Canine Health Testing

by Sheila Atter

first published in Dog World and reprinted here with permission

A few years ago, the bare minimum of health testing sufficed. For those breeds considered at risk hips were x-rayed and eyes examined. Then as breeders thought more deeply about what they were producing other health issues came to the fore. It wasn’t enough to just get the hips x-rayed, elbows, too came under scrutiny. Simple eye tests showed whether an animal was suffering from an inherited condition, but breeders wanted to know whether that condition was likely to develop. Tentative steps were taken towards understanding the mode of inheritance, vast sums of money were raised and the best brains in the country and around the world started to tackle the problems. Once genetic research got underway and the scientists were able to unravel more and more of the DNA puzzle the initially slow progress speeded up considerably, and now announcements are made on a regular basis regarding new DNA tests for inherited disease in a huge variety of breeds.

Of course this is a wonderful thing, and used intelligently these tests mean that many breeds will, in a very few generations, be able to rid themselves completely of some of the most crippling and painful conditions, particularly in the ophthalmic area. However, as each new test comes into the public domain, more questions are raised. Firstly, there is always the problem that some may not be convinced about the value of such testing. Occasionally this is because they are afraid that the results will confirm their worst fears since incidences of disease have been seen in their breeding, even though they have strenuously denied it in the past. More often I suspect that it is simply fear of the unknown that prevents many from embracing the new science as enthusiastically as they might. Breeders with little knowledge of genetics are being asked to entrust the future of their breeding programme to results obtained from a simple mouth swab – and they aren’t quite ready to take that step yet.

Then there is the question of how this new knowledge is to be utilised by breeders. It is becoming increasingly necessary for those planning a litter to immerse themselves in at least the basics of genetics and a knowledge of the mode of inheritance of those conditions that beset their own breed. How do they obtain that knowledge? The internet is a wonderful thing, and there must be many who have printed off reams of information about whatever causes most concern in any particular breed. But what to do with the information – and more importantly, how to understand it properly? Maybe the answer is to go to a seminar? That shouldn’t be too difficult, since nowadays it seems that every organisation organises such events. They vary in standard from the very basic to those where the speakers assume they are dealing with knowledgeable professionals, and they vary in quality too. Sometimes the real experts can impart their knowledge in such a way that they make difficult and complex issues quite understandable – the late Dr Keith Barnett was one such; his enthusiasm for the canine eye and all its various conditions was infectious. However, even when seminars are generously subsidised, all this information comes at a price, and sadly there are many who would rather spend their money on a show entry than on trying to understand the complexities of science, or who can’t possibly attend since there is a show the same weekend.

Perhaps they could enlist the help of their vet? It’s vitally important for a breeder to have a vet that they can trust – and who in turn respects their knowledge and instincts. Sadly many modern vets are not particularly knowledgeable about pedigree dogs. They seem to be divided between the ‘all breeders are evil’ lobby and the ‘health tests, what health tests? Of course she’s healthy’ brigade. Vets are often not up-to-date on all the latest genetic research, and are sometimes surprised at just how conscientious breeders are with regard to health testing. Consequently the latest initiative from the KC, to publish The Veterinary Practice Guide to Dog Health, is an excellent one. To follow it up with a visit from a KC Breeder Advisor to each practice is an inspired suggestion, although I suspect that many busy vets will be less than enthusiastic at what they may well regard as another sales pitch, on a par with the pharmaceutical company reps and those trying to persuade them to stock a certain brand of dog food. It will be a completely new concept to many that the KC should actually be telling vets what conditions they should be aware of in any particular breed, and which tests are required or recommended before breeding is undertaken. Perhaps it will convince some of the anti-pedigree vets that we really are serious about the subject of health and deserve to be treated as professionals in our own field.

If this manual is to gain acceptance throughout the veterinary world we breeders have our own part to play as well. The throw away remark “No scientist is going to tell me how to breed my dogs” is doubtless much regretted, and on the contrary we must listen to the scientists, do our best to understand what they are telling us, then do our bit in passing on the message to our vets – as they, in their turn, will carry that same message on to the casual pet breeder. Those who have just the occasional litter from their much-loved pet can do major damage to a breed. They rarely health test, but their pups are usually raised with love and care and the conditions look ideal to the average pet buyer. They often ask the vet to confirm that their beloved bitch is fit to carry pups – and if every vet is, in future, able to check with the manual and encourage these folk to undertake all necessary health tests we shall have made a huge step forward in eradicating inherited disease.