If there’s anything we dog people feel more strongly about than health in our beloved pets, I don’t know what it would be. Last week’s article, “Inbreeding: A Force for Good — or a Skeleton in Our Closet?” generated a lot of response, both to the website and via emails sent directly to me. They can roughly be divided into those who feel that inbreeding is something that should simply not be allowed, and those who feel that, carefully used, it can yield terrific results, both health-wise and in other respects.

First, a personal disclosure: I’m trying to keep my own opinions out of this and report objectively, but I have a long background as a breeder (nearly 50 years and exactly 50 litters), so although I’m not claiming great expertise as a geneticist, I have learned something from practical experience. Like most breeders, I have both linebred and outcrossed, with varying degrees of success, and only rarely resorted to direct inbreeding, which never had any dire consequences health-wise. However, I am very much aware that I may have been lucky, and would never advocate anyone resorting to inbreeding unless they are extremely experienced and know the lines they are dealing with very well.

In view of comments that what we see of a dog in the show ring may not be borne out when you know it better, I contacted the two breeders responsible for the Best in Show winners at Westminster and Crufts – the inbred Affenpinscher and the strongly linebred Petit Basset Griffon Vendéen. Both breeders were kind enough to respond immediately. What they have to say bears thinking about. Also, because the Golden Retriever was singled out by some comments for having health problems, I contacted that breed’s parent club and am pleased to include its response in this column.

Banana Joe with Mieke after winning his first big all-breed BIS under judge Angel Miguel Martinez from Argentina. Photo by Roberto.

Best at Westminster: A Healthy Monkey Dog

First, let’s focus on the Affenpinscher GCh. Banana Joe v. Tani Kazari, who won Best in Show at Westminster Kennel Club in February. Joe’s breeder and owner, Mieke Cooijmans of the Netherlands, says that when you inbreed you must, of course, first of all start with exceptionally healthy parents. Breeding is always a risk, even when you outcross, so you just have to make the best of it.

Mieke says: “Thanks for that wonderful article! At last someone is saying it as it is! Joe’s sire, Ch. Kyleakin Space Cowboy, who has sired seven very healthy BIS winners, is nearly 13 years old now and is healthy, in wonderful shape, and the first one to look for his food in the morning. He has never been sick a day in his life. The only times he’s had to visit a veterinarian were when getting the required shots for his annual ‘passport’ to travel to foreign shows.

Mieke and her friend Carin with Joe after winning his first specialty BIS as a youngster. Photo courtesy of Mieke Cooijmans.

“The same goes for Joe’s mother, who is also totally healthy: Bling Bling v. Tani Kazari, who is now 8 years old, maybe a bit fat, but never sick, a healthy, small, sturdy girl. She also produced another litter by her nephew, BIS multi Ch. Shaka Zulu v. Tani Kazari, the son of Bling Bling’s litter sister Tinkerbell. That litter gave us another BIS winner, Ch. Billy Bongo v. Tani Kazari, his brother multi Ch. Little Caesar, and their sister multi Ch. Che Cheeta v. Tani Kazari.

“Bling Bling’s litter by her sire, Space Cowboy (the Joe litter), consisted of three puppies, all males, and all three grew up to be healthy, beautiful little dogs who became champions very quickly. So we are happy that Joe is a dog who hopefully carries his father and mother’s genes to the fullest. And we kept a close eye on not only Joe, but also on his litter brothers. All are healthy, happy boys who have never been sick, all have great temperaments, and all three are close to the breed standard in looks. What more could we wish?

Banana Joe’s sire, Ch. Kyleakin Space Cowboy and a friend posing for a magazine. Photo courtesy of Mieke Cooijmans.

“Of course, future breedings to Joe will be outcrosses, as he himself is an inbred dog, and we are aware that we can’t go on along those lines. It is also not permitted by the Dutch kennel club, which has strict rules about not allowing inbreeding or strong line breeding anymore (first or second generation). In any case, it would be too risky, and the reason we did it was to prove that when you base your breeding on health and looks, there is nothing wrong with a linebred dog, as long as the parents are healthy. With a small breed population, as in Affenpinschers, it is as risky to outcross to a line you’re not familiar with as it is to do a linebreeding.

“I really think it’s a shame if linebreeding would not be allowed, but I know it’s a case where everyone has a different opinion. Mother Nature did everything all by herself in the past, and that made certain we survived…”

Petit Basset Griffon Vendéens ‘Jilly,’ Ch. Soletrader Peek A Boo, at left, enjoys a post-Crufts victory moment at home with her dam ‘Dizzy,’ Ch. Soletrader My Aphrodisiac. Photo by Gavin Robertson.

Jilly, the Crufts Winner

Gavin Robertson, breeder-owner of ‘Jilly,’ Ch. Soletrader Peek A Boo, the Petit Basset Griffon Vendéen whom he handled to BIS at Crufts, was judging in Italy this past weekend, but he still took the time to tell us of Jilly’s background and the state of health in her family.

This is what he says: “I cannot tell you how proud we are of Jilly. She is an once-in-a-lifetime dog, and winning Crufts really was a dream come true.

“I’m sure there will always be some who wish to attack linebreeding. Usually they are the ones who don’t have any continuity in their own breeding programs. Anyway, as a breed, the PBGV is pretty healthy. The two issues we have to deal with are epilepsy and POAG (primary open-angle glaucoma). Obviously, as a breeder who likes doing linebreeding, one needs to be extra careful, since the bad can come out as well as the good. The status on the eyes in this line is very easy to check, and ours are all clear. Since we began testing in the U.K. over 15 years ago, some lines have had issues, but Jilly’s pedigree, thankfully, has been good and clear to date. Once they reach the age of 7 years of age, they hardly ever get POAG.

Jilly posing for photographers with Gavin and Hound Group judge Ben Reynolds-Frost and FCI judge Carla Molinari at Crufts 2013. Photo by Karl Donvil.

“Jilly’s grandmother Grace [Ch. Willowbrae Amazing Grace for Afterglow], who sadly died last year at 13 years old, was fit and healthy all of her life, and she had three good litters without any problems. Grace’s daughter Aphrodisiac [Ch. Soletrader My Aphrodisiac, ‘Dizzy’], Jilly’s mom, who is the past breed record holder, is also clear, and again fit and healthy, living in my house with her daughter Jilly (now the joint breed record holder with her mum). Bugs Bunny [Ch. Soletrader Bugs Bunny] is ‘Dizzy’s brother and, apart from him being fat in the pet home where he lives near us, is clear too. He sired a few litters, and again there have been no issues to my knowledge.

“Jilly has had her eyes tested and is currently clear. None of the dogs in her family have had epilepsy or produced cases of this to the best of my knowledge.

“On Jilly’s father’s side, Cappuccino [Ch. Cappuccino v. Tum-Tums Vriendjes] has been eye tested twice and is clear. His sire Björn [Ch. Soletrader Björn Borg] has not only had his eyes tested and is of an age when he is unlikely to have a problem now, but his hips and heart were tested as well when he lived in Canada. His co-owner there, Wendy, does lots of tests, as coming from Old English Sheepdogs she is hyper-cautious on health.

Gavin and Jilly on their way to winning BIS at Crufts 2013. Photo by Karl Donvil.

“Björn’s father [Ch. Vilauddens Ask] is a Swedish champion dog who is still alive at 13, I think, and his owners report he is in fine fettle for his age. Björn’s mother, Penelope Pitstop [Ch. Afterglow Penelope Pitstop], is still alive; she is the only sister of Woody Woodpecker, who lives with my mother. Both are still well and active. Woody did sire a couple of cases of epilepsy, and since then he has not been used at stud, but we have frozen semen from him, and when we finally get a DNA test for epilepsy I will decide if and where I use it. Penelope, as I said, is fine. She produced a male who went to the U.S.A. that got PLL (primary lens luxation), but professor Bedford, who is the world authority on POAG, looked at the tests when I sent them to him, and he was pretty sure it was POAG. [The distinction between PLL and POAG is not clear-cut in all cases. –Ed.]

“So basically, with very few exceptions, Jilly’s pedigree is fine. However, what I say to everyone who uses my dogs at stud or has a puppy from me is that there is no such thing as a safe pedigree for health. As we do not yet know the mode of inheritance for epilepsy, it is impossible to say that any pedigree in the breed worldwide is safe. As for eyes, it’s on a similar note, although we, as a breed, know more about this and are aware that certain lines are problematic.

“I will continue to linebreed when possible, and use an outcross male every few generations. Like I’ve done in the past, it is the only way to maintain type and continuity. Something I am very proud of is the fact that I’m told regularly that people can tell what a Soletrader dog looks like anywhere in the world. This can only be achieved by linebreeding.

“I am in the process of setting up a PBGV world health committee to try and improve open, fair and honest dialog between clubs. So far the countries that have agreed to participate are the U.K., U.S.A., Denmark, Finland, Holland, Australia and Germany, and with 99 percent certainty Sweden will also be on board soon. At our most recent world congress (held in the U.K. in November 2012), we announced that the Animal Health Trust in the U.K. was working with the University of Missouri and the University of Helsinki in Finland on both epilepsy and POAG. The Animal Health Trust [is] now doing secondary testing on the DNA samples as [it feels] they are very close to finding a marker for POAG. This would be a huge help to the breed for sure.”

The Golden Retriever is the focus of an ongoing $1 million, three-year study led by premier cancer researchers in partnership with the Golden Retriever Foundation and Morris Animal Foundation. Photo by Madrabothair/Dreamstime.

The Cancer Scare in Golden Retrievers

One reader mentioned the high incidence of cancer in Golden Retrievers. My immediate reaction was to wonder at what age the dogs are affected and how long their lives are. There is, of course, a huge difference between being struck down by a deadly disease in the prime of life and having it occur at the end of a long and hopefully otherwise healthy life. I was also wondering what, if anything, is being done to improve the situation, so I contacted the Golden Retriever Club of America’s health committee, which sent the following response from GRCA Research Facilitator Rhonda Hovan and GRCA Health & Genetics Committee Chair Ann Hubbs, D.V.M., Ph.D.:

“Thank you for contacting us and giving us an opportunity to provide more complete information regarding cancer in Golden Retrievers. While it is true that approximately 60 percent of Golden Retrievers die from cancer, the average lifespan in the breed is still 11 years, which is similar to other breeds of equivalent height and body mass. For perspective, it should be noted that cancer is the cause of death of approximately 50 percent of all dogs over the age of 10 years, including both purebred and mixed bred dogs. In addition, data indicate that after excluding the 14 most common causes of death among Goldens (and this includes all of the common cancers in the breed), average life span in the remaining dogs was increased by less than 6 months, to 11.4 years.

“Nonetheless, we take the incidence of cancer in Golden Retrievers very seriously, and have devoted unprecedented resources to research to improve cancer prevention, diagnosis and therapy. There is evidence suggesting that the two most common cancers in the breed, hemangiosarcoma and lymphoma, have a heritable component, although breeders currently have no tools to help them reliably and reproducibly reduce the risk of cancer. For this reason, these cancers are the focus of an ongoing $1 million, three-year study led by premier canine cancer researchers Jaime Modiano, V.M.D., Ph.D., at the University of Minnesota; Matthew Breen, Ph.D., at North Carolina State University; and Kerstin Lindblad-Toh, Ph.D., at the Broad Institute of MIT and Uppsala University, Sweden. This study is funded in partnership between the Golden Retriever Foundation (GRF) and Morris Animal Foundation, and these scientists are working together to investigate mutations that are involved in risk and progression of hemangiosarcoma and lymphoma in Golden Retrievers.

“A study of this scope and magnitude has never been done before in dogs – yet GRF is about to fund another major study, this time in partnership with the AKC Canine Health Foundation (AKC CHF). The GRF and the AKC CHF are in the final stages of selecting another approximately $1 million research project that will have a similar focus on cancers that are common in Goldens. It is anticipated that other breeds will also benefit from these two research projects, and possibly human health as well.

“In support of these and other research studies, the Golden Retriever community has responded by providing both blood samples (for germ-line DNA) and tumor samples in likewise unprecedented numbers. Blood samples are collected each year at the GRCA National Specialty, and these are sent to both the CHIC DNA Repository and the Broad Institute. Goldens have by far the most DNA samples (about 4,000) of any breed available to researchers.

“In addition, Golden owners have sent many hundreds of tumor samples (approximately 800) to researchers investigating cancer. GRCA and GRF are known in the scientific community for their strong support of health research – both financially and through recruitment of owner participation. This is one reason that Golden Retrievers were selected by the Morris Animal Foundation as the pilot breed for yet another groundbreaking study, the Golden Retriever Lifetime Study. This ongoing study will enroll 3,000 Goldens age 6 months to 2 years and follow them for their lifetimes, collecting data via biological samples, veterinary examination and owner surveys to help identify potentially modifiable risk factors for cancer and other diseases.

“These are several of the major and most current research projects supported by GRCA, GRF, and their members and donors. These add to a very long list of other CHF and Morris studies supported through the years. We endeavor to be vigilant and proactive as caretakers of every aspect of our breed, with health concerns certainly at the top of the list.

“We invite all Golden owners and fanciers to join with us in these efforts, and additional information regarding health topics and research can be found on the GRCA website www.grca.org or the Golden Retriever Foundation website www.goldenretrieverfoundation.org.”

Finally, I have received so much interesting and potentially useful information about the health situation in various breeds that I think we’ll have reason to revisit this subject in future articles. After all, is there anything more important?

As they say, if you haven’t got your health, you really have nothing… That’s where it all begins and ends, quite literally.

Your comments, as usual, are welcome.

Part III of Bo Bengtson’s series on breeding and health will take a more personal look at this important issue. it will publish on Friday, April 5.