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.
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.
When 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.