Every day is a learning day

One of the potential barriers to improving the health of pedigree dogs is breeders’ lack of understanding of genetics. Most breeders are, by now, familiar with DNA tests for genetic mutations for health conditions such as PRA, CLAD, DM and many more (often also with 2 or 3 letter abbreviations!). The principles of recessive mutations with 3 genotypes; Clear, Carrier and Affected and what these mean in terms of clinically healthy or unhealthy dogs is generally known by breeders. This may be less clearly understood by buyers who may still think that Carriers are likely to be a problem and get ill. 

As we move into discussing which combinations of those 3 genotypes can safely be bred together, there are still a range of opinions on whether DNA Affected dogs should be bred from. As long as an affected dog is mated to a clear dog, any puppies will not be affected but will be carriers. In many breeds, where there are small gene pools, it is reasonable to breed with affected dogs (mating only to clears). While it might be argued that not using affected dogs is a quicker way to remove deleterious mutations, it also has the effect of removing all that dog’s genes from the population. Removing dogs from breeding on the basis of one genetic mutation alone is often not in the best interests of the breed.

When it comes to coats and colours, far fewer breeders seem to be educated or to make the effort to understand the genetics. All too often, discussion of colours seems to be based on historical urban myths or worse, on fashion and personal prejudices. It’s such an emotive topic, as we have seen with numerous discussions over many months about Colour Not Recognised (CNR) and Non Breed Standard (NBS) colours.

Emerging science

What I find really fascinating is the rate at which the science underpinning the genetics of coats and colours is developing. Some of the research is being enabled by Citizen Science where dog owners’ contributions help research teams by providing DNA samples and photographs. One such study published last year resulted in an improved understanding of one of the earliest coat colour mutations, designated as ancient red (eA). This genotype is associated with “domino” in Alaskan Malamute and other Spitz breeds, “grizzle” in Chihuahuas and “pied” in Beagles.

Another new paper (2021) explains variations in the PMEL gene which causes dapple (merle) in Dachshunds. A previous study of this gene in Australian Shepherds had correlated the length of an insertion into the PMEL gene with 4 broad phenotype clusters of merle, described as “cryptic”, “atypical”, “classic” and “harlequin”. This new paper reports on a similar study in Dachshunds and identified numerous cases of “hidden” merle in light red dogs. The paper suggests that the frequent identification of cryptic, hidden and mosaic variants of the merle pattern makes DNA testing critical to avoid producing puppies with serious health problems. Double-merles are known to be at risk of deafness, blindness and microphthalmia (small eyes) and are banned from registration by the KC.

Time for cocoa?

Another lesson I learned recently was the existence of a gene associated with the brown (liver/chocolate) colour. Variants of the B locus are the most common cause of the brown coat colour, with 5 known mutations of the TYRP1 gene that explain the majority of dogs with brown coats and noses. One exception has been the brown or chocolate French Bulldog which, when tested, is found to be BB (i.e. not chocolate as normally expressed). Recent research (2020) has identified a mutation on the HPS3 gene associated with brown in FBs and which has been called “cocoa”, for which a DNA test is now available. 2 recessive copies of this mutation (co/co) are required for the dog to be brown/chocolate.

5, not 4, basic coat colour patterns

The most recent paper I have been reading was published by Dannika Bannasch and her colleagues at the University of Bern. Professor Bannasch and one of her collaborators, Prof. Tosso Leeb, have both been winners of the prestigious International Canine Health Awards. The study clarified how coat colours and patterns are genetically controlled but also discovered that the light coat colour in many modern dog breeds is due to a mutation that originated in an extinct species more than 2 million years ago. 

Dogs can make 2 types of pigment; black (eumelanin) and yellow (pheomelanin). Production of these 2 pigments in the right place on a dog’s body results in very different coat colours and patterns. The agouti signalling protein (ASIP) is the main switch for the production of yellow. Without ASIP, black pigment is formed. 

In addition, there are 2 “promoters” which result in ASIP production on (a) the belly and (b) banded hairs. The study identified 2 versions of the ventral promoter and 3 versions of the hair cycle promoter, resulting in 5 possible combinations which cause different coat colour patterns in dogs. Previously, it had been thought that there were only 4 basic patterns.

Image source: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41559-021-01524-x.pdf

Within each of these 5 pattern types, there may be further variation due to other factors such as the position of the boundary between red and black areas, the shade of red (from dark to nearly white) and the presence of a black facial mask or white spotting caused by genes other than ASIP. 

Prof. Bannasch said: ‘While we think about all this variation in coat colour among dogs, some of it happened long before ‘dogs’ were dogs. The genetics turn out to be a lot more interesting because they tell us something about canid evolution.’

Learning from history

While a lot of the science and understanding of the genetics may be new, many breeds have a wealth of historical information on coats, colours and patterns. Much of that is held in Kennel Club registries or breed archives. These should be essential resources to inform any discussion about colours that can or cannot exist legitimately in any breed. I am aware of a study in one breed, looking at dogs from the early part of the last century, which clearly shows that colours that are not currently fashionable were around over 100 years ago. 

The fact that some of these colours are associated with recessive mutations should make it unsurprising that those colours can still crop up and be bred today. There are plenty of examples of breeds where breeders have specifically selected for a particular colour or pattern and that’s not something new. We should be very careful not to forget our breeds’ histories and their genetic origins, and not fall into the trap of altering Breed Standards simply on the basis of what is or isn’t fashionable today. That, of course, applies to conformation as well as to colours!

Remember, prejudice is a great time-saver; it enables you to form opinions without having to gather the facts.

Pandemic Puppies Survey: Did you buy a puppy in 2019 or 2020?

A team of researchers at the Royal Veterinary College (RVC) wants to improve the lives of puppies and dogs, but they need your help with this survey!

Puppy buying can be an exciting and emotional time for households, but buying and owning a new puppy can also present a range of challenges. The RVC team is interested in learning about the puppy buying process from owners who acquired puppies in 2019 and/or 2020. By understanding how and why people buy puppies, we can learn where things go ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ in that process. This will help future owners avoid pitfalls and help target advice to owners who have experienced problems purchasing their puppy.

Who can take part?

Dog owners who meet all of the following four criteria:

  1. Are over 18 years of age.
  2. Resident in the United Kingdom.
  3. Brought a puppy of any breed or crossbreed home aged under 16 weeks during 2019 or 2020.
  4. Purchased your puppy from a private seller (i.e. you did not breed them yourself, you paid for the puppy AND you did not obtain them from a formal rescue organisation, as we are interested in the process of buying a puppy).

N.B. Even if you no longer own your puppy/dog, we would still like to hear from you.

Take the survey here

https://www.surveymonkey.co.uk/r/pandemicpuppies

Canine anxiety and puppy-rearing

Earlier this year I analysed some data collected by one of our Dachshund Breed Rescues. We wanted to see whether the massive increase in popularity of Miniature Smooth Dachshunds was feeding through into a rehoming and rescue problem. Unsurprisingly, the 2 are linked and this particular rescue charity has seen a 4-fold increase in rehoming cases from 2017 to 2019. Of those, 70% were not Kennel Club registered and that figure mirrors what we know about the market for pedigree dogs. Far more are bred outside the KC registration system than within it.

The analysis of the rescue data showed that a quarter of all cases were associated with biting or aggression. That is a worryingly high proportion, especially when compared with the findings of one of our breed surveys. In 2012, our survey asked about behaviour and temperament, and just 1% of Mini Smooths were reported as being aggressive with people (5% were aggressive with other dogs).

My suspicion is that many of these rehoming cases are a result of badly bred dogs producing puppies that are badly reared and then sold to inexperienced owners who know very little about canine behaviour and can’t cope.

Last month, I wrote about the breeding recommendations in a recently published paper “Throwing the baby out with the bathwater” (Dawson et al). Firstly, the authors recommended that breeding choices and puppy-rearing processes should be based on knowledge of good practices. Secondly, they advocated that all dogs should be independently tested for suitability before being bred from. In addition to suitability from a health point of view, they suggested behavioural testing is important to check their suitability to be good companion animals. Dogs that are themselves good companions, are more likely to produce puppies that will be good companions as well.

Fearfulness and its causes

I’ve been re-reading another paper on behaviour: “Early life experiences and exercise associated with canine anxieties” published by Hannes Lohi and Katriina Tiira in 2015. It’s an Open Access paper so you can download the full version, yourself. The study collected data from a Finnish family dog population to identify environmental factors that might be associated with canine fearfulness, noise sensitivity and separation anxiety. I was particularly interested in the findings on fearfulness, in light of the aggression/biting data found in the rescue Dachshunds. The paper notes that aggressiveness is often motivated by fear and that bite injuries from human-directed aggression are an important public health concern. In 2017/18 there were just under 8000 NHS hospital admissions for dog bites and this figure has risen by almost 5% since 2015. However, a 2017 paper (Westgarth et al) suggests that the real burden of dog bites is considerably larger than those estimated from hospital records.

While fearfulness is known to have relatively high heritability, 2 major environmental factors are also known to affect this: lack of juvenile experiences and aversive learning. In the Lohi/Tiira paper, they found that a puppy’s maternal care and the amount of socialisation had the largest effects on fearfulness. Fearful dogs had received poorer maternal care and were less well socialised compared with less fearful dogs. Additionally, fearful dogs also lived in households with fewer other dogs and with more human adults. Bitches and younger dogs also tended to be more fearful. There was also a tendency for fearful dogs to get less exercise and they were more likely to live indoors, rather than spending their time indoors and outdoors.

It’s fireworks season

In our area, the firework season seems to have spread well beyond Bonfire Night and there will inevitably be another week of loud noises as we approach the New Year. Noise sensitivity was the second issue investigated by Lohi and Tiira. They found that dogs with noise sensitivity got significantly less daily exercise than dogs with no noise sensitivity. They were also more likely to have been neutered and were likely to be their owner’s first dog. The more dogs an owner had and the more dogs they had previously owned, the later the age of onset of noise sensitivity in their current dog. Overall, the evidence suggests that more socialised dogs were less likely to be noise sensitive.

I (don’t) want to be alone

Among social media discussion groups, there seem to be endless questions about Dachshunds with separation anxiety. It’s not just Dachshunds, of course. According to Dogs Trust, surveys have shown that between 13% and 18% of owners reported separation-related issues with their dogs. One study (albeit a small sample) found 85% of the sample had behavioural and psychological signs of stress when left alone.

The Lohi/Tiira study found that separation anxiety was more common in dogs that received less exercise. Other studies (Sargisson 2014) have shown that dogs tend to develop separation-related behaviour if they are male, sourced from rescues or puppy farms, and are separated from their littermates before 8 weeks. Protective factors include ensuring a wide range of experiences outside the home with other people from 5-10 months old, stable daily routines and the avoidance of punishments. 

No surprises!

It probably comes as no surprise that the largest explanatory factors associated with fearfulness were maternal care and the amount of early socialisation (up to 3 months old). However, it is important to note that comments on maternal care in the Lohi/Tiira paper were made by the owners, not the breeders. This reflects their recollection of what they had seen when they visited the breeder before taking the puppy home. The importance of the “See Mum” message cannot be overstated and, in practice, buyers should aim to see the puppies interacting with their mother at least once before the day they take their puppy home. It’s also worth reading the Puppy Plan (Kennel Club and Dogs Trust www.thepuppyplan.com) as a week-by-week checklist of experiences that well-reared puppies should have been exposed to. 

The findings on exercise also come as no surprise to me. Our dogs love to sniff when they are out, off the lead. This is an important aspect of their mental stimulation as well as them getting physical exercise. So many of the cases of separation anxiety and destructive behaviour that I read on social media are, I’m convinced, due to the dogs simply not getting enough exercise. The authors note that exercise may work as stress resilience, particularly as the resilient effect of exercise on anxiety and depression has been recognised in people. It is known that exercise increases serotonin production in animals and people, and this acts as an antidepressant. Interestingly, the study also found that dogs with less daily exercise were more aggressive to other dogs. The amount of daily exercise may be an indicator of the overall quality of dog management. 

In conclusion, I think buyers need to be much more aware of how their potential puppy has been socialised. They also need to be much clearer on their responsibilities for socialisation and exercise. Breeders probably need to exaggerate when explaining the amount of exercise a dog will need. Otherwise, we will continue to see dogs suffering from anxiety in their new homes and growing demand for rescue and rehoming services.

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Dog theft in the UK – new research published

An Open Access paper has just been published which discusses dog theft trends in the UK. Statistics from Direct Line Insurance also show the most frequently stolen breeds and the regional hotspots for theft.

Dog theft by breed

Dogs are considered property under UK law, while current discourses of pet ownership place canine companions as part of an extended family. This means sentences for those who steal dogs are not reflective of a dogs’ sentience and agency, rather reflecting the same charges for those who steal a laptop or wallet. This is particularly problematic as dog theft is currently on the rise in England and Wales and led to public calls to change the law.

The paper shows the statistics of reported dog thefts from 2015 to 2017 and highlights the reduction in the proportion of cases where someone was charged by the Police.

Dog theft stats

According to the paper, there were police force inconsistencies in recording dog theft crime which meant some data was unusable or could not be accessed or analysed. The researchers say there is a need for a qualitative study to understand dog theft crime in different areas, and a standardised approach to recording the theft of a dog by all forces across England and Wales.

Allen, D.; Peacock, A.; Arathoon, J. Spatialities of Dog Theft: A Critical Perspective. Preprints2019, 2019030255 (doi: 10.20944/preprints201903.0255.v1). 

How long will my dog live? – cautionary comments by Dr Brenda Bonnett

I am grateful to Dr Brenda Bonnett for the following comments on my blog post “How long will my dog live?“. Brenda is an epidemiologist and CEO of the International Partnership for Dogs.

Thanks for an informative overview of this paper.  As an epidemiologist, however, I think a few cautions should be added.  Owner-reported mortality frequently lists ‘old-age’ as a cause of death, whereas this is essentially never listed by veterinarians or clinical data.  To me, what that designation means is that the dog achieved an age that approximated the owner’s expectation, and of course that would vary across breeds and owners.  Where breeds have a lower median age at death, owners might be more likely to pursue veterinary care, thereby resulting in a diagnosis.  This could confuse a comparison across breeds.  Not to discount the information, but just to suggest a little caution in its interpretation. 

A more important caution is in the use of proportional mortality.  As this value does not account for the actual rate of death or the base population, using it to compare across breeds is very risky. Let me give you one example from Swedish insurance statistics on deaths before 10 years of age in a population of millions of dog-years-at-risk, and reflecting almost 40% of all dogs in Sweden.  Bernese Mountain Dogs, Flat-coated Retrievers and Golden retrievers all had as their #1 cause of death Lymphosarcoma (a type of cancer).  So, if one had looked at proportional mortality, that was the highest cause.  On that basis, on might be tempted to say that these breeds were similar for this cause of death.  However, when one looks at the rates of death, and compares them as relative risk, the picture is very different as seen in the graphic below.  Essentially, very few Goldens died before 10 years of age, but among those who did, lymposarcoma was the most likely cause. It is fairly obvious that the importance of cancer as a cause of death before 10 years of age is very different for these breeds.  So – proportional mortality can be useful within a breed, but it is very dangerous to use it to compare across breeds.

Again – not to detract from the useful information in the paper, just to caution us all on how we apply it.