We all know there’s a problem, but… – my “Best of Health” article for August 2022

Last month, I reviewed the 3 recent VetCompass papers that describe the increased prevalence of health concerns in Bulldogs, Pugs and French Bulldogs when compared with “all other dogs”. The papers list a series of “ultra-predispositions” which are health conditions with odds of more than 4 times that found in all other dogs. This is a useful metric for highlighting specific points of concern and, potentially, provides a way of ranking different breeds in terms of how “healthy” they are. 

The baseline “all other dogs” in each of these papers is derived from the data from dogs that aren’t the breed under consideration in the study. This might actually mean that the ultra-predispositions are somewhat underestimated because “all other dogs” in the Bulldog paper includes Pugs and French Bulldogs, and similarly for those 2  breeds. Nevertheless, it’s a useful baseline and would, I expect, highlight conditions such as Intervertebral Disc Disease (IVDD) as an ultra-predisposition in my breed, Dachshunds.

All the papers make reference to these 3 breeds no longer being “typical dogs” and call for them to be redefined towards more moderate conformation. The Pug paper says that the results of the study can help to predict, prevent and manage key health and welfare opportunities.

In general, these papers are light on any recommendations for specific actions that would actually improve the health and welfare of these breeds and, arguably, that’s not their purpose. It does highlight, though, the gap between research findings and actions needed in the real world.

A range of phenotypes

The Bulldog paper helpfully discusses the fact that there is a spectrum of exaggeration, ranging from “mild” to “extreme”. We know that this spectrum exists in other breeds as well and I have previously written about the “Tipping Point” and the importance of recognising when a trait has gone too far (for the welfare of the dog).

You don’t have to look too hard on social media groups to find photographic examples in many breeds, not just the brachycephalics, of “mild exaggeration” through to “hyper-types”. At the mild end of the spectrum, there are, for example, Retro-Pugs and similarly more moderate Bulldogs and French Bulldogs. I don’t want to get into any arguments about whether these more moderate dogs are the result of a cross-breeding programme or simply the result of selecting strongly for moderation. The point is, more moderate dogs, with fewer health issues are out there. At the other end of the spectrum many of us have been shocked at the photos of the toadline Bulldogs and the ultra-short-backed French Bulldogs (as well as the fluffy ones!) Sadly, there are also too many examples of extreme Dachshund conformation with dogs showing grossly exaggerated forechests, excessively deep bodies and legs so short that it is inconceivable that they could do the job they were originally bred for. It’s pretty clear that these hyper-types have been created by deliberate selection and breeding with dogs that are more exaggerated in whatever trait. 

The VetCompass papers refer to the need to select away from exaggeration and high-risk conformation traits. This can only be a conscious decision made by breeders (unless they want to wait for it to be legislated!). If breeders can select for exaggeration, they can select for moderation!

The role of the dog shows

Having recognised that there is a spectrum of types, many in the show world will argue that extremes at either end are being bred outside the breed club and show community. Some may not even be KC registered. If that is the case, it is important for breed clubs to have evidence to support this argument. It would certainly be true for the most popular breeds that the number of dogs being bred for the show-ring is a very small percentage of the dogs bred overall. 

The critics of the show world often call for Breed Standards to be amended in the belief that this will have a positive impact on dog health. Given the small number of dogs bred and shown, any changes will be unlikely to make much difference. Nevertheless, ensuring Breed Standards discourage exaggeration is essential. The VetCompass Bulldog paper acknowledges that the KC has made several changes over the years to the Breed Standard and the same is true for other breeds. Whether these changes have resulted in judges making different decisions when selecting their winners is another matter and something that the KC’s Breed Watch initiative is intended to address. I wonder how many Breed Appreciation Days start with the speaker pointing out that Breed Watch is mentioned in the second paragraph of every Breed Standard.

Having said that the number of show dogs is small and not likely to be a major driver of breed health improvement, it is still incumbent on us to lead the way. Judges should read and re-read the first paragraph of every Breed Standard which says: Absolute soundness is essential. Breeders and judges should at all times be careful to avoid obvious conditions or exaggerations which would be detrimental in any way to the health, welfare or soundness of this breed. The show world is an easy target for those campaigning for improved dog health and it’s no good responding by saying our dogs are fine, it’s all the non-show and non-KC dogs that are the problem.

The elephant in the room

In my article last month, I also discussed some of the husbandry issues identified in the VetCompass papers and I pointed out that there are other opportunities to improve dog health. The most common reasons for dogs attending the vet were Periodontal Disease (13%), followed by Otitis Externa (7%), Obesity (7%), Overgrown Nails (6%) and Anal Sac Impaction (5%). 

So, while many in the show world emphasise the importance of health screening (either clinical or DNA tests), a far bigger impact on dog health might be achieved through better day-to-day husbandry and welfare. If a breed has a few DNA tests available, these might be relatively unimportant against a backdrop of it being prone to obesity. Health-tested does not mean healthy.

The VetCompass papers also refer to Breed Health and Conservation Plans which are a superb point of reference for breed health data and published research. It would be good if BHCP Action Plans referred to the need to educate owners on important aspects of husbandry and caring for the breed.

In this article, I’ve identified a range of actions that are being used to improve dog health and to address some of the challenges posed by the VetCompass papers. The elephant in the room is the threat of legislation; either to restrict breeding and showing, or to ban breeds completely. The health of our dogs will either be improved because we want to do it or because we’re told to do it. 

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