Friday, May 13, 2011

The Purebred Paradox, part three: Analyses of the situation

(Continued from part two.)

Below are my musings on some of the talks at last week’s conference, The Purebred Paradox: on the health and welfare of purebred dogs. Specifically, these talks delve deeper into what some of the current health risks are for purebred dogs, and why.

Brenda Bonnett, BSc, DVM, PhD: “Breed risks for disease in purebred dogs”

Dr. Bonnett is an epidemiologist who worked with “12 years of [health] data from over 200,000 dogs yearly,” obtained form Agria Pet Insurance in Sweden. Her talk was fascinating; placed as the very first presentation, it was a great introduction to the conference. She showed a series of graphs comparing the risk of different diseases in different breeds. Using the pet health insurance data, she could identify some risks as part of the risk of “being a dog” (diseases equally likely to occur in any breed) versus the risk of, for example, “being a German shepherd” (hip dysplasia, much more likely to occur in that breed than in most others). These graphs made the case very clearly that many breeds have risks of particular diseases.

The graphs were also an excellent way of demonstrating which diseases should be prioritized in particular breeds. She talked specifically about Cavalier King Charles spaniels, a breed which is prone to a particularly painful brain disorder called syringomyelia. Syringomyelia in CKCS was publicized in Pedigree Dogs Exposed and has been receiving a great deal of attention as a result. But her data suggested that another breed problem, heart disease, is much more prevalent. Syringomyelia, a disease in which your brain is squeezed out of your skull because your head is too small, is certainly very sexy, but if a CKCS is much more likely to die of heart disease, perhaps the issue of the heart disease should be addressed first.

But we already knew that different breeds get different diseases, right? When you are picking the breed of your next puppy, if you’re doing your research, part of your decision is whether you can deal with the risks of that particular breed. Is it more likely to get hip dysplasia? Heart disease? Cancer? Dr. Bonnett made the point that people will accept some types of risk, and some levels of risk, but not others. Life has some risks that you can't avoid; playing with sticks can be risky for a dog (GI obstruction! cracked teeth! splinters migrating into the sinuses!) but people accept those risks because they are part of being a dog. However, owners also accept the risks which are part of being a particular breed. Should they?

Dr. Bonnett concluded her talk by telling the story of a Bernese Mountain Dog (berner) owner who had come up to her after a previous talk. This woman had said that she had known that berners suffered from an increased rate of cancer, but had had no idea quite how bad the situation was until she listened to Dr. Bonnett’s presentation. However, this woman said, she would keep owning berners, because they were her breed. One of the themes of the conference was certainly the deep loyalty people have to “their” breed. (I completely understand it, as I feel that way about golden retrievers.)

Ilana Reisner, DVM, PhD, DACVB: “Unintended consequences of breeding for conformation: Owner-directed aggression in English Springer Spaniels”

Dr. Reisner is a veterinary behaviorist who presented a case study of an owner-agressive English Springer spaniel. This breed is particularly known for what has been called “springer rage,” sudden fits of aggression to the owner. The subject of Dr. Reisner’s presentation, Pluto, had bitten every member of the household, including the 80 year old grandmother. Dr. Reisner joked, “It wasn't too bad, just a few amputations.” She made the point that, while the conference was focused on dog welfare, when people live with dogs who are suffering or who have behavior problems, human welfare is also affected.

Frances O. Smith, DVM, PhD: “The development of dog breeds: Why and how people breed dogs”

Dr. Smith was a veterinarian, Labrador retriever breeder, dog show judge, and theriogenologist. (A theriogenologist is a veterinary specialist who has advanced training and board certification in breeding and reproductive problems.) She was clearly an exemplary breeder. She talked about the best dog she ever bred, who was a conformation champion and a performance champion. Dr. Smith emphasized again the importance of breed specific traits in the hearts of owners and breeders. The breeds must stay unique and recognizable. Any other solution to the problem is going to be very hard for many dog lovers to accept.

Dr. Smith seemed to have been asked to speak as a representative of the breeder side of the debate. I wish that we could have heard from some breeders at the show who were not cherry-picked to be non-controversial, however. The Labrador is a sporting breed, and sporting dogs tend not to suffer from breeding for extreme characteristics, as they are often expected to still be able to do work. (To understand what is meant by “extreme characteristics,” enjoy this post by the producer of Pedigree Dogs Exposed about the Neapolitan mastiff.)

Frank McMillan, DVM, DACVIM: “The impact of puppy mills on the welfare of purebred dogs”

Dr. McMillan is an internal medicine specialist and employee of Best Friends animal shelter in Utah. He talked about the widely publicized problem of puppy mills (high-volume, commercial breeders, who I’d argue are irresponsible by definition). He showed a number of disturbing photos of adult breeding animals taken from filthy and unhealthy circumstances at various mills.

Dr. McMillan’s main point was that the psychological damage done by lack of socialization to adult breeding animals in high volume breeding facilities is severe and should not be overlooked. Even dogs maintained at sparkling clean facilities are not given the socialization time they need as puppies to function properly once they are taken out of the puppy mill as adults. He read accounts and showed photos of these adult rescues, and demonstrated their complete inability to bond with their new owners after months, some even unable to be housebroken as they could not be approached with a leash to be taken outside. He argued convincingly that many of these dogs should be considered victims of post-traumatic stress disorder. No amount of regulation or oversight by the USDA will change this fundamental lack of socialization of dogs kept in situations where they do not get a chance to experience the world outside of their kennel.

(To be continued.)

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