Browsing tag: breeding

Stopping the suffering of brachycephalic dogs: an update

Our petition was successful: action has started, with a meeting in London.

In May 2016, VetHelpDirect launched a petition, to be signed by vets and vet nurses only, calling for action to deal with the suffering of short-nosed breeds of dogs. The professions responded vocally, with thousands signing, with hundreds adding their comments to express their frustration with the current situation. You can read these for yourself, but typical examples include:

  • I find it distressing to watch these poor animals fighting for breath whilst owners think it is “cute”
  • I see problems at work more and more due to extremes in these breeds
  • Dogs and cats should not be purposely bred to have conformation that will cause suffering

Our petition was sent messages of support by BSAVA, BVA, RSPCA, PDSA and the Dog Breeding Reform Group, and the Kennel Club responded by calling a special meeting at the Kennel Club HQ in London to discuss the issue: this took place this week, on 15th June. The stated purpose of the meeting was “to allow current research and resources available to dog owners and breeders to be presented, with a view to discussions on where we are now, and how we could productively collaborate to improve the health of dogs now and to the future.”

I attended the meeting on behalf of those who signed the petition. I posted a live stream of the presentations to my Facebook page, where the videos can still be viewed by anyone interested.

Vet Compass: helping to define the prevalence of BOAS

Dan O’Neill, from RVC, spoke first, introducing Vet Compass, an innovative research tool which pulls data from 450 UK vet practices to spot trends in pet health and disease. Dan referenced two relevant VetCompass papers. The first looked at upper respiratory tract (URT) disorders, comparing Pugs, Frenchies and Bulldogs to three “non-extreme brachycephalics” – Border Terriers, West Highland White Terriers and Yorkshire Terriers. Overall across the 6 breeds,15.8% had at least one URT disorder – but the “extremes” had 22% and the “less-extremes” 9.7%. The second paper, just published, explored the most common disorders in Pugs, referencing corneal ulcers and obesity as well as BOAS. Dan made the point that there may be some issues with “normalisation” (i.e. some degree of breathing difficulty being “normal for the breed”) and also with how vets categorise respiratory problems. He suggested that BOAS (seen at 5.6%) probably referred to a significant degree of disease to have been categorised as such.

20140719-IMG_1211-001 IMG_0560

The Cranio Facial Ratio: an objective tool to measure progress?

Rowena Packer, also from RVC, was the next speaker and she started with a review of her research from three years ago which showed that the shorter the muzzle, the narrower the nostril openings and the thicker the neck, the bigger the BOAS problem. She introduced a way of objectively measuring the degree of brachocephaly: this is calculated by using a standard 1 metre long soft measuring tape, making two measurements:

  • First, the muzzle length (ML): from the tip of the nose to just between the eyes where the inside corners of the eyes meet (the so called “muzzle stop”)
  • Second, the cranial length (CL), which is the distance from the muzzle stop to the occipital protruberance at the back of the skull.
  • The ratio of the Muzzle Length (ML) divided by the Cranial Length (CL) is known as the Cranio Facial Ratio (CFR).

Rowena then showed graphs comparing the CFR with the incidence of Brachy Cephalic Obstructive Syndrome (BOAS). She presented compelling evidence that dogs with a CFR of less than 0.2 were at extremely high risk of BOAS. The average pug CFR is 0.08 while the Peke and Japanese Chin are even lower.

Rowena stressed that the biggest conformational indicator of BOAS risk is muzzle length, and she showed how, in theory, it would be possible to gradually lengthen the muzzle of these breeds over years, by only choosing to breed from dogs with a higher CFR. Perhaps as an indication of a possible way forwards, the Norwegian Kennel Club has recently stated that they are aiming to have a minimum CFR of 0.5.Rowena also mentioned other factors that obesity has a significant deleterious effect on BOAS.

Breathing chambers and respiratory analysis: another way to assess BOAS?

Jane Ladlow, from the University of Cambridge, then discussed how she has used a method involving a breathing chamber to measure respiratory function, known as Whole Body Barometric Plethysmography (WBBP), comparing measurements taken at rest with those after exercise. She was able to produce graphs that can be objectively used to measure the degree of BOAS, using computer analysis to produce a “BOAS index” on a score between 0 and 100. She found a correlation between stenotic (narrowed) upper nostril openings and a high BOAS index, especially in French Bulldogs but also in Pugs. She has used the BOAS index to demonstrate the efficacy of the airway surgery that she carries out on dogs that suffer from BOAS, with significant improvements in the score post-surgery. However her technique may provide a useful measurable way of assessing the severity of BOAS within specific breeds. She also mentioned how sound wave analysis (e.g. using a smartphone app) may provide a portable way of assessing BOAS in the future.

Genetic tests: a longer term possibility

Next, David Sargan from Cambridge University described his work with Pugs, French Bulldogs and Bulldogs, taking respiratory and other measurements as well as DNA samples from these breeds and comparing them with those from dogs with more normal skull shape. He mentioned how results from the brachycephalic dogs, split between BOAS affected and BOAS unaffected dogs, could be compared with dogs with normal skulls, perhaps working towards an ultimate goal of having some sort of DNA test to guide future breeding strategies. However this is still very much in the pipeline: he is not yet sure that this will become a reality, and he knows that there will be several more years of work involved.

The importance of changing public perception of “normal” in brachycephalic breeds

Aimee Llewellyn-Zaidi, a geneticist from the Kennel Club, then spoke about the “complexity” of the BOAS problem, explaining how the Kennel Club has assisted with dealing with the subject in many ways, including funding Vet Compass, research at Cambridge, and other areas. She also highlighted other areas of focus, including promoting breed health through education, including training of judges (e.g. reminding them about the significance of obesity as an aggravating factor in BOAS). She spoke about the importance of public perception, and the importance of trying to change what the public see as “normal” for the extreme brachycephalic breeds.

Vets and vet nurses have had enough of seeing brachycephalic dogs suffer

Finally, I gave a short presentation, describing the grassroots background to the petition, and explaining how “vets and nurses on the ground” have had enough of witnessing brachycephalic dogs suffering.

So what happens next?

After the day’s presentations, there was a short discussion about what might happen next. Veterinary surgeon and dog owner,  Professor Steve Dean of the Kennel Club, who’d chaired the day, committed the Kennel Club to assisting with the establishment of the Working Group that was called for by our petition, including BVA, RSPCA, Dogs Trust, Animal Health Trust and the RCVS. Professor Dean then asked each attendee to go back to discuss the issue further with the people who they represent, and to write an A4 page of suggested actions which those people can take to deal with the issue.

Interestingly, he asked that nobody should mention “breed standards”. In one sense, this may be understandable. Breed standards are an issue for the Kennel Club to review: no other group has the power to do this. However, given that the breed standard is defined as “a picture in words that describes each breed of pedigree dog”, and given that it was clearly established during the day that BOAS is directly related to the length of a dog’s muzzle, it is hard to see how the situation will improve if the Breed Standard for the brachycephalic breeds remains unchanged.

Have your say now – add your comments below

Nonetheless, in the spirit of supporting Professor Dean in his objectives, it will be helpful if petition signers can assist in drawing up a list of what we, as vets and nurses, can do ourselves to improve the issue of BOAS in our patients.

Please make any suggestions in the comments below, and I will use them to draw up an appropriate document that reflects our joint sentiment.



Grazia: fashion news, beauty tips and terrible advice about breeding pets

Grazia is an Italian women’s magazine, first printed in 1938 when it was modelled on the USA magazine, Harper’s Bazaar. At the time, it was said to focus on traditional family values, such as cooking and child rearing. In recent years, the magazine has expanded its frontiers, now having over twenty international editions, including a British edition which started in 2005, and had a circulation of over 160000 by 2013.

So why is a vet writing a blog about a women’s magazine? Well, in the latest UK edition, Grazia has taken an ill-judged foray into the world of pet breeding. The magazine includes a feature on easy ways to earn extra income, with someone called “Ella”, said to be an estate agent, enthusing about the ease with which she makes extra cash by breeding her Ragdoll cat and Shih Tzu dogs. “Ella” seemed to give lip service to the idea of responsible breeding, saying “You want healthy animals or you get a bad rep. If you think Netmums is bad, you haven’t seen how bitchy pet forums are!”.

“Ella”, as well as the Grazia editorial team, clearly had no idea about the depth of feeling about irresponsible breeding. There has been a social media storm since the magazine was published, with Facebook, Twitter and numerous internet forums boiling with fury about the article. The RSPCA and the Kennel Club  issuing statements. The RSPCA pointed out that one in three puppy buyers no longer have their animal three years after purchase, while the Kennel Club urged all potential breeders to seek professional advice before considering starting to breed animals.

The Grazia article is certain to have caused damage. Impressionable and naive readers will be reconsidering having their pets neutered and spayed, mistakenly believing the spiel about how easy it will be to earn cash from their pets. The article made no mention of the need to breed responsibly, with careful selection of breeding partners, pre-breeding health checks, and post-breeding successful rearing of healthy and well-socialised puppies and kittens. The article will have undone years of careful public relations by responsible groups who stress the need to control puppy and kitten breeding.

The magazine has now apologised for any harm caused, but as the coming weeks pass, thousands of readers, at home and in waiting rooms across the UK, will be reading about “Ella” and her scheme for making easy money. The damage to cultural attitudes around pet breeding has been done and will continue to be done. Grazia need to do more than just saying sorry.

Perhaps a friend of “Ella” could write an article about the importance of responsible breeding in a future edition?

Marius the giraffe – right or wrong? The great divide

“Danish zoo kills healthy giraffe and feeds it to the lions”
The headlines are appalling, and the international outcry has been almost as dramatic as if the Danish zoo authorities had fed a human to the lions. Do the protesters have a point, or is the zoo simply being honest about an unfortunate but necessary situation?
The answer to this question highlights a major divide in the broad community of animal lovers: those who are in favour of animal rights, and those who believe in animal welfare.

Animal rights people believe that animals have similar rights to humans. Animals are sentient, living individuals, often referred to as “non-human persons”. They have a right to exist and to be granted the Five Freedoms – freedom from pain and disease, freedom from hunger and thirst, freedom from discomfort, freedom to express natural behaviours and freedom from fear and distress. They also believe that animals have the right to life, and that humans do not have the right to take that life away. People who believe in animal rights really  ought to be vegans, since they do not believe in the right of humans to exploit animals for meat or milk. They believe that animals should not be viewed as property, or used for food, clothing, research, entertainment or as beasts of burden. They believe that animals deserve equal consideration to humans: if animals are not given equal rights, this is “speciesism” which is as bad as racism. They believe that in the future, we will look back on our time and see our attitude to animals in the same way as we currently view human slavery.

Animal welfare people believe that  non-human animals are sentient and that efforts should be ensure their well-being, especially when they are under the care of humans. However they do not believe that animals have the same rights as humans. They also believe that animals deserve the Five Freedoms, but they believe that humans have the right to decide what happens to animals, which includes taking the animal’s life in a humane manner in some circumstances. They believe that it’s acceptable to farm animals for meat and milk, as long as the animals have a life worth living while they are farmed, and as long as the animal’s death takes place in a way that is free of fear and pain. They believe that it’s acceptable to use animals for food, clothing, research, entertainment or as beasts of burden as long as the Five Freedoms are not impaired. Animal welfare people do not believe that animals have a right to life, justice or freedom. This is the most widely held view in the Western world today: that it is morally and ethically acceptable for humans to use non-human animals, provided that adverse effects on animal welfare are kept to a minimum.

So what about Marius the giraffe?

The protesters about the zoo in Denmark are seeing the situation from an animal rights perspective, whereas the zoo defends their stance from an animal welfare point of view.

The animal rights stance would say that Marius the giraffe was a “non-human person”, and that it’s outrageous that his life was taken. They also believe that the zoo compounded the unfairness by butchering Marius in public (even with children looking on) and then feeding him to the lions. This showed lack of respect to Marius, and an uncaring attitude to an adorable creature.

The animal welfare stance would understand the perspective of the zoo, which has stated that the giraffe was surplus to its own requirements,and there was no simple alternative. The options that were available included rehoming to non-accredited wildlife parks and private sanctuaries, and the zoo was concerned that they would lose control of the giraffe, and that he might end up in an inappropriate situation where he was suffering. The zoo believed that quick, pain-free death was a better alternative for the giraffe than to take that risk. The zoo would say that millions of cattle, pigs and sheep are killed in the same way every day and nobody complains about them, so what’s the difference?

The problem is this: onlookers see the zoo’s attitude as disingenuous. Zoos are quick to humanise their animals when it suits them, such as when they ask the public to sponsor individual creatures, or when they advertise to encourage visitors. They are happy to create an animal-rights type illusion of the animals being “furry people”, and the public are happy to accept this. Most of us are animal rights believers at some level, especially when considering animals (such as our pets) that are well-known to us. And when an animal has been given a name, and has featured in attractive photographs, we also like to take an animal rights view on behalf of that creature.

Yet the reality is that zoos take an animal welfare stance, and so do most of us when we do not know the individual animals. How many of us are vegans? Perhaps 1%? If we put our money where our mouths are, then 99% of us are animal welfarists, not animal rights believers, at least when it comes to farm animals.

But we don’t like it when our pockets of animal rights belief (like Marius) are blatantly treated with animal welfare rules. The zoo has clearly not understood this, and their “practical” approach of publicly butchering the animal and feeding him to the lions has compounded their error.

Whether they are right or wrong, the zoo has created an image of uncaring arrogance which does not serve animals or the zoo’s purpose well. It’s a PR disaster. The zoo has lost a sea of international supporters and the animal rights argument against the continuing existence of zoos has moved one step forwards



Improving the health of future generations of dogs.

There has been a lot of discussion in the press and on television lately about the health of our purebred dogs, especially the number of inherited conditions which can affect them. Opinions are divided on whether dog shows are a good thing or whether they encourage breeders to place too much value on the appearance of dogs, compared with their health or temperament. With Cruft’s dog show taking place in March, we have all seen classes of pedigree dogs being judged according to a “breed standard” which states what the ideal size, shape, gait etc should be for each breed. Dogs which come closest to meeting this ideal standard will do best in the show ring.

If dogs were bred with only one objective in mind, namely winning prizes in the show ring, that could certainly have unfortunate consequences on their health. Good breeders will not only be concerned with the appearance of the puppies they produce, but also with making sure that they are free from any known inherited conditions and of good temperament.

Most breeds have associated health problems

Most breeds have associated health problems

Almost every breed has, unfortunately, some conditions which they are more prone to than other breeds. Some of these are known to be hereditary, so careful breeding could, over several generations, reduce or eliminate these conditions. These include problems affecting hips, elbows, knees, eyes, hearts, and skin, as well as some kinds of deafness, hernias and epilepsy, and many others. It is never advisable to breed from dogs which have any known inherited problems. In some cases there are screening tests which should be done before considering breeding from a dog or bitch. For example, the hip dysplasia scheme, which has been running for many years and has been successful in reducing the cases in several breeds. Hip dysplasia is a painful problem affecting many medium to large breeds, causing lameness and in some cases shortening lives. There are many other screening tests which can and should be carried out in particular breeds. These should be done whether breeding is on a large scale, or just one litter from a family pet. The decision to breed a litter of pups should never be taken lightly, because to do so properly involves commitment of both time and money.

In the past some breeders have attempted to “fix” the good points in their dogs by mating closely related animals to each other. Although known as line-breeding, this really amounts to in-breeding and will have the unfortunate side effect of also “fixing” any bad points such as inherited problems. The same applies to some characteristics which may define particular breeds such as short legs, big heads, long backs, wrinkly skin, or droopy eyes. These are often the features which we love most about a particular breed, but they can be taken to extremes and health can be threatened. It is far better to increase the size of the gene pool by mating only to unrelated or distantly related healthy dogs.

Boxer pups cropWhen buying a purebred puppy, we can all play our part by doing our homework first. Once we have decided which breed best suits our lifestyle (not always the same as the breed we most like the look of!), we need to find out what problems that breed might be prone to and whether there are any screening programmes available to detect these problems. This kind of information can be found by researching the breed in books, on the internet, from breed societies and from vets. Lots of different sources of information need to be considered to get a balanced view. Then when looking for a breeder we can ask if the parents have been screened, and what the results were. Some tests result in a numerical score being given, and it helps to know what would be considered a good or bad score for the particular breed.

Cross-bred puppies are likely to have a much smaller risk of inheriting some of these conditions because of their broader genetic origins. Unknown parentage might make a crossbred puppy an unknown quantity, but it does have advantages in terms of “hybrid vigour”. There is no guarantee that a cross-bred puppy will be healthier, but it stands a lower chance of inheriting a condition which is common in one particular breed.

As a result of recent controversy about the health of purebred dogs, the Kennel Club has commissioned a report by Sir Patrick Bateson into these and other related matters. The Kennel Club is also updating many of the breed standards against which show dogs are judged. Hopefully if breeders, owners, vets and the Kennel Club all work together, we can improve the health of purebred dogs.

If you are concerned about your dogs health, please contact your vet or use our interactive Dog Symptom Guide to help you decide what to do next.

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