What is it they say about “statistics”?

There seem to be endless discussions about the evidence for or against the prevalence of health conditions in specific breeds of pedigree dogs. The “front line” of these battles over data has been among the Brachycephalic breeds in the past 12 months. Numerous other breeds crop up for debate with a predictable regularity (GSDs, Cavaliers, Dachshunds, BMD, Flatcoats – the list goes on).

To use that dreadful cliche, “at the end of the day”, there is no single RIGHT answer for the prevalence of any given condition, or conditions, in each breed. The published answers are very dependent on who is doing the research, what their objectives were, how they designed the study, what dogs were used as sources of data and, finally, how the data was analysed and presented.

This month, I want to focus on that latter aspect; how the data was “manipulated” and presented. However, with an eye on unanticipated consequences, please don’t use this article as a checklist of ways to spin your data. It would be better viewed as a starting point for being curious (sceptical?) about studies that are being published and data that is being presented.

What answer would you like?

Cherry-picking is probably the easiest way to spin data; simply select the results that support your case and ignore the rest. It is not unusual for research studies to come up with different answers to previously published material. For example, Packer et al (2012) studied the relationship between body length and back disease (IVDD) and concluded that the longer and lower the dog, the higher the odds of it having IVDD. That clearly plays to an agenda that links exaggerated conformation to health issues. A subsequent analysis of a much larger dataset collected by the Dachshund Breed Council also published by Packer et al (2015) did not reproduce those findings. It would be wrong to cherry-pick the latter study as a way of justifying exaggerated conformation (particularly when our Breed Standard calls for moderation in body length and asks for sufficient ground clearance).

The Cobra Effect occurs when an incentive produces the opposite result to the one intended (also known as “perverse incentive”). A classic example here would be the decision to publish the results of a screening programme to showcase dogs with, for example, good hips and to show an overall improvement in scores over time. If owners choose only to submit “good” scores for publication, the published results will give a false impression of the state of the breed.

False causality occurs when you assume that if 2 events occur together, one has caused the other. There is, for example, data that suggests Pugs with a higher Body Condition Score tend to have a higher risk of BOAS. It might be unwise to conclude that “being overweight causes BOAS”. It may be more appropriate to suggest that there is an association between being overweight and BOAS, and therefore good husbandry advice to owners would be to keep their dogs at an ideal body condition score. Having said that, we know that being overweight is generally unhealthy and leads to all sorts of adverse health outcomes!

Don’t be surprised by contradictory results

Sampling bias is a great argument for anyone who wants to challenge a set of results. In its purest sense, it means that the sample chosen is unrepresentative of the general population. For most canine studies, the reality is that particular sampling frames were chosen either deliberately or by default and the results will inevitably reflect that decision. The sample frame might be “pet dogs”, “show dogs”, “dogs seen at first opinion vets”, “dogs seen at referral practices” and so on. That’s one reason why it is perfectly possible for apparently contradictory results to be obtained.

There are other aspects of sampling bias which can affect the results obtained in a survey or research exercise. There may be Area Bias which means the geographic origin of the sample is not representative of the whole population. For example, our 2015 Dachshund Health survey includes data on about 90 Australian Dachshunds. This group has a high prevalence of skin conditions compared with UK dogs and this is likely to be an area bias related to climate and environment.

Self-selection bias is perhaps one of the most used “excuses” for results being challenged. The argument is usually along the lines of “people whose dogs have been ill are more likely to respond” or “you can’t rely on show people to report honestly, if at all”. Both of these might be true and would lead to biased samples and results.

Social desirability bias occurs when people don’t want to admit to doing something that is perceived to be socially undesirable or, in the case of their dogs, is undesirable for the dog. Typically, owner-reported estimates of a dog’s body condition underestimates the degree to which dogs are overweight and the amount they are fed. Similarly, owners may report an overestimate of the amount of exercise their dog gets; e.g. 40 minutes is rounded-up and reported as “an hour”.

Of course, adding in a sampling bias to your data collection is an important consideration if you want to lie or mislead with your study results!

Averages can hide a multitude of sins

Finally, the use of Summary Statistics can be misleading. Calculating an Arithmetic Mean (average) may hide a large amount of variation and/or multiple causes of that variation. Dachshunds are generally considered to be a long-lived breed and were used as one of the breeds in a recent GWAS project comparing the genomes of long and short-lived breeds. A look at the age of death (AoD) histogram for the breed shows a Mean AoD of 9 years but this is skewed by the number of deaths due to IVDD. On average, these IVDD dogs die at 6, whereas all other causes of death occur at an average age of 10.


The most worrying misuse of summary statistics I have come across is the choice of the denominator in the calculation of the mean. Say, for example, a large multi-breed population survey of 1,000,000 dogs explores a health condition which is known to be prevalent in particular breeds. The prevalence in the total population might be just 1% (10,000 dogs). If there are 20,000 examples of one breed and, of those, 1000 have the condition, it would be misleading to say the prevalence was 0.1% “among dogs”. The most meaningful calculation is to report that the prevalence is 5% “in that breed” or that it is 50 times more common in that breed than in dogs on average in the sample population of 1 million. We need to understand whether health conditions should be addressed at the level of dogs in general, or if they are breed-specific. Both types of issue exist and masking breed-specific issues by reporting population prevalence is simply avoidance and denial.

So, next time somebody shares some statistical analysis with you, approach it with curiosity and try to figure out if they have some ulterior motive to manipulate your opinion. It might just be their lies, damned lies and statistics (to quote Disraeli).

This article was inspired by “Data fallacies to avoid” published at http://www.datasciencecentral.com

Managing breeds for a secure future – what is a breed?

Managing breeds - bookSponenberg, Martin and Beranger’s “Managing breeds for a secure future” is now in its second edition (2017). It has been updated to reflect the emerging debates in animal breeding and includes domestic species such as dogs. The authors are academics but attempt to make the topics of breeding and genetics accessible to everyone. Its focus is on breeds and populations, not on genetics at the level of DNA and health screening with which most breeders should now be familiar.

The book explains strategies to help the survival of breeds of livestock and dogs. Nearly all the work was undertaken with the US Livestock Conservancy which is a globally respected source of information on rare breed conservation. Given that background, it is unsurprising that references to canine breed conservation are in the minority, compared with discussions related to cattle, sheep, horses and even chickens. That might be off-putting to many dog breeders who could see the book as an expensive purchase for relatively little dog-specific advice. However, the principles discussed in the book have wide applicability, irrespective of the species and it is worth a read.

So, with that background, I want to pick out a few topics from the book to discuss this month.

What is a breed?

Breeds are the way that domesticated species are divided into genetically different and useful subgroups. They are groups of animals that have significant and distinctive similarities that set them apart from other animals of the same species. However, a “breed” is actually quite difficult to define because of both biological and human factors. A biological definition might be a group of animals that is consistent enough in type to be grouped together and, when mated together, reproduces the same type. A human definition might be a group of animals deemed to be a breed by a governing authority, perhaps based on some regional or geographical boundaries. In practice, the book suggests that any useful definition of a “breed” is likely to have to take account of both the biological and human factors. Where to draw the line between “breed” and “non-breed” is somewhat arbitrary and is frequently a source of argument. Breeds only exist in domesticated species and not in wild ones.

Breeds should be readily identifiable genetic packages with each member of the breed being repeatable. Repeatability makes breeds predictable and this is one of the important factors that the KC emphasises when promoting the benefits of buying and owning pedigree dogs.

Those who argue for “breed purity” will inevitably make it more difficult to embrace genetic variability. There is a need for sufficient genetic variation within a breed otherwise there is little room for breeders to adopt meaningful conservation strategies.

Why are breeds important?

Each breed plays a particular role within any given environment and they are shaped by that environment. They serve as reservoirs of genetic diversity within a species and the authors assert that half of the biodiversity of most domesticated species is shared across breeds while the other half is unshared and contained within single breeds. Domesticated dogs share little with today’s wolves and their wild ancestors are now extinct. Losing a breed, therefore, means losing genetic diversity within a species. This is an interesting point given the calls from some quarters to “ban breeds” or to allow endangered breeds to wither away.

Creating and sustaining breeds over time

Breeds are formed by four main factors, in combination. These are foundation, isolation, natural selection and human selection. We know that many of our breeds come from a relatively small number of founders, usually chosen for their specific traits. Isolation further separates the founders from other animals, perhaps for reasons of geography or by definition of closed stud books. Natural selection which causes some genes to survive and others to fail (“survival of the fittest”) narrows the population further. Then along come breeders who impose their selection decisions to prioritise particular traits over time.

The authors describe breeds that are enrolled into a stud book as Standardised Breeds. These are specifically bred to conform to a Breed Standard and account for the wide variety of shapes and temperaments (phenotypes) we find across pedigree dog breeds today. Foundation, isolation and human selection are their defining factors. Many of today’s breeds were standardised in Europe and spread across the world during the era of colonisation. Even some breeds that originated outside Europe were actually standardised in Europe from a small number of imported founders.

Another type of breed is Landraces which are populations that are genetically related but that have been isolated to a local area; Basenjis are one example and Indian Pariah Dogs another. There are relatively few Landraces in dogs (Wikipedia lists 19) and they may be less uniform in appearance than standardised breeds. Most standardised breeds descend from earlier landraces, for example, the various Collie breeds which have more limited variation than their landrace ancestor, the working collie, which was primarily defined by its behaviour rather than its size, shape, coat or colour.

Bringing us right up-to-date with types of breed are the so-called Designer Breeds, defined by human selection from a chosen pool of founders. The authors describe these as having limited genetic consistency and limited predictability. They are therefore of little use as a genetic resource in the context of breed conservation.

Breeds fail to survive when either the biological or the political influences are ignored or mismanaged. Sustainability requires steady demand for a breed, which suggests that either a drop or a surge in demand would each be detrimental. We are seeing both of these changes in demand across a range of vulnerable breeds and the currently hyper-popular breeds. If we lose the custodians of our breeds; those people with years of knowledge and breeding expertise, we will surely lose those breeds as well.

In a future article, I’ll summarise some of the other topics from Sponenberg’s book such as how the boundaries of an individual breed may be defined and the concept of breeds as genetic pools. The book also discusses the role of breed clubs and the responsibilities of breeders, both of which are highly relevant to the challenges we face in the world of pedigree dogs.










.Managing breeds - book

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”.










Trust or trash? Just what can you believe?

The annual KC Breed Health Coordinator (BHC) Symposium was, for the first time, opened up to people who are not BHCs. As a result, around 200 people attended the event which featured a packed agenda of topics. There has already been an overview of the day published in Our Dogs (13/10/17) but, this month, I want to focus on one of the sessions I found particularly interesting.

Sniffing out the science – how to interpret information on dog health”, was presented by Dr Zoe Belshaw from the Centre for Evidence Based Veterinary Medicine at Nottingham University. I am an avid searcher for, and reader of, scientific papers and other published information on canine (and human) health and genetics. There are a couple of basic challenges; knowing where to look and knowing what to believe. Remember, we are increasingly living in a world where so-called Fake News pops up, especially via social media. Zoe’s presentation addressed both of the challenges. Let’s start with knowing what to believe.

Almost every day, new scientific papers are published or there’s a blog post (often cross-posted onto Facebook or Twitter) with a mix of data, evidence, insights and opinions. There is ALWAYS a risk of bias in these; every author brings their own agenda. As readers, we also bring our own biases and I’ve written before about Cognitive Dissonance. For example, many people simply look for information that supports their existing opinions and tend to reject anything that goes against that opinion.

Another reality of published information is that there may well be different conclusions drawn about the same issue. That might be a result of bias or it might be related to the methodology used by the author in their study. An obvious example would be the different results published by Dan O’Neill’s VetCompass project compared with results from a Breed Club’s Health Survey. The two sample populations are completely different. VetCompass data comes from first opinion vets using standard VeNom classification codes for different health conditions. Many breed surveys will not use those codes; they may use categories that reflect terms in common use by “ordinary” owners. The population being sampled is also likely to be different; mostly breeders and exhibitors. It might therefore not be surprising for VetCompass to find the most prevalent diagnoses are Otitis, Dental disease, Anal sac impaction and overgrown nails, whereas a breed survey may be more likely to find issues such as PRA, epilepsy or allergies. They are both “right”, based on the methodology and the sample. In my breed, our Health Committee has always taken the view that we need to triangulate in on priority health issues by using a variety of evidence sources. As we find new information from different sources, we can tweak our approach and our priorities. For example, we amended some of the categories and conditions we list in our ongoing health survey as a result of the 2014 KC survey.

The Trust Triangle

Zoe talked about the Trust Triangle which describes the different types of information you might come across and the levels of trust that can be associated with each.

Trust TriangleAt the bottom of the Trust Triangle are non-experts with opinions. Facebook and social media are awash with these! Journalists and experts with a commercial interest also fall into this category. Next comes expert opinion; these are people who are widely acknowledged to be experts in their field. Many of them will know an awful lot about a very narrow field of science. They too come with their biases and personal agendas but, mostly, they will have years of experience and scientific data to back up their opinions. Moving up the Trust Triangle, we find primary scientific research. This is made public via “papers”, the best of which will be peer-reviewed, rigorous, well-reported and independent. At the pinnacle of trustworthy published scientific research are papers that present systematic reviews of multiple other studies. These publications dissect and critique a set of primary research papers in order to arrive at “the best evidence” to support a particular case (or to disprove it). This is the sort of work that Zoe’s colleagues do at the Nottingham Centre for EBVM and they then publish what can be considered to be best practice for vets and clinicians to adopt. As with all science, “best practice” today could well change if new research evidence emerges. A topical example is vaccination protocols where advice from WSAVA should have moved vets away from “annual boosters” of core vaccines to a less frequent regime (no more frequent than every 3 years, generally) or the use of titre testing to assess levels of immunity.

One potential issue with the Trust Triangle is that, the higher up you go, the less accessible the information becomes and, often, it also becomes more difficult to interpret and understand. At the base of the triangle, keyboard warriors and instant experts often use language pitched at a level that you’d expect to find in the Daily Mail (or Beano). At the top of the triangle, the language is (rightly) riddled with scientific terminology and often supported by statistical analysis that is impenetrable to the ordinary dog owner or breeder. Those of us who are interested in this material may need help from subject matter experts to interpret it and clarify the meaning so we can share it with other owners. The KC’s Health team and other Breed Health Coordinators with science, veterinary or research backgrounds are invaluable in this respect. Most BHCs will also have built a network of trusted specialist advisors to whom they can turn for advice when a new paper is published. We should be hugely grateful that people like Cathryn Mellersh, Dan O’Neill, Clare Rusbridge and Sheila Crispin, to name but a few, are so generous with their time and support to our breeds.

There’s a useful resource which Zoe pointed us at to help decide if we should “Trust it or trash it” (trustortrash.org). This takes you through a series of questions to identify: who said it, when they said it and how they know it. She also gave examples of good ways and places to find the information we need to support the development of breed health improvement strategies. These include Google Scholar, RCVS Knowledge, PubMed, BestBETS for Vets and VetSRev.

As champions of breed health improvement, BHCs can make good use of social media to communicate with owners. It enables them to reach a wide audience, for example through breed-specific Facebook Groups. What they communicate, however, needs to be distilled from evidence sources higher up the Trust Triangle.










The Karlton Index: a victim of its own success?

biog pic200-166Many Breed Health Coordinators have been waiting expectantly for Philippa Robinson to publish the results of her KarltonIndex (KI) review for 2017.

Like me, they are no doubt disappointed to have read the following announcement on the KI Facebook page recently: “I have to extend sincere apologies to everyone waiting for an update on the Karlton Index. A combination of masses more health activity and breed health information means that it takes far longer to assess each breed than ever it did back in 2013. For this, the breed communities should be very much applauded. This, together with an unexpected personal family health scare has resulted in yet another delay. However, with regard to the Karlton Index assessment, I have to conclude and accept that the project just does not have the resources currently to fulfil this. Consequently, I am going to reconfigure the whole process and will report back first to the breed communities who have recently been cooperative and interactive with the work, and then wider groups.”


I have written about the KI before but, for those not familiar with it, here’s a quick bit of background. Philippa Robinson picked up her pedigree puppy, Alfie, in November 2002, having done years of research into what breed to have and which breeder to buy from. Her experience of finally getting the dog of her dreams only to have it shattered by ill-health, familial disease and heartbreak, is the motivation behind all of her campaigning.

Set up in Alfie’s memory, The Karlton Index was launched in March 2011 with the hope of bringing something constructive and helpful to the heated debates around dog welfare. Philippa brought tried and tested tools from the world of business, a world in which she had excelled for three decades, and applied them to activities related to dog health. The framework is designed to explore how people can engage with, collaborate on, and discuss dog health more objectively. The first I knew of it was when someone emailed me to say there was an article in Dogs Monthly announcing the Dachshund breed was “Top Dog” in a review of breeds. With my background in business improvement, the framework appealed and made complete sense to me as a potential way to accelerate the work being done to improve pedigree dogs’ health.

The Karlton Index measured all UK breeds for the first time in 2011, then again in 2013. I was delighted to find our breed once again rated as Top Dog against some very worthy peers including the Irish Wolfhounds, Flatcoated Retrievers, Otterhounds, Leonbergers and English Springers.

In collaborating with Breed Clubs, Philippa quickly learned that most breeds are blessed with breeders of passion and commitment, individuals who make it their life’s work to develop and nurture the best for their dogs. Working alongside breed ambassadors like that and ensuring that those individuals receive the credit, the support and the encouragement they deserve has now become a central pillar to The Karlton Index. Giving due recognition for the hard work achieved in many breeds culminated in the inaugural Breed Health Awards 2013, with the generous support of the Kennel Club Charitable Trust.

Philippa would, I’m sure, be the first to admit that her work completely changed her perceptions of where the root causes of breed health problems lie. She remains an active campaigner for canine welfare but her interests and influence go far beyond the role of Breed Clubs and the KC.

Progress and successes

Having spoken with her recently, I know how disappointed she is that she has not been able to complete her 2017 analysis in the timescale she had hoped. Being a “glass-half-full” person, my take on it is not disappointment but delight. That fact that, in just 6 years, there is so much more information that Philippa has had to review is a measure of the progress that has been made. This is particularly true when you realise that Philippa was only reviewing a sample of 20 breeds this year, not the full list of KC recognised breeds. There must be a remarkable amount of activity being implemented by these breeds and, I’d hazard a guess, the same is true in many of the breeds not in this small sample. Of course, the real test is whether or not there is any progress being made in the health of the dogs.

The KI assesses progress in four areas: Leadership, Communication, Participation and Impact. Arguably, only “Impact” matters. In reality, without the enablers (Leadership and Communication), there would be no Participation and then no Impact.

I make no secret of the fact I am an enthusiast of the KI approach. I would be, irrespective of what score my breed had achieved. I have used similar approaches in my work to help numerous organisations improve their performance. I am, therefore, keen to see what options Philippa comes up with to reconfigure the KI process. I won’t attempt to pre-empt the outcomes of this but I will comment on a couple of things I think would be really helpful to see for the future.

Firstly, the KI has amassed a wealth of information on good practices in breed health improvement. This is well-aligned with the aims of the International Partnership for Dogs (IPFD). The IPFD website is becoming the go-to place for international examples of good practice. Indeed, many of the plans emerging from this year’s International Dog Health Workshop, held in Paris, referred to the use of dogwellnet.com as the obvious repository for sharing knowledge. If there was some way for UK good practices identified by the KI to be shared using this same channel, it could be a win-win as well as reducing duplication of effort.

Secondly, in 2013 we saw the inaugural Breed Health Awards and, last year, the first Breed Health Coordinator of the Year Award. Both of these are excellent ways to showcase the fantastic work being done to improve breed health. Pedigree dogs and their health continue to be in the public spotlight and there are many vocal critics who seem not to be aware of the sheer amount of good work being done (by volunteers). What better way to shape the story than to have a range of awards from an evidence-based model to celebrate progress and achievements? We need to recognise the many unsung heroes who work tirelessly to protect the futures of their breeds.

I’ll end this month by thanking Philippa for her vision in establishing the KI and also congratulate those breed clubs who have been collaborating with her in recent months. It is so encouraging to hear about the great work being done within many breeds; long may it continue.

International collaboration on dog health – part 2

Previously, I wrote about the Breed-specific Health Strategies workstream that I participated in at the third International Dog Health Workshop. This month, I’m sharing some of the discussions from the other workstreams.

Show me the numbers

This group emphasised the importance of asking “why collect this data?” so that it would be clear how the answers could actually make a difference. Picking up on breed trends and eco-epidemiology (recycling of datasets) could also increase the speed at which improvements could actually be realised. Some of the issues flagged by this group included:

  • the need to prioritise data requirements
  • the importance of a unique ID for every dog
  • the potential value of national registration systems to include non-pedigree dogs, although there are clearly cultural issues affecting compliance levels

The group felt that one of the biggest scandals is not mining the available data and they agreed to work together to catalogue data resources within their network and to coordinate objectives across multiple studies (e.g. breed and disorder). They would aim to publish whatever is possible and look to promote fair-access collaboration internationally and inter-disciplinarily.

Dogwellnet.com could act as a dating agency, matching research questions with data owners and analysts. There is always a risk of balancing steering vs. funding; those who fund projects may want particular answers.

The lack of a standard nomenclature hampers collaboration, with various systems already in place (e.g. VeNom, SnoMed, Petscan, Agria). However, there is the potential to establish “jigsaw projects” with linked databases.

It is always important to understand the uses and limitations of data and to be clear about what analytical methods are appropriate. Ultimately, data should be used to enable change and improvement; the focus should be on dissemination, not just on research.

Extremes in conformation

This workstream focused on brachycephalics and everyone agreed this is the most severe and significant problem related to extremes of conformation in dogs.

However, there is still a need to gather accurate data to quantify the issues in dogs from different sources: KC-registered dogs vs. puppy-farmed dogs. Whatever the source, increasing popularity means more dogs are suffering, even though the evidence suggests many owners don’t realise this. Often, owners see the symptoms as “normal for the breed” (or worse, as “cute”).

Buyers need more information in order to make informed choices; vets have a key role to play here in educating their clients and have to work more closely with Kennel Clubs on this.

Campaigns such as CRUFFA have been instrumental in flagging the issues of flat-faced dogs to advertisers and the media. This awareness-raising needs to continue as it has the potential to reverse (or, at least slow) the trend in popularity of these at-risk breeds.

Overall, an aim to move the mean “health score” so that the population improves is a valid goal and there are options to consider, such as the breeding of new, less extreme, brachy types (retro-pugs) or even cross-breeding. All of this does require a suitable way to measure progress, of course!

The team focused on Brachycephalics and confirmed an action to revisit FCI Breed Standards to clarify wording and to ensure breed-specific instructions are available for 4 priority breeds. They also agreed sub-groups to exchange data, research and implementation. The latter included media communications and effective ways to change buyer/owner/breeder behaviours.

Education and Communication

This workstream took as its particular focus the issue of antimicrobial resistance (AMR) related to the over-prescription of antibiotics. They agreed the establishment of an AMR network would be valuable, together with the development of global guidelines for vets and breeders, based on data to support the utility and achievement of particular approaches.

More “stories” about the dangers of overuse of antibiotics are needed, to counter the numerous anecdotes about the importance of prescribing them (e.g. to get bitches in whelp).

As with many such programmes, the challenges are cash, data, geography, politics and buy-in.

DNA test harmonisation

There are currently no Quality Assurance processes in place for DNA tests. (Almost) anyone can set up a lab and offer DNA testing. The IPFD harmonisation project will establish a framework to validate providers and tests, and in Phase 2 will develop support around genetic counselling.

A web-based resource is under development and will be available via dogwellnet.com. This project is already well underway with IPFD having appointed a project director (Aimee Llewellyn) and building an early proof of concept on the dogwellnet website. Evaluation of the range of available tests using a template of questions will be a priority and further funding to ensure sustainability of the system will also be important, given the rapid rate of change and development in the genetic testing field.

Behaviour and welfare

This workstream stated that “socialisation” was a subset of “welfare” and started in utero. They felt there was a need for positive messages and these could be a way to add value to the sale of well-bred dogs. The 5 Freedoms would be a logical framework upon which to base these marketing messages.

The group confirmed the need for more positive messaging to the general public regarding pedigree dogs and breeding of dogs. Their action plan included identifying currently available messaging on the importance of socialisation and to develop any new resources that might be needed to fill any gaps. In the longer term, they felt it may be necessary to conduct further research into what might be needed to ensure breeders and owners are aware of effective approaches during pregnancy and early weeks of a puppy’s life.

Kennel Clubs could include socialisation as part of their breeding requirements, where they have schemes in place. As with several of the other workstreams, a lack of data and funding were identified as key barriers. In addition, a challenge here is how to reach all the puppy producers, particularly if they lie outside the sphere of influence of Kennel Clubs.

The workshop wrapped-up with thanks to the organisers, hosts and facilitators as well as all the participants who had collaborated over the 2 days.

I really enjoyed the workshop and picked up new ideas to share with Dachshund colleagues and other Breed Health Coordinators. I didn’t really know what to expect as this was the first IDH Workshop I have attended but I made some useful contacts and have a better understanding of what the challenges are around the world as well as some of the good practices that are already available “off the shelf”.