Our Dogs “Best of Health” article: Show me the data and I will show you some insights and solutions

Best of HealthMost readers will probably remember me writing about the Dachshund Breed Council’s 2015 Breed Survey: DachsLife 2015. The aim of the survey was very specific – to identify any lifestyle factors that contributed to the risk of back disease (IVDD). The original survey design was done in conjunction with Rowena Packer and her colleagues at the Royal Veterinary College (RVC). We deliberately involved them in the design because we had ambitions to gather lots of data that could be used to build on Rowena’s earlier work on the conformational risk factors associated with IVDD. In 2013, Rowena published her paper “How long and low can you go?” which showed that the longer a Dachshund’s body, the higher was its risk of IVDD. This clearly had implications for breeders and judges, but we also wanted to explore what owners could do.

After we had reported our results, we handed the data over to Rowena to work her magic with the more sophisticated statistical analysis tools she has available. Now, we have just published that further level of analysis in the peer-reviewed journal of Canine Genetics and Epidemiology.

One of the great things about this journal, which is sponsored by the Kennel Club, is that all the articles are Open Access. I strongly believe that sharing data and making the results of scientific studies widely available is key to making progress with any sort of improvement. So, not only can readers read the full text of our paper, but they can also access the anonymised source data. Anyone can repeat our analysis and interrogate the data further.

“Without data, you’re just another person with an opinion” (Dr. Deming)

As soon as data, research and analysis are put into the public domain, people can begin to make informed decisions.

Of course, the data and analysis may well challenge existing preconceptions and urban myths. Our Dachshund analysis was no different. Conventional wisdom would have you believe that allowing your Dachshund to jump on/off furniture, or to run up and down stairs is potentially bad for their backs. The analysis actually showed the reverse; those dogs who were allowed to do those things had a lower odds of having IVDD.

We do have to be careful to remember that correlation does not imply causation and we point out in the paper that there may be a danger of “reverse causation” with some of the results. For example, it may be that dogs whose backs have herniated were subsequently not allowed to jump on/off furniture or go up/down stairs. The missing data is “when” did those activities start/stop in relation to the herniation. We can, however, find other studies which also showed that this sort of activity reduced the risk of IVDD. The practical advice for owners arising from the activity/exercise findings is that keeping your Dachshund fit and active is one way to reduce the risks of IVDD. It’s common sense and any reasonable person would expect a fit, well-muscled dog to be able to lead a normal lifestyle coping with furniture and stairs.

Another surprise from our analysis was that neutered/spayed Dachshunds had an increased odds of IVDD compared with entire dogs. In this case, we can be more confident that it is not a case of reverse causation (e.g. dogs with IVDD were subsequently neutered) because we know the age of neutering and the age of IVDD diagnosis. Indeed, we found that the younger a dog was neutered, the higher its odds of IVDD. This finding should not surprise us in light of numerous other studies in dogs (and people) that challenge the claimed health benefits of neutering.

This finding is going to be a hard one to sell to many vets who still seem keen to encourage new puppy owners to book their dog in to be spayed/neutered as soon as possible after its vaccinations or before 6 months of age. However, in this emerging age of evidence-based veterinary medicine, vets will, I suspect, find some of their prejudices and biases challenged.

Big data gives you big insights

One of the interesting challenges when the paper was peer-reviewed was around biases in the data. The survey participants were self-selecting, they were willing to “own up” to health issues in their dogs, they may have been keen to “make a point”. They all responded via the internet in an online survey, so there may have been demographic biases in the respondent population.

Our argument was that, if you have large volumes of data, these sorts of bias are less significant. We had over 2000 responses and looked at more than 50 variables in the lifestyle factors. The VetCompass project is similar; with literally millions of case reports from first opinion veterinary practices, the volume of data permits deep insights to be obtained with high statistical confidence.

Of course, we have to remember that epidemiological studies draw conclusions about populations, not individual dogs. Inevitably, there will be owners whose personal experience differs from the findings at population level. In our case, there will be comments like “my dog jumped off the chair and ended up paralysed” or “my dog was fit and well-muscled, but still had IVDD”.

Those individual cases are entirely to be expected and do not diminish the advice we are able to give owners based on population-level insights. We know that, fundamentally, IVDD has a strong genetic component and is highly heritable. Nevertheless, if every owner adopted the good lifestyle choices we have been able to identify, I am convinced that it would make some inroads into the risks of IVDD. I’ve written previously about Dave Brailsford’s 1% Principle: lots of small changes can aggregate to make a significant difference.

While I have focused on Dachshunds and IVDD in this article, I am sure the principles apply more widely:

  • Breed Health Coordinators and their committees should think about the design of their health surveys with a view to carrying out deeper analyses
  • There are many situations where breeds already have lots of data; collecting more or different data is not the solution; we often just need more insight from analysis of existing data
  • The answers lie in the data, but don’t be surprised if some people (owners, vets, breeders) feel challenged or exposed by this, particularly when the results run counter to their perceived wisdom (see my article on Cognitive Dissonance)

Finally, remember “Prejudice is a great time-saver; it enables you to form opinions without having to gather the facts”.

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“Post-truth” – my new favourite word

Oxford Dictionaries this week announced their word of the year to be “Post-truth”. This is a word that questions the concept of facts themselves. It means that objective facts are less influential in shaping public policy than personal beliefs and appeals to emotion.

“It’s not surprising that our choice reflects a year dominated by highly charged political and social discourse,” Casper Grathwohl, Oxford Dictionaries’ president, said in an essay on the company’s website, which cited “the rise of social media as a news source and a growing distrust of facts offered up by the establishment.”

Post-truth derives from the Brexit and Trump campaigns which were both heavily laden with emotional “arguments” and where facts and evidence were largely ignored. It’s also been associated with the phrase “post-truth politics” which seems to be a euphemism for lies or conspiracy theories. It implies that we are living in a world where facts, data and evidence are unimportant or irrelevant.

5s-simulationLast night, I attended the Operational Research Society’s annual lecture and “post-truth” featured in the President’s opening speech. She said that OR Society members have a particularly important role to play in the “post-truth” world. The society is a membership organisation for people from numerate disciplines such as mathematics and statistics who focus their skills on helping organisations make better quality decisions. Despite “only” being a Chemistry graduate, I’m a member because much of my working life is spent looking at data to get a better understanding of problems and to identify insights and solutions.

My second favourite new word which I also discovered this week is “truthiness” which was coined in 2005 and basically means facts that someone wishes to be true, rather than facts known to be true. Truthiness is a one-word summary of a phrase I came across earlier this year: “You are entitled to have your own opinions, but you are not entitled to have your own facts”.

All my friends will know my obsession with data and evidence, which we have used to good effect to help improve the health of Dachshunds. Evidence-based veterinary medicine is an increasingly hot topic and often challenges conventional wisdom about what is the best treatment for an animal.

Look out for my next Our Dogs Best of Health article which is all about the power of data to generate insights and solutions for Dachshund health and welfare problems.

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National Canine Health Testing Week: 21-27 November

NCHTW DachsThe KC has issued a Press Release about National Canine Health Testing Week which is one of the Kennel Club’s annual initiatives to raise awareness of the importance of breeding and buying puppies from appropriately health tested and health screened parents.

During the week, dog breeders and puppy buyers will be provided with information on which health tests and screening schemes may be relevant to their dogs, tools to assist breeders in making health related breeding decisions and information for puppy buyers to ask the right questions before buying a puppy.

Dog owners are being encouraged to take a ‘dog’s eye view’ photograph of their four-legged friends as part of this year’s National Canine Health Testing Week (21st to 27th November). To take a #DogsEyeView photo, the Kennel Club is asking people to take a picture of their dog from behind, with the ears, head or whole body in shot, to show the dog’s view. The photo could be taken low to the ground and should emphasise how a dog sees the world. The dog could be looking at a stunning view, going for a walk through the woods, meeting family and friends or doing an everyday activity. Photos can be funny, serious, or poignant, and should be posted on social media using the hashtags #DogsEyeView and #NCHTW.

This is a good opportunity to take a look at the Breed Council’s recently launched IVDD Screening Programme. If your Dachshund is between 24 and 48 months old, and you plan to breed from him/her, please consider joining the screening programme which is being subsidised by the Health Fund.

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DachsLife 2015: an investigation of lifestyle associations with the risk of IVDD in Dachshunds

I am thrilled to be listed as a co-author of this peer-reviewed paper which has been published in the Canine Genetics and Epidemiology Journal. My co-authors from the Royal Veterinary College carried out a further analysis of our DachsLife 2015 Breed Survey which looked at the lifestyle factors that influence the risk of back disease in Dachshunds.

Thank you, once again, to the owners of the 2000+ Dachshunds who submitted a survey report on their dogs and made this study possible.

Abstract

Background

Intervertebral disc disease (IVDD) represents a major problem in the Dachshund, with at a relative risk of IVDD 10–12 times higher than other breeds, and an estimated 19–24 % of Dachshunds showing clinical signs related to IVDD during their lifetime. A variety of genetic, physical and lifestyle-related risk factors for IVDD have previously been identified, with some conflicting findings. As such, advising owners and breeders regarding best-practice for IVDD prevention is challenging at present. This study aimed to (i) estimate prevalence of IVDD in six Dachshund varieties, and (ii) identify risk factors associated with IVDD diagnosis from a wide variety of demographic, conformational, dietary, activity and exercise-related variables.

Results

A web-based survey “Dachs-Life 2015” was carried out from January-April 2015, with responses received for 2031 individual Dachshunds. Three-hundred and ten dogs were classed as Cases based on veterinary-diagnosis of IVDD, and 56 dogs were excluded from further analyses due to a lack of veterinary-diagnosis of their clinical signs. The remaining 1665 dogs with no previous signs of IVDD were classified as Non-Cases. The overall prevalence of IVDD was 15.7 % (95 % CI: 14.1–17.3). Breed variety was significantly associated with IVDD risk, with the highest prevalence seen in the Standard Smooth-Haired (24.4 %, 95 % CI: 22.5–26.3) and lowest in the Standard Wire-Haired (7.1 %, 95 % CI: 6.0–8.2). Older dogs and neutered dogs were at increased odds of IVDD. Of the lifestyle risk factors, univariable analysis identified dogs that exercised for

Conclusions

In line with previous reports, IVDD is commonly diagnosed in the Dachshund, with significant differences in prevalence between Dachshund varieties. Lifestyle risk factors were identified which are hypothesis-generating for future prospective studies, and can inform an evidence-based approach to mitigating IVDD risk for Dachshund owners and breeders.

You can read the full paper here.

Authors:

  • R. M. A. Packer,
  • I. J. Seath,
  • D. G. O’Neill,
  • S. De Decker and
  • H. A. Volk

Buy a 2017 Sausage Army Calendar and support the Breed Council’s Health Fund

sausage_army_calendar-3The 2017 #SausageArmy Calendar has just gone on sale. Last year, 100 were sold and this year’s target is 180. All profits go to the Dachshund Breed Council Health Fund. Thanks, once again to Kate and Fonz who you can follow on Twitter @Fonz_

Order yours by sending payment via PayPal to  sausagearmy@hotmail.com

£10 UK, £15 Europe (GBP), $19.50 Rest of the World (USD)

Please select “Friends/Family” to ensure more funds go to the Health Fund and list the quantity required and your full postal address in the “Comments”.

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