Dog's life for pedigree breeds due to inbreeding
Wed, Aug 20, 2008
Breeders who mate closely related dogs are creating genetically unstable animals, writes Karlin Lillington
'THE BACK of Leo's skull is pushing down on his brain here, and over here, you can see where his brain is being forced out into his spinal cord as a result."
The neurologist pointed to the image of my Cavalier King Charles Spaniel's head on his computer screen, and then traced his finger towards a small circle of white suspended like a hazy bubble in the top of Leo's spinal cord.
"And that, I'm afraid, is a syrinx. Leo has syringomyelia."
Four years ago, I was stunned and fearful of what such a diagnosis might mean for my sweet-natured spaniel. But I knew - as does anyone now who last night watched the shocking BBC1 television documentary Pedigree Dogs Exposed, on how breeders "play God with dogs" - that at least a third, and probably more than half of all cavaliers eventually get this potentially painful neurological condition.
Unfortunately for the breed, it also suffers the double whammy of suffering from early onset heart murmurs. According to research, about half of all cavaliers acquire a heart murmur by age five, the equivalent of a 30 year old person going into congestive heart failure. It's an old dog's disease inflicted on the young, and means many families will lose a loved pet before it even qualifies as a canine senior citizen.
But it isn't just cavaliers who struggle with genetically introduced ailments. Boxers too have high rates of heart disease, as well as cancer and epilepsy. West Highland Terriers suffer from skin and lung disease, Labradors from hip dysplasia, Alsatians from cancer, Dalmatians from urinary tract disorders, Weimeraners from a canine form of spinal bifida.
According to research from Imperial College London, such problems can be laid at the door of breeders who closely line breed, mating closely-related dogs together in order to achieve a consistent appearance for the show ring. Many dog breeders routinely mate fathers and mothers to their sons and daughters, siblings to siblings, grandchildren to grandparents. This creates genetic bottlenecks and lack of diversity. So, although there are 10,000 registered pugs in the UK, they represent only 50 distinct individuals.
"People are carrying out breeding which would be first of all be entirely illegal in humans and secondly is absolutely insane from the point of view of the health of the animals," Steve Jones, professor of genetics at University College London explained in the film.
"In some breeds they are paying a terrible, terrible price in genetic disease."
On top of that, breeding for appearance in the show ring - to fit "breed standards" established by breed clubs for dog shows - means many dogs now suffer from painfully altered body shapes.
Pugs have eyes that fall out of their shallow skulls. Bulldogs can no longer mate or give birth naturally. Pekingese struggle to breathe and easily overheat. And cavaliers have a skull that is too small for their labrador-sized brains. Researcher and neurologist Clare Rusbridge notes: "The cavalier's brain is like a size 10 foot that has been shoved into a size 6 shoe - it doesn't fit."
And that is why Leo's brain, like that of many cavaliers, protrudes down into his spine, causing syrinxes - fluid pockets - to form in the spinal column, causing syringomyelia, which for humans, is among the most painful medical conditions. Leo is on human neurological painkillers for life because no approved drug exists in the vet world to deal with it.
All of this directly affects the families that buy the vast majority of purebred puppies, who shell out millions on vet bills and may watch the decline of cherished pets to diseases that in many cases could be entirely prevented by better breeding practice and appropriate health testing of breeding stock.
But this might mean a slower route to the show ring ribbons, and certainly means more expense for breeders, who - despite having health protocols in many breeds - regularly choose to ignore them. The UK CKCS Club, for example, has chosen over the years to disregard their own cardiologist advisor's advice. He recently noted that lack of stricter heart testing requirements has meant the club has seen no improvement in heart disease rates in a decade. The Irish club similarly has no such requirement. Yet research shows clearly that dogs from parents who remain heart clear into later life are 20 times less likely to themselves suffer from early heart disease.
Breed clubs here, and their parent Irish Kennel Club, must begin to responsibly address this ugly carnival of pain and suffering. First off, IKC registration must be made a valued badge of health for every puppy that carries it. Each breed club should draw up a list of required tests for known breed genetic ailments affecting their breed, and the IKC should refuse registration for litters of puppies whose parents have not been tested to standard within a relevant period of time.
Impossible to implement? Not at all. This is exactly what the Swedish cavalier club does to enforce heart testing. Cavaliers must test murmur-free within eight months of being bred or the puppies do not receive full club registration.
The Government must take a responsible role, too, not least because Ireland, shamefully, remains the puppy farm capital of Europe, exporting thousands of poorly-bred, shabbily-farmed puppies via a multi-million euro black market. The Department of the Environment needs to implement its long overdue, long promised regulations to control puppy farming, while the Department of Agriculture must incorporate ethical breeding practices in its proposed animal welfare bill, expected in the next Dáil session.
As Pedigree Dogs Exposedmade horrifically clear, animal welfare is more than an owner cruelty issue.
As Dr Rusbridge told the BBC: "If you took a stick and beat a dog to create that pain, you'd be prosecuted. But there's nothing to stop you breeding a dog with it."
Karlin Lillington is anIrish Times journalist. She has a website - www.smcavalier.com
- devoted to the issues explored in this article
© 2008 The Irish Times