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(updated 2012 from Boxer Showcase, Dog World, 2008)
Bruce Cattanach and Paul Wotton

 General comments

In considering how the problem of UK Boxer cardiomyopathy (BCM), more recently defined as arrhythmogenic right ventricular cardiomyopathy (ARVC), may be resolved it should be noted that:

1. The disease is believed to have a dominant single gene inheritance meaning that only one parent may responsible for affected pups in a litter.
2. The gene has a variable penetrance, meaning that clinical signs of disease does not always develop when the gene is present.  Clinical signs of BCM can therefore appear to skip generations.
3. The disease appears to show variation in expression meaning that the course of the disease may be different both within and between lines:
  a. In one major family group (Family 1), the effects may occur early and be severe, with a rapid deterioration of heart function causing bloating (abdominal enlargement due to fluid accumulation, known as ascites), coughing, and exercise intolerance. The median age of death is under 4 years.  There is, however, a ‘tail’ to the distribution with cases also being detected at ages up to 9 years or more, and some dogs that carry the gene may never develop the disease.
  b. In two other families (Families 2 & 3) the first symptoms appear less severe and have a later onset.  There may be episodic collapse (fainting), and arrhythmias (irregular heart rhythms) before other more serious signs of heart failure (as above) appear as the disease progresses.  The most serious signs may never develop. The median age of death in these families is about 7 yrs.
  c. The most recent evidence suggests possible reasons for the differing age of incidence between the families.  These include a different gene being involved (unlikely), a higher incidence of homozygosity for the gene in Family 1 (possible), or an influence by some other gene (possible).
  d. Sporadic (non-familial) cases of cardiomyopathy may also occur and may be attributable to viruses, thyroid problems, or other unknown causes.  These cases have commonly involved older animals.
4. Veterinary diagnosis for BCM relies upon a range of examinations, these including:
  a. Auscultation - to listen for abnormal heart sounds (e.g. murmurs due to leaking valves) and irregular rhythm,
  b. Troponin blood testing - to indicate heart muscle damage.  This assay offers a simple pre-screen for BCM but elevated levels could disease elsewhere in the body affecting the heart secondarily.  It is not a specific test for BCM.
  c. Ultrasound (echocardiography) and X-ray imaging to detect abnormalities of the heart, both size, and function.
  d. Standard ECG and 24 hour ECG (“Holter”) monitoring - to detect arrhythmias. Holter currently offers the best prospective early screen for signs of the disease. A positive Holter result indicates abnormality but further veterinary testing for a definitive diagnosis may also be needed as disease other than BCM may also cause arrhythmias.  It is also important to recognize that a negative result only means that a dog does not have detectable signs of BCM at the time of testing; it does NOT mean that a dog does not carry the gene.  Annual testing of dogs with  known BCM carriers in their pedigrees is therefore a basic requirement.
  e. For a full diagnosis, a selection of auscultation, echocardiography,  ECG analysis, and Holter monitoring, together with routine blood tests to rule out other causes of arrhythmias is needed.
  f. Final confirmation of diagnosis can be obtained by post mortem  detailed pathological examination of the heart by a pathologist used to examining the heart when fibro-fatty deposits in the heart muscle, primarily on the right side of the heart, provide the definitive diagnosis.
5. Research in America has identified a mutation in the gene for striatin which has been thought to be responsible for BCM/ARVC.  However, the mutation appears to be widely distributed in UK Boxers where it is found in near-equal frequencies among affected dogs and among unaffected dogs from clear lines.  It therefore does not appear to be responsible for the disease in UK Boxers (see Canine Publications, below). Further research, this time using UK dogs, is however in progress.
6. At present progeny analysis remains the only method of determining if a seemingly unaffected Boxer carries the gene responsible for BCM.

Preliminary risk assessment

Before considering breeding control procedures the following points should be noted:

    1. Animals at risk of developing and transmitting the disease are those with affected ancestors defined as either those that suffered BCM or those known to transmit it
    2. The level of risk of an affected ancestor passing BCM on to its descendents depends upon the distance back in the pedigrees (see below).
    3. Checking on the health of siblings of ‘in-line’ ancestors (those between the affected ancestor and the subject dog) can greatly aid assessment of risk to the individual.

Therefore, the first action should be screen relatives of risk animals in the pedigree.

Risks of an animal carrying the gene for BCM

When either the sire or the dam

is a proven transmitter or is clinically affected
is a proven transmitter or is clinically affected
Sibs of such a parent 
1st generation progeny
2nd generation progeny
3rd generation progeny 12%
4th generation progeny 6%
5th generation progeny 3%

Thus, the risks of an animal carrying the gene for BCM declines, on average, by 50% with every generation.  This sets the basis for the following breeding recommendations.


Breeding recommendations

The listed procedures have the joint aim of reducing the incidence of cardiomyopathy in the breed and attempting to ‘rescue’ individual animals at risk because of pedigree.

  1.  Dogs/bitches that have been proven affected or proven to transmit BCM should be

    - immediately withdrawn from further breeding, and
    -  recognised as a risk source in pedigrees. 

It should be noted here that only ONE parent of an affected litter is necessarily involved.

  1.  The immediate relatives of carriers (brothers, sisters, and 1st generation progeny – each with a 50% risk of carrying the gene),

    - should also be withdrawn from breeding
    - unless it can be shown by progeny testing that they do not in fact carry the gene

    3.   Thereafter, in the case of bitches:
  a. 2nd and 3rd generation animals should only be bred from (to ‘clear’ dogs) –and only if they are essential to the breeder.  In this case the following actions should be taken:
    i. there should be a rapid turn-over of generations;
    ii. there should normally be only one litter per generation;
    iii. only one puppy (bitch) should normally be kept from each litter;
    iv. all surplus pups should have their KC registrations endorsed, ‘Progeny not eligible for registration’, with Kennel Club-required supporting letters.
It should be noted that even with these procedures there is a risk that BCM may appear, but the risk of this will decline by 50%, on average, in each succeeding generation.
  b. 4th and later generation bitches may be ‘considered’ safe to breed from but their own health and that of their progeny should continue to be carefully monitored for any signs of BCM. The procedures for 3rd generation bitches could, for greater safety, still be usefully applied
4. In the case of dogs:
  a. 2nd and 3rd generation dogs should not be offered at stud unless:
    i. progeny testing (see later) is planned or already executed and so proven clear,
    ii. until then, auscultation and 24h Holter monitoring should be conducted annually to screen for any indications of developing BCM,

It should be added that, although the troponin test has yet to be fully validated, it is conditionally recommended because of it low relative cost and potential value as a pre-screen system


4th and later generation dogs may be considered relatively safe to breed from (subject to reappraisal), but their own health and that of their progeny should continue to be carefully monitored, and troponin and Holter testing is still advised.

5. As a matter of standard procedure for all breeding, whether there is risk of BCM or not, it is strongly advised that:

owners of bitches should keep records of names and addresses of all puppy purchasers and confirm that they remain free from disease (until at least 5 years of age);


owners of stud dogs should likewise keep records of owners of bitches brought for stud and, through annual contact,  maintain a record on the health status of their dogs’ progeny;

  c. progeny found to have abnormalities of any kind should be immediately reported to the Breed Council Health Committee.

Test systems

1.      Progeny analysis

It should be emphasised that whereas a veterinary test may show that a dog does not have signs of cardiomyopathy, this is only valid at that moment in time and does not guarantee that a dog will remain free of the disease.  By contrast, if a stud dog has a sufficient number of progeny from bitches that are NOT at risk of carrying BCM by ancestry, then, on the basis of


a.  the 50% expectation of transmission of the gene from carriers; and

b.  the recognition that the most common type of BCM is expressed early in life.

Then, if the gene is present, a significant proportion of the progeny will be expected show the disease within the first few years of life, and these would be detected in any general health screen. 

The application of the progeny analysis has greatest application for stud dogs from the early onset family (Family 1) and having significant numbers of progeny.  The current estimate for the numbers of progeny required is 65 and the minimum progeny age (Family 1) is 4 years.  The rationale is that as the numbers of progeny increase, if all are healthy, then as progeny numbers and ages increase, the risks of BCM being present in the tested parent diminishes).  Progeny test analysis is of therefore of limited value for stud dogs that have had, or may be expected to have little stud work and is generally of no use for bitches.

An important attribute of the progeny test is that descendents of animals so cleared can be considered free of BCM risk, unless risk is introduced from another source.

2.      Troponin testing
An elevated level of troponin in the blood (>0.15ng/ml at Glasgow University; other laboratories may have different reference ranges) signifies heart muscle damage of any cause or significant arrhythmia.  As such it is being proposed as an economical pre-screen for BCM.  Although the test is still being assessed, its use is currently recommended for all dogs at risk.  It should be noted that a newer, high-sensitivity test is now coming into use in some labs, with a different cut-off.

3.      Holter monitoring

Holter monitoring offers the potential for identifying dogs that have developed arrhythmias due to BCM.  It may have its greatest use for testing stud dogs at family risk of carrying the BCM gene but may be of less use for identifying the early onset form of BCM when echocardiography is advised instead, or in addition. 

It should be noted that a normal Holter result does not establish that a dog is free of the gene; it is not even clear exactly what constitutes a normal finding.  There is variation in one critical observation, the number of ectopic, abnormal heart beats (VPCs) as the number may vary from day to day, week to week and month to month.  However, when VPCs occur in pairs or runs, this gives better evidence that BCM is likely to be developing.  Currently, <50 VPCs over a 24 hour period signifies normality, 50 – 200 VPCs represents an ambiguous result, with re-testing recommended, and >200 VPCs may be indicative of developing BCM, but the other attributes may influence the evaluation. Holter analysis and other diagnostic tests are done n consultation with cardiology referral centres.

4.       Echocardiography and radiograph

Echocardiography and X-rays allow the detection of abnormal heart function and heart enlargement, and X-rays allow the detection of heart failure (lung congestion).  As such these tests can be of use in severe early onset cases where heart failure has, or is about to develop

[note, Linda can you fix the numbering please; 4 is not in bold and I cannot get the immediate spacing right.  If I space after 4, the numbering changes]

5.        Pathological tests on post mortem heart tissue

Detailed histology testing of post mortem heart muscle shows fibro-fatty deposits that characterise BCM.  This is best undertaken in specialist laboratories such as that in Liverpool.

6.        Application forms

Forms for submitting

      • blood samples for troponin testing,
      • Holter analysis and other diagnostic tests, and
      • post-mortem heart tissue

are available on the Boxer Breed Council website (boxerbreedcouncil.co.uk).

7. Deduced carriers

A list of deduced carriers of BCM to December 2008 is available on the Breed Council website.  These should be considered established sources of BCM risk in pedigrees.  No new cases that impact the breed have been detected since this time.


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