How to get the best out of your Breed Health and Conservation Plan

Plans are nothing, planning is everything” – Gen. Dwight D Eisenhower

I expect most readers will be aware of the Kennel Club’s programme to develop Breed Health and Conservation Plans. This was launched in 2016 to ensure that, for every breed, all health concerns are identified through evidence-based criteria, and that breeders are provided with useful information and resources to support them in making balanced breeding decisions that make health a priority.

The first group of breeds included those in Breed Watch Category 3 (previously known as “high-profile breeds”, plus GSDs, Cavaliers and English Setters). We’ve heard relatively little about their BHCPs from the clubs and councils associated with them, so it’s difficult to know if and how they are working.

My breed, Dachshunds, is included in the second batch of breeds and I thought it might be useful to share our experience of the process and how we intend to make use of our BHCP.

Stage 1: Evidence gathering

Dr Katy Evans is the KC’s lead person on this project and her first task for each breed is to identify and review the published evidence of the state of the breed. The key inputs to this are:

  • The KC’s own health surveys (2004 & 2014)
  • Insurance data from Agria in the UK and Sweden
  • Genetic diversity data from the KC’s 2015 study led by Dr Tom Lewis
  • KC registration data
  • BVA screening programme data (e.g. eyes, hips, elbows), where such programmes exist
  • DNA test results, where tests exist
  • Reports from the RVC’s VetCompass project
  • Eye test data from OFA in the USA
  • Any data from health surveys carried out by the breed, itself
  • Peer-reviewed scientific papers
  • Results of any current research programmes initiated by the breed

This is a massive exercise to search for, collate and distil the evidence into a first draft paper for the breed to consider. Breed clubs owe a great debt of gratitude to Katy and her colleagues because, for the first time, we have all the available evidence relating to our breed in one place.

It is a “single source of the truth” for each breed. That doesn’t mean, however, that the summary report will give your breed the definitive prevalence for any particular health condition. You need to see the evidence base as the big picture which helps you to triangulate in on points of concern.

Stage 2: Prioritise

Findings from stage 1 are used collaboratively to provide clear indications of the most significant health conditions in each breed, in terms of prevalence and impact. This is the point where breed clubs and councils need to engage with the BHCP process. From a breed’s perspective, their Breed Health Coordinator (BHC) is the key point of contact between the breed and the KC. Every breed has to appoint a BHC and, often, there will also be a Health Committee. Both the BHC role and Health Committee are appointed to serve your breed and, in the case of Dachshunds, ours are accountable to our Breed Council. They act on our behalf, are accountable to the Council and are expected to put the interest of the dogs as their first priority (not politics).

We were invited to meet the KC team in July and 6 of our 10 Health Committee members were able to attend. This might sound, to some, like a lot of people to attend this meeting but I firmly believe that the breadth of experience among our delegates was invaluable for 2 reasons. Firstly, the discussions we had and the decisions we made were based on a wide range of knowledge across our 6 Dachshund varieties. No one person can know everything about the breed nor remember the history of how we got to where we are today. Secondly, the decisions made have to be a consensus because we, the Health Committee, have to justify the BHCP to everyone else in the breed. The quality of decision-making by our team far outweighs anything that any one of us could achieve, on our own.

Stage 3: Action planning

The process we followed at the meeting enabled us to arrive at a consensus and to agree priorities for action. Katy Evans led the discussions and took us through all the content she had collated. Although this might sound like a rather linear and dry approach, the discussions it generated were not “down in the weeds”. We had all had copies of the evidence to review prior to the meeting which meant we were able to make connections between the different areas as we worked through them in the meeting.

So, for example, a single paper on Colour Dilution Alopecia (CDA) led to a wide-ranging discussion covering Colour Not Recognised registrations (CDA occurs in Blue Dachshunds), the massive increase in popularity of Mini Smooth Dachshunds and the need for better data on skin conditions, in general. There were no surprises for us here but we have agreed actions on data collection in our forthcoming breed survey, actions for the KC to look at our list of registration colours, and actions for all of us to educate the Dachshund-buying public on the breed to try to shift demand away from Mini Smooths towards other varieties.

I think the fact that, as a breed, we have been very proactive in gathering data and working on improvements gave us a head start when developing actions for our BHCP. Nevertheless, we have been able to identify further work that will accelerate the rate of progress in current focus areas as well as initiate new actions in other areas. Some of those actions include:

  • Adding a recommendation to the ABS for IVDD Screening
  • Refining the content of our forthcoming Cancer and Health Survey to capture data on conditions identified in the BHCP
  • Adding Distichiasis as a point of concern under BreedWatch
  • Publishing guidance for judges, breeders and exhibitors on exaggerated conformation (length of body & ground clearance)

All of these will need to be publicised through appropriate channels to reach breeders, owners and judges.

Tips for other breeds

If your breed has not yet been through the BHCP process, I’d recommend the following, based on our learning:

  • Take a team of experienced breeders/owners to the planning meeting; they don’t need to be on your Health Committee but they do need to be advocates for improving your breed
  • Do your homework prior to the meeting by reading and reflecting on the evidence base presented by the KC; go with an open mind
  • Keep the big picture in mind; obsessing about single health conditions and DNA testing is not a recipe for long-term improvement when a lack of genetic diversity is probably the major challenge facing most pedigree dog breeds
  • Have a plan for communicating your actions; the BHCP document itself may not be the best format for sharing information widely to different audiences

I’ll end with a quote from Peter Drucker (Management Guru) – “Eventually, plans must degenerate into hard work”.









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A review of breeding policies at 15 national Kennel Clubs

This month saw the publication of a paper in the Veterinary Journal titled “Breeding policies and management of pedigree dogs in 15 national kennel clubs”. The authors include Dr Tom Lewis from our Kennel Club.

The authors investigated approaches being adopted by Kennel Clubs internationally and what they see as high priority issues. They issued a questionnaire to 40 KCs and received responses from 15, 11 in Europe and 4 elsewhere (Australia, Mexico, Uruguay, and the USA). The European responses were from Austria, Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Ireland, Latvia, The Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and the UK. Also among the authors were Sofia Malm and Gregoire Leroy who I met at the IPFD’s 3rd International Dog Health Workshop last year. They were facilitating the workstream on Breeding Strategies and Gregoire blogs regularly on the IPFD website (dogwellnet.com).

We know in the UK that our KC believes it registers around 35% of pedigree dogs which leaves a large number of breeders and dogs that fall outside its direct influence. I suspect that, historically, the KC and most breed clubs have taken the view that they can only influence dog owners among the registered population. Given the high percentage of unregistered dogs, the question therefore arises: who is looking after their interests? Certainly, in the Dachshunds, with our Pet Advisors among our Health Committee and Breed Clubs who are proactive on Dachshund Facebook Groups, we have taken the view that we need to help ALL Dachshund owners and potential owners. The dogs don’t know or care whether they are KC registered and if we can provide advice to all owners, that has to be a good thing.

The survey results from the 15 countries showed a range from less than 1% to 78% of dogs registered by their KC. The Nordic countries, in general, had a higher proportion of their pedigree dogs registered by their KCs but it’s worth remembering that the total dog population sizes in these countries are relatively small compared with say the UK and USA. The lowest proportions registered were in India, Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic and Hong Kong. The highest were in Finland, Sweden, Iceland and New Zealand. Our KC reported a figure of 35%.

One size does not fit all

When I wrote about the discussions at last year’s IDHW, I specifically commented on the international and cultural aspects that can significantly influence the choice of approach that will work for a Breed Health Strategy and the likely compliance from breeders and owners. This latest paper reinforces those comments. It is clear that what might work in the Nordic countries with smaller pedigree dog populations and a high compliance among breeders, is almost certainly not going to work in the UK, USA or Australia. That’s not to say we can’t learn from each other but a simple “cut and paste” solution that assumes “one size fits all” is doomed to fail. Each Kennel Club and each Breed Club needs to understand not only their specific challenges and priorities but also the context within which they are operating.

The paper goes on to discuss the different issues each of the KCs prioritised. It should be no surprise that exaggerated morphological features and inherited disorders ranked as the most important issues. It has been obvious for at least the past decade that these issues are significant and are not going to go away. The evidence that some breeds need serious action is overwhelming and anyone still calling for more data is, in my view, simply in denial. In the UK, we have seen the formation of the Brachycephalic Working Group whose report and action plan was published last year. To me, this seems like a model for collaboration and practical steps that the diverse range of interested parties (stakeholders!) can sign up to.Our KC ranked issues in the following order (most important, first): exaggerated morphological features, inbreeding and genetic variability, inherited disorders, puppy farming, legislative constraints to breeding, dog behaviour and economic constraints to breeding.

Health and breeding recommendations

Individual Kennel Clubs’ responses to these issues are also discussed and we can see how widely adopted different approaches are and the proportion of breeds these cover. “Health recommendations prior to breeding were provided for more than half of the breeds in 11 countries, health status for breeding was required in 10 countries, and the maximum numbers of litters or/and puppies produced by a single dog were restricted in seven countries. Three countries indicated they do not have any specific restrictions on choosing mating partners, while another three countries reported that specific restrictions on choosing mating partners were implemented for all breeds.” Only 1 of the responding KCs said they have no health recommendations in place prior to breeding. It’s not possible to tell from the paper or its supplementary data which countries place restrictions on choosing mating partners or the limits on puppies produced by a single dog (so-called Popular Sires). Similarly, we don’t know how compliant breeders are where these rules exist or their impact on dog health or genetic diversity.

Austria, Sweden and The Netherlands have breeding strategies covering all of their breeds. Five countries reported that they provide Coefficient of Inbreeding information online for 100% of their breeds (presumably that includes our KC via MateSelect). Three countries provide online advice mating tools for all of their breeds. The paper says that our KC provides EBV data on Hip and Elbow Dysplasia for 28 breeds (Sweden does this for 42 breeds). What’s interesting here is that there is a wealth of expertise available around the world and there should be many lessons learnt that can be applied to help KCs catch up, where they need to. I’m sure some of those lessons learnt would relate to the design and implementation of software solutions, as we often read about how easy or difficult it can be to navigate and find health or pedigree information in different countries. Applying those lessons learnt won’t necessarily be easy, particularly when KCs have legacy IT systems that really weren’t designed to meet the needs of today’s breeders or to cope with the newly emerging data and breeding tools.

Learning from each other

One of the other analyses was the pairing of countries with similar question response profiles. Our KC was most similar to the Danish KC and, perhaps surprisingly, France and the USA were paired. Uruguay/Mexico were also paired, as were Austria/Germany. There is potential for cooperation between these pairs of countries because of their similar responses. However, they might actually find equally useful insights by looking at countries with whom they have little similarity. Apparently, the French KC has already benefited from learning about our Mate Select system to develop their online database.

My main takeaways from this paper are (a) that the issues facing Kennel Clubs and breeders of pedigree dogs around the world have a lot in common and (b) that, by taking an international perspective, there is huge potential for more joined-up solutions to be developed. Solutions will necessarily cover access to and sharing of information on pedigrees, health conditions and test/screening programmes. In terms of creating real change and breed health improvement, I think the key will be the development of Breed-specific Improvement Strategies (Breed Health & Conservation Plans in the UK). Sharing these documents internationally could prove to be a critical success factor in accelerating the rate of improvement in dog health, particularly if we are able to learn what works and what doesn’t in different countries and cultures. Readers will not be surprised, therefore, to see me conclude that I believe the International Partnership for Dogs has a major role to play over the next decade.

Let’s celebrate and support the work of Breed Health Coordinators

At the end of January, nominations closed for the Breed Health Coordinator of the Year Award which is worth £1000 to the winner. This year, the award is part of the International Canine Health Awards which are sponsored by Shirley and Vernon Hill, founders of Metro Bank. According to the KC’s website, “judges will be looking for individuals from breed clubs or councils who have demonstrated a dedication to supporting health and welfare within their breed over the previous year. Some of the aspects that will be considered include the starting or coordinating of a new project or resource for the breed, such as a health website or health survey, and good communication with the Kennel Club”.
What does it take to be a Breed Health Coordinator? Depending on your perspective and (maybe) the day of the week, these folk are either the unsung heroes of breed health improvement or they are mugs with a thankless task!
Breed Clubs were first officially written to by the KC in 1999 which is when the first BHCs took office. There were several BHCs or Breed Health Committees before that, just not officially recognised by the KC. One of the BHCs recalled it wasn’t until around 2008/2009 (after PDE) that the KC asked for just one official BHC to represent each breed.
It became obvious that Breed Clubs not only had to work together, but they also had to at least acknowledge health!
Toolkits and resources
Over the past few years, the KC has published a number of toolkits to support the work of BHCs. These cover topics as broad-ranging as how to develop a Breed Health Strategy, to more specific advice on designing Health Surveys and setting up websites. And, of course, there is the annual BHC Symposium which I have written about several times.
Nevertheless, it must be incredibly daunting to be appointed as a new BHC and, apparently, have the weight of expectation of your whole breed on your shoulders. This must be particularly true for BHCs in any of the Brachycephalic breeds which are certainly under the spotlight at the moment. BHCs for any of the Breed Watch Category 3 breeds (formerly “high profile breeds”) are similarly under closer scrutiny than other breeds. Thankfully, there are some very experienced BHCs among the Brachycephalic community and many readers will have seen or heard Vicky Collins-Nattrass (Bulldogs) or Penny Rankine-Parsons (French Bulldogs) on national TV and radio. These folk get plenty of support from the KC’s Health Team and the Communications/Press Team.

So, what is it that we expect a newly appointed BHC to know and do? The role is described in a Job Description and that’s OK as far as it goes. But, if you’ve been thrown in at the deep end, sometimes it’s hard to know where to start. Having had conversations with plenty of BHCs over the years, I think there are a few “basics” that I’d expect a newly appointed BHC to be considering.

Data at your fingertips
It’s highly likely that every BHC will be very knowledgeable about their breed. Specifically, they need to have at their fingertips some essential data.
What are the trends in registration data over the past 3-5 years for their breed? This tells you something about supply and demand and provides useful context for any health improvement actions.
The KC has run 2 major health surveys; in 2004 and 2014. Even in numerically small breeds, or breeds where the responses to these surveys might have been rather low, the data will provide useful evidence of health issues (if any exist). For breeds with good response rates, there will also be useful mortality data. It is essential to know how long a breed can be expected to live and the typical causes of death. Many of these surveys show few surprises, with common causes of death being simply age-related.
Building on the data available from the KC, some breeds will also have done their own surveys and there might be evidence of emerging conditions of concern. In the absence of data, a new BHC is going to have to put plans in place to move from “no data” or “anecdotal data” to something more robust. That’s when the Health Surveys Toolkit and support from the KC’s Health Team kick in.
There’s another great source of information that BHCs can tap into and that’s the research work being done in the UK and around the world. Dr Zoe Belshaw spoke at last year’s BHC Symposium about how to search for published research and how to assess the quality and usefulness of those papers. BHCs soon identify subject matter experts to whom they can refer for scientific and veterinary advice. In some cases, they might need to commission new research in their breed; others may just need help to understand the implications of the available published research.
Experience to draw on
One of the features of some of the more proactive breeds is the development of Health Schemes. Typically, based on Gold, Silver and Bronze levels these schemes enable BHCs to collect data on their breed on a routine basis. They provide a continuous opportunity to publicise what breeders and owners are achieving with the health and welfare of their dogs. Clearly, it’s not an insignificant exercise to set up and run a new Health Scheme but, again, there is lots of experience in the BHC community to learn from. Perhaps the biggest challenge for a BHC taking on a Health Scheme is how to recruit participants and to keep this going year after year.
With the current development of the KC’s Breed Health and Conservation Plans, there is a proven way for BHCs to develop a good understanding of their breed’s priorities and to structure their plans for improvement. The document itself might be a rather complex document for the ordinary breeder or owner to read, so there’s an important role for BHCs to translate it into bite-sized chunks and to present it in engaging ways. The use of infographics is just one way in which BHCs can do this.
In 1624, John Donne said “No man is an island” and, while he certainly wasn’t thinking about BHCs, for many breeds these key people aren’t working alone. They often have health committee colleagues and a broader resource network to turn to. We also have a BHC Facebook Group which is a great source of advice and support, and last year, the BHC Mentoring Scheme was launched.
So, for those BHCs who are feeling under pressure and thinking “I’m a BHC, get me out of here”, I’d encourage you not to worry about trying to change the world, but to think about the long game and take inspiration from what we’ve all managed to achieve over the past 2 decades.
[For the avoidance of doubt, I’m not a Breed Health Coordinator, but I am a member of the Dachshund Breed Council’s Health Committee]

Planning for Breed Improvement; a sound basis for action

Planning for Breed Improvement

At the October 2017 Kennel Club Breed Health Coordinator Symposium, Dr. Katy Evans gave an update on the progress being made to create Breed Health and Conservation Plans. Katy is Health Research Manager in the KC’s Health Team and has been leading this project which is working on plans for 17 breeds initially. Many of these are nearing completion and there will be a further 30 breeds involved in the second phase.

The KC says the purpose of these BHCPs is “to ensure that all health concerns are identified through evidence-based criteria, and that breeders are provided with useful information and resources to support them in making balanced breeding decisions that make health a priority.”

We shouldn’t underestimate the huge amount of work that is required to create these BHCPs, so it is critical that they are developed in collaboration with Breed Health Coordinators and Breed Club communities. Their input is important but their buy-in and commitment to the actions proposed is essential.

Development of working BHCPs is a four stage process:

  1. Identify concerns
  2. Prioritise
  3. Implement actions
  4. Monitor and review

Show me the numbers

In order to identify concerns about each breed, the first stage draws on a wide range of available data and evidence. Information sources include published scientific papers, the 2004 and 2014 KC Health Surveys, registration and population data (including the genetic diversity analyses published in 2015), BreedWatch reports submitted by show judges and Annual Health Reports submitted by each breed. The evidence-base is further enhanced by results from the VetCompass project, insurance data from Agria in Sweden and the UK and screening data from official KC/BVA schemes (e.g. hips, elbows and eyes). Many breed clubs have conducted their own health surveys and have commissioned research projects into particular health conditions, so these can also form part of the evidence-base. Where DNA tests are available, further data can be obtained on trends in Clear, Carrier and Affected mutation test results.

The result of all this desk research should be an incontrovertible picture of what’s going on in each breed. For some breeds, this might be the first time they have seen the wealth of evidence presented in one place. It will also be an amazing resource for Breed Health Coordinators to use. When they are challenged by breeders who say “we don’t have a problem”, they will be able to confirm or disprove this. Similarly, when their breed is criticised by campaigners or the media, they will have the evidence at their fingertips to respond with confidence.

First things first

The prioritisation stage of the process should be relatively straightforward given the weight of evidence that will be available. The two main factors that need to be considered are prevalence and impact.

I know from our experience in collecting data on Dachshund health conditions that it will be virtually impossible to agree a single prevalence figure. Different survey methods, sample sizes and sample demographics potentially result in different figures for prevalence. That’s not necessarily a problem as long as you understand how the result was arrived at (and that’s an area of expertise that Katy certainly brings to this project).

It’s likely to be more difficult to arrive at a quantifiable estimate of impact because this involves a number of criteria including age of onset and length of time a dog may suffer, how easy the condition is to treat and whether it recurs, the degree of pain and suffering caused, whether any treatment is available and what it involves (including cost). In 2009, Asher et al proposed a Generic Illness Severity Index for Dogs [GISID]. The scale was based on similar severity indices from human medicine and comprises four dimensions, each of which is scored on a five-point scale:

  • Prognosis – to reflect whether the disease is chronic or acute
  • Treatment – to include factors related to the medical, surgical and side-effects of treatment
  • Complications – to show the potential for other impacts associated with treatment
  • Behaviour – to show the effect on the dog’s quality of life

By scoring a disease against each of the four scales, the severity of different conditions can be compared, albeit with a degree of subjectivity. A condition such as Gastric Torsion (Bloat) would score near the maximum severity on the GISID scale, whereas Deafness would score much lower. We have used this as a way of focusing attention on particular conditions in our Dachshund Health Plans.

Prioritisation will be done in collaboration with Breed Health Coordinators and breed clubs. I expect there will also need to be some involvement of researchers and veterinary experts. I would also expect that temperament and behavioural issues might need to be included in some breeds.

Plans are nothing, planning is everything

We all know there are no quick fixes for improving breed health but I can’t believe there’s a single breed that has nothing to do or that can do nothing. In some cases, the immediate actions will be to commission more research or to collect more data. Given the wealth of information I expect will be collated from stage 1, “more research” and “more data” should not be used as delaying tactics to kick meaningful action into the long grass. This is particularly relevant for the first 17 breeds which include BreedWatch Category 3 breeds with visible health conditions.

The actions we need to see emerging from BHCPs must be designed to cause behavioural change. They will probably need to be supply side and demand side changes. Breeders will almost certainly need to change their behaviour, for example in their decisions about health testing and in choosing which dogs to mate. Judges may need to change their behaviour, as may vets. Buyer behaviour will almost inevitably have to change as well, as will that of influencers such as advertisers.

A model for this “whole systems” approach to planning for breed improvement is already emerging in the Brachycephalic breeds. The KC’s Working Group is a multi-stakeholder group looking at practical actions that can be taken on both supply and demand.

Readers of my previous articles will realise I’m about to get on my Change Management Hobby Horse!

The plans in each BHCP must address 5 key enablers of change:

  • Pressure for change – why change is needed
  • Vision for improvement – what success looks like
  • Capacity for change – time and resources to make it happen
  • Practical first steps – what will be done in the next 3, 6, 9, 12 months, to build some momentum
  • Recognition and reinforcement – how positive changes will be celebrated and how “resistance” will be addressed

What this boils down to is creating specific plans for communication, education, training and recognition with target groups and individuals (stakeholders!). There may also need to be plans to change rules, regulations, legislation, standards and processes.

BHCP Stage 4 (Monitor) is easy! Check that the actions are being implemented and having the desired effect. If they aren’t, do something different.

I will end with a quote from management guru Peter Drucker: “Eventually, plans must degenerate into hard work”.

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Does the number of Breed Clubs make a difference to health improvement?

It’s nearly three years since Philippa Robinson published her KarltonIndex review of the work being done by Breed Clubs to safeguard and improve the health of their breeds.

Breeds were assessed against four parameters:

  • Leadership (having a strong health team and plan)
  • Communication and engagement (of breeders and owners)
  • Participation (in health improvement activities)
  • Impact (on breed health)

I thought it might be interesting to see if there was any link between the number of clubs in a breed and their score on the KarltonIndex. I’ve done the analysis for the Hound Group and this is what I found:

hound_group_clubs_vs_ki_index_2013

On average, Hound breeds with fewer than 5 breed clubs scored 12 on the KI, while breeds with more than 5 clubs scored 26 on the KI. (For the number jockeys reading, this was a statistically significant difference).

The chart shows an exponential line of best fit, but a linear fit also confirms the trend: breeds with more clubs tend to have a better KI score.

I don’t have the time to do the analysis for every breed and it would be unwise to say there is a direct cause and effect relationship between the two variables.

I have, however, looked at the Top 10 KI scoring breeds and compared them with the 14 breeds that scored zero points in 2013. The top breeds have an average of 7 breed clubs per breed, whereas the zero-points clubs average 2 clubs per breed. Clearly, there is a relationship between the number of breed clubs and the number of dogs registered. The top-scoring breeds accounted for around 56,000 registrations in 2015 (about a quarter of the KC’s registrations). In comparison, the zero-scoring breeds only accounted for 5,400 registrations (approx. 2% of the total).

There are, of course, good examples of breeds with few clubs who are also doing a great job (as measured by the KI). However, you just need to look at what Philippa found in her top-performing breeds to draw some conclusions about why those breeds with more clubs might be making more effort and progress on health matters:

  • There are likely to be more people on committees who are passionate about making a difference for their breed
  • It is easier to find people willing and able to join their Health Committee
  • There are more people to call on to help run health seminars, screening sessions and to promote health initiatives
  • There are more clubs who can fund-raise and make donations to research programmes
  • There are more events at which health matters can be communicated and owners can be engaged in learning how to breed healthier dogs
  • There are more Facebook Groups, Club websites and social media channels being used to reach and involve owners and potential owners in health improvement

I know there will be people who think the KI approach is meaningless management-speak, but it’s based on well-proven approaches used in the private and public sectors to assess how well organisations are doing.

Ultimately, the KI score that a breed achieves is not that important; what matters is are there enough people who feel passionate enough about their breed to get up and do something. Breed Clubs are the catalyst for most of the good work being done across numerous pedigree breeds.

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What’s the point of a Breed Health Survey?

The following is an edited version of an article by Ian Seath, first published in Our Dogs.

A few weeks ahead of Crufts, the KC published an overall pedigree breed summary report and breed-specific reports from its health survey which was originally conducted at the end of 2014.

The 2014 survey’s stated aim was to find the most prevalent conditions currently affecting live dogs and the most common causes of death and reasons for euthanasia.

The KC’s press release also identified other benefits arising from the survey: “These results give an idea of where progress has been made, where it still needs to be made, and how it is best to make appropriate changes”.

This was the largest survey of its kind, promoted to 385,000 owners of Kennel Club registered dogs, from 215 Kennel Club recognised dog breeds. It resulted in responses covering 43,207 live dogs and deaths of 5684 dogs, compared with 2004 survey responses for 36,006 live dogs and 15,881 deaths.

Why sampling really matters, or does sampling matter?

The sampling approaches were different in 2004 and 2014, so it’s not surprising that the response rates were also different: 24% in 2004 and 11% in 2014. I know some Breeds were disappointed with their response rates in 2004, but actually, for a paper-based survey issued via Breed Clubs, the overall response was pretty good. According to the 2004 survey report, approximately 57,000 forms were posted out (although the KC website says 70,000 were sent out to Breed Clubs for distribution). Herein lies another key difference between the 2004 and 2014 samples; pedigree dog owners who were members of Breed Clubs vs. pedigree dog owners with a dog registered at the KC. Those different owners will mean there are slightly different biases in the reported results and I mean “bias” from a statistical point of view when it comes to looking at the results.

Working out whether or not these response rates are “good” or “bad” really boils down to tests of statistical significance (where terms like “good” and “bad” are meaningless). People designing surveys do this sort of calculation all the time. You can even work it out for yourself with many of the free online calculators (e.g. http://www.surveysystem.com/sscalc.htm). Estimate the UK population of your chosen breed by multiplying its average age of death by your average number of annual KC registrations. For Dachshunds, that gives us a current population of about 65,000 UK registered Dachshunds. With 789 reports on live Dachshunds in 2014 we can calculate how confident we can be in the results and a margin of error. Each breed should look at their response rates and make their own, informed, decisions.

Does the person on the Clapham Omnibus care about sampling?

The simple answer is no. He, or she, if they are in the slightest bit interested in the health of pedigree dogs, would probably only want to know the answers to three questions:

  • what are the biggest health issues in any particular breed (because I own one or might want to own one)?
  • how long can I expect my pedigree dog to live?
  • have things got better, or worse, in the 10 years between the two KC surveys?

Every breed that has a KC report can look at the data and clearly see what the most frequently reported health issues are. If you’re unlucky (or lucky, depending on your perspective!), there will be so few reports that you can’t find priority issues. For example, in Smooth Dachshunds the report shows 18 different conditions, each of which had just one report. In Long-haired Dachshunds, the KC report tells us there were 19 conditions reported, but not how many dogs affected by each. In these cases, there are simply too few reports to be of much use and breed surveys from 2012 and 2015 had more responses and gave more insights.

You do, however, have to look a bit more carefully because of the way some responses have been categorised. For example, in Mini Smooth Dachshunds there are reports of “Hypersensitivity (allergic) skin disorder”, “Dermatitis”, “Pyoderma”, “Chronic Itching” and “Unspecified Skin, Ear or Coat”. Individually, the highest has a prevalence of just under 4%, but cumulatively, they account for nearly 13% of disease prevalence and this is actually higher than the reports of IVDD (back disease). Skin problems are notoriously difficult to diagnose and resolve and, in some cases, may be due to underlying issues such as Autoimmune disease which may be a consequence of inbreeding, or Immunosuppression caused by certain medications or other illnesses.

It’s not just disease frequency; impact matters too

Just because a particular health condition comes out as being most prevalent, doesn’t mean it’s the one that has the highest welfare impact on the dogs at the individual and the breed level. A condition that has a low prevalence currently, might have the potential to have a serious impact on the breed in the longer term. For example, if it is known to have a recessive mode of inheritance, there may already be a high Carrier frequency in the breed.

We also need to consider age of onset. Like people, all dogs are going to be ill with something, at some time. Many breeds will have reports showing cardiac conditions; Heart Murmurs had an overall prevalence of 0.9% in the 2014 survey, but without knowing their age of onset, progression and prognosis we are missing lots of useful information. Any early onset condition that results in “early death” is clearly of more significance to owners than a late onset condition where death “due to old age” might be reported.

Age of diagnosis (which may not be the same as onset) is reported in the KC’s overall and breed reports. It’s presented in the form of the visually confusing “Box and Whisker” plots, but once again, breeds do have the opportunity to look more deeply into the health conditions being reported. In the overall data there aren’t many surprises: food allergies, itchy skin, elbow dysplasia all show up early (on average). Cancers and tumours show up later in life (on average). Since skin conditions do not appear as a high frequency cause of death, unlike cancers, we might conclude that many dogs may be suffering these conditions for most of their lives, with or without effective treatment.

The person on the Clapham Omnibus may also be wondering if his/her chosen pedigree breed is more likely to suffer from a particular condition than a different breed, or from pedigree dogs in general.

Breed Clubs can answer that question quite easily using a statistical technique called the Odds Ratio. This has been used extensively to report data from the VetCompass studies. It lets you test, for example, whether the 3% prevalence of Heart Murmurs in breed X is statistically significantly different from the 0.9% prevalence across the whole 2014 survey sample for all breeds. We’ve been able to use the Odds Ratio to confirm the higher rate of epilepsy in Mini Long Dachshunds (which we already knew about) as well as skin conditions in several of the Dachshund varieties (which we didn’t previously know about).

What exactly is “old age”?

Even with the smaller number of deaths reported in 2014 compared with 2004, the KC is able to report the Median age of death overall for pedigree dogs (10 vs. 11.25) and the numbers are also presented within the Breed Reports.

They also report age of death and cause of death using more Box and Whisker charts. There is a wide range of “old age” age of death reports, with 95% ranging from 8-19 years old. This is not surprising because we know that “old age” is different in big dogs and small dogs. There’s plenty of research being done on this, including an epigenetics project which the AHT is participating in and using Miniature Longhaired Dachshunds as their model for a breed with high longevity.

If you’re lucky, your Breed Report will also have an Age of Death Histogram. This shows how many dogs were reported to have died at each age from under one, in one year increments, to whatever the oldest dog was. Looking at the shape of this histogram can be useful. The highest point tells you the age when most of the dogs died; it’s not necessarily the average (Mean) age unless the distribution is perfectly symmetrical.

So, are things better or worse after 10 years?

This is the question Jemima Harrison leapt to answer on her blog shortly after the KC published its results, proclaiming an “apocalyptic drop in purebred dog longevity”. It’s an entirely predictable question given the “10 years on” dimension of the 2014 survey. However, on the basis of the results reported, it can’t be answered; at least not with any statistical confidence. So, we’re left with “apocalypse now” headlines, cherry-picked to make a point.

Not only can’t you tell if average age of death has reduced, but it’s hard to make comparisons at the level of individual health conditions. So, in Dachshunds, in the 2004 survey, IVDD was categorised in the same group as Epilepsy as a “Neurological condition”. We have nothing we can directly compare between 2004 and 2014 unless there is some way of revisiting the source data for conditions reported in 2004.

In Dachshunds, there are now three sets of data to help make comparisons at the level of individual health conditions; the KC’s 2014 results and breed surveys from 2012 and 2015. However, 3 years isn’t enough to expect to see any meaningful changes in prevalence.

What exactly is the point of Breed Health Surveys?

The “point” of Breed Health Surveys depends totally on “the exam question” you are setting out to answer. If the exam question is “what’s the biggest issue?”, most Breed Clubs’ surveys have been able to answer that. The KC’s latest survey does too.

If you want to know where to focus effort on improvement, asking about prevalence and age of diagnosis isn’t going to get you very far. You need to know about severity and welfare impact as well.

Finally, if you want to know if there’s been any change (for the better or worse) over a period of time, you’d better make sure you’re measuring the same thing, in the same way, at the start and the end. Otherwise, you’ll end up with “Garbage in, Gospel out” with someone cherry-picking the results to suit their own argument!

The approach in Dachshunds has been to answer very specific “exam questions” in each survey and I am convinced that Breed Clubs are best placed to do this sort of work. The KC’s 2004 survey results provided a fantastic platform for breeds to use to shape their own future work. The challenge is that far too many of them don’t have the capability or the capacity to do what’s needed, even if they have the motivation and desire.

I’ve written before about the value of large-scale epidemiological studies such as the VetCompass Project. Yes, there are coding and classification challenges with “dirty data”, but the data set is already massive and continues to grow. Last year it had around 2 million unique dogs in the database, from over 450 veterinary practices. This resource is only going to get more useful, but I suspect the biggest constraint to its value will be the available resources to mine and analyse the data.

One other thing VetCompass does really well is communications; it publishes open-access peer-reviewed papers that meet the needs of a technical audience, with supporting data available. It also publishes infographics; easily digestible summaries that are visually appealing and comprehensible to the “person on the Clapham Omnibus”. VetCompass seems to practice a very “agile” approach to the use of its data assets. It publishes useful chunks of information at frequent intervals, that answer specific questions. We’ve tried a similar agile approach with our Dachshund Breed Surveys; feeding people results and insights as soon as we can. This helps people see the value of their inputs quickly and repeatedly, so they are more likely to support future initiatives.

VetCompass gives us “big data”; breed health surveys give us “small data”. We need both, but most importantly, we need to define the “exam questions” before rushing off to design surveys, or to see if we have data already available.

An update on the KC’s 2014 Pedigree Breed Health Survey

The survey was launched to the public on the 8th November of this year at Discover Dogs. So far, the KC has received over 27,000 individual responses across all breeds, representing over 30,000 dogs.

If you have not yet filled in a survey for your dog, you can access it online here: https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/PBHS2014

With more participation, we gain more robust data, giving a better representation of the population.

The survey is open to all owners of Kennel Club registered pedigree dogs that are over 6 months of age. There is also a morbidity section on dogs that have deceased since 31st December 2004. Thus, we would encourage anyone with a Kennel Club registered dog, including dogs that have not had health problems and dogs that have passed away since 2004, to fill out the survey and help us to get as strong a picture of dog health as possible.

The results of the survey will be made freely and publically available on the Kennel Club website once the results have been collected and statistically analysed.

As a little ‘thank you’ for participating in the survey, the KC is also offering the opportunity to win Amazon vouchers worth £200, £100 and £50, with completed surveys.

The Pedigree Breed Health Survey is available to be completed until 25th December 2014.