I should start this report by stressing that all is really going well with the heart testing. Over 2500 dogs have now been graded for heart murmurs associated with aortic stenosis, and it is a credit to the breed that hardly a single one with a Grade 3 or louder murmur has been used for breeding. The consequence is that across the breed as a whole there are clear signs that the situation is improving. Thus, the proportions of dogs considered to be free of the condition is steadily edging up (though I don't yet have the results for 1996) and, more strikingly, Miss Fuentes tells me that the numbers of serious cases referred to Edinburgh have declined sharply. I am told that the latter finding could be attributable to factors other than a reducing incidence but nevertheless, to me, it signifies that the Boxer no longer stands head and shoulders above all other breeds in the aortic stenosis league as it did in the years up to the start of heart testing. The efforts to deal with aortic stenosis are proving worthwhile, and the early breeding results that continue to show that the "best" parents produce the "best" progeny are being validated in practice.
With such a scenario it has been tempting just to sit back and let the progress continue. But it seems that without some drive and momentum for continued improvement small problems become magnified and disillusionment creeps in. While I know from the data collected that across the breed as a whole everything looks good, I also know that for individual dogs and for individual owners there have been problems. Some dogs have not bred nearly as well as their grade might suggest and this has hit one or two kennels badly. And although the results of repeat testing have overall been impressively consistent, there have been notable anomalies and such cases erode confidence especially when magnified at ringside. But even I have been disturbed by some results.
In previous reports I have described the various difficulties that are encountered by the cardiologists when grading and the various biological factors that can influence the detection of the heart murmurs; and I have repeatedly made the cardiologist's point that the more sophisticated and objective Doppler echocardiography techniques are, perhaps surprisingly, less sensitive than the simple stethoscopic grading (and I'm also told that Doppler is even more subject to error in the wrong hands). Yet these are not the main problems. One important problem has been the shift in the standard of grading since the heart testing started, but never before has there been mass heart testing across a breed and this has been a major learning experience with the consequent results; there has also been variability in the scoring between different cardiologists; there has been some variability between repeat scores which although small has been perhaps outside that acceptable for applied selective breeding; and for a few dogs it might seem that no consistent score can be obtained. So, does one settle for an overall good result across the breed and just accept that there must be some faulty scoring, or try for further improvement?
I have put all the problems to Miss Fuentes and to Dr Peter Darke, who is currently chairman of the cardiovascular group of specialist vets, and to my great relief they have accepted these as a challenge. As a consequence Dr Darke is to organise a gathering of those cardiologists who have been most involved with the Boxer heart testing and the idea is for each of them to test independently some 40 to 50 dogs selected on the basis of previous scoring as falling in the groups of greatest breeder interest (mostly Grades 0, 1 and 2). They will debate their conclusions, retesting as necessary until agreement is reached. Hopefully in this way they can each learn from the experiences of others and be able to standardise the scoring yet better.
This should be a milestone event in Boxer heart testing and may be a forerunner for further such events both in our breed and in others who have taken up heart testing. I should add that it is being held at the cardiologists' own initiative and they are doing this for their own satisfaction and interest as well as for us and heart testing in general. Accordingly, there will be no financial cost to the breed. All that we are required to do is to provide the necessary dogs. Obviously this will mean a commitment in time and travel for those who wish to help. But at least the Breed Council Executive has agreed to have Council subsidise travel costs. With the needed breeder/owner support, grading problems should greatly diminish and there should no longer be possible to criticise the existing scheme on the basis of its present weaknesses.
Dr Darke has been eager to organise the event as soon as possible, perhaps in February of 1997 and a date in mid-February was provisionally accepted. However, this proved impractical. Therefore, the day has now been set as March 15th and the event will be held in the British Boxer Club's Dog Centre at Towcester Racecourse. Clearly it will be an all-day event and for this reason show-type catering has been organised by the Club.
As this report should appear at the Crufts weekend some two weeks ahead of the Towcester event and as at time of writing (Christmas) we are still under-subscribed with dogs, those breeders who might yet wish to help by bringing dogs to this highly important event should contact me immediately (Tel. 01235 835410). A problem has been that everyone seems to think I must be inundated with offers. True, some people have offered to hire vans to bring large numbers of their dogs, sometimes from great distances, but this is hardly fair. A greater spread of dogs would be appreciated.
With breeder support this should be the major event in dog heart testing and the results will have impact across all breeds concerned with heart problems. Let's hope that Boxer breeders will once again lead the way
I close on a sad note. Miss Fuentes who has put so much time and effort into helping the Boxer scheme get underway and who has been of invaluable help since, has been tempted to leave her post in Edinburgh for a top-level research and teaching job in the United States. Our loss will be America's gain. I am sure that everyone would wish to thank her for all that she has done for us and for our breed in this country and wish her well in the future. I am confident though that she will keep in touch. I understand that Miss Anne French, one of the two other Edinburgh cardiologists and who has conducted much of the recent useful research upon Boxer aortic stenosis, may take over the task of consultant to the breed on cardiovascular problems.