“Best of Health” – March 2015 – my latest Our Dogs article

Best of HealthEvents dear boy, events!

Supposedly, Harold Macmillan uttered that phrase when asked what he most feared as Prime Minister.  This time last year my Best of Health article focused on how pedigree dog health messages had been communicated at Crufts.  I had sort of assumed I’d write this article around the same theme and perhaps show how things had moved on in the intervening 12 months.

My very first BoH article described canine health and welfare as a ‘Wicked Problem’ and explained that there is no point looking for a single ‘right answer’ and that we should be looking at trends and not reacting to one-off events.

However, ‘events’ seemed to be the curse of Crufts this year and risk diverting attention from the bigger picture and the overall direction of travel for health improvement. We have seen:

  • ABS-gate: who should the public trust when buying a dog?
  • Poison-gate: how many dogs were poisoned at the show, if any?
  • Tail-gate: when is a tail a handle?

I don’t intend to comment on any of these other than to say how desperately sad it was for Jagger’s owners and shocking to think how that poor dog suffered.

The whole thing reminded me of an article Ronnie Irving wrote (I think it was in a US paper) where he said more dog show people needed to wake up and smell the coffee.  The point was that dogs shows don’t, and can’t, exist in an isolated bubble where people merrily carry on with no thought given to the outside world.

With the attention of the conventional media there is inevitably a “silly season” of daft and fact-free stories in the run-up to Crufts.  What’s different these days is the attention of Social Media.  I followed the Channel 4 TV programmes on Twitter while watching the broadcasts using the hashtag #Crufts2015. On Thursday and Friday this was trending as the 6th most used hashtag in the UK. By Sunday evening during Best in Show it was trending at number 4.  Even as I write this 3 days after BIS, that hashtag is still in use and reached over 53,000 Twitter accounts in the past hour!  And, no prizes for guessing that they’re mainly tweeting about things that are critical of pedigree dog breeders and Crufts exhibitors.

Right up to Best in Show, the positive comments on Twitter hugely outnumbered the critical ones. Mark (“parade of mutants”) Evans vainly tried to lob grenades into the conversation and was clearly hoping that Noel Fitzpatrick would spill the beans on the shocking truth about pedigree dog breeding (which, of course Noel didn’t). Interestingly, the official RSPCA twitter feed was, at times, quite balanced although the general tone was that many pedigree dogs are “born to suffer”.

With all that social media attention, TV coverage, live streaming, and a gate of just under 160,000 visitors, Crufts is clearly not “just a dog show”.  Last year, 1.8 million people watched the Best in Show TV coverage.

All of that represents a massive opportunity to showcase everything that is good about dogs and their owners.  It also means every little detail is in the public domain and open to scrutiny.  Behaviours that might be considered “normal” to exhibitors, could well be seen as “odd” or even unacceptable by an awful lot of other people and not just those with extremist “animal rights” views such as PETA.

As Martin Bell (Journalist) once said: “The perception of wrong-doing can be as damaging to public confidence as the wrong-doing itself“.

I think we can either grab the opportunity that Crufts presents us with to promote dogs and responsible dog ownership, or we can allow events to take over and divert attention from the underlying trend of improvement.  What we can’t do is go back to Crufts being “just a dog show”.

So, what was the good news?

  • the great British public still loves dogs and pedigree dogs in particular
  • the KC is leading the way in investing in the future health of dogs in the UK (and, if we believe in canine welfare in the broadest sense, that future has to include cross-breeds)
  • breeders and breed clubs have more tools at their disposal than ever before to help work for a better future (think: MyKC, MateSelect, BreedWatch, EBVs)
  • a new DNA test for Glaucoma in PBGVs was launched by the AHT


Health testing: time to see the bigger picture?

The latest edition of the KC sponsored Journal of Canine Genetics and Epidemiology has a paper by researchers from the Roslin Institute in Edinburgh.  “The challenges of pedigree dog health: approaches to combating inherited disease” is one of the best papers I’ve read for a long time.  This is an open-access paper, so anyone can read the full paper. [cgejournal.org/content/2/1/3]

The review discusses the background to inherited genetic diseases in pedigree dogs and how breeding strategies and genetic testing can be helpful in combating and reducing disease frequency. It also highlights the importance of maintaining genetic diversity within each breed. The strengths and weaknesses of the various approaches to health improvement such are also discussed.

The loss of genetic diversity in pedigree dogs has been caused partly by breeding practices such as line-breeding, over-concentration on certain physical traits and over-use of so-called popular sires.  Interestingly, the paper says that loss of diversity and inbreeding does not always mean an increased incidence of poor health.  The authors suggest this might be because current inbreeding hasn’t depressed genetic variation significantly from the “genetic load” present in the founding population, or harmful recessives may actually have been bred out.

Health conditions not related directly to Breed Standards account for over 75% of all inherited conditions in dogs according to a 2010 paper by Asher et al.  That rather makes a nonsense of the calls being made by the RSPCA for Breed Standards to be overhauled and reviewed by an independent authority.  The increasing prevalence of diseases is more likely to be a result of the way breeds have developed, i.e. breeding practices, than Breed Standards themselves.

Farrell et al in the Roslin Institute paper says that clearly a relationship exists between morphologies and diseases; we only have to look at the brachycephalic breeds to recognise this. But, directly apportioning the contribution of “shape” to the prevalence and severity of health issues is not straightforward.

As an example from my own breed, Dachshunds, we are currently conducting a “lifestyle” survey where we are gathering data on the length and height of dogs as well as information on their diets and exercise.  The emerging data (from 1700 dogs) show 16% have had some degree of back disease, but the prevalence varies from 8% in Standard Wires to 24% in Standard Smooths. I’ve not yet analysed the body proportions or weights for each variety of Dachshund, but the average length to height ratio across all 1700 dogs is exactly 2:1, which just happens to be what our Breed Standard specifies.  It will be fascinating to see if we can find a correlation between body proportions and back disease from this large sample of dogs, and to compare our findings with those of Rowena Packer who published a paper on this subject in 2013.  She concluded that longer, lower Dachshunds had a higher risk of back disease.

Farrell et al go on to say that 396 disorders have been identified in pedigree dogs that are known, or suspected to have a genetic root cause.  They don’t explain the prevalence of these, nor do they describe their severity/impact on a dog’s wellbeing.  They go on to describe the importance of screening schemes and the increasing availability of DNA tests.  Some screening schemes have yet to be successful or are, at best, making slow progress towards improvements.

A further insightful piece of analysis of the Farrell data has been done by Dr. Carol Beuchat of the Institute of Canine Biology.  She looked at the raw data supporting the Farrell paper and showed that 47 breeds have more than 20 identified genetic disorders. GSDs top the list with 77, closely followed by Boxers with 63.  However, there are only tests for 11 of the GSD disorders and only 4 for those in Boxers.  The stark conclusion from this is that there is a huge gap between genetic problems and available DNA tests and even if there was a test for every issue, breeders simply could not afford to use every one and what on earth could they do if they had all these results?

What is more worrying is that, while there are only a few tests available, but many more inherited diseases, breeders may be making things worse by removing dogs from the gene pool on the basis of a single DNA test.  Removing all “Affected” dogs for a particular condition risks increasing the frequency of other harmful recessive mutations.  Not only that, but removing dogs from the gene pool further reduces the Effective Population Size with its associated risks of more inbreeding and genetic bottlenecks (especially if everyone rushes to use a popular “Clear” stud dog).

Carol Beuchat says “A health-tested puppy with a Coefficient of Inbreeding of 30% is an oxymoron. Preventing the 25% risk of a known disorder, then breeding with a 30% risk of producing a new one is not a responsible breeding strategy“.

Health-testing is doomed to fail as there will never be tests for all the mutations and using tests to remove dogs from the gene pool will make things much worse.  We’d probably make more progress by discouraging “popular sires” than seeking the next generation of DNA tests.

I think much of what the Farrell paper says completely overturns what so many people are saying they want the KC to do, such as only register puppies from health-tested litters and make health-testing mandatory.  Do they mean “every possible health test” now and in the future? Yes, health-testing is important and should certainly be used to avoid producing puppies that will be “Affected” by serious health conditions.

Screening schemes and DNA tests are valuable tools available to breeders, but they are not “the answer” and must be seen in the wider context of effective breeding strategies.  As with the “events, dear boy” at Crufts, health tests are simply events and we mustn’t lose sight of the bigger picture.

Note: Carol Beuchat’s ICB blog post which builds on the Farrell paper is worth reading:


Team Sunsong at Crufts 2015 – a great day out

We had a fun day at Crufts with Foxy and Raisin winning 2nd places in their classes (Limit Dog and Puppy Bitch). Cadbury was Reserve in a large Open Dog class.  A huge thank you to all our friends who came along to support Sue. It was lovely to meet lots of members of the public who admired the dogs on their benches.  No doubt there will be lots of “cute Cadbury” photos all over Facebook tonight.

Here are a few of our pictures.



Crufts 2015 – the final countdown

With less than 24 hours before Team Sunsong hits the show-ring at Crufts, it’s time for a final bit of tidying-up on the hounds.

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Cadbury slept his way through the first night of Crufts on the TV, but Mr Foxy was glued to it.  The Flyball seemed to be his favourite.

Luckily, the judging doesn’t start until 10:00 in Hall 4 tomorrow, so we won’t have to be up at the crack of dawn.

Visitors can buy tickets on the door at the NEC; no need to have pre-booked.



Crufts 2015 – 1 week to go: the final countdown

2651_Web_470x250With just a week until the big day (7th March), we’re on the final stage of preparations to ensure Cadbury, Foxy and Raisin are ready for their starring performances under judge Valerie Foss.

For most people who show regularly, Crufts is “just another” dog show, so getting ready really isn’t that different to what happens before shows throughout the rest of the year. Of course, what makes Crufts different is the scale of it and the fact that there are so many visitors.

Our dogs will, of course, have their own fan club following them during the day. We have lots of friends with Wires who plan to come along and support our three dogs.

Preparing the dogs in the last few days really only means final tidying up of their coats and continuing to exercise them so they are in tip-top condition. All our dogs (Mini Smooths and Standard Wires) get about 45 minutes to an hour of free-running exercise every day in the woods and fields near where we live.  2009_1218Snow0005With all the Winter snow and rain, the footpaths are incredibly wet and muddy, which inevitably means muddy paws and tummies have to be cleaned after every walk. Unless one of the dogs rolls in something despicable (not unusual), they won’t be having a bath just for Crufts.

The show bag will be packed the night before and Sue will be making a packed lunch (food prices at the NEC are always expensive!). We also take lots of drinks (non-alcoholic) – water and fruit juice – because somehow being at the NEC all day is quite dehyrdating. We also take bottles of water for the dogs.

Journey planning is easy for us: M40 and M42. Being a weekend day, the traffic isn’t likely to be too bad on the M42, so that’s the only other factor to take into account on the day.

It’s always advisable to leave plenty of time to get parked and to walk, or take the NEC bus service, to the exhibition halls. We’re in Hall 4 and we’ll aim to be there so we’re getting the three dogs settled on their benches by 09:30, ready for judging to start at 10:00.

From then on, it will no doubt be a madly busy day of talking to visiting members of the public and letting them make a fuss of the dogs or take their photographs, as well as Sue showing the dogs and watching the rest of the Wirehaired Dachshund judging.  We’re also looking forward to seeing Lars, Foxy’s breeder who is coming over from Norway.

I’ll also be keen to visit the Dachshund booths at Discover Dogs so that, as Chairman of the Breed Council, I can say thank you to the helpers who have brought their dogs for the public to see. The Midland Dachshund Club takes responsibility for organising this and they do a great job finding helpful, knowledgeable Dachshund owners and their friendly dogs to be in attendance over the four days of the show.



“Best of Health” – My February article for Our Dogs

Mastiff & Neapolitan Mastiff Health Improvement Day


Best of HealthLast month I was invited to the KC’s Mastiff and Neapolitan Mastiff Health Improvement Day which was held at the the KC Building in Stoneleigh.  There were about 50 people there, which I thought was a good turn-out for a weekday (Monday) event.

Frank Kane introduced the day by talking of his fondness for the mastiff breeds and his experience of judging some great dogs overseas.  He explained that the KC wanted to support those breeds currently in Breed Watch Category 3 (formerly “High Profile Breeds”) and this event was part of that support.  He emphasised that type AND health were important and he expressed his hope that the day would be an empowering one for all the enthusiasts present.

The first presenter was Dr. Tom Lewis from the KC who spoke about Population Genetics.  He introduced us to four factors that cause breeds and populations to change:

  • Selection, which is a cornerstone of animal husbandry
  • Loss of genetic diversity (caused by inbreeding and genetic drift)
  • Migration (from outcrossing)
  • Mutation (gene copy errors)

The use of DNA tests for simple genetic diseases was given as an example of how breeders can make selection choices, based on their knowledge of mutations, to avoid producing affected dogs.  Hip dysplasia was discussed as an example of a complex condition caused by multiple genes and environmental factors.  Selection decisions are therefore not as straightforward with complex conditions as there is a continuous spectrum of phenotypes.  Tom explained that breeders should remember that, in complex conditions, the genetic risk is fixed at conception and then subjected to different levels of environmental factors (diet, exercise etc.).  Recently developed tools such as the KC’s Estimated Breeding Value calculators for HD could therefore be used by breeders to help select for reduced genetic risk.

Tom illustrated the problems faced by the Spanish Habsburg dynasty as a result of generations of inbreeding, where they had a higher rate of infant mortality than the peasant population.  He said that inbreeding poses a risk both to individual dogs and to the breed as a whole.  Breeders can use the Coefficient of Inbreeding (COI) to identify the probability that two copies of a gene will be identical by descent.  Mating unrelated dogs can effectively “cross out” the risks associated with breeding at high COI levels.

Selection is key to risk reduction

Aimee Llewellyn, was the second speaker from the KC’s Health Team and she talked about “breeding towards moderation”.  She pointed out that Breed Standards are only one factor contributing to how a dog looks. Others, such as fashion, ignorance, puppy buyer demand, puppy farmers and “more is better” judging all contribute.  She also mentioned that sometimes there is simply a gradual, barely noticeable “slip-slide” from what was once considered to be correct (and healthy) breed type.

Aimee’s advice for the mastiff breeders and owners was two-fold: firstly education (of buyers, owners, breeders, vets etc.) and secondly, cooperation. She said everyone has a responsibility and a part to play.  Neither being an ostrich with your head in the sand nor allocating blame are helpful.

Participants were reminded of some of the challenges facing their breeds from a health perspective:

  • Risks related to conformation of the eye such as exposure to trauma, chronic damage caused by inadequate blink, entropion or ectropion
  • Excessive folds of skin may cause inflammation, irritation and infection
  • Excessively long ears can lead to infection

Selection is key, Aimee said, and is a balance between breed characteristics, temperament and health. Change won’t happen overnight, but every breeder has criteria for selection and every selection decision affects the available genetic material, sometimes for good and sometimes for bad.  She challenged breeders to ask themselves a couple of key questions: “should these genes continue, to improve the breed?” and “how can I reduce risk, for example by knowing family histories, using lower-risk lines, using imports or breeding from litter-mates?”  One practical suggestion was not to endorse puppies sold as pets against breeding as they could be an untapped genetic resource.  Similarly, delaying the neutering of pet-owned puppies could also be beneficial by keeping additional genetic options available for longer.

Aimee summed up her presentation by suggesting four key questions breeders should ask themselves:

  • Have I done all the recommended health tests and checks?
  • Does the proposed mating benefit the breed?
  • Are both dogs in good health?
  • Is the conformation you are working towards an improvement?

Clearly, these questions are relevant for every breed, not just the mastiffs.  They helped generate lots of discussion over the subsequent lunch break.

Neo PuppyOver lunch, one of my highlights of the day was the opportunity to meet (and cuddle) some of Kim Slater’s Neapolitan Mastiff puppies.  They say beauty is in the eye of the beholder and I’ll readily admit a mastiff wouldn’t be my first choice for a pet, but there is no denying how seriously attractive Kim’s puppies were.  They definitely stole the show for attention and were fantastically well-behaved.  A credit to their breeder and I can really understand how the breed has such devoted owners.

Educators, persuaders and instigators

The “graveyard slot” after lunch fell to Penny Rankine-Parsons who is Breed Health Coordinator for the French Bulldogs.  Her breed successfully demonstrated progress with health improvement to the KC last year and was reclassified as a  Breed Watch Category 2 breed.  So, Penny was the ideal person to share her breed’s experiences and learning with the mastiff owners who are in the earlier stages of their health improvement journey.

Anyone who has heard Penny speak before will know that she would be an excellent choice to help inspire others and she did not disappoint.  She took a light-hearted approach to her presentation, but clearly got the message over that, with commitment, steady steps in health improvement are perfectly feasible.

She said that, like it or not, the High Profile Breeds had received a wake-up call. She also said that, in many ways, they were lucky because many of their problems were visible ones.  As such, they were more obvious and therefore easier to explain to people than perhaps some other breeds.

Penny described the role of the Breed Health Coordinator (BHC) as educator, persuader and instigator.  A BHC has to be prepared to put his or her head above the parapet, to generate ideas and make things happen.

Two of the messages I took from Penny’s talk were that however tough the challenge might seem, peer pressure and consistent, open communication can be very powerful.  Publishing all test results in an open register creates peer pressure; there are no hiding places and it is obvious which breeders and stud dog owners are committed to health testing.  Around 800 certificates have now been issued in the French Bulldog Health Scheme and they are achieving a 75% return rate.  Importantly, 25% of owners now realise their dog has some degree of health problem that they perhaps were not aware of previously and can choose to do something about it.

Collaborative working to improve health

The last presentation of the day was by Kim Slater, who was formerly BHC for the Neapolitans.  She introduced the concept of collaborative working to improve health, the history of the CACEP project and its aims of rebuilding the Mastinari community to work towards a common goal.

According to its Facebook page, CACEP has been created for the positive promotion of the Neapolitan Mastiff in the UK and around the world.  CACEP intends to propose a cultural revolution and perspective to the world of the Neapolitan Mastiff, spreading the idea of a dog with great strength and character as well as its beautiful head and expression. CACEP intends to spread the idea of a Neapolitan Mastiff with athleticism, who is functional, which with good type, balanced with gains in health and longevity.

There is an active scientific committee which is setting out protocols for healthy dogs, covering hips, elbows, hearts and skin.  I understand that, in the spirit of collaboration, Penny Rankine-Parsons has shared details of the FB Health Scheme with Kim who has offered this to CACEP Italia.  The hope is that something similar can be introduced worldwide and would form the basis of health data on the breed using an internationally recognised process.

After all the presentations, the final part of the day was set aside for networking and Q&A.  There was a real buzz about the attendees as they reflected on the day’s discussions and considered what actions they could now take.  So, despite the fact that Mastiffs and Neapolitan Mastiffs may only be “niche” breeds with relatively small UK populations, success will be dependent on worldwide efforts, many of which are already underway.  It will require collaboration and teamwork; relying on one or two individuals to drive it will not be enough.

I came away feeling that, with so many positive and committed Mastiff breeders and owners, there is every chance that their breeds can have a bright and healthy future.



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