2021: Time to see the bigger picture – my January “Best of Health” article

2021: Time to see the bigger picture – my January “Best of Health” article

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2020: A dream or nightmare year for pedigree dog health? Our Dogs Annual 2021

At the start of 2020, I wrote in Our Dogs that it would be a good time to set a 10-year vision for dog health. There was a neat symmetry about creating a vision for 2030. It was also probably a realistic timeframe to think about because changing the health of a breed inevitably takes time. For example, with Lafora Disease in Miniature Wire Dachshunds, it took us 9 years to reduce the proportion of litters at risk of containing puppies affected 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 Breed Health Coordinators (BHCs) was to define what they wanted to achieve in their breed 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 my breed, Dachshunds, we want to reduce back disease (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.

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 obviously 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 could reduce overall levels of inbreeding, we would automatically reduce the risk of diseases caused by recessive mutations. Reducing conformational exaggerations is also likely to result in health improvements.

A goal without a plan is just a wish

In the UK, we have Breed Health and Conservation Plans (BHCP) which are agreed with the Kennel Club and published by many breed clubs. A BHCP pulls together a wide range of information about a breed and, through discussion with breed representatives, leads to an action plan for improvement. Some UK breeds reviewed and updated their plans in 2019 and 2020 so are now into their 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. However, it’s worth noting that, for most breeds, there is already a solid evidence-base which should make it easy to reach a consensus on what their health improvement priorities should be.

An international focus on legislation

During 2020, we saw that the topic of pedigree dog health is truly an international concern. The legislation affecting brachycephalic breeds in the Netherlands has probably been the most high profile but there have been similar moves in France, Germany, and Finland. The proposed German legislation has had a focus of conversations on social media related to the amount of exercise dogs must be given and the potential difficulty of policing any such legislation. However, an aspect that should concern us is the threat to ban dogs with “extreme exaggeration” from participating in dog shows. We can be pretty sure that it won’t just be the brachycephalic breeds that are targeted; short-legged breeds including the Dachshunds are also likely to be within the scope of these proposals.

It’s evident from what has happened in the Netherlands that data and evidence have made very little difference to the framing of the legislation affecting brachycephalic breeds. Despite the case presented by the Raad van Beheer (Dutch KC), their government seems to have been persuaded by a small group of vets at Utrecht University that legislation based on measuring the craniofacial ratio is a suitable tool to improve breed health.

Dr Brenda Bonnett, CEO of the International Partnership for Dogs said “For many years, lecturing about breed-specific issues in dogs, even before the existence of IPFD, in discussions with the breeding community, veterinarians and others, it was becoming self-evident that if concerns were not addressed by the dog community, society would likely impose ‘solutions’ on them. This is coming to fruition in many areas, and society and the media wants to move at a much faster pace than many in the pedigreed dog world.”

Shortly after the announcement of the proposed French legislation, our Kennel Club hosted a webcast on the subject of Brachycephalic Obstructive Airway Syndrome (BOAS). KC Chairman Tony Allcock chaired a discussion panel that discussed some of the issues facing brachycephalic breeds and the role the KC is playing in addressing BOAS through the Respiratory Function Grading Scheme (RFGS) developed at Cambridge University. It’s important to recognise that the RFGS is just one strand of work being done here in the UK and it was also useful to hear about the role of the Brachycephalic Working Group during the webcast. This multi-stakeholder group has taken a wide-ranging approach to address the brachycephalic issue, encompassing both the supply side (i.e. breeders) and demand side (i.e. buyers).

Evidence and collaboration

The increasing internationalisation of breed health reinforces the case for the existence of the International Partnership for Dogs (IPFD). Their independent, non-political, position has always been grounded in a combination of evidence and collaboration. Their latest initiative is GRIHP – Globally Relevant Integrated Health Profiles – which has the potential to shape a more balanced conversation about pedigree dog health.

The IPFD website says: A Globally Relevant Integrated Health Profile (GRIHP) describes the Big Picture of health on (all) conditions that are of interest within a breed and is intended to inform owners, breeders, and those counseling them. Health Strategies are breed-specific recommendations and requirements developed by Health Strategy Providers (HSPs) including, e.g. kennel clubs, breed clubs, and veterinary organizations. Health strategies may encompass detailed descriptions of breed history and development, evidence/ statistics on conditions of interest, health/temperament screening suggestions or official programs, and more, depending on the breed, the HSP, the country, and/or specific organisations.

A useful aspect of the GRIHP reports is that you can see which disease screening programmes are being implemented in different countries. This helps provide a consensus view of what breed clubs, kennel clubs, and breeders are currently focusing on. What it doesn’t necessarily tell us is whether these screening programmes are the most important ones; they might simply be the most readily available ones. Information on DNA tests is already collated by the IPFD. Their Harmonisation of Genetic Testing database now includes a “relevance rating” based on published research evidence to support the use of DNA tests in given breeds.

We certainly need to see more GRIHP reports for pedigree breeds. Not only will they present useful data but they also exemplify the good work being done, internationally, to improve the health of pedigree breeds.

A role for individual breeders

In the past year, I heard an increasing number of conversations and saw online discussions where the term “Preservation Breeder” has been used. This seems to have originated from the USA and there’s a useful YouTube video on the AKC Channel from the 2019 American Kennel Club Delegate Meeting. The presentation defines Preservation(ist) Breeders as those who are preserving breed type and chronicling their heritage and history over the decades and centuries through their individual AKC parent clubs.

The presentation describes “purposefully bred purebred dogs” that are “intentionally bred for predictable type, health and welfare” as opposed to randomly bred dogs that are “brought into this world with no predicated welfare for their existence”. There’s a strong emphasis on the fact that preservationists carry out health testing and a claim that research and the development of DNA markers make purebred dogs on track to be the healthiest colony in the world.

Some of the challenges described in the AKC video are equally relevant in the UK. “A sub-culture focused on exhibiting dogs, rather than breeding them” is interesting because I have also written about the negative consequences of breeder/exhibitors placing endorsements on their puppies. If show-breeders do not encourage others to breed, even if they are just for “pet homes”, the registered gene-pool will get smaller. Not only that, but none of us are getting any younger and an ageing population of exhibitors risks cutting off the next generation of enthusiasts and preservation breeders. We no longer have the big breeding kennels and the days of the many knowledgeable stockmen and women are surely long gone. The video also talks about a lack of breed club and breeder education; without a good understanding of canine genetics and breeding strategies, how can clubs make decisions or recommendations that will actually enable the preservation of their breeds?

I’ve written previously about breeds as genetic pools and this is a way of thinking that is particularly relevant for someone who wants to be considered as a preservation breeder. Bloodlines and varieties within a breed may be useful additional sources of genetic diversity. Bloodlines are usually linked to a particular breeder or kennel and may be historically distinct or exhibit a distinct type within an overall breed. The risk, of course, is that certain bloodlines become “flavour of the month”, maybe as a result of show success and this can lead to the genetically unhelpful strategy of breeders flocking to use a so-called Popular Sire. The genetic diversity of a breed then becomes swamped by a particular bloodline and little or nothing of other bloodlines may survive.

We can take advantage of genes from other sub-populations such as working dogs that could contribute to show populations (and vice versa), or by importing non-UK dogs, or by looking at genetic diversity that could come from different varieties of the same breed. Preservation breeders must strive to balance type, health, and temperament by clever population management.

So, if you want to be a Preservation Breeder, it’s clear that preserving the status quo is the wrong mindset. The legislative trends we saw during 2020 mean breeders can no longer bury their heads in the sand when it comes to conformational exaggerations that impact on dog health. We should reflect on how, in some breeds, conformation has moved beyond a tipping point where the rest of the world now believes legislation is the only way to ensure dogs can live healthy lives.

In conclusion, I have to ask, was 2020 a dream year for envisioning pedigree dog health over the next decade or was it simply the start of a nightmare that threatens pedigree dogs?

Polarising conversations: how can we bridge the gaps? – “Best of Health” artcile – December 2020

Polarising conversations: how can we bridge the gaps?

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Canine Intervertebral Disc Disease: How much do we know?

This week, Sam Khan and Paul Freeman from Cambridge University Vet School presented a webinar on IVDD and their current research project.

You can watch the webinar here:

Do we need to get MEAN to improve dog health? My November 2020 “Best of Health” article

Last month, the International Partnership for Dogs published its call for collaboration in a paper (Think globally, act locally) that was discussed in the Our Dogs editorial and by David Cavill in his column.

The paper reviews actions and attitudes that influence ongoing developments relative to pedigree dogs. It is a call for open, respectful discussions, within and across stakeholder groups (e.g. dog show enthusiasts, kennel and breed clubs, legislators, dog owners, veterinary and welfare groups), as well as countries and regions. It is a call for everyone to examine how our personal biases, attachments, and beliefs affect these discussions; and a call to work together for what is truly in the best interest of dogs and the people who care for them.

It concludes by saying “There are no quick and easy solutions. IPFD is working with collaborators to help create a roadmap to engage all stakeholders. Those deeply committed to ensuring the survival of all that is good about pedigree dogs need to participate in open and respectful dialogue to identify actions for the benefit of all dogs and people. Each of us should honestly consider how our own attitudes, and our actions – or inaction – have contributed to the current situation. And then, together, let us find a positive way forward.

There is a clear message that each of us can and should take action to improve the health of dogs,, i.e. a “me first” approach. However, it is also evident that some individuals and groups are better placed to take a leadership role that has the potential to accelerate the pace of health improvement. I make no apology for repeating my hobbyhorse theme that what is needed is human behaviour change.

Behavioural Insights Team

In 2010, the Prime Minister’s Office set up the Behavioural Insights Team (BIT) as ‘the world’s first government institution dedicated to the application of behavioural science to policy’. The team applies behavioural insights to inform policy and improve public services. One of the first papers describing their work was “MINDSPACE: influencing behaviour through public policy”. It describes ways of “nudging” citizens into new ways of acting by going with the grain of how we think and act. Hence, the BIT was sometimes referred to as the “Nudge Unit”.

MINDSPACE is an acronym for:

Messenger  – we are heavily influenced by who communicates information 

Incentives – our responses to incentives are shaped by predictable mental shortcuts such as strongly avoiding losses 

Norms – we are strongly influenced by what others do 

Defaults – we “go with the flow‟ of pre-set options 

Salience – our attention is drawn to what is novel and seems relevant to us 

Priming – our acts are often influenced by subconscious cues 

Affect – our emotional associations can powerfully shape our actions 

Commitments – we seek to be consistent with our public promises, and reciprocate acts 

Ego – we act in ways that make us feel better about ourselves 

While all 9 elements of MINDSPACE may be relevant to nudging the desired behavioural changes needed to improve dog health, I want to focus on just 4: MEAN. As an aside, the imposition of legislation to address brachycephalic health is an Incentives intervention; people will generally act to avoid losses (e.g. fines or bans). However, compliance-based approaches don’t have a great track record, particularly in the world of animal welfare.

The Messenger matters

The weight we give to information often depends on the reactions we have to the source of that information. We are affected by the perceived authority of the messenger (whether formal or informal).  One study showed that interventions delivered by health educators were more effective in changing behaviour compared with interventions delivered by either trained facilitators or teachers.

Whilst expertise matters, so do peer effects. Role models from our peer group can be very influential; people often like to be seen to do what the “top people” do. 

We also have to be wary of messengers that people dislike and who are, therefore, not likely to be influential. For example, if breeders have negative views of their governing body (KC), they may be less likely to listen to messages coming from representatives, however expert they may be, from that organisation.

Ego trips

We tend to behave in a way that supports the impression of a positive and consistent self-image. When things go well, we take the credit; when things go wrong, it‟s other people’s fault. We have an inherent drive to protect our ego and to act and think in ways that make us feel better about ourselves and that we’ve made the right decisions for our dogs. 

Legislation may enforce a degree of compliance, through fear, but rewards and recognition can also be used to nudge people in the right direction. The brachycephalic breeds that have Gold-Silver-Bronze Health Award schemes are a good example of a positive approach. Recognition of early adopters and financial incentives such as screening subsidies can also help make people feel better about the actions they are taking to safeguard their breed’s health.

Affect – the act of experiencing emotion

Emotional responses to words, images and events can be rapid and automatic, so that people can experience a behavioural reaction before they realise what they are reacting to. I wrote recently that “More data won’t improve dog health” where I argued that beating people over the head with more facts was likely to fail. Of course we need data and evidence but, all too often, we have failed to engage with people on an emotional level. 

We sometimes talk about the Instagram Generation and, perhaps, we should give more thought to the power of images and videos (via YouTube), particularly to encourage behaviour change in dog buyers. Stories from owners and buyers talking about their experiences can be very powerful. Infographics are another useful medium but if they are simply used to present yet more data they won’t really engage at an emotional level. 

Norms and peer-pressure

Awareness of “social norms” – the commonly held views of our peers – can exert pressure on people to conform. If everyone else is using a health screening programme, it’s hard to be one of the few who are not. The reverse also applies, of course. Normative pressure depends on there being visibility of who is exhibiting the desired behaviour, so published lists of screened dogs or Gold Certificate holders, help to reinforce what is wanted.

Social networks (online and offline) are incredibly important in explaining group behavioural norms. It’s the echo chamber effect on Facebook; it’s hard to be a dissenting voice when a group is constantly repeating a particular message. However, in changing behaviours for dog health, there’s not much value in “preaching to the converted”. We will need to have some challenging conversations with different groups!

Different strokes for different folks

One of the really important pieces of work now being done by the IPFD is to develop a “roadmap” of tactics and options to help the various stakeholders act on breed health improvement. There are no simple or one-size-fits-all solutions. The MINDSPACE model might just be a useful checklist to help shape the roadmap and identify creative possibilities. 

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