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.

 

Season’s Greetings from Sunsong Dachshunds

Sunsong - Xmas Card 2019

This year, we will be making a donation to Dachshund Health UK. Ian is a Trustee of this registered charity which works to improve breed education and health.

Breeders: the good, the bad and the future – my December 2019 “Best of Health” article

Best of HealthQuestion: What’s the definition of a Puppy Farmer? Answer: Anyone who breeds more litters than you do!

The problem with the Puppy Farmer label is that it’s laden with emotion and it’s a term that gets used to brand some breeders who clearly aren’t farming puppies with little regard to their welfare, socialisation or the homes they go to.

As part of our Dachshund Health Committee, we have 3 Pet Advisors. These are experienced owners who are not involved in breed club committees and who don’t show their dogs. They are all experienced owners and their role is to offer advice and support to people thinking of buying a Dachshund and to those who may be new to the breed. Needless to say, they spend lots of their time answering fairly basic questions on the numerous Facebook Dachshund Groups.

Recently, we have been discussing how we can improve the advice we give to potential owners so they can find the most reputable breeders possible. This is particularly important in the case of Mini Smooth Dachshunds where we have seen demand for the breed grow exponentially in the past 4 years. Demand far outstrips supply and, even with the growth in availability of KC Registered dogs, there is a booming market for imports which are often brought into the UK illegally. 

We have, therefore, been trying to categorise the different types of breeder so that potential buyers can look out for warning signs and make more informed decisions. We ended up with an infographic describing 4 types of breeder.

Large Commercial Breeders: They are characterised as ‘high volume; low welfare’ and would typically fit the Puppy Farmer label. Breeding puppies is purely a business. They typically have multiple breeds for sale and advertise regularly online. Bitches are bred from continually throughout their lives, producing puppies that are either sold on-site or via dog dealers. Their puppies generally do not receive adequate healthcare and most receive little human interaction or socialisation. The problem for puppy buyers is that their adverts often look highly credible to novice buyers and puppies may actually be “sold” from a network of respectable-looking premises. The recent case of more than 100 Dachshunds seized in raids across the North-West of England is a topical example of this sort of breeding operation. Hopefully, Lucy’s Law will make life more difficult for this type of breeder but it wouldn’t be surprising if they find a way round it.

Hobby Breeders: These are ‘low volume; experienced’ breeders. They have extensive knowledge of their breed and are up-to-date on the latest health and genetics information. They are likely to be involved in some type of dog activity such as showing, working or obedience. They carefully vet their potential puppy buyers and will usually provide a lifetime of support to their puppy owners. They understand how to rear puppies well and often act as mentors for newcomers to their breed who want to begin breeding. While the term Hobby Breeder may seem to imply ‘amateur’, these breeders are most certainly not amateurs and take their responsibility for their dogs and the future of their breed seriously. Since the introduction of the Dog Breeding Licensing legislation last year, many of these breeders will almost certainly not be having more than 1 or 2 litters per year in order not to require a breeding license. Recent figures from the KC suggest 81% of breeders who register puppies with the KC only breed 1 litter per year.

Professional Breeders: These are ‘experienced breeders running legitimate businesses’. Similar to hobby breeders, they breed more often, with more dogs and are, invariably, licensed by their local authority. They usually show their dogs and may have a grooming or kennel business associated with their breeding business. They may own several breeds and will be very knowledgeable about all of these. Their puppies will be well-reared and will usually have a lifetime guarantee of support. A recent comment in Our Dogs said that these breeders are often frowned upon because of the number of puppies they breed and that this is a misguided attitude. These professional breeders fill a genuine market demand for good quality puppies. Without them, that demand would invariably be filled by puppy farmers.

We struggled to come up with a suitable name for the fourth type of breeder. “Backyard Breeder” seemed too derogatory and didn’t really describe this group, so we ended up with “I’m not (really) a Breeder”. These people breed few litters and have little knowledge or experience. They may be producing puppies for the right or the wrong reasons and everyone has to start somewhere. If it’s their first litter, they may have little or no knowledge or experience of breeding but they may have the support of an experienced mentor who has helped them choose a suitable stud dog. Alternatively, they might just have used a dog down the road, with little thought. If they have bred ‘to make money’, ‘because it would be nice for Daisy to have pups” or “they have friends who have told them they should”, then buyers should think carefully before committing to buy. 

In an ideal world, we would want to encourage more Hobby Breeders because the demand for well-bred KC registered pedigree dogs outstrips supply. Existing Hobby Breeders should be encouraging their puppy buyers to get involved in KC activities, for example, training via the Good Citizen Dog Scheme, and to consider breeding from their dog when it is old enough. Discouraging them from showing or breeding (e.g. with endorsements) simply makes it more difficult for us to bring on the next generation of pedigree dog enthusiasts. Hobby Breeders and Professional Breeders should be helping the “I’m not (really) a breeder” to learn more about their breed and about breeding. Breed Councils and Clubs can do the same. That’s why the Dachshund Breed Council is developing a set of resources for potential breeders. We want to see more, better-bred Dachshunds and fewer puppy-farmed or poorly-bred ones available. It’s also why our Pet Advisors are so important in helping potential buyers decide if a Dachshund is the right breed for them and how to find a really good breeder of KC registered puppies. 

Our challenge is to convert the “I’m not (really) a breeder” people into “Hobby Breeders” who will help secure the future of our breeds.

4 types of breeder v3

Canine fertility, reproduction and IVDD Seminar – thanks to the Dachshund Club of Wales

The Dachshund Club of Wales hosted a health seminar in Chepstow, today. The speaker was Professor Alexandru Raul Pop from Romania. Alexandru is a vet, breeder and Basset exhibitor so he brought a brilliant combination of veterinary expertise as well as a down-to-earth breeder’s perspective.

The morning presentation covered canine fertility and reproduction with lots of useful information on the bitch cycle and ovulation testing. We heard a useful discussion of artificial insemination including semen storage options and insemination techniques. The afternoon started with information on male fertility and issues such as cryptorchidism which clearly has a genetic link but the mode of inheritance is not known. The Breed Council’s Health website also has lots of advice on breeding.

DCW_Repro.png

The final presentation was on Intervertebral Disc Disease (IVDD) and started by explaining the difference between Hansen Type 1 and Type 2 IVDD. I was particularly pleased to see Alexandru refer to 2 peer-reviewed papers for which I am a co-author:

DachsLife 2015: Lifestyle factors and the risk of IVDD

Neuter status as a risk factor for IVDD

Alexandru discussed the importance of treating Dachshunds as dogs and not wrapping them in cotton wool; they need to be kept fit and in good muscle-tone. He also said that he doubted whether there would be any useful DNA test for IVDD in the next 10 years because it is a complex condition.

DCW_IVDD_2019.png

Thank you to Alexandru for a comprehensive presentation on fertility and IVDD. I’m sure everyone learnt something new.

Finally, I’d like to thank the Committee of the Dachshund Club of Wales for organising the seminar and for the excellent catering.

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Canine anxiety and puppy-rearing: my November 2019 “Best of Health” article

Best of HealthEarlier this year I analysed some data collected by one of our Dachshund Breed Rescues. We wanted to see whether the massive increase in popularity of Miniature Smooth Dachshunds was feeding through into a rehoming and rescue problem. Unsurprisingly, the 2 are linked and this particular rescue charity has seen a 4-fold increase in rehoming cases from 2017 to 2019. Of those, 70% were not Kennel Club registered and that figure mirrors what we know about the market for pedigree dogs. Far more are bred outside the KC registration system than within it.

The analysis of the rescue data showed that a quarter of all cases were associated with biting or aggression. That is a worryingly high proportion, especially when compared with the findings of one of our breed surveys. In 2012, our survey asked about behaviour and temperament, and just 1% of Mini Smooths were reported as being aggressive with people (5% were aggressive with other dogs).

My suspicion is that many of these rehoming cases are a result of badly bred dogs producing puppies that are badly reared and then sold to inexperienced owners who know very little about canine behaviour and can’t cope.

Last month, I wrote about the breeding recommendations in a recently published paper “Throwing the baby out with the bathwater” (Dawson et al). Firstly, the authors recommended that breeding choices and puppy-rearing processes should be based on knowledge of good practices. Secondly, they advocated that all dogs should be independently tested for suitability before being bred from. In addition to suitability from a health point of view, they suggested behavioural testing is important to check their suitability to be good companion animals. Dogs that are themselves good companions, are more likely to produce puppies that will be good companions as well.

Fearfulness and its causes

I’ve been re-reading another paper on behaviour: “Early life experiences and exercise associated with canine anxieties” published by Hannes Lohi and Katriina Tiira in 2015. It’s an Open Access paper so you can download the full version, yourself. The study collected data from a Finnish family dog population to identify environmental factors that might be associated with canine fearfulness, noise sensitivity and separation anxiety. I was particularly interested in the findings on fearfulness, in light of the aggression/biting data found in the rescue Dachshunds. The paper notes that aggressiveness is often motivated by fear and that bite injuries from human-directed aggression are an important public health concern. In 2017/18 there were just under 8000 NHS hospital admissions for dog bites and this figure has risen by almost 5% since 2015. However, a 2017 paper (Westgarth et al) suggests that the real burden of dog bites is considerably larger than those estimated from hospital records.

While fearfulness is known to have relatively high heritability, 2 major environmental factors are also known to affect this: lack of juvenile experiences and aversive learning. In the Lohi/Tiira paper, they found that a puppy’s maternal care and the amount of socialisation had the largest effects on fearfulness. Fearful dogs had received poorer maternal care and were less well socialised compared with less fearful dogs. Additionally, fearful dogs also lived in households with fewer other dogs and with more human adults. Bitches and younger dogs also tended to be more fearful. There was also a tendency for fearful dogs to get less exercise and they were more likely to live indoors, rather than spending their time indoors and outdoors.

It’s fireworks season

In our area, the firework season seems to have spread well beyond Bonfire Night and there will inevitably be another week of loud noises as we approach the New Year. Noise sensitivity was the second issue investigated by Lohi and Tiira. They found that dogs with noise sensitivity got significantly less daily exercise than dogs with no noise sensitivity. They were also more likely to have been neutered and were likely to be their owner’s first dog. The more dogs an owner had and the more dogs they had previously owned, the later the age of onset of noise sensitivity in their current dog. Overall, the evidence suggests that more socialised dogs were less likely to be noise sensitive.

I (don’t) want to be alone

Among social media discussion groups, there seem to be endless questions about Dachshunds with separation anxiety. It’s not just Dachshunds, of course. According to Dogs Trust, surveys have shown that between 13% and 18% of owners reported separation-related issues with their dogs. One study (albeit a small sample) found 85% of the sample had behavioural and psychological signs of stress when left alone.

The Lohi/Tiira study found that separation anxiety was more common in dogs that received less exercise. Other studies (Sargisson 2014) have shown that dogs tend to develop separation-related behaviour if they are male, sourced from rescues or puppy farms, and are separated from their littermates before 8 weeks. Protective factors include ensuring a wide range of experiences outside the home with other people from 5-10 months old, stable daily routines and the avoidance of punishments. 

No surprises!

It probably comes as no surprise that the largest explanatory factors associated with fearfulness were maternal care and the amount of early socialisation (up to 3 months old). However, it is important to note that comments on maternal care in the Lohi/Tiira paper were made by the owners, not the breeders. This reflects their recollection of what they had seen when they visited the breeder before taking the puppy home. The importance of the “See Mum” message cannot be overstated and, in practice, buyers should aim to see the puppies interacting with their mother at least once before the day they take their puppy home. It’s also worth reading the Puppy Plan (Kennel Club and Dogs Trust www.thepuppyplan.com) as a week-by-week checklist of experiences that well-reared puppies should have been exposed to. 

The findings on exercise also come as no surprise to me. Our dogs love to sniff when they are out, off the lead. This is an important aspect of their mental stimulation as well as them getting physical exercise. So many of the cases of separation anxiety and destructive behaviour that I read on social media are, I’m convinced, due to the dogs simply not getting enough exercise. The authors note that exercise may work as stress resilience, particularly as the resilient effect of exercise on anxiety and depression has been recognised in people. It is known that exercise increases serotonin production in animals and people, and this acts as an antidepressant. Interestingly, the study also found that dogs with less daily exercise were more aggressive to other dogs. The amount of daily exercise may be an indicator of the overall quality of dog management. 

In conclusion, I think buyers need to be much more aware of how their potential puppy has been socialised. They also need to be much clearer on their responsibilities for socialisation and exercise. Breeders probably need to exaggerate when explaining the amount of exercise a dog will need. Otherwise, we will continue to see dogs suffering from anxiety in their new homes and growing demand for rescue and rehoming services.

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