New systems approach needed to improve dog health

The following article is reprinted with permission from Dog World (published 14/5/15).

MANY, if not most, canine health and welfare problems are linked to people, their behaviour and attitudes. And the issues surrounding such problems are far more complex than have been argued in recent years.

  So said Philippa Robinson at the British Small Animals Veterinary Association’s recent congress, adding that ‘finger pointing’ was no longer helpful and blame counter-productive.

  She suggested a new approach to combat health problems in pedigree dogs, and said the demand for and supply of them needed to be understood for things to change.

  All the agencies and stakeholders involved needed to work together to clarify what health and welfare messages were needed, she said.

  Mrs Robinson discussed the controversies surrounding inherited disease and how she joined the ‘Pedigree Dogs Exposed campaign’ in 2007, a year before the documentary was broadcast.

  Mrs Robinson of the Karlton Index, which was launched to monitor and measure canine health, spoke of the three reports on pedigree dog which followed PDE, health including the Bateson enquiry, and the setting up of the Dog Advisory Council.

  After the Bateson report, she said, she began examining ‘how inert the Kennel Club had been on dog health’.

  “But the grip of the anti KC rhetoric began to loosen its grip on me,” she said. “An historical analysis of pedigree dog health reveals that the issues are far more complex than argued in either PDE or any of the three subsequent reports.”

  The KC had launched many initiatives regarding health and welfare including collaborative work with other parties, she said.

  Why had not other agencies taken a stand on canine health, she asked. And if they did speak out what had been the consequence?

  At that point, she said, she decided that canine health problems had not been caused by one stakeholder.

  To those present she recommended a ‘systems thinking’ approach, and looked at supply and demand of dogs and puppies, the fact they could be obtained from many different sources by people with different motives, levels of commitment and sense of duty. She talked about breed type rather than breed, and said she believed England was not a nation of dog lovers but one of dog breed lovers.

  “For whatever, complex, reason, we develop a fondness for specific types of dog,” she said. “This has resulted in each breed having very specific societal and cultural contexts.”

  She discussed the shape of the Bull Terrier’s skull, saying the breed Standard had not driven the change in shape or which dogs were awarded in the show ring.

  “Those factors may contribute to the changes of shape, undoubtedly, but the real influence I would argue is simply human preference,” she said.

  The KC could change the breed Standard to reflect the top shape of skull, she went on, and judges could begin to only award dogs with the top shape, but that would not stop people choosing the dog with the skull shape they preferred, even if it was detrimental to health.

  Mrs Robinson turned to brachycephalic breeds such as the French Bulldog saying that publicity about the breed’s health problems had had no effect on the explosion in its popularity, which was fed and encouraged by celebrity owners.

  “The French Bulldog has become a cultural icon,” she said. “It has been used to sell all sorts of merchandise, services and it is, of course, the current breed of choice for many a celebrity. This breed endorsement has not come from the KC, the show world or the breed club. Even combined, the KC, the show world, the breed club have precious few resources to counter that iconic status. They also have limited spheres of influence to change behaviours and attitudes among the wider population.”

  So how can health and welfare of the breed counter this cultural phenomenon, she asked.

  “Review the breed Standards? Introduce judicious health testing Remove untested dogs and affected dogs from the breeding programme?

  “Remove untested dogs from showing and remove untested dogs from the KC system altogether? Ensure that the public is armed with facts? Issue breeds with health warnings like cigarettes?”

  But the bigger picture needed to be considered, she said, the trends analysed and the points of intervention which would provide maximum leverage identified.

  Much had been done by the KC to improve the French Bulldog’s health, Mrs Robinson said, but most French Bulldogs were being bred away from that system by people who did not take part in health schemes.

  “Some are imported, most often illegally, to fulfil the demand created through the celebrity culture,” she said. “So without wider support of the stakeholder community, without the injection of resources from more than one stakeholder, all the valiant work will struggle to have an impact on the French Bulldog population as a whole.”

  How could the cultural phenomenon be changed, she asked. How could mind sets and contexts be changed? It had to be recognised that people make irrational choices because they are motivated by ‘a complex set of drivers’.

  The veterinary profession, welfare charities, scientists, academia, breeders, local authorities, the KC, welfare campaigners, the Associate Parliamentary Group for Animal Welfare, industry and the public need to work together, she said, to clarify what the health and welfare messages needed to be for each breed and breed type based on evidence and good data. The dynamics of the system which supplies dogs and puppies needed to be understood, as did the human behaviour which determined dog buying and acquiring decisions.

  Key messages needed to be delivered consistently across the board and by all parts of the system.

  “Finger pointing is no longer helpful and blame is counterproductive,” Mrs Robinson said.

  “Meaningful dialogue and courageous and creative action are the things we should be working on jointly.

  “The good news on that is courageous action and creative solutions such as VetCompass, estimated breeding values, genetics and breeder education can be really exciting projects in which to get involved. So let’s stop sniping and start sharing.”

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