We’ll only make progress by working together

I was invited to speak at the 2021 British Veterinary Orthopaedic Association (BVOA) conference and did so on November 19th. When I accepted the invitation in July, it seemed a long way off and my brief was to give a give a breed club perspective of canine health. This was a 3-day conference and was face-to-face, having not been able to run in 2020. 

The conference was fully booked with around 130 delegates and, apparently, they had to turn away 40 people simply because the venue was full at 130. When I arrived, I realised that I was probably the only person there who didn’t have a veterinary qualification. A few delegates put me right on that by saying these weren’t just vets, they were orthopaedic vets. I’m not quite sure how different that made this audience or whether a group of cardiologists would also have been rather different! Whatever, I didn’t get much sleep the night before my presentation, wondering quite how it would go down with this audience.

To make things even more challenging, my presentation followed one from Dr Dan O’Neill (Royal Veterinary College) who runs the VetCompass project. Dan’s an epidemiologist and anyone who has heard him speak will know how engaging and interesting he is to listen to.

I had spoken with a few of the delegates about their knowledge of the Kennel Club and Breed Clubs and it was pretty clear that most people would probably know very little about the role of these in improving the health of pedigree dogs. To that extent, I had a blank canvas to work with.

I don’t like making presentations that are simply a one-way download of content from a set of slides and my (early morning) session needed to generate some discussion for the Q&A panel later in the morning. I started by asking if there were any Dachshund owners in the room and just one hand went up. Asking about whether any of them had been presented with a Dachshund at their surgery in the past 2 weeks raised about 10% of hands. Surprisingly, when I asked if any of them were aware of the Kennel Club’s Dachshund IVDD screening programme (which only launched in May this year), many more hands went up. That was great to see and my talk would be followed by Dr Mark Lowrie who is one of the IVDD programme scrutineers, so we’d have 100% awareness by the end of the morning.

The UK canine landscape

I began my presentation by discussing the UK canine landscape and where the KC sits within that. Depending on whose estimate you go with, there are about 9-10 million dogs in the UK. The KC registers about 250,000 p.a. So that probably means there are 3 million KC registered pedigree dogs living in the UK. Estimates also suggest there’s a similar number of non-registered pedigree dogs. These are bred and owned outside the KC system, with no involvement in KC-regulated activities. The balance are crossbreeds (known to be growing in popularity) and mongrels. Despite what we might think about the importance of the show world, size-wise, it involves just a tiny fraction of UK dog owners, maybe 0.3% of owners.

We’ve all probably got tired of hearing the phrase “following the science” over the past 2 years but it’s highly relevant to the way the KC addresses health matters. I described the role of the Dog Health Group in setting overall strategy and its 4 subgroups that contribute specific expertise on aspects of canine genetics, epidemiology, health screening, health and welfare.

The role of Breed Clubs is more complicated and quite variable from breed to breed but there are recurring themes of activities the more proactive clubs get involved with. I was able to use the KC’s Health Strategy toolkit to illustrate the many things a “good” breed would be doing. 

The most practical demonstration of KC and Breed Club focus on health improvement is the development of Breed Health and Conservation Plans. Well over 100 BHCPs are now in place and these cover around 80% of KC breed registrations. I’ve written about the value of these before so I won’t cover that ground again but my point to the veterinary audience was that these are developed collaboratively by the KC and breed clubs in order to provide a single source of up-to-date evidence and plans for each breed. In the case of Dachshunds, we have taken the BHCP and customised it for a veterinary audience, highlighting the priority conditions and screening programmes we think vets should be aware of.

Diverse voices and polarised opinions

Of course, it’s important to recognise that there are many different views on canine health, particularly in relation to the role of Kennel Clubs, Breed Clubs and the show community. There are diverse voices and polarised opinions from many different interest groups, vets being just one.

On the first day of the conference there were presentations where comments were made about “couch potato” Labradors and they were contrasted with those used for working activities. It’s very easy for extreme examples of any pedigree breed to be used to condemn the whole of a breed and breeders. During the panel discussion in which I participated, I took the opportunity to explain the role of the KC’s Breed Standards and Conformation Group in collecting feedback from judges on visible points of concern (Breed Watch) and how Breed Standards are regularly reviewed.

During my talk, I touched on the topic of Human Behaviour Change and emphasised that it’s not just breeders and exhibitors whose behaviour might need to change, but also that of puppy buyers and vets. I used a couple of examples of what we have achieved in Dachshunds to illustrate how a systematic approach to health improvement, with appropriate human behaviour changes had delivered quantifiable benefits. The first example was how we have reduced the incidence of Lafora Disease in Miniature Wirehaired Dachshunds since 2012. That is an example where we have a DNA test for a simple recessive condition. The second example is the complex, multifactorial condition Intervertebral Disc Disease (IVDD). Here our improvement programme is based on a well-researched screening programme plus evidence on lifestyle factors that breeders, owners and vets can address to reduce IVDD risk.

I was pleased to get positive feedback on my presentation and I hope I helped raise awareness among this group of vets about how they can collaborate with the KC and breed club communities. I left them with a quote from astronaut Chris Hadfield: “You can’t change the bricks, and together, you still have to build a wall”. In other words, we are where we are but we’ll only make progress by working together.