Tail End Charlie

I make no apology for this being one of my longer blogs as the matters with which it deals are so fundamental and have serious consequences for many dogs in the UK.

The KC has just published a report entitled What the Kennel Club does for Dog Health It is an interesting report that highlights several existing and new initiatives and includes statistics for 2016.

It starts with the following, bold statement:

“The Kennel Club is committed to ensuring that all dogs have the opportunity to lead healthy, happy lives, with responsible owners. By working collaboratively with the veterinary profession, the canine scientific world, dog welfare organisations and breed experts, the Kennel Club strives to work towards the protection of health and welfare of all dogs, both presently and in the future.”

Assured Breeder and Canine Health Schemes

The KC Assured Breeder Scheme had approximately 5,300 members who registered approximately 17,000 puppies in 2016. It is not popular among breeders and KC members, not least because the KC inspections are seen as rubber stamping the requirements already levied by local authorities for licensed breeders and for which breeders already pay an inspection fee. Many feel that they are simply paying an additional fee for something that they are doing already. Even existing members do not necessarily want to advertise on the KC website because they can already sell their puppies several times over and have no desire to be inundated with enquiries. The scheme may be of more use to new breeders without an established reputation, but then it is not necessarily representing the best breeders with years of experience behind them. The KC has limited resources and cannot police the scheme to ensure that members are not behaving in ways that are incompatible with the scheme or even that contravene KC rules.

The KC collaborate with the British Veterinary Association to run Canine Health Schemes which in 2016 evaluated 8,000 dogs for propensity to hip dysplasia, 4,500 for elbow dysplasia, 13,000 dogs for various occular disorders and 40 dogs under the Chiari Malformation/Syringomyelia scheme. Of course some overlap will happen as dogs are likely to be evaluated for both hip and elbow dysplasia and often eye problems too, so the figures do not represent discrete populations of dogs. 34,000 people accessed the online Estimated Breeding Values resource to assess the degree to which a dog may have inherited or carrried genes associated with hip or elbow dysplasia; 21,500 people looking at that part of the KC website did not therefore participate in the testing schemes. This possibility represents the wider knowledge amongst the dog-buying public about these particular inherited disorders. What they probably do not realise is that the figures that they see for specific breeds represent only a tiny fraction of dogs and then only the best scores, making breed averages effectively meaningless.

Moreover, hip and elbow dysplasia can be greatly exacerbated by environmental factors such as diet and exercise. Thus a dog with a poor score that is not overweight, is exercised appropriately and not allowed to run around on slippery surfaces or climb stairs while it is growing may not suffer too badly, whilst a dog with an excellent score that is overfed and exercised inappropriately could suffer hugely.

Whilst owners and vets can report dogs that have had Caesarean sections and conformation-altering surgery to the Kennel Club, they are under no obligation to do so. There is no concrete evidence to show that this reporting system can have any real effect in assisting dog show judges not to assess dogs with corrected hereditary defects which are usually not visible, or that it will deter breeders from breeding dogs displaying evidence of hereditary problems as the KC claim. 4,000 reports of C-sections and 650 reports of conformation operations were received by the KC in 2016 which has to be assessed in the light of the 21,000+ UK entries and nearly 4,000 overseas entries at Crufts in 2017.

Of course, only a proportion of those entries will be affected by surgical interventions. A paper was
published in the Journal of Small Animal Practice in 2010 studying the proportion of litters of purebred dogs born by Caesarean section.

The authors sampled 22,005 litters of dogs registered with the KC. The breeds with the highest Caesarean rates were the Boston terrier, bulldog (291), French bulldog (248), mastiff (359), Scottish terrier (99), miniature bull terrier (79), German wirehaired pointer (20), Clumber spaniel (73), Pekingese (98) and Dandie Dinmont terrier (57). More than 80% of Boston terriers, bulldogs and French bulldogs were born this way and half of the top ten breeds represented are brachycephalic. As a rough guideline, only a quarter of human births in England are as a result of C-section and some of those will be elective. The figures in brackets refer to the number entered in Crufts in 2017, a total of 1,324 dogs representing 5% of the total entries. As a percentage, that doesn’t sound like very many, but this only represents the breeds most likely to require a C-section and it still means that a significant number of the dogs considered to be la crème de la crème by the KC have not given (and possibly cannot) give birth naturally because of the way that KC-sanctioned breeders have altered their physique.

Having a disproportionally large head and being unable to breathe easily are just two significant reasons why this happens. Difficulty in giving birth (dystocia) has been found to be common in several studies including one from Sweden that sampled 19,931 bitches and found that the Scottish terrier, Chihuahua, Pomeranian, pug and Staffordshire bull terrier were over-represented and that 63.8% had undergone emergency procedures as a result.

Health Tests Results Finder

The KC Health Tests Results Finder enables breeders and potential puppy buyers to search for health test and screening scheme results for any registered dog. It received approximately 328,000 online visitors in 2016. Again, this probably reflects the growing awareness of the better-informed puppy buyer as well as breeders seeking information, but can only have real meaning if tests and the registering of results are compulsory. Not only do the limited results available represent a small number of dogs, even those results are skewed because there is no incentive to publish results that are less than favourable. Not all tests are created equal. The validity of some has been brought into question and, even where they are genuinely helping breeders to make ethical considerations, it is still not likely to stem the tide of increasing health problems in many breeds of dog. Progressive renal atrophy (PRA) is a common cause of blindness across several breeds of pedigree dog and tests are available. However, PRA is associated with 18 genes and 24 mutations, so no single test will be likely to pick up the presence of a problem, not only across breeds but also within breeds. Multiple tests would be required with possible referecne to specific genetic types. It seems highly unlikely that breeders will comply not least because the cost would be prohibitive. Many tests are patented which means that the price is likely to remain comparatively high for the forseeable future. Where the KC has collaborated with a specific supplier such as in the case of hip and elbow scoring, costs may be lower, but it also means that breeders are restricted to using that test if they require results to be registered. This not only prevents flexibility but means that the optimal test may not necessarily be the one that is recommended or even mandatory.

The fashion for more unusual dog breeds coupled with the comparative ease of transporting dogs across international borders with the advent of the Pet Passport Scheme is partly driving the prevalance of dogs from breeds that have been “revived” once original popoulations died out due to changes in the rural way of life and the effects of major wars when popoulations of many breeds plummeted. This has resulted in a rash of genetic diseases due to the limited number of dogs used to re-establish the population. The recently popular Dutch Kooikerhondje for example has a prevalence of patella luxation in a fifth of the entire population. Screening for affected dogs will only reduce the breeding population further and may result in even more undesireable traits emerging. A screening scheme introduced in Sweden in 2001 for mitral valve disease in Cavalier King Charles spaniels resulted in no discernable decrease of the disease eight years later.

A paper on pedigree dog health published in 2015 noted that several breeds have either no screening schemes mandated by the KC or only very basic schemes despite having a high number of known inherited disorders and having breed-specific health tests available. This includes the Boxer with 63 disorders (no mandatory screening scheme, four health tests available); the Golden Retriever with 58 disorders (two mandatory screening schemes, eight additional health tests available); the Labrador Retriever with 55 disorders (two mandatory screening schemes, twelve additional health tests available).

Breed Health and Conservation Plans (BHCP) Project

The Breed Health and Conservation Plans (BHCP) Project was launched in 2016 and is currently in the research phase. It is aimed at Breed Clubs and individual breeders and is attempting to identify health problems within breeds. 17 breeds have been prioritised in these early stages. The KC states that eventually “Each breed’s BHCP report will be the foundation by which canine health can be improved.”

It remains to be seen when the problems are so entrenched for so many breeds and of course it will only cover “Kennel Club recognised” breeds – approximately half of the breeds categorised by the Fédération Cynologique Internationale.

Three working groups have been established so far to deal with brachycephalic dogs, Cavalier King Charles Spaniel heart defects and giant and Molloser breed health.

Breed Watch Scheme

The current KC scheme that classifies “recognised” breeds in a Breed Watch Scheme is also deeply flawed and very confusing for a potential owner. It lists, for example, the Bullmastiff and the Cavalier King Charles spaniel in Category 1: “Currently no points of concern specific to this breed have been identified for special attention by judges, other than those covered routinely by the Kennel Club Breed Standard.” This is in spite of the fact that these breeds are included in two of the three working groups that have been established to examine health problems as a matter of priority and the fact that the Cavalier King Charles spaniel suffers commonly from 25 disorders, with nearly half dying from early-onset mitral valve disease.

Just two examples. The Siberian husky is in Category 2. The “points of concern for special attention by judges”? Excessively overweight or excessively underweight. Both under the control of the owner and easily remedied: feed your dog the right type and right amount of food.

The French bulldog is also in category 2. The “points of concern for special attention by judges”?

  • Difficulty breathing
  • Exaggerated roach in the top line
  • Excessively prominent eyes
  • Hair loss or scarring from previous dermatitis
  • Incomplete blink
  • Incorrect bite
  • Inverted tail
  • Lack of tail
  • Overly short neck
  • Pinched nostrils
  • Screw tail
  • Signs of dermatitis in skin folds
  • Tight tail.

Every one of those is genetic, whereas the Siberian Husky has no genetic predisposition to gain weight or indeed, not keep weight on. One might have thought that the first point alone would cause French bulldogs to be classified in the most serious category, not least because the KC have announced that registrations of this breed have seen a staggering 3,000% increase in the past decade. They might also ask where all these registered dogs are coming from given that they only have 5,300 members in their Assured Breeder Scheme across 216 breeds. 135 are listed on the KC website for the breed. According to KC figures, at current rates of increase, an estimated 28,000 dogs are expected to be registered for 2017. Clearly those breeders cannot be producing 207 puppies in a year between them, the average across the Assured Breeder Scheme being 3 puppies per member, and this is only taking into consideration registered dogs.

Sooner or later the fashion for French bulldogs will abate so what will happen to all the breeders? They will clearly not carry on producing dogs that they cannot sell, so most will either stop or move on to another popular breed. Hardly a sustainable model for developing breed expertise. The KC might rightly argue that at least they have some juristiction over the Assured Breeders but it is a tip of the iceberg and the KC could find itself sanctioning a scheme that they have no hope of actually controlling and which has no real effect on canine welfare.

Category 3 breeds are “High Profile Breeds – Breeds where some dogs have visible conditions or exaggerations that can cause pain or discomfort. The Kennel Club provides additional support for these breed representatives. Best of Breed (BOB) Veterinary Health checks at General and Group Shows are required.” Judges are told that they “… are not expected to assess dogs as a Veterinary Surgeon would. However judges should use their extensive experience and knowledge of the breed to make a considered decision where the published points of concern are present.”

There are two major problems with this approach. Often judges, breeders and competitors are one and the same. They have vested interests and conflicts of interest when, in the relatively closed world of dog showing, they may find themselves judging dogs that belong to friends and relatives as happened with a Gordon Setter at Crufts 2016 and breeds that they themselves produce, possibly perpetuating some of those very faults.

I truly believe that the vast majority of people involved in showing do not deliberately set out to compromise their dogs’ welfare. Nevertheless, it has become increasingly acceptable to breed and award prizes to dogs with vastly exaggerated features and seriously damaged health as the latest look is justified by spurious claims such as that bulldogs wrinkled faces enabled the bull’s blood to run clear or ridiculously pendulous leathers waft scent towards the hound’s nose. Breeders of pointer types that have a tendency to cleft palates even argue that it gives them superior scenting abilities. What next – five-legged dogs that are claimed to be able to run faster?

In spite of the boast of being able to trace their dog’s ancestry back for generations, breeders and owners seem not to be able to see how much their dogs diverge from those foundation sires and dams or that most go back to a very small number of dogs making gene pools very shallow indeed. They seem not to be concerned by the stentorian, strained breathing or the fact that their dogs cannot give birth naturally or walk properly because they have lost track of what a healthy dog should look like, regardless of breed. Canids range in size naturally from fox-like to the largest of the wolves. “Teacup” dogs and giant dogs suffer from serious growth and bone deformities as do those with ludicrously shortened legs and elongated backs.
A group of first year veterinary students even identified their first encounter with the X-ray of a bulldog’s skull as being from a dog that had suffered severe trauma in a road accident as they viewed the contorted dentition and crumpled skull that is not only considered to be “normal” but desirable by breeders.

Those that have attempted to change this and bred dogs to look more like those from earlier decades or dogs guaranteed to be free of health defects have mostly been vilified and expelled from their breed club or simply overlooked in the show ring.

The German Shepherd is a Category 3 breed. The “Points of concern for special attention by judges” are:

  • Cow hocks
  • Excessive turn of stifle
  • Nervous temperament
  • Sickle hock
  • Weak hindquarters.

They were all displayed by Cruaghaire Catoria in the Crufts final in 2016 even after vets and judges had passed the dog as fit for showing. The KC judges did not even adhere to their own published breed standard in this instance. This latest report publicised KC backing for research into German Shepherd gait and movement at the University of Surrey, investigating how German Shepherd Dogs stand and move which they hope will “provide information that could be of benefit to all dogs.”

Can the KC not see what a dire state of affairs we are in if it needs academic research to point out that dogs should be able to stand on their own pads rather than crawl on their hocks whilst paddling with their front legs and not have such degraded temperaments that, even if originally bred for guarding, they are scared of their own shadow?

If the KC really believes its own publicity that states that …”every dog should be bred to be fit enough to enjoy its life to the full…even if its function is solely to be a pet, [it] should be able to see, breathe and walk freely. The Kennel Club has been working over the past twenty years to improve breed health and welfare and the Fit For Function: Fit For Life campaign keeps this at the top of our agenda”, then it has to address these issues in the show ring by doing a lot more than token vet checks.

“..even if its function is solely to be a pet” says it all. If the KC is serious about wanting to represent all dogs, then it has to stop insulting the vast majority of owners by denigrating their dogs as being “just pets”, although of course, dogs sold as pets by breeders are for the most part those that they do not consider good enough to keep for breeding or showing. Lip service is paid to temperament but the focus on breeding for physical attributes brings unintended consequences for the dog’s temperament that no amount of socialisation and training can eradicate. Let’s face it, if you can’t breathe or walk properly in the first place and someone makes you stand for ages then run round a ring under hot lights in front of noisy crowds whilst wearing an exaggerated, dense coat that they have spent hours shampooing and brushing, you might be a bit crabby too. Many of those dogs kept mainly as pets live far more fulfilling lives and can be seen adding to the ranks of visiting therapy dogs, search and rescue teams and blood donors to name but three as well as being allowed to just be a dog, muddy puddles and all.

The KC are moving breeds from Category 3 into category 2, including the Clumber Spaniel and the Basset Hound. They are very vague though about concrete improvements in the health of these breeds. The Clumber for instance is still listed as having the potential for:

  • Excessive amounts of loose facial skin with conformational defects of the upper and/or lower eyelids so that the eyelid margins are not in normal contact with the eye when the dog is in its natural pose (e.g. they turn in, or out, or both abnormalities are present)
  • Obvious ear irritation
  • Overweight
  • Weak hindquarters.

The Basset is still listed as being predisposed to:

  • Excessive amounts of loose facial skin with conformational defects of the upper and/or lower eyelids so that the eyelid margins are not in normal contact with the eye when the dog is in its natural pose (e.g. they turn in, or out, or both abnormalities are present). Handlers should be discouraged from pulling skin forward over head and eyes
  • Excessive length of ears
  • Hair loss or scarring from previous dermatitis
  • Inadequate ground clearance – overly deep body and/or presence of excessive skin
  • Incorrect bite
  • Significantly overweight
  • Signs of dermatitis in skin folds.

Not much to crow about in my opinion… and “Handlers should be discouraged from pulling skin forward over head and eyes” – why on earth would you do that even if you had bred a dog that couldn’t fit into its own skin in the first place?

314 dogs in Category 3 were vet checked at Group and General Championship Shows for Best of Breed and Champion title awards in 2016. Only 2 failed. Just 993 mandatory judges’ health monitoring forms were completed across 42 breeds.

Canine Genetics and Epidemiology Journal

The KC launched and support the Canine Genetics and Epidemiology Journal via their Educational Trust. One has to question whether yet another journal is required and how it will help breeders, owners and, of course, dogs, when multiple research papers across many journals detailing the appalling health of many breeds have been ignored. These papers cannot be read in isolation, but must be seen in the context of the effective support of the KC for breeding these animals in the first place. Not all physical problems from which pedigree dogs suffer are due to breeding for looks but it should be noted that in 1963, the British Small Animal Veterinary Association identified 13 conditions of concern in pedigree dogs which had escalated to 396 disorders by 2015. A survey of 216 vets in New Zealand in 2014 found that 89.8% believed that inherited disorders in dogs were a significant problem, particularly in the Boxer, bulldog and German shepherd, with hip and elbow dysplasia and brachycephalic syndromes being most commonly reported. 48.3% had advised clients against purchasing a pedigree dog due to common inherited disorders and 85.6% considered the health and welfare of some breeds to be so compromised that breeding should not continue.

Clearly something is very wrong.

Furthermore, this does not only affect pedigree dogs but crossbreeds too. Crossing breeds that each have significant problems means that hybrid vigour will decline after the first generation and existing and new problems are likely to surface making some individuals prone to considerably more pain and misery than their sire and dam. The KC has may rail against “back street” breeders but the fact remains that they and puppy farms are an increasing source of dogs for a large number of the general public and many of the dogs have problems because of poor breeding practices amongst KC breeders as well as environmental considerations.

Dog breeding of all types is principally market-led and KC registered dogs are no exception. The 20 most popular dog breeds account for 72% of KC registrations while the rarest 100 breeds account for just 2%, including 16 native UK breeds. The case of the surge in popularity of breeds such as the French bulldog and Malamamute on the whims of fashion mean that potentially many more dogs could be bred from tiny foundation populations creating an ever bigger ticking time bomb for the future of domestic dogs.

KC Schemes, however worthy in and of themselves, are tinkering at the edges of a major problem that effects the vast majority of non-feral dogs in the UK and globally. In 20 years, things have only got worse in spite of more and more schemes being added. Entrenched attitudes amongst breeders, breed clubs and the general public continue to propagate poor health because it continues to be rewarded in the show ring and promoted in advertising, thus affecting potentially every single dog bred and sold.

Since Jemima Harrison produced Pedigree Dogs Exposed in 2008, the Kennel Club has been playing tail end Charlie in the court of public and possibly professional opinion. Its brand is being seen as being increasingly toxic and any efforts that it makes to improve the situation are likely to be doomed to irrelevance in the face of the scale of the problem that is, after all, largely of their own making.