Who’s looking at the bigger picture? – My “Best of Health” article for May 2022
It’s well-known that when you ask people to rate their driving skills, the majority say they are better than the average driver. Clearly, that’s impossible because, by definition, more than 50% of people can’t be “above average”. Apparently, it’s the same when it comes to dog breeders understanding of (even basic) genetics. A recent poll by Carol Beuchat on her Institute of Canine Biology Facebook Group asked people to rate their own understanding of genetic management and that of other people in their breed. On a scale of 1 to 5, most people rated themselves at 3 or more, while rating their breed peers below average (lots of 1s).
This might be another example of the Dunning-Kruger Effect which I have mentioned before. The Dunning-Kruger effect is a cognitive bias where people believe that they are smarter and more capable than they really are. Essentially, some people do not possess the skills needed to recognise their own incompetence. This leads them to overestimate their own capabilities. Charles Darwin wrote in his book The Descent of Man, “Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.“
At the other end of the spectrum, Dunning and Kruger found that highly competent people held more realistic views of their own knowledge and capabilities. Additionally, these experts actually tended to underestimate their own abilities relative to how others did.
Carol went on to explain in her blog why this lack of knowledge about genetic management is such a problem for pedigree dogs. She says: Inbreeding in dogs is FAR higher than in any other mammal, wild or domestic. Inbreeding of wild animal populations is usually in the very low single digits. Breeders of livestock begin to panic as inbreeding approaches 10% because the negative effects are so significant. In fact, they worry about every percentage point of increase.
In a closed gene pool, inbreeding can only increase over generations and the gene pool can only get smaller. With that comes the inevitable consequences of inbreeding depression such as reduced longevity, smaller litter sizes and the appearance of more inherited diseases associated with deleterious mutations.
Tom Lewis, formerly the KC’s geneticist, published a paper in 2015 showing data on changes in inbreeding coefficients across numerous KC registered breeds. The data show that breeders are choosing inbreeding as their preferred strategy and, although the data show some evidence of reductions in breed average COI, this is mostly due to the effect of imported dogs with few generations of pedigree data. The data also show COI to be lower than reality because the KC’s pedigree information used in the study only goes back as far as 1980 and therefore excludes breed founders.
In her blog, Carol says there are 2 problems that need to be fixed: firstly, “the significant inbreeding problem that severely imperils essentially every breed”. Then, “we need to breed sustainably” which requires an understanding of the tools used for the management of other animal populations. Clearly, there is much we could learn from the worlds of farm animal production and zoological conservation.
Beyond the Tipping Point?
In some breeds, not only do they face the genetic challenges described above but they also have phenotypic issues associated with exaggerated conformation. You may recall my article last year about the seminar I ran for the Whippet Breed Council. I described the poll we ran for the attendees and their number one concern about the breed for a viable future was conformation and exaggeration. Their number two issue was genetic diversity including inbreeding and popular sires, i.e. everything I have described in the first part of this article.
To me, it was quite surprising that conformation and exaggeration was seen as such a hot topic in Whippets. I’m no expert on the breed, but they don’t strike me as one of the breeds that ought to be overly concerned about that issue. Closer to home, I’m much more concerned about exaggeration in my own breed, Dachshunds. Our Breed Standard was amended last year to make it even more explicit that excessive length of body and a lack of ground clearance were highly undesirable traits. Our health committee produced a paper illustrating a range of types from unacceptably long, heavy and low, through to excessively tall and leggy.
The concept of Tipping Points is, I believe, really useful when considering exaggerated conformation. It is evident from what we see getting awarded in the showring that different judges vary in their view of what is acceptable. The Kennel Club’s Breed Watch programme should be a way to help judges (and exhibitors) recognise the point where exaggeration tips over into visible points of concern, including those with obvious health implications.
We are also now seeing such discussions about tipping points in published research papers. For example, a paper was published in December 2021 titled: French Bulldogs differ to other dogs in the UK in propensity for many common disorders: a VetCompass study. In it, is this sentence: “In support of a view that French Bulldogs have diverged substantially from the mainstream of dogs in the UK and, are in many respects, no longer even a typical dog, is reflected in their higher differences in disorder propensity.”
I’ve had several interesting conversations about exaggeration recently with vets. Some of those centred around the five welfare needs of dogs which I wrote about in February. We also talked about the dangers of vets (and others) using terms like “normal for a xxx” (insert a breed’s name). The worry here is that we are starting from the perspective of what has become normalised in a particular breed, rather than remembering these should be dogs first. This leads to the question of whether there is a tipping point beyond which a particular breed can no longer be considered to be viable as a dog. When you see pictures of the grossly exaggerated “toadline bulldogs”, it’s pretty clear that a line has been crossed.
For an interesting discussion on exaggeration, listen to Dr Sean McCormack’s wildlife podcast featuring Rowena Packer and Alison Skipper:
One person suggested to me that judges’ education should ignore canine conformation and movement and learning should start with looking at horses. That way, judges would learn about virtues and faults without the hindrance of considering what might be “normal for a breed”. I can’t help thinking there is an urgent need for a robust discussion about tipping points and for breeders and judges to go back to basics in defining where we should draw the line on what is acceptable.
Nudge, don’t nag – my “Best of Health” article for March 2022
Unless you’ve been living on another planet, readers will be fully aware of the recent court case in Norway and the ruling that the breeding of English Bulldogs and Cavalier King Charles Spaniels contravenes Section 25 of the Norwegian Animal Welfare Act. The Norwegian Kennel Club is reviewing the judgement but has recommended, in the meantime, that breeding of both these breeds should be put on hold. We understand the NKK is considering an appeal, and we have not yet seen the full judgement translated into English.
This follows on from legislation in the Netherlands in 2020 which prescribes criteria for breeding of brachycephalic dogs based on their craniofacial ratio (basically, how much length of muzzle they have).
The obvious questions arising are: could we see the same thing happening in the UK and which breed(s) will be next? The answer to the first question is “quite possibly”. There are plenty of people campaigning for certain breeds to be banned and calling for more stringent legislation (and enforcement) to protect dog health and welfare.
The 2006 Animal Welfare Act introduced a new concept for pet owners and those responsible for domestic animals, e.g. breeders: Preventing animals suffering.
Section 9 of the Animal Welfare Act places a duty of care on people to ensure they take reasonable steps in all the circumstances to meet the welfare needs of their animals to the extent required by good practice. Breeders and owners must take positive steps to ensure they care for their animals properly and in particular must provide for the five welfare needs, which are:
- need for a suitable environment
- need for a suitable diet
- need to be able to exhibit normal behaviour patterns
- need to be housed with, or apart, from other animals
- need to be protected from pain, suffering, injury and disease
It is this last point that is of particular relevance to breeders of pedigree dogs. However, a Position Paper from the Dog Breeding Reform Group says “Current UK legislation does not, however, afford effective protection to offspring, or provide penalties for irresponsible breeding leading to suffering.” Their paper specifically mentions brachycephalic breeds “Severe problems are frequently associated, for example, with ‘brachycephaly’, the occurrence of very flat muzzles, characteristic of breeds such as Pugs, English bulldogs, French Bulldogs and Boston Terriers.” Their paper goes on to say “There appears to be considerable uncertainty as to the potential for application of AWA Section 4 to breeding decisions affecting offspring.”
The revised animal welfare regulations from 2018 include the following which specifically applies to licensed breeders: No dog may be kept for breeding if it can reasonably be expected, on the basis of its genotype, phenotype or state of health, that breeding from it could have a detrimental effect on its health or welfare or the health or welfare of its offspring.
The health issues associated with brachycephaly are well-documented but these are possibly also the breeds where Kennel Clubs and breed club communities have been most proactive in developing health schemes. The Cavalier breed which is included in the Norwegian judgement also has screening programmes (here in the UK) for heart disease and syringomyelia. The challenges with many such schemes are the take-up rate by the breed club community and the lack of reach of these to breeders outside that community (often “commercial breeders”). Arguably, the lack of pace and evidence of health improvement is what has led to the recent legislative changes.
What about Dachshunds?
The question I’ve been asked is: could Dachshunds be next on the list for court cases to ban breeding? There is no doubt that Dachshunds and other short-legged breeds could be in the spotlight for future welfare actions. The chondrodystrophic breeds have, by definition, exaggerated conformation. With that, comes some inherent health risks. Intervertebral Disc Disease (IVDD) is reported to be 10-12 times more common in Dachshunds than in “the average dog”. The usually quoted statistic is that 1 in 4 or 1 in 5 Dachshunds will suffer some degree of back disease during their life.
On that basis, it’s hard to argue that the breed doesn’t have a serious health issue that both breeders and buyers should be aware of. The devil is (as always) in the detail and it’s important to understand what’s behind the 1 in 4 statistic, especially when critics of the breed often focus on the Breed Standard as being a contributor to high IVDD prevalence.
Rowena Packer’s 2013 paper (How long and low can you get?) found that relatively longer dogs were at increased risk of IVDD. However, we did not find that same association in our owner-reported survey of 2000 dogs in 2015. Other studies have also been contradictory in their findings about conformational proportions and any association with IVDD. This should not surprise us as we also know that there are significantly different risks of IVDD between the 6 (UK) varieties of Dachshund. Our 2015 paper reported the Standard and Mini Smooth varieties having about 5 times the risk of the Standard Wire variety, for example. So, treating Dachshunds as one homogeneous breed with identical IVDD risks is clearly nonsense. Let’s also not forget that they are all bred and judged to the same Breed Standard.
All 4 of our Dachshund health surveys (2012-2021) showed one significant factor associated with increased IVDD risk. That is early neutering (under the age of 12 months in particular). A quick calculation shows that IVDD prevalence would have been reduced by a third for our 2015 and 2018 survey samples, had the neutered dogs been left entire.
Do it because you want to!
I’ve written before about the driving forces behind improving dog health (in any breed). There is a simple choice: do it because you want to (for the sake of the dogs) or do it because you’re told to (e.g. by legislation).
There is no doubt that Dachshunds could be in line for action similar to that in Norway. The behaviour and actions of individual breeders and owners are critically important if we want to safeguard our breed for the future and ensure the dogs are as healthy and long-lived as possible. We’re already seeing signs that IVDD prevalence is being reduced in the breed. This is likely a result of the evidence-based approach we’ve taken to advise buyers, owners and breeders of how to reduce IVDD risk. These include lifestyle factors such as exercise and avoiding early neutering, the implementation of a proven screening programme, and breeders selecting from dogs with a family history of good backs or using older healthy stud dogs. We have some evidence that our efforts are making a difference but we cannot be complacent.
Judges at dog shows also have a role to play by not rewarding dogs with extreme conformation (too long in the body and/or too short in the leg) and that’s part of the reason why we amended our Breed Standard last year. Exaggerated prize-winning dogs that clearly don’t fit the Breed Standard make us an easy target for our critics.
I’ll remind you of a quote from a presentation I made at the 4th International Dog Health Workshop: The challenge today is not ‘are you improving?’, rather it is ‘how fast are you improving and can you prove it?’.
And, finally: “If it’s a priority, you’ll find a way. If it isn’t, you’ll find an excuse.” (Jim Rohn, author).
Let’s start with “Why?” – my January 2022 “Best of Health” article