Apologies in advance to you all as this blog is a little deep, however breed health screening is an important consideration when looking to acquire any dog. It will give an understanding of potential consequences.
Essential medical checks are necessary to ensure any dog considered for breeding is suitable. These are available in order to try and limit the incidence of painful, life changing, hereditary conditions and are advisable to any individual considering breeding.
The breed of dog will determine which condition requires testing, for instance; the British Veterinary Association (BVA) stipulates that Labrador Retrievers require, Eye Testing, Hip Scoring and provide a recommendation for elbow grading.
So what does all this mean?
These invaluable breed health screening tests are designed to reduce the incidence of any offspring developing hereditary conditions.
One such condition prevalent in many pedigree dogs is Hip Dysplasia. This is a malformation of the hip joint resulting in loss of function and the development of painful arthritis potentially affecting the dog’s quality and length of life.
The hip joint is one of the most important joints in the body, known as a ‘ball and socket’ joint. It is also required to be the most stable and powerful. The ‘ball’ relates to the femoral head and the socket is part of the pelvis. The two should fit together snuggly, separated only by a layer of cartilage to ensure the joint itself is protected during motion.
If hip dysplasia is present, the action of the joint is severely affected. Some or all parts of the joint may be effected, being malformed in some way. This malformation results in joint laxity and the degree of laxity in the joint relates directly to the level of damage that occurs and loss of function.
Over time the protective cartilage becomes excessively worn in places, exposing the bone, the level of pain experienced by the dog will be significant and physical evidence of lameness will be apparent.
All in all this is a debilitating condition for the dog and costly for the owner to manage. When it occurs in young dogs owners may be unable to be adequately exercise them for fear of increasing the damage, the result is generally frustration for all and poor behaviour from the dog as their energy needs are not able to be met.
The picture below depicts a classic case of hip dysplasia, showing subluxation of the hip joint.
Hip dysplasia is one of the most studied veterinary cases in dogs and the single most common cause of hip arthritis.
This disease is not just prolific in Labradors, in fact many of our pedigree dogs show evidence of it to varying degrees. Our German Shepherd Dogs are probably the most common breed to show visual evidence of this condition. The more they were bred to sit back on their pelvis for the purpose of the show ring as a natural stance, the worse their hips became. The differences in the breeding can clearly be seen in these two pictures.
I spent many years as a Veterinary nurse, treating these dogs and keeping them pain free. I say, ‘treating’ in the loosest sense of the term as to be honest there is very little you can do aside from extensive hip replacement surgery. Not only does the cost of this run into several thousand’s but extensive rehabilitation is required post operatively.
The years I spent running my canine hydrotherapy centre gave me even more insight into the gravity of this condition. From 8 month Cocker Spaniels, to 3 year old Rottweilers and my golden oldies of all breeds, each and every one of them was struggling with this condition to some degree.
I rehabilitated countless dogs who had been eligible for the replacement surgery and kept many dogs ticking over with their 1-3 swims a week who hadn’t, keeping the extent of their problem under control.
Hydrotherapy is huge in managing joint conditions. If you are able to keep muscle function and density at its optimum then the joint will be supported. Ensuring this is achieved in warm water to create a non-weight baring exercise is the key to the effectiveness of this treatment.
Taking all this into account I knew this was something I wanted to avoid if possible or at least limit the risk.
I am realistic and fully aware that I could do all my homework and still have a dog who succumbs to this condition. Could the scoring system really be taken seriously anyway when it has been around since 1965 and we are still seeing dogs crippled with this condition?
For breeders to be part of the Assured Breeder Scheme it is a requirement that they follow the health screening guidelines. So what does this involve?
The dog to be scored requires a full general anaesthetic and undergoes a series of x-rays, taking in specified positions. These x-rays are submitted to a panel of experts at the BVA for evaluation, each part of the joint is assessed and given a score between 0-53 so a really good hips would score 0/0 and really bad hips 53/53.
The breed average hip score for the Labrador Retriever is 14 and as a comparison, the Bull Mastiff carries a mean score of 26, the German Shepherd is and a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel is 16.
While this test carries huge importance, my years as a Vet Nurse mean I have been privy to thousands of dogs suffering with debilitating dysplasia conditions and a good percentage of these had parents with average or below average scores.
Hereditary conditions skip generations and individuals and are difficult to rule out entirely, you can only make sure you are prepared for all eventualities when looking to own a dog.
The photo gives an example of an affected hip and a normal hip, the scores grade the presence of the condition.
I chose to investigate what other professional individuals thought about hip scoring and its relevance, what is the impact of this process in real life.
I spoke to several Vet and Vet Nurse friend’s to gauge an opinion and its pretty mixed. All of these individuals are well respected in their field and I for one value their opinions to back up my own thoughts.
The majority would rather avoid breeding from a dog with above average hips scores for the breed. After all, the Kennel Club scheme is there for a reason and statistics exist suggesting a decline in hip scores over the years albeit this may be on paper and not everyone’s visual experience.
Some would consider it, but ultimately go with their gut instinct and observe the ability of the dogs in pervious litters, whether they were physically active into later life or not.
In contrast, others felt little confidence in the scheme due to the length of time it has been around with only small improvements in the incidences occurring being noted.
I am now as confused as ever as to how much value to put on this factor. I guess the right thing to do is to weigh up all factors of the dogs involved and take a sensible approach to making a decision. I won’t be putting all my concerns in one basket but I will take an overview of where potential risks lie. After all, I spent just as much time researching my previous lab and we still battled an inherited condition.
I do know genes play a part in the condition of every dog’s hips, but other factors also have a bearing, accidental damage, over weight or over-exercise at an early age all contribute to hip damage so seeing previous hip scores from other generations may help observe a trend.
I am mindful of the fact that these tests are often not carried out by unregistered breeders as the Hip Scoring Scheme requires the dog to be anaesthetised for x-ray’s, the whole procedure may cost in the region of £300-400 depending on area.
There are also breeders who carry out the procedure but breed regardless of the score, understandably motivated by other considerations such as wonderful temperaments and visual appearance. This may be one reason why the mean average isn’t reducing as significantly as it should be.
When it goes wrong!
Painful hip replacement surgery may be the only option for some of these dogs.
Breed health screening also analyses eye conditions. As with hip dysplasia the eye testing scheme is bespoke for each breed. A list of affected breeds and their inherited conditions is available on the kennel club website.
Currently eye testing is only available for the eyeball itself and not the surrounding soft tissue.
It requires, a British Veterinary Association eye panellist to be contacted directly via a private veterinary surgeon. This individual is suitably qualified to deliver a conclusive diagnosis on the presence of any hereditary eye conditions, but it involves a further cost of approximately £150.
This picture is an example of a 5 year old Labrador suffering from Progressive Retinal Atrophy, bilateral degeneration of the retina caused by a group of genetic disorders and ultimately leading to blindness.
The BVA/KC elbow grading scheme is designed to tackle the devastating condition of Elbow Dysplasia. I had a conversation with a Vet friend during this blog who informed me that a good friend of hers had a young lab with this condition.
Even after extensive surgery she has shown no improvement, likewise a close friend of mine is in a similar situation and as a result has never been able to really meet the dog’s physical needs due to the chronic lameness that occurs afterwards.
Elbows are graded on a scale of 0-3, and only BVA specialists are allowed to make this judgement. The lower the grade equates to the better the anatomy. The highest grade of the two elbows is taken if they differ.
To understand this condition I will refer you to one of the most well-known and respected pioneering Vets in the country and someone I had the pleasure to meet many years ago – Noel Fitzpatrick outlining elbow dysplasia and surgical intervention.
If you’re still with me then I’m pretty sure you will agree that breed health screening highlights the darker and most daunting side of puppy research! If you weren’t aware of this process and the resulting chronic and debilitating conditions that potentially occur then I’m sure this is all quite frightening. It certainly is for me and having some knowledge on the subject has made the process worse.
I guess as with anything, knowledge is key. I feel I have spoken to enough respected professionals, conducted significant and statistical research to justify my own prior knowledge. I am in a position to be able to make an informed decision on how this process progresses.
I now have to consider the physical lifestyle changes that may affect our dog ‘Marley’.
To do that I will give you an overview of him, his complex behaviour patterns, the problems I have faced, tears I have shed and where we are now. Fundamentally this will help me focus on ensuring his needs continue to be met and that he is considered in this process throughout.
Check in for my next blog where I am sure all of you will recognise some of my Marley battles with those you have faced in your own dogs. We are all only human after all, dog behaviourist or not!