The dangers of evidence-free policy-making

rspca_-_bsl_dogs_dinnerI was interested to read David Cavill’s latest blog where he sings the praises of the RSPCA for their report on the Dangerous Dogs Act (DDA). ‘Breed Specific Legislation – a Dog’s Dinner‘ sets out the history of Breed Specific Legislation (BSL), its lack of effectiveness and proposes a number of solutions and recommendations.

The report concludes: ‘The RSPCA strongly believes that the evidence presented in this report clearly shows that BSL has been ineffective in achieving its goals of protecting public safety and reducing the number of prohibiting types of dogs.  Since its introduction in 1991 a significant proportion of dogs involved in fatal incidents are not those prohibited by law and hospital admissions due to dog bites have increased substantially in the past decade despite the provisions.’

It is truly shocking that, despite all the evidence, the Government still seems to believe that breed specific legislation is the answer. It was evident after just 5 years that it was not working as there had been no significant reduction in dog bites between 1991 and 1996.

Quite how this situation has been allowed to continue is puzzling since government is supposed to follow the principles of evidence-based policy-making. The whole point of this approach is that government asks Civil Servants to review and analyse the available data before drafting legislation. They should also be analysing the counterfactuals – what would happen in the absence of the policy or legislation.

Of course, all this is designed to avoid policies being developed either as a knee-jerk reaction to circumstances (exactly what happened with the DDA) or on the basis of a politician’s personal agenda or ministerial whim.

David describes the Dangerous Dogs Act as a “car crash piece of legislation” with a whole load of unintended consequences. He also points out that many of the parties who could make a difference seldom work together in a coordinated way because they are more interested in protecting their own “brand”. With true collaboration, pooled resources and a coordinated approach there might just be a chance of reducing dog bites and fatalities. After all, that’s what everyone wants to achieve.

Politicians and those in positions of power, such as ministers, are notoriously bad at asking for data and evidence, let alone using it to inform decisions. Steve Dean also noted this recently in his Our Dogs article on the outcomes of the EFRACom review of canine welfare issues. His article “Poor research and little science” discussed the lack of critical information to support the committee’s views and recommendations. He concluded by saying “attempting to impose sanctions on the majority, to deal with a disreputable minority, is a repetitive misdemeanor of governing bodies“.

Politicians too often look for simple solutions to complex problems. The last thing they want to do is to look at the data or evidence because these would undermine the rationale for their current “pet policy”. As a consequence, they end up implementing the wrong solution to the wrong problem which is what has happened with the Dangerous Dogs Act. They also end up with unintended consequences and even more bad publicity!

You can read the RSPCA Report here.

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An introduction to canine lameness -video

Following my recent article about the canine lameness presentation at the KC Breedwatch seminar, I am grateful to the English Springer Spaniel Breed Health Coordinators Louise Scott and Lesley Bloomfield for directing me to this video.

How to detect lameness in dogs is presented by Ben Walton, a Veterinary Orthopaedic Surgeon with special interests in complex lameness investigations and fracture management.

This presentation introduces the viewer to the fundamentals of assessing lameness in dogs. It is suitable for veterinary students, animal physiotherapy students, veterinary nurses, and dog owners and handlers. Vets and animal-physiotherapists might also find it useful as a refresher!

ChesterGates Animal Referral Hospital is a specialist veterinary centre in the North West of England: http://www.chestergates.org.uk

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Canine Gait and Posture – a Breedwatch 2016 presentation

Dr Constanza Gomez Alvarez is a lecturer in musculoskeletal biology at Surrey University Vet School. She has worked on several projects with the Dachshund Breed Council, looking at gait in relation to IVDD. Her presentation at the KC’s Breedwatch Education Day 2016 covered canine gait and posture.

Locomotion or gait is the means of transport of animals. Dogs are able to perform several different gaits, including the walk, trot and canter. In the walk (and amble) 3 feet are on the ground simultaneously. In the trot, 2 feet, diagonally opposed, are on the ground simultaneously. In the canter (and gallop), the gait is not symmetrical.

Dogs maintain a specific dynamic posture during each of these activities. Kinematics is the study of this motion and Kinetics is the study of the forces associated with motion. Constanza uses pressure plates and motion markers with video filming to capture canine movement. The data can be converted into a 3D model of a dog’s movement.

Static posture can be defined as the way a dog stands. This is the result of conformation but is also acquired due to compensatory mechanisms that may be linked to pain, lameness and weaknesses. Dynamic posture can be defined as the way a dog moves. Both static and dynamic posture can be different between dog breeds, due to a range of factors.

Standing aims to save energy, be comfortable and to be pain-free. The Centre of Gravity of a dog is always biased towards the front due to the weight of its head. Typically this bias is 60:40, but can be more like 70:30 in a Greyhound. Body Condition Score also affects these pressure weightings.

lame_dogConstanza described how lameness can be observed and how it translates into pressure readings which provide an objective measurement of what is happening. Observing transitions between different gait states is also useful in identifying lameness. She defined lameness as gait abnormalities due to pain.
Examples of abnormal gait and lameness:

  • Distal limb injuries – Wounds, cuts, thorns – sudden lameness, unilateral, attention to the foot (licking)
  • Upper limb disease – bilateral, insidious – intermittent – chronic, difficulties raising, getting into car, well-muscled forelimbs, weaker behind
  • Stifle lameness – cranial cruciate ligament rupture. Sudden, unilateral, compensates with weight on front, tail lifted during lame hind stance
  • Intermittent skipping – medial patellar luxation, unable to extend the limb while walking, toed-in, squat gait
    • Surgery is usually required at Puttnam scores of 2 or more. Pain correlates with Score.
    • Exercise and muscle-tone are important.
  • Forelimb lameness in giant breeds – OCD – unilateral, shortened stride. Need arthroscopic exam
  • Elbow dysplasia – gradual forelimb lameness, bilateral. Very painful, weight pushed back

lameness_definitionsThe presentation demonstrated the subtle differences between different types of gait abnormalities and showed how important it is to understand the mechanics of what is happening. Many of the questions asked by the participants suggested this is a topic which some judges find particularly hard to understand. I feel it would be really useful to have video clips illustrating the various types of lameness available in the KC Academy for judges to view.

The other excellent resource for breeders, owners and judges is Rachel Paige Elliott’s Dogsteps.

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What makes a happy canine mouth? Breedwatch 2016 presentation

Simone Kirby, Dentistry Lecturer from the RVC spoke about canine dentition at today’s Breedwatch Education Day.

This talk began with an overview of the anatomy and normal occlusion of the dog’s mouth, from birth to adulthood. Simone talked about common malocclusions, and explored the difference between merely cosmetic issues and more serious conditions.

Puppies are born without teeth; primary dentition erupts at 3-4 weeks and is completed by 2-3 months. Puppies have 28 teeth. Adult teeth start to come through between 3-7 months – incisors come first, canines erupt at 4-5 months and there will be mixed dentition during the changeover period.

Normal dentition is a scissor bite and full adult dentition is 42 teeth. In general, malocclusions should be treated as a cause of pain.

Cosmetic variations are not an issue from a medical perspective, compared with dogs intended for showing, where Breed Standards will be quite specific about requirements and faults. Some breeds have malocclusions as part of the Breed Standard, e.g Brachycephalic breeds.

Simone discussed a particular example of base narrow canine teeth where lower canines impinge on the upper palate. This is often painful. It may be combined with a short lower jaw.
Anecdotally, many breeds are pre-disposed to this. Often there may be just one puppy in a litter. Not much data is available on breed prevalence.
Treatment includes extraction, crown shortening + vital pulp treatment. Braces (orthodontics) are rarely used in dogs as they can be difficult to retain unless a puppy is calm. Any such treatment should be reported to the KC.

Periodontal disease was the next topic to be discussed: It is very common amongst all dogs; however certain skull shapes predispose some dogs more to this than others.

Tooth crowding:
You find premolar crowding if the jaw is too short or incisor crowding if the jaw is too narrow. Both can result in periodontal pockets on the root  that sits in the palate.

Primary teeth not coming out:
– crowding causes pockets where food gets stuck and invites disease
– persistent baby teeth can cause malocclusion of adult teeth
Persistent primary teeth are more common in small breeds such as the Chihuahua and Yorkshire Terriers.

Periodontal disease:

70% of dogs over 3 years are affected to some degree. This includes infection of the jaw bone. It is multi-factorial, related to bacteria in plaque, oral hygiene, nutritional deficiencies, genetics and stress.
With gum recession and heavy tartar coverage, the tooth root becomes mobile. This is not always recognised by owners.

Is tartar removal enough? Probably not; you can miss disease under the gum-line. Vets really need to probe under the gum line and use x-rays under GA. X-rays will identify periodontal pockets.
Treatment includes extractions, scale/polish, pocket treatments, Prevention – daily tooth brushing is the gold standard.

Prevention – daily tooth brushing is the gold standard.

Simone noted that it can be difficult to brush teeth in pugs and other brachy breeds. As a veterinary dentist, she would welcome seeing longer muzzles in these breeds.

Finally, she discussed trauma to teeth: The incidence is higher in younger dogs, due to their extremely playful nature, but can affect any age group. There was a brief overview on the treatment of fractured teeth, and strategies of risk-reduction when choosing toys for your dog.

Toy breeds have specific jaw fracture risk. Jaw and bone size have shrunk in these breeds, but their teeth are the same size as in larger dogs. This results in a thinner jaw bone and the jaw bone can become weak with periodontal disease. The risk is greater in lower jaw bones.

Larger head and muzzle size would help increase jaw bone height. It is unlikely that we would be able to breed for smaller teeth. These breeds need meticulous oral care from puppy age. An anti-plaque drinking water additive and annual dental checks are also recommended.

Dental trauma:
Tooth fractures are more common in younger dogs. Canines fracture due to play behaviours. Premolar and molar fractures are usually caused by chewing sticks, bones, nylon toys, antlers and cow hooves.

Untreated, they  can result in an abscess. Extraction or root canal treatment is required.
Blunt trauma – “pink tooth” – can cause bleeding inside the pulp. The pulp then dies off and needs the same treatment as an open fracture.

Abrasion – slow wear: Tennis balls are the number 1 culprit, but any toys on the beach are also problematic due to the presence of sand. Abrasion trauma is mild in many dogs, but more common in terrier-types.

Avoiding dental trauma – advice…

avoiding_dental_trauma

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It’s a Big Problem – genetic and other causes of canine obesity

Dr Eleanor Raffan from Cambridge University spoke at today’s KC Breedwatch Education Day on the subject of canine obesity. Here’s my summary of her presentation.

Obesity is a big problem – pet obesity is in the news. Health problems resulting from obesity include:

  • Joint problems
  • Breathing in Brachycepahlics
  • Cancer (in people, obesity is now a bigger cause of cancer than smoking)
  • Obese dogs die younger.In one study, fat Labradors died 2 years earlier than lean ones
  • Worse quality of life
  • Interestingly, there is little evidence that diabetes is linked with canine obesity, unlike in people

In the overall canine population, obesity is far more significant as a health issue than low prevalence genetic issues. (We know this from the VetCompass project)

Simplistically, the causes of obesity are too much food and not enough exercise. This is simplistic but important from a management point of view. We have to remember that most of dogs’ evolution was in a resource-scarce environment, so biologically, it makes sense to lay down fat (energy) for when food is scarce.

The genetics of obesity:

Eleanor conducted research into Labradors, a breed commonly found to be obese. She identified the POMC mutation in overweight dogs – dogs with 1 copy of the mutation weighed more than wildtype and those with 2 copies weighed yet more, and this explained most of the variation in weight. The presence of the mutation also correlated with dogs’ food motivation.
The POMC mutation interrupts the leptin pathway, which regulates appetite, so dogs with the mutation don’t know when to stop eating!

pomc_mutation75% of Labradors are wildtype but this was as low as 20% in Guide Dogs. Temperament and “trainability” are the main drivers for selection of assistance dogs, and “positive reinforcement” with food reward is a mainstay of puppy training. Eleanor, therefore hypothesised that dogs carrying the POMC deletion may be more likely to be selected as assistance dogs.

The POMC mutation also exists in Flatcoated Retrievers, a breed not normally associated with obesity. Interestingly, Golden Retrievers don’t have the POMC mutation. The observations of these two breeds were particularly interesting for today’s audience who felt FCRs were generally not considered to be overweight in the show ring, in contrast to some GRs, which can be overweight.

So, we do need to recognise that an obsession with eating and consequent tendency to become obese is hard-wired into some dogs’ genes.

Prevention:

Owners should establish good feeding habits with puppies – bonding can be done without food. Give fewer treats (a mid-sized Dentastix contains 75 calories).
Dry foods are very calorie-dense. they taste and smell good, so are very attractive to dogs. It can be useful to switch from bowls to feeding in a Kong throughout the day. This keeps greedy dogs happy.

Establish good exercise habits. I recently shared information on a Canadian study of owners which showed 26% had no intention to exercise their dog at all, 33% were “failed intenders” and only 40% were active intenders (people who said they would walk their dogs and actually did so). It’s no good saying “I intend to walk my dog”; you actually have to take them out every day!

How to cope with an obese dog:

Vet weigh-loss diets are typically high in protein and fibre, both of which sends signals to the brain to say the dog is full. These are expensive.

Download a copy of the Body Condition Score chart and regularly assess your dog. A “healthy weight” is a BCS of 4-5 (out of 9).

bcs_1-9

Get help from your vet; many run obesity clinics.

Messages for judges:

Dogs could look “right” but may actually be fat. Judges must feel the dog’s body and assess whether or not its “shape” is actually caused by it being fat.

I resisted the temptation to comment on the fact that very few Miniature Dachshunds would be likely to be fat in the show ring. Judges weigh them and exhibitors know the correct size and body condition required. In contrast, it is obvious even from the ringside that some Standards are “well-covered” and in soft condition as well as being over the desired size specified in our Breed Standard.

Follow Eleanor on Twitter @GOdogsproject.

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