What did Breed Clubs ever do for pedigree dog health? – a Dachshund perspective

My article for the 2022 Our Dogs Annual.

What did breed clubs ever do for pedigree dog health? – A Dachshund perspective

There are an estimated 9-10 million dogs in the UK and, of those, about a third are registered at the Kennel Club. The KC registers about 250,000 puppies each year but there are probably a similar number of pedigree dogs bred but not KC registered. The balance of the UK dog population comprises crossbreeds, including the increasingly popular doodles and poos.

At the heart of the KC’s approach to canine health is the Dog Health Group which acts as a scientific and veterinary panel to develop strategy and oversee its implementation. It has 4 sub-groups:

  • Genetics and health screening
  • Breed Standards and conformation
  • Activities, health and welfare
  • Assured Breeder Scheme

The KC also regulates Breed Clubs which operate either nationally or regionally across the UK for each of the 200+ breeds recognised by the KC. Some breeds also have Breed Councils which are overarching bodies that coordinate the work of multiple clubs in a breed. For example, in Dachshunds, our Breed Council represents the interests of 15 breed clubs.

Breed Clubs vary widely in their approach to health and welfare in their breed but many of them will be involved in fundraising for research projects, raising awareness and educating  buyers and owners, carrying out health surveys, and supporting health screening programmes.

Health improvement strategies:

Breed Health and Conservation Plans (BHCP) are key documents being developed by the KC with each breed. 113 breeds now have a BHCP and these cover 79% of all KC registrations. A Breed Health and Conservation Plan is the tangible output of the work done by a breed to define its position, identify improvements and set out its plans.

BHCPs summarise breed history and the current state of the breed as evidenced by peer-reviewed research, insurance data, health surveys and information from the KC’s registry (such as health screening results and genetic diversity). These documents also describe the actions planned by the KC and the breed clubs to address priority concerns.

I have 2 “golden rules” for breed health improvement:

  • There should be no action without evidence
  • There can be no evidence without data

BHCPs include data, evidence and action planning. The challenge for most breeds is not “Are we improving?” but “How fast are we improving?” and “Can we prove it?”.

It is important to recognise that there is a wide diversity of voices and polarised opinions on the health of pedigree dogs. Any improvement action has to be seen in that context. In my opinion, this means breed health improvement is not a conformation problem or a genetics problem, or a veterinary problem. It’s a change management and continuous improvement problem. If we can’t get people to change their behaviour, we will never solve dog health problems. Behaviour change is required from breeders, buyers, owners, vets, campaigners and many others.

Dachshunds: what we have achieved and how we have done it:

There are 2 main achievements that I want to focus on:

  • The virtual elimination of Lafora Disease in Mini Wire Dachshunds
  • Encouraging signs that we are reducing the prevalence of Intervertebral Disc Disease (IVDD)

In 2012, around 55% of litters of Mini Wires were at risk of having puppies affected by Lafora Disease (an inherited form of myoclonic epilepsy). This has now been reduced to less than 5% as a result of our education programmes and the use of DNA testing.

The Wirehaired Dachshund Club took the lead by funding research and establishing subsidised DNA screening programmes. Our breed clubs raised over £35,000 to support this programme. All the screening results were published in a publicly accessible database that included details of each dog’s parents. Screening events were run at vet practices in England and we ran a series of educational seminars for breeders and owners. We persuaded the KC to include Lafora Screening as a Requirement in their Assured Breeder Scheme and set the expectation for screening in breed clubs’ Codes of Ethics. Breeders who produced litters with affected puppies or who had not screened their dogs were sent advisory letters by the Wire Club. Every 3 months we published the results of the screening programme and continue to do so, demonstrating what we have achieved.

It is typically quoted that 1 in 4 Dachshunds will suffer IVDD to some extent during their life, ranging from mild symptoms to life-changing paralysis. For many owners, the choice has often been surgery or euthanasia. The prevalence of IVDD actually varies quite significantly across the 6 varieties of Dachshund, with the smooth-coated varieties most likely to be affected. We now have survey data from around 15,000 Dachshunds over a 7 year period that suggests IVDD prevalence is decreasing. Obviously, we would like to believe that our efforts to educate breeders and owners has contributed to this, for example by applying the learning from our survey of lifestyle factors in 2015. One of our surprise findings was that early neutering doubled the risk of IVDD and that finding has been replicated in our 2018 and 2021 surveys.

We are following a similar approach to Lafora with IVDD but uptake of our screening programme has been slower than we would have hoped for. Many breeders do not understand how a risk-based programme works; it’s not as clear-cut as results from DNA testing which we had for Lafora Disease. IVDD screening is now an ABS Recommendation and the KC and Dachshund Health UK are each offering £100 subsidies to encourage adoption by breeders. IVDD is a complex, multifactorial condition, so our preventative work includes education on lifestyle factors such as exercise, obesity and neutering. We have a dedicated IVDD website (www.dachshund-ivdd.uk) and have an owner support group on Facebook. We are also supporting an important research project at Cambridge Vet School looking at conservative (non-surgical) treatment of severe IVDD cases (Grades 4 & 5). Early results suggest conservative management can be a viable alternative to surgery, with many dogs recovering almost completely after 12 weeks.

Our analysis of IVDD data from 3 surveys shows encouraging (statistically significant) signs that IVDD prevalence is reducing. We still have a long way to go, though.

There are 4 elements of a breed-specific health strategy that we adopt:

  • Leadership – setting the direction and creating the environment for improvement
  • Planning – collecting, analysing and reporting data and evidence to prioritise our work
  • Engagement – communicating with breeders, buyers, owners, vets and other groups who can help us
  • Improvement – implementing actions to drive improvement, such as screening programmes

Our achievements in reducing the incidence of Lafora Disease and IVDD is a good demonstration of how we have applied these 4 elements. We’re not the only breed making progress and the annual International Canine Health Award for Breed Health Coordinator of the Year demonstrates the energy and passion being expended across numerous breeds.

In conclusion, if Breed Club communities focus on what really matters for the future viability of their breed, we can actually make quantifiable progress. Sadly, an awful lot of energy gets wasted on peripheral issues that really are of little significance to either the dogs or their owners. I’ll end with one of my favourite quotations from Chris Hadfield, Astronaut:

You can’t change the bricks, and together, you still have to build a wall.

Ian J Seath ian@sunsong.co.uk