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(written for Dog World, Aug ? 2008)

It was with trepidation that I awaited the showing of the film on pedigree dogs to be shown on BBC TV last Tuesday. The producer, Jemima Harrison, writes extensively on a canine genetics internet list and has visited me twice in recent months. I therefore knew her views on aspects of pedigree dog breeding, and found much in agreement, but I began to feel concerned that her approach might do more harm than good.

My first reaction to the programme was one of relief that my own breed, Boxers, had got off quite lightly. A second was one of eye-opening horror at some of the sights and breeder/judgesí views presented in other breeds. Then I felt the KC took a battering but I am sure that few of us could have come out well against the type of questioning, and the editing. And, of course the whole programme was unbalanced as it did not show anything of the efforts made by individual breeds or the KC to deal with the problems that do exist in pedigree dogs.

I have been involved with dogs all my life. I have therefore lived through the development of many of the breed extremes highlighted in the film, yet I have to confess to an increasing sense of dismay at many breed deviations I now witness at shows. However, like everybody else, I have barely noticed the changes as they developed slowly over the years. So, despite some 30 years of dealing with dog genetic disease, I found that I have become fairly inured to the extremes of the dog show world. But Jemima Harrisonís film really hit me. I was appalled at what she was able to show. I phoned around some dog people immediately after the showing and found them of like mind. At the genetics lab where I have worked there was shocked interest. Vets I work with simply acknowledged the observations as long-known. My doctor, friends and family were appalled. So this film had huge impact as was surely intended but I am sure that the intention was shock breeders and the KC into recognising what has been happening and shake us into doing something.

With such a scenario I think it would be a very negative action to nit-pick and find flaws in the presentation. The wake up call is the important thing and should not be dismissed. But where there are possibilities to help understanding the problems and resolving what might be done I think comment is worthwhile.

My own breed
To come clean on my own breed, Boxers were identified as having high levels of inbreeding. Too true, and I think most breeders are already aware of how difficult it is nowadays to find an outcross even in a numerically large breed. White puppies: well I think every modern-day Boxer breeder knows how to avoid producing whites, but they donít because of the perceived need for successful show dogs to have flashy white markings (and therefore carry the gene). Itís crazy, but I think most whites find pet homes these days, whereas 50 years ago they were put down at birth without a secondís thought and were never spoken about. Heart problems: Boxer breeders brought these to attention themselves and are dealing with them through breeding control schemes that should be effective. Cancer: quite true, but cancer is rife in Boxers world-wide; it has been with us since the origins of the breed and I suspect every Boxer is predisposed to this awful disease. Epilepsy: why did the film show a Boxer with epilepsy? Inherited epilepsy is not recognised in UK Boxers.

The major focus for attack in the film was inbreeding. It was projected as the procedure most responsible for the problems of pedigree dogs. But letís break this up a bit. It has been known for decades that inbreeding leads to loss of vigour and decline in health and fertility. There is no question about this; its fact. But is it obvious in dogs? I donít think so. In my breed I have been amazed at how well inbreeding is tolerated. Statistical loss in fertility and lower puppy survival is hard to recognise without large numbers of dogs; and most of us donít have large numbers. This is not to say I condone inbreeding; anything but. However inbreeding has been ingrained in dog breeder psyche from the beginning and it hard to break, even when it is possible to show that it is NOT the most successful way to breed show stock. More worrying is the situation for numerically smaller and frailer breeds. I am sure Steve Jones is right when he said there will be a ďuniverse of sufferingĒ ahead with continued inbreeding. Basically such breeds may well become extinct in readersí lifetimes without intervention. Outcrossing to other related breeds may be necessary.

Increasing frequencies of mutations
Inbreeding and popular sire effects were also tied in with a perceived increase in mutations. But this is a two-edged sword. Such inbreeding allows simply inherited defects to be detected in families rather than as uninformative one-off occurrences throughout the breed. The inheritance can therefore be established and breeding control measures set in place. Control procedure are not rocket science, but are simply a way of ensuring that any popular sires are free of the inherited disease, reversing the effect. But there are other reasons for a perceived increase in mutations. Breeder awareness, veterinary attention, technical improvements also contribute to this perceived increase. But it is not necessarily a real increase. It is just that all of us, breeders, vets, researchers, are looking harder at our dogs. Should we be lambasted for recognising and tackling the problems that we have recognised? Here, I sympathise with the poor Cavaliers with their mitral valve disease. This being a late onset disease it is the hardest of all to deal with and, as this problem seems to have a world-wide distribution, there would seem to be no easy way out. Surveys carried out among the progeny of different sires, in different lines, and different countries might point a way forward.

Selectional faults
Finally we come to the most dramatic part of the programme where we were faced with what Mike Stockman astutely used to call selectional faults, the results of breeding for extremes. How can championship show judges present hideously gross abnormality as being normal and desirable and to the standard of the breed? I think breeders involved may have to totally rethink these breeds or they will bring down the whole world of pedigree dogs. This is the main problem for pedigree dogs. I wonít say more.

Cavalier syringomielia
Again, I do feel sorry for the Cavaliers. On top of their heart disease they now have this truly horrific disease, syringomielia, which seems to have increased in incidence world-wide over the last 10 or so years, and there is no obvious clue as to its cause. The breed is quite delightful, ideal for many families, and is not extreme in any way. So where is the root of the problem? I have seen a hundred or so pedigrees of syringomielia cases and there are no indications of inbreeding or popular sire effects. So what is going on? I am inclined to think that despite the outward normality of these dogs there has been selection for a skull or head type that predisposes to the disease. Breeder comparison of Cavalier heads of today with those of 30 years ago might give the answer. Were this hypothesis correct, reverse selection over another 10 years could largely rectify the problem.

So, where are we with this film? I truly believe that Jemima has given us a long-overdue wake up call. I think her film shocked us all. There will surely be collateral damage in the general public reaction, but Iím afraid we deserve it. I would nevertheless agree with Jeff Sampson that most pedigree dogs are healthy, but too many are not, and too many breeds certainly are not. Breeders need to be convinced that inbreeding is NOT the best way for successful show breeding and is indeed something that should be avoided. But to deal with inherited diseases breeders need all the veterinary, genetic, and KC help they can get. However, with selectional faults the difficulty is that the problems are not even recognised by breeders. Something has got to change or the European Convention, which has already achieved the banning of tail docking, will step in and some breeds may be wiped out.

The KC feels it cannot enforce change for fear of losing breeder support. But from my experience I think the mass of breeders donít understand the lack of more positive action from the KC. I would say there would be strong grass roots support -across breeds - for greater KC action on selectional faults.

Jemima, I think you have done more good than harm, and thank you for my wake up call.

Bruce Cattanach
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