel Club would only register Irish Setters that are proven to be clear of CLAD, or hereditarily clear of CLAD e.g. both parents are clear. With effect from 1 January 2008, the Kennel Club ceased to accept any registrations for Irish Setters produced from a CLAD carrier parent mated to a clear or hereditarily clear parent. Breeders wishing to register progeny from a carrier after this date were required to apply for permission prior to the proposed mating, and applications are dealt with on a case-by-case basis.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing

I remember going to a meeting more than 20 years ago with Professor Jeff Sampson (the KC’s geneticist at the time) where we asked if a control scheme could be introduced for Miniature Dachshunds so that cord1 PRA could be eradicated from the breed. Thankfully, in hindsight, Jeff argued that this would not be in the best interests of the breed and could actually make things worse by further reducing genetic diversity. We had similar discussions with the KC about banning registrations of Mini Wires that were affected by Lafora Disease or that were untested. Hindsight is a wonderful thing and we now know that early onset PRA in Miniature Dachshunds is not caused solely by the cord1 mutation. We have also been able to reduce the risks of breeding Lafora-affected puppies without having the constraints of a Control Scheme.

These days, the KC’s health and genetics advisors are very much aware of the challenges associated with loss of genetic diversity and, I believe, the current policy is that Control Schemes are not considered to be an effective tool for managing inherited diseases. This is a good example of how the role of the KC is to understand the bigger picture and to educate breed clubs and breeders on the potential adverse consequences of what might seem like “simple” solutions.

The KC policy that puppies from merle-to-merle matings cannot be registered is another example of where seeing the bigger picture can (and should) influence a decision. The number of merle-to-merle matings was always very low and the risks of breeding health-compromised puppies was known to be high. As such, this decision made sense across multiple breeds where the merle gene is present. The impact of this policy on genetic diversity is low but the impact on avoiding significant health risks is high.

Unintended consequences

I’m sure there are plenty of other examples where breed clubs might argue for registrations to be restricted on the basis of health tests or where they believe there are health issues associated with particular aspects of the Breed Standard (e.g. conformation or colour). Stepping back and considering the bigger picture and potential undesirable consequences might lead us to alternative approaches. For example, if people can’t register with the KC, will these dogs continue to be bred outside the KC system or will their breeders register them with false details? In the former case, we still end up with unhealthy dogs that may suffer from lifelong illnesses and, in the latter case, we end up with a KC registry based on unreliable information. The KC might also have to consider whether a decision that apparently makes sense in one breed would have knock-on effects if applied to other breeds.

At an international level, the challenges of joining the dots and making sense of varying KC policies and diverse national legislation are even greater. Our KC has reciprocal agreements with many other KCs and the FCI acts as a worldwide body for 98 members and contract partners, with oversight of 355 breeds.

What is truly in the best interest of all dogs?

The International Partnership for Dogs is another organisation taking a broader perspective on the world of dogs. They have recently published their Annual Report for 2021. In her opening remarks, Acting CEO Katariina Mäki says “we continue to work with our stakeholders to educate our global community and promote what is truly in the best interest of all dogs”. She also says “We need collaboration among our stakeholders now more than ever”. That group of stakeholders includes KCs, groups with breed-specific interests, academics/researchers and members of the pet industry, including DNA test providers. Their Harmonization of Genetic Testing for Dogs Database now includes 82 academic and commercial Genetic Test Providers (GTPs) in 22 countries. IPFD’s online platform dogwellnet.com is their main channel for connecting with the dog community and, if you haven’t already done so, I’d recommend joining the 2000+ people who have signed-up for a free account which will give you access to all of their resources. If you’re a breeder or breed club officer, the information and tools available for 182 breeds are immensely valuable. Over the past couple of years, IPFD has put a lot of effort into creating over 1000 Breed Relevance Ratings for the list of nearly 2000 breed-specific DNA tests that are available. These evidence-based ratings, together with Globally Relevant Integrated Health Profiles (GRIHP) describe the big picture of health on conditions of interest within a specific breed.

This month, IPFD ran their second Virtual Dog Health Workshop with a focus on Genetic Diversity. I was invited to attend, so I expect there will be plenty to share in future “Best of Health” articles.

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