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.

Judging for health should not be controversial

A recent Our Dogs “Question Time” feature on vet checks at Championship shows for Best of Breed winners in Breed Watch Category 3 got me thinking about the role of judges in protecting breed health.

It’s hard to believe that it’s 9 years since vet checks were introduced at Crufts 2012 for what were then known as “high profile breeds”. The plan for these checks had been announced by the KC during 2011 but its significance had probably not been realised until the show in 2012. It’s worth recalling that these checks were introduced in the period following Pedigree Dogs Exposed and at a time when there were attempts to shame Crufts off our television screens completely. Pedigree dogs were in the spotlight and the KC was arguing that dog shows had the potential to be a force for good in demonstrating fit and healthy purebreds. Professor Patrick Bateson, in his 2010 report on pedigree dog breeding, had also referred to the influence of dog shows on dog welfare:

“I was persuaded that showing and judging constitute a powerful lever for change. That has been demonstrated clearly in the past in the documented and undisputed changes in form that have taken place in many breeds. My concern therefore is that this powerful lever should be effectively applied to achieve the desired improvements in welfare.” and…

Judging is not an exact science but it needs to be informed by recent advances in knowledge. It would be improved with a mechanism for re-training or updating judges over time (what in other circles would be termed continuing development). It would also be enhanced by the introduction of a mechanism for singling out judges who manifestly upheld welfare principles and kept themselves up-to-date.”

At the time, the vet checks were hugely controversial among the show community and made headlines because 6 of the 15 Crufts Best of Breeds failed the examination and were unable to enter their Group competitions. Social media responded with new groups set up in protest at the KC’s actions. That year’s KC AGM also had some heated discussion but a proposal to halt the vet checks was not supported.

The veterinary press, unsurprisingly, took a different perspective and were generally supportive of the vet check process. In a letter to the Vet Record, the 2 Crufts vets (Alison Skipper and Will Jeffels) wrote “The fact that the KC gave two ordinary general practitioners the authority to overrule the decisions of internationally famous judges at the world’s biggest dog show, and trusted us to make impartial decisions about the dogs we examined, is a great mark of confidence in the integrity and ethics of our profession. We should not let them down. We very much hope that many other vets will support the KC by volunteering to carry out these checks at a championship show.

In contrast, the following year all the high profile breeds passed their Crufts vet checks and proceeded to the group competitions. 

Breed Watch

The concept of high profile breeds has now been incorporated into the Breed Watch scheme with those breeds being in Category 3. The fact that there are now just 9 Category 3 breeds is a reflection of the progress made by those that have been moved to Category 2. Vet checks remain as a reminder to both judges and exhibitors that health points of concern that are visible to the lay-person should not be acceptable in the show-ring.

Whether vet checks should be extended to all breeds prior to group competition is debatable. Personally, I’d have no issue with it and, if the dogs are fit and healthy, judges and exhibitors should have nothing to fear. The logistics of it could, however, be quite challenging and with more vets involved they would clearly need to have been fully briefed on their role. On balance, I think vet checks are proportionate for Category 3 breeds. The onus is on those in Category 2 not to allow unhealthy exaggerations to creep in that would result in them being moved to Category 3.

Breed Watch health reporting for CC judges of Category 2 and 3 breeds is mandatory but voluntary for Category 1 breeds. Honest reporting of any concerns can only be beneficial if we are serious about shows being a showcase for healthy pedigree dogs.

The tail wagging the dog?

It’s also easy to argue that judges and vets completing visual assessments at Championship shows is the “tail wagging the dog”. If the first time that a judge has to make any comment on the health of a dog they are assessing is when they first award Challenge Certificates, then we’ve missed a huge part of their apprenticeship. First time CC judges will have spent a minimum of 7 years on their journey of education, mentoring and hands-on judging. Awareness of health matters should be baked into that process. How many people realise that Breed Watch is embedded into the introductory section of every Breed Standard?

“Breeders and judges should at all times be careful to avoid obvious conditions or exaggerations which would be detrimental in any way to the health, welfare or soundness of this breed. From time to time certain conditions or exaggerations may be considered to have the potential to affect dogs in some breeds adversely, and judges and breeders are requested to refer to the Breed Watch section of the Kennel Club website here https://www.thekennelclub.org.uk/events-and-activities/dog-showing/judging-dog-shows/breed-watch/ for details of any such current issues.”

As such, aspiring judges should be learning about Breed Watch and how its principles are meant to be applied, throughout their education. I wonder how much time is spent at Breed Appreciation Days discussing how to assess for visible health concerns compared with how to assess length of ribbing or turn of stifle. Similarly, how many mentoring sessions involve a discussion of visible points of concern as well as discussing dogs’ hind angulation? It really shouldn’t be too much of a stretch to do this because, in some breeds, the visible points of concern are closely aligned to faulty construction or movement. Surely we should be encouraging education and assessment of Breed Watch aspects throughout a judge’s career.

I have to declare an interest as I am a member of the KC’s Breed Standards and Conformation Group (BSCG), a subgroup of the Dog Health Group. The BSCG sets policy for Breed Watch and reviews the reports submitted by judges. Opinions expressed here are my own and not those of the BSCG.

An insight into brachycephalic dog health from The Kennel Club

The Kennel Club has hosted a unique webcast to discuss brachycephalic health and what can be done collaboratively to ensure a healthier future for dogs. Chaired by Kennel Club Chairman, Tony Allcock OBE, the webcast panel comprised Dr Jane Ladlow, European and Royal College Specialist in Small Animal Surgery and leading BOAS researcher; Bill Lambert, Head of Health and Welfare at the Kennel Club; and Charlotte McNamara, Health and Welfare Development Manager at the Kennel Club.

The panel discussed brachycephalic health, approaches across Europe, the need for a collaborative, evidence-based approach, including how the Respiratory Function Grading Scheme can help protect and improve the health of brachycephalic dogs now and in the future, and the importance of data collection and ongoing research into the complex Brachycephalic Obstructive Airways Syndrome (BOAS).

Further information about brachycephalic dog health, what the Kennel Club is doing and which tools and health screening is available to breeders can be found at: https://www.thekennelclub.org.uk/flatfaceddoghealth

To donate and support further research into brachycephalic dog health and BOAS, visit: https://uk.virginmoneygiving.com/charity-web/charity/displayCharityCampaignPage.action?charityCampaignUrl=BDH