The response to recent articles about inbreeding, linebreeding and the all-important question of how healthy our purebred dogs really are has been interesting. The first article, “Inbreeding: A Force for Good – or a Skeleton in Our Closet?” resulted in a lot of comments on the website and a couple of emails to me. When the second article, Westminster and Crufts BIS Breeders Speak Out, plus Goldens and Cancer Research appeared, the reaction was almost the reverse: just a few comments on the website but many emails, often with attachments consisting of genetic studies and scientific research, and sometimes asking if we can “talk about this” on the phone. It’s almost as if readers don’t want to debate this in print, and some are obviously afraid of being labeled “animal rights” activists.
Can we discuss that term first for a second? It’s one of the most misused words ever. We are all “animal rights” people, I hope, in the sense that we agree animals have the right to a decent quality of life, edible food, clean water and freedom from pain. What we’re against are the “animal rights extremists,” who in fact in many cases don’t seem to care about the animals at all. It does our cause a lot of harm that we publicly label them as “animal rights” people — which is, of course, a term we should reserve for ourselves.
Never before have purebred dogs been subjected to as much scrutiny as in the past few years. Some of that attention obviously has an ulterior motive of discrediting us, trying to make what we do seem like a suspect, even unethical, activity. Why anyone would initiate such a smear campaign isn’t clear. Who could possibly have anything against the fact that we try to breed the best dogs we can, or that we enjoy getting together to show these dogs to each other, often in front of a more or less befuddled public? It would seem like a pretty harmless activity, right? Of course there are always dog-haters, people who can’t accept the fact that we want to share our lives with four-footed friends — but why single out purebred dogs? The “snob factor” can admittedly be a little difficult to take sometimes, but that really isn’t the main reason we like the dogs we have, is it? We just happen to enjoy the company of certain kinds of dogs that, physically and temperamentally, fit our lifestyle. What’s so bad about that?
It would be a huge mistake to discredit all the attention that’s directed at us, however. A lot of people who love dogs, including purebreds, are concerned about their health and the possibility that perhaps purebred dogs today are not as healthy as they used to be. A major reason for believing this, as far as I can understand, is that the gene pool for any “pure” breed is necessarily limited, and will inevitably be shrinking with each generation, resulting in genetic drift and the doubling up on undesirable characteristics. Over many decades, now over a century in some breeds, what effect will that have?
However, unless reliable comparisons from long ago exist (and they don’t, in any breed that I am aware of), we really can’t know for sure. It’s more a suspicion, based on a general feeling and anecdotal evidence that our dogs need more veterinary care and are affected by more illnesses now than in the past. Could that impression be based on the fact that we all undeniably know more about diseases than we used to? Or that we communicate much better with each other today, via the Internet, so we know a lot more about the dogs we bred (and that others bred, too) than we did years ago? Is the problem a polluted environment that causes certain illnesses, or is it simply that veterinary care has advanced so far that it’s possible to diagnose and treat diseases that in the past nobody would have been aware existed?
Breeders’ Health Records
These are big questions. I wish breeders’ health records from 25 or 50 years ago still existed, but usually they don’t. Even if they did, how complete and reliable would they be, and would the breeder in question be willing to share them, warts and all? (And not just warts, but serious problems as well.)
Since I myself have, in fact, bred dogs for nearly 50 years, it made sense to take a look back at my own dogs’ health history. They illustrate quite well both what you may find, and what you probably can’t. I kept pretty careful records — or at least what in the past were considered careful records. Some breeders just scribble down an address of a pet puppy’s new owner, and then lose that after a few years (or months), but I bred rather seldom, barely one litter per year on average, so record-keeping wasn’t as laborious for me as it would have been for a bigger breeder.
It took a few hours to pull the data together, dragging out the big binder I used for recording details about the puppies I bred in the past, before switching to a simple Word file on my computer about 20 years ago. The information is not nearly as complete as I wish it were, which is partly my fault (for not following up more diligently), partly inevitable (puppy buyers move away, lose touch or don’t respond to inquiries). There was also the feeling in the past that these details weren’t that important, because health could simply be taken for granted — although I now wonder if we were just ignorant or fooling ourselves. My numbers aren’t large enough to provide a statistically valid source anyway, but for what it’s worth here are some details of what a single (and in this case, small in numbers but long in years) breeder can compile.
Since the first one in 1966, I have bred 43 litters of Whippets. (This does not include a few early litters of Afghan Hounds and Greyhounds, because I have no recent comparative data.) Fifteen of the litters were co-bred with others, which may explain why some records are missing. These litters resulted in 248 puppies that lived beyond the first 24 hours, 137 males and 111 bitches. That’s an average of only 5.7 live puppies per litter, which seems like a rather low number, but varied from just two puppies in a couple of litters to several with 10 or 11 puppies. All of them were successfully reared by their dams (sometimes with a little help from another bitch).
Interestingly, litter size appears to have increased in recent decades. However, there were also 21 puppies — one for nearly every second litter — that were either born dead or culled within the first 24 hours. I’m not sure if that’s more than average; probably not, and that figure has remained stable over all these years. Five of the stillborn puppies were in the three litters that were born by C-section; none of these dams were bred from again. Most bitches were only bred once or twice; three who were particularly good mothers produced three litters each.
Of the puppies that survived the first few weeks, all except two or three grew to adult age, as far as I know. (It’s impossible to be certain, but a puppy buyer who loses his dog within the first year or so would almost certainly notify the breeder, even if he doesn’t stay in touch later.) One was lost during routine surgery under anesthesia at 4 months, and one was killed in traffic. At least 15 of the male puppies were monorchid or cryptorchid; there were probably more, but this would be difficult to confirm unless you stay in touch with the pet owner. That was disappointing for owners who had hoped to show their dogs, of course, but caused no medical problems for the dogs.
Average Life Span
The average life span of the adults I have information about was 12 years, excluding seven that were killed in accidents, but including a couple that died young of various diseases, as well as several that lived past 15 and even 16 years of age. The average age will most likely increase in the future, as at least a dozen dogs I bred since 1998 are still alive and well at 12 to 14 years of age.
What was interesting to me, studying these records for the first time in years, was a conclusion that I can’t prove but seems pretty clear: on the one hand, more dogs have been affected by various inheritable (or reportedly inheritable) diseases in the last 20 years than in the first 27, while on the other hand contemporary dogs that were not affected lived longer lives than those born earlier. In the 1960s and ‘70s, it was considered normal for a Whippet to die “of old age” by around 10 or 12 years of age; today it’s not unusual for them to live several years longer than that.
It’s difficult to find comparative figures, but I came across records for a mostly unrelated Whippet population in England and Australia from the 1950s and ‘60s. The average life span of these dogs was nearly 9 years. Cause of death is not listed, but this quite possibly includes death by accident, which would of course affect the figure.
I’m not going into detail about the problems that have affected dogs I bred over the past 20 years or so; it’s sufficient to say there were individual cases of diseases I never even knew existed. As they say, “If you breed long enough you’re sooner or later going to come across pretty much everything…” The one problem that was in any way consistent was heart disease, which shortened the lives of a total of five dogs, including most tragically one 18-month-old youngster. We’re talking about a very small percentage, of course; it’s true that a Whippet is more likely to be killed in a traffic accident than by congestive heart failure, but that’s still a frightening figure. Furthermore, I know I’m not the only breeder to have had experiences like those above. This makes sense, of course, since no breeder is an island, and the lines I’ve bred from come from the same foundation as most leading kennels in America. Conscientious Whippet breeders test their dogs, use common sense and keep hoping for the best — but is that the best we can do?
What I wonder, though, is whether these problems were always around, although I was unaware of them. That famous dog, born in 1971, who was put to sleep at 9 and a half “because he kept coughing” — what did he actually die of? There are other cases where I wish I had asked specific questions and demanded clear answers, but like most others in those days I didn’t. That makes the present situation more difficult to assess.
A Limited Gene Pool
An overseas breeder friend puts it well: “Purebred dogs in general share a limited gene pool, and conditions like [those we discussed] are likely to appear in almost all breeds sooner or later. Whippets are no exception, but we are lucky in so far as we have never limited our genes to certain colour patterns and may thus have a healthier genetic makeup than many other breeds. Fifteen years ago I thought it was really bad to produce so many monorchids in the […] litters we bred then. Well, monorchids seem a minor problem [compared] to some other conditions lurking out there!”
So are purebreds finished? Not by a long shot. But a lot of well-educated people are convinced we’re on a slippery road to ruin. I don’t see how anyone can be sure without having access to comparative records from the past, but nevertheless this is a serious subject that every breeder needs to learn more about.
There’s no shortage of genetics experts, scientific papers and websites out there. The problem is most of them are not necessarily easy for mere mortals to understand, without specialized knowledge and education. Writing about them all would require an additional several columns, but I want to mention them anyway as suggested further reading. Here are some references:
You may know her as the brilliant show dog photographer Carol Beuchat, but Carol also has a doctorate and runs a website on molecular genetics that’s worth studying: www.carolbeuchat.com. Quote: “… we’re learning a lot about canine genetics that can be put to good use by dog breeders. Identifying the gene behind a particular trait can now be done using cheek swabs from a few dozen animals in a few months or even weeks. We can begin identifying the genes associated with non-Mendelian and polygenic traits. This is information dog breeders can start using to take some of the guesswork out of breeding, to make better predictions about the qualities in their next litter, and to breed healthier, happier dogs.”
Jo Thompson, Ph.D. penned the article, “How many Founders does it take to make a Breed,” which discusses the minimum number of unrelated founders required to establish a long-term, viable population of any breed. The number, according to this paper, varies from five to 50 depending on the source and species. It was originally published at www.modernbasenji.com.
“Managing the Genetic Health of the Basenji Population,” by Robert C. Lacy, Ph.D., and Beuchat, is a response to the above paper, with focus on the question of how many dogs are required to rescue a breed population at risk for extinction — typically 20. The Basenji is one of very few breeds where a large population of animals from which the founders were originally drawn still exists. Groups of imports from Africa have been incorporated into the AKC Stud Book in recent years, and the AKC Board of Directors has voted to keep the Stud Book open through 2020.
“Genetics Selection Evolution” consists of research into the history and structure of the closed pedigreed population of Icelandic Sheepdogs; go to www.gsejournal.org.
“Population structure and genetic diversity of worldwide Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever and Lancashire Heeler dog populations,” by K. Mäki, is another interesting piece. We don’t have Heelers at AKC shows, and Tollers are still fairly rare, but this is interesting, if heavy, reading. The summary explains that “more than 50 percent of the genetic diversity in the reference populations was explained by two ancestors in the [Tollers] and five in [Heelers].” The author states it’s necessary to use unregistered farm dogs in breeding Heelers, and outcrossing with another breed in Tollers.
“The State of the Irish Wolfhound,” by Pernille Monberg, a Danish breeder and researcher, points out that the average life span in her breed now is around 6.5 years. Interestingly, she mentions the famous Ch. O’Leary, about whom it was written as early as in 1916 that “a large number of O’Leary’s progeny died of heart trouble, as he did also.”
Lorna J. Kennedy, Ph.D., whose paper “DLA Diversity in Dog Breeds” puts the Standard Poodle in focus. Among her conclusions is that almost every Standard Poodle in the world today goes back to the Wycliffe kennel of the 1960s in Canada.
“The Golden Retriever Club of America National Health Survey 1998-1999” is now dated, but still interesting.