Dealing with “alternative facts” and the post-truth world

It’s pretty clear from what’s happened in recent months that we’re living in what’s being labelled a “post-truth world” where personal opinions and “alternative facts” are used as the basis of policy-making.

I’ve written before about analysis paralysis and the dangers of waiting for the perfect set of data before taking action to address breed health issues (you’ll be waiting a very long time!). Surely, there has to be a middle ground where we can develop plans and implement improvement actions that are evidence-based but where we can be agile enough to change course if new evidence emerges.

Breed Health Coordinators know only too well how hard it can be to have a sensible conversation with a breeder who “has never seen this issue in 25 years of breeding” and therefore believes it cannot possibly be something of concern. BHCs are constantly trying to explain (in plain English) that data from surveys describes what is happening in a population and that may be very different to what’s happening to the health of an individual dog. 

One way to build a case to demonstrate action may be needed (or not needed) is to triangulate in on the evidence from several sources. So, for example, the Swedish Agria and VetCompass databases provide a large quantity of data on multiple conditions and thousands of dogs. Individual breed surveys, including the KC’s 2004 and 2014 surveys provide additional data, but typically covering fewer dogs and from different owner samples. A third source is published research papers, many of which focus on very specific health conditions and there will invariably be many of these studies published over the years. A simple search on Google Scholar will find hundreds; for example I found over 350 papers on IVDD in Dachshunds. You can even create an alert so that you get sent an email every time a new paper is published related to a keyword you choose.

Of course, one thing everyone needs to understand is the difference between “data” and “evidence”. 

I could tell you that as many as 1 in 4 Dachshunds is likely to have some degree of back problem during its life. That’s data, but on its own it doesn’t have much validity or reliability unless you know something about its context. What was the sample size, how was the data collected and what is it going to be used for? Data can exist on its own but is pretty useless without context.

Evidence, however, can only exist to support a theory, an opinion or an argument. So, if in my opinion too many Dachshunds have back problems, I need to provide some data to support that opinion. That data comes from research, including routine health surveillance.

If you want to improve something, you need to have evidence to support a case for taking action. In the case of Dachshunds there is evidence to show that the more calcifications you can count in X-rays of a dog’s spine around 24 months of age, the more likely it is to suffer IVDD and its offspring will also be at more risk. There is lots of data to back up that evidence, published in peer-reviewed papers, and that’s why we launched a new X-ray screening programme in November last year.

My 2 Golden Rules for Breed Health Improvement are:

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

An important point here is that the people expected to implement the action (e.g. owners who we want to screen their dogs) don’t need to understand the data but they do need to believe the evidence. So, those of us who love getting our hands dirty with the data need to become better at storytelling. We need to present the evidence in easy-to-digest formats: infographics are one way, as are success stories from other breeds or other countries.

The UK’s National Statistician John Pullinger recently wrote that there is a huge opportunity for statistics in the post-truth world. He said there is great potential to mobilise the power of data to help us make better decisions. But, he points out that with people spending ever more time getting their news from social media channels, we risk connecting only with those with similar views to our own and never encounter those who think differently. This can mean we fall prey to those who choose to support their own opinions with “alternative facts”.

Government is supposed to follow the principles of evidence-based policy-making. The whole point of this approach is that government asks Civil Servants to review and analyse the available data before drafting legislation. They should also be analysing the counterfactuals – what would happen in the absence of the policy or legislation. Both human and veterinary medicine should also be developing evidence-based practice and we need to be doing this with breed health improvement too. 

Evidence-based practice is designed to avoid policies being developed either as a knee-jerk reaction to circumstances (exactly what happened with the Dangerous Dogs Act) or on the basis of a politician’s personal agenda or ministerial whim.

Politicians and those in positions of power, such as ministers, are notoriously bad at asking for data and evidence, let alone using them to inform decisions. Steve Dean also noted this in one of his Our Dogs articles on the outcomes of the EFRACom review of canine welfare issues. His article “Poor research and little science” discussed the lack of critical information to support the committee’s views and recommendations. He concluded by saying “attempting to impose sanctions on the majority, to deal with a disreputable minority, is a repetitive misdemeanor of governing bodies“.

Politicians and animal welfare campaigners too often look for simple solutions to complex problems. The last thing they want to do is to look at the data or evidence because, often, these would undermine the rationale for their current “pet policy”. As a consequence, they end up implementing the wrong solution to the wrong problem which is what has happened with the Dangerous Dogs Act. They also end up with unintended consequences and even more bad publicity!

The New York Times’ Andrew Revkin blames pervasive misinformation in part on “single-study syndrome,” in which agenda-driven fringe groups promote studies supporting a predetermined position — no matter how questionable the research behind them may be.

We mustn’t fall into that trap with breed health improvement. We need just enough data and evidence-based policy-making.

I’ll end with a quote from Jill Abramson writing in the Guardian: “Alternative facts are just lies, whatever Kellyanne Conway (advisor to Donald Trump) says”.


How Beliefs and Attitudes about Dog Health and Welfare Limit Behaviour Change

Among the presenters at The First International Conference on Human Behaviour Change for Animal Welfare held in Dorking, Surrey, UK from September 19-21st was IPFD’s Dr. Brenda Bonnett. Dog-ED gets a mention. Thank you!

20 reasons why improving breed health is so difficult

“Cognitive Bias” is a term that captures a multitude of reasons why it’s so hard to get people to see the need for improvement, let alone make the necessary changes that will improve the health of dogs. It’s also referred to as”Cognitive Dissonance”.

Breeders and exhibitors make many decisions every day about thei dogs. Everyone likes to think these are rational, but maybe things aren’t quite that simple.

Here are 20 types of Cognitive Bias which I read about in “Business Insider” and have interpreted for canine health.

1. Anchoring Bias: People rely on the first piece of information they hear. In a conversation about a particular health condition, the first person to comment on its prevalence sets the scene for everyone else’s views on the problem. “I’ve never seen it in 30 years of breeding” will anchor everyone in a mindset that it really can’t be an issue.

2. Availability Heuristic: People overestimate the importance of information that is available to them. Someone might argue that Cavaliers are not prone to heart disease because they know of a dog that lived to 15 with no disease.

3. Bandwagon Effect: The probability of one person adopting a view increases based on the number of other people who also hold that view. This is one reason why some stud dogs end up being so-called Popular Sires.

4. Blind-spot Bias: Failing to recognise your own cognitive biases, is a bias in itself. The classic manifestation is Kennel Blindness (“My dogs no longer have any faults”).

5. Choice-supportive Bias: When you choose something, you usually feel positive about it, even if you know it has problems. Choosing a stud dog to mate with your bitch often comes with this bias.

6. Clustering Illusion: This is the tendency to see patterns in random events, like the idea that red dogs of a particular breed are more likely to be aggressive.

7. Confirmation Bias: We tend to listen more to information that confirms our existing perceptions. This is perhaps one of the reasons why it is so hard to have a rational conversation about outcrossing as a means to improve genetic diversity and health.

8. Conservatism Bias: This is where people are slow to accept new evidence, for example the VetCompass data that shows, on average, crossbreed dogs live longer than pedigree dogs.

9. Information Bias: This is the tendency to seek more information rather than taking action. How much more data do people need before they get the message that high levels of inbreeding increase the risks of harmful mutations emerging and reduced levels of fertility. I’ve said before ‘if you wait for the perfect set of data, you will wait a very long time’. Sometimes, it’s easier to make a decision with less information.

10. Ostrich Effect: This is the decision to ignore dangerous or negative information by burying your head in the sand, like an ostrich. People who have invested time and effort in building a “line” of dogs are likely to be less inclined to acknowledge diseases or problems that can be traced back to their pedigrees.

11. Outcome Bias: Judging a decision based on the outcome, rather than on how the decision was made. Just because you bred a “healthy” dog with a Coefficient of Inbreeding of 30% doesn’t mean it was a smart decision.

12. Overconfidence: Some people are too confident about their abilities and this causes them to take greater risks. Experts are more prone to this bias than lay people, since they are more convinced they are right. Experienced breeders might believe they can “safely” mate two merle (dapple) dogs and not end up with deaf or blind puppies.

13. Placebo Effect: This is when simply believing something will have an effect causes it to have that effect. According to a study by Conzemius & Evans, a caregiver placebo effect by both dog owners and vets was common in the evaluation of patient response to treatment for osteoarthritis. Half the owners whose dogs received placebos stated that their dog’s lameness was improved during the study.

14. Pro-innovation Bias: People with new ideas often over-value their usefulness and under-value their limitations. Just because a new DNA test has been developed, doesn’t mean it’s important to use it, particularly if the mutation frequency is extremely low, or if the welfare impacts of the condition are minimal.

15. Recency: The latest information you receive is often weighed more heavily than older information. Conformational exaggerations seen in the ring today may be admired and rewarded, rather than remembering a breed’s original purpose and type.

16. Salience: This is the tendency to focus on the most easily recognisable features of a situation. For example, in Dachshunds it is much easier for breeders to focus on eradicating cord1 PRA where there is a DNA test than on reducing back disease which is a complex condition, with no “simple” test. The fact that, statistically, Dachshunds are more likely to suffer from back problems than to go blind, may be overlooked just because a test is available for PRA.

17. Selective Perception: This is where we allow our expectations to influence how we perceive the world. If we “know” that a particular line of dogs is prone to a particular health condition, we tend to look for more examples to prove that case, rather than looking more widely across the breed. We end up with “Mrs Miggins’ dogs produce xyz disease”.

18. Stereotyping: This is where we expect a particular situation without having any real evidence. Just because one of Mrs Miggins’ dogs is aggressive, doesn’t mean all her dogs have a bad temperament. People tend to over-use and abuse the limited evidence available.

19. Survivorship Bias: This is an error that comes from focusing only on surviving examples. For example, we might think that Mrs Miggins’ dogs are long-lived, because we haven’t heard of any of her dogs that have died at an unusually young age.

20. Zero-risk Bias: Sociologists have found that we love certainty, even if it’s counter-productive. That’s why many breeders are obsessed with “health-testing” and the continual search for new tests. They should, instead, be focused on the root cause of the problem which is closed stud books and high levels of inbreeding.

All of these cognitive biases are potential stumbling blocks that affect our behaviour and they can prevent us from acting in the best interests of our dogs and our breeds.

However, if we are aware of them, we can turn some of them to our advantage. The way we present information; how we communicate good practices; how we reward and reinforce improved canine health; all these can nudge people in the right direction.














Brachycephalics: Making the move from data to improvement?

It’s been interesting following the information emerging from the various discussions on brachycephalic breeds. We’ve heard from vets calling for action to address the health issues, including via online petitions. The Kennel Club in Norway has set out its proposals for improvement and our own KC has convened a working group. There’s also the CRUFFA campaign to discourage the use of images of flat-faced animals in advertising and the media. All this follows on from the RVC’s “Building better Brachycephalics” day in 2013.

If you’ve not seen them, it’s well worth heading to vet Pete Wedderburn’s Facebook page to watch the videos he live-streamed of the various (excellent) presentations made at the first meeting chaired by Steve Dean at Clarges Street. From comments in one of the videos, it appears that it came as a surprise to some attendees that the meeting was being live-streamed by Pete. The presentations made by the scientists clearly summarised the evidence for the breadth and scale of the health problems facing brachycephalic breeds, both at individual dog level and at population level. The evidence is indisputable and the work done by David Sargan and his colleagues at Cambridge University means there are now practical ways to measure and score the health impacts in individual dogs.

The focus of that first meeting was very much on data and “the science”, with less of a discussion of the factors that have (a) led breeders to produce health-compromised dogs or (b) caused such a massive increase in demand from the puppy-buying public. The demand issue is clearly an area of focus for the CRUFFA campaign.

There was a second meeting at the KC at the end of July, but I believe Pete wasn’t present, so there are no videos to watch. In addition to the scientists, these KC meetings have included Breed Health Coordinators such as Penny Rankine-Parsons (FBs) and Vicky Collins-Nattrass (Bulldogs), both of whom have been incredibly proactive in their breed health improvement work.

At the end of the first meeting, participants were asked to go away and draw up an A4 page of actions they felt could/should be taken. Apparently, they were asked not to put “change the Breed Standards” at the top of their lists. Pinning the blame, and focusing the actions, on the KC and show communities is far too narrow a perspective if we want to improve the health of these dogs. Overall, the good news is the brachycephalic problem is moving into solution mode.

Complicated or Complex?

What interests me is how this will be managed as a Change Programme. Doing the data analysis and the science may be complicated but there are some world-class people working on these aspects. However, making change happen is complex (rather than complicated) and, the knowledge and skills needed are totally different, particularly when it comes to changing buying behaviours in the wider population.

I deliberately used the words “complicated” and “complex”. It is important to understand the difference between “complicated” and “complex” situations. The complicated context calls for investigating several options where there may be multiple “right answers” and is the domain of subject matter experts, like the scientists working on brachycephalic health. One of the dangers is that innovative suggestions made by non-experts may be overlooked, or dismissed. The voices of the Breed Health Coordinators with their wealth of practical experience need to be heard. Another risk in complicated situations is “analysis paralysis”; the tendency to keep searching for the perfect set of data, or the perfect answer to a problem, which means that very little gets implemented. Decision-making in complicated situations can take lots of time and there’s always a trade-off between finding the “right answer” and simply making a decision in order to make some progress.

When it comes to implementing changes to improve brachycephalics, the situation is complex; there are no right answers. We already know from the science that the issues are not even the same in the different brachycephalic breeds. David Sargan was reported on the BBC in response to the paper published on Bulldog genetic diversity and he said “we now have pretty strong evidence that there are still multiple genetic variations between those that do and those that don’t suffer from the disease (BOAS). But, we do not know whether this is also true for other aspects of conformation and appearance related diseases.”

There are bound to be many competing ideas and what will work is likely to emerge from a range of innovative approaches. There are lots of different people who have to be engaged and whose behaviours have to change. We shouldn’t underestimate the challenge of reaching and influencing the large number of breeders outside the KC/Breed Club communities. There will be a need to encourage dissent and diversity of ideas, as well as a willingness to “just try stuff” and see what works. That’s probably going to be uncomfortable for some people, particularly if they prefer working in a world of “right answers”, predictability and hierarchical decision-making.

We need to stop reacting to individual reports and look at the whole picture. Somebody needs to be joining the dots, otherwise we just add to the doom and gloom feeding frenzy in the press.

Agile or Big Bang?

What is the strategy for change with brachycephalics? Will it be exploratory and agile, or will it be a “big bang” launch and roll-out of a “package” of solutions? If it’s the former, then it would be perfectly valid to implement a change to a Breed Standard and see what happens. It’s a simple decision to make and it will either make an impact on its own, or not!

The trouble with that one, simple decision, is that we know it will not be enough on its own. But, it could be implemented quickly and could be seen as part of what Dave Brailsford, the Team GB Cycling Director, called the concept of marginal gains. Brailsford believed that if it was possible to make a 1% improvement in a whole host of areas, the cumulative gains would end up being hugely significant. The successes of Team GB and later Team Sky clearly demonstrate the power of this approach.

There were already a few ideas being touted around on social media before the second meeting hosted by the KC. Each of these has a cost and a potential value (or impact), so their relative merits need to be evaluated. The speed with which they could be implemented also needs to be agreed. Here’s my view of what a cost-value map might look like for a few of the ideas I read about. Green ideas could probably be implemented quickly, Orange ones would take longer and Red ones would be much longer-term.

Building Better Brachycephalics 2

The good thing is that the ideas cover both the supply side and demand side of the problem. They also contain a mixture of small changes and big changes. “Change the Breed Standards” is a small change, whereas “Educate the public” is a big change. The latter cannot actually be implemented; it needs to be broken down into doable activities like “run a series of campaigns on TV”, “get celebrity owners to talk about their pets’ health issues”, or “produce posters to display in all vets’ waiting rooms”.

What struck me about the lists of ideas I saw was just how few ideas there were. That’s possibly just a reflection of the mix of big and small ideas. Linus Pauling, the American scientist said “the best way to have a good idea, is to have lots of them”. There are certainly plenty of keyboard warriors willing to share their views online; how about building that into the solution-generation stage of the Brachycephalic improvement programme? Maybe there’s an opportunity to “crowdsource” more ideas. Just a thought!


4 simple steps for communicating canine science

A continual challenge is how best to communicate scientific concepts and reports to “ordinary breeders and exhibitors” so they can take appropriate action to improve the health of dogs. Getting the answer right is a key element of any Breed Improvement Strategy because, without effective communication, it’s highly unlikely that we will achieve the support and actions needed to make dogs’ lives better.

Albert Einstein is reported to have said “You don’t really understand something unless you can explain it to your grandmother”, so maybe we should be applying the “granny test” every time we try to communicate important health information. Of course, underpinning this quote is the assumption that your granny doesn’t have a PhD in Canine Genetics!

We aren’t the only community that faces this challenge, so maybe we should try to learn from those who (usually) make science accessible to the masses. The likes of Brian Cox, Alice Roberts and even comedian Dara O’Briain have become recognised TV personalities with their science programmes.

According to the 2014 IPSOS MORI survey of UK public attitudes to science, 72% of respondents said they thought it was important to know about science, compared with 57% in 1988. 90% thought scientists make a valuable contribution to society, but worryingly, a third thought scientists adjust their results to get the answers they want. It would be interesting to see what those responses would be from the dog show/breeder community who have been bombarded with science, genetics and health survey data over the past decade.

Journalists and the press love a good headline; “KC survey reveals apocalyptic drop in purebred dog longevity” hit the streets (or a blog) shortly after the KC published its 2014 Health Survey reports. A recent Vet Times blogger commented on the headline “Majority of pedigree dogs suffer no disease condition, survey shows”. The “majority” was 65%, which the blogger (a vet) rightly pointed out also meant that more than one third of the population did suffer from some disease. Poor communication of important science and data can have significant consequences. It can damage reputations or, at worst, it can lead to harmful decisions and actions. For example, the West African Ebola outbreak required really clear communication of scientific information to large numbers of people with diverse cultural backgrounds so they could take the best possible precautions.

A recent study of factors that caused articles about human vaccination to go viral on social media showed the most shared articles contained:

  • Statistics demonstrating the case being made, plus…
  • A bottom-line message with clear advice for the reader

Both factors had to be present for maximum impact. Articles that were just stories or without statistics, were least likely to be shared. Interestingly, articles that acknowledged both sides of an argument (such as acknowledging occasional adverse vaccine reactions) before coming out with a clear bottom-line message were also seen to have high credibility.

What can we do to improve our chances of people reading and understanding canine science?

I’d probably boil it down to two principles: Plain English and pictures!

According to a 1992 study by the US Department of Education, 90 million English-speaking adults have literacy skills in the lowest two levels. Plain English helps people understand canine science because the writing style is clear, concise and free from jargon. There are plenty of plain-English guidelines and techniques, such as using short sentences and the active voice. This is not the place to spell them out; they are widely available online. We also need to think about other aspects, such as making the message matter to the reader, explaining concepts using information they already know and deciding what details to leave out.

People tend to learn best when they are interested in something and when they can directly relate it to themselves. If we can answer the “what’s in it for them?” question, they are more likely to read and understand. So, increased genetic diversity means they are more likely to have bigger litters and fewer puppy deaths. A lower Coefficient of Inbreeding means they are less likely to find inherited diseases cropping up in their puppies.

It always helps to start with what is familiar and build new concepts from the known to the unknown. For example, most people know how uncomfortable it is to get an eyelash rubbing on their eye, so it’s an easy analogy to make when explaining the health impact of Entropion or Distichiasis. Some dogs have to live with these but they aren’t as quickly sorted as getting that eyelash out of your own eye. It might be simplistic, but it gets the point across.

Another danger when communicating scientific information is the tendency to include every last detail. Those who understand, or created the information, may think every detail is important. However, some things just aren’t as important when you’re trying to explain something that is new to the audience. This is a classic dilemma when trying to explain statistical significance to a lay audience. It’s probably perfectly adequate, for that audience, to say a result is statistically significant, but not important to quote Confidence Levels or p-values. However, it is important to ensure a lay audience understands that Correlation does not imply Causation. The well-publicised study of neutering in Golden Retrievers showed neutered dogs had double the occurrence of HD compared to entire dogs. The paper, rightly, did not say “Neutering causes HD”. Knowing what to leave out, is important. The aim is to help someone understand a difficult subject.

Plain English is not “dumbing-down”. It is about clear and effective communication, nothing less.

A picture paints a thousand words.

One of the ways to grab an audience’s attention is to use pictures and, increasingly, infographics are being used to present scientific data. Instead of telling your story using lots of words, you present your message in a more visual way, using eye-catching design elements. Many people love facts and figures, so if you can present them in a compelling way, you can really make an impact. The brain processes visuals faster than text; it’s easier to understand the effect of epilepsy by looking at a short video than by reading about it. Infographics are 30 times more likely to be read than a text article, according to one marketing study.

Best of Health 0615



The gene genie is truly out of the bottle

Recently, I’ve had some fascinating conversations with canine geneticists about emerging technologies and upcoming research projects.

It seems that it is now possible to identify new, simple recessive mutations from the DNA of a single affected dog. Not long ago, laboratories like Cathryn Mellersh’s at the AHT would typically be asking Breed Clubs to come up with cheek swab samples from 50 affected and 50 unaffected animals. For many breeds, that was probably quite a challenge and virtually impossible in the numerically small breeds. Back in the days when the AHT was looking for the mutation that caused PRA in Miniature Longhaired Dachshunds, they even had to have their own research colony of dogs. By the way, “back in the days” is just over 10 years ago.

I was told of an example where a new genetic mutation that causes a painful eye condition has been identified in a particular breed and a new DNA test can be offered to breeders. There have only ever been a couple of clinical cases reported. That may be because it is incredibly rare in the breed population, or perhaps it simply goes undiagnosed or unrecognised during BVA/KC/ISDS eye examinations. This is a breed where several other DNA tests are already available for eye conditions and breeders are expected to make use of other available screening programmes for hips and elbows.

Should the breeders be encouraged to use the new test? Should the Breed Clubs carry out a research screening exercise on a suitably random, but statistically significant, sample number of dogs? Should DNA samples that have been submitted for the other eye conditions be re-screened for the new mutation?

One danger is that breeders will find themselves faced with yet more expense; the good breeders will want to do the right thing and the bad breeders will carry on regardless (and make a bigger “profit” on the sale of their puppies).

The risk of not screening a suitable sample of the breed is that there is no way of knowing how high the mutation frequency is in the population. Although there may be currently very few known Affected dogs, if it turns out that there are a large number of Carriers in the population, then there is certainly a risk of more clinically affected dogs appearing in the future. If a Popular Sire is a Carrier, then there’s an even greater risk to the breed.

The other complication for many breeds comes when there are multiple tests available and any given pair of dogs in a planned mating could be Clear, Carrier or Affected for different DNA tests, plus have a range of different screening statuses for their clinical tests. Just how do you decide if it is “safe” to mate two animals together? I’m sure a number of breeds are  already finding themselves in this situation. Presumably, the use of Estimated Breeding Values and Genetic Breeding Values holds out some hope for them, but these are very dependent on having enough data available from people participating in the the various screening programmes.

Give a dog a genome

Perhaps the most exciting news in January was the AHT’s announcement that they plan to sequence the genome of 50 different breeds. They have £50,000 of funding from the KC Charitable Trust and want Breed Clubs to match this. I’m aware there has already been a flurry of activity on various breed Facebook pages to set up fundraising activities.

We already know the potential value of this type of project because a Cornell University team has performed a large, across-breed genome-wide association study (GWAS) in dogs, uncovering variants associated with everything from body size and fur traits to dog diseases such as epilepsy, cancer, and dysplasia. They have pre-empted the AHT’s project and published their results in January.

The Cornell researchers genotyped more than 4,200 dogs for the GWAS, focusing on a dozen common dog traits and diseases. The analyses included dogs from 150 breeds and 170 mixed breeds, as well as 350 village dogs from 32 countries. This is clearly on a much larger scale than the AHT plans, but their results certainly add weight to the case for the AHT looking at breeds in the UK.

For example, the researchers used data for dogs from 82 breeds — 113 cases and 633 controls — to track down two loci linked to elbow dysplasia. One locus had stronger effects on elbow dysplasia risk in Golden Retrievers and English Setters, the other showed closer ties to the trait in Labrador Retrievers and German Shepherds. Along with the across-breed analyses, the team did several within-breed association studies, including a lymphoma analysis in Golden Retrievers, a search for idiopathic epilepsy in Irish Wolfhounds, and a Boxer-centered analysis of granulomatous colitis.

We need to be clear though; these are not “DNA tests” for these particular conditions, but they are an important finding not only for canine health, but also for helping to understand similar complex diseases in people. This ties closely to the increasingly common messages about “one medicine” that many people will have heard Professor Noel Fitzpatrick speak about on his SuperVet TV programmes. Noel’s work on treating canine patients is attracting attention among human surgeons and there are, no doubt, many more potential examples where veterinary and human medicine and surgery can learn from each other.

One medicine

One of the earliest examples of that cooperation and learning was the search for the Lafora gene in Miniature Wirehaired Dachshunds. Nearly 15 years ago Dr. Berge Minassian from the SickKids Hospital in Toronto visited owners of Mini Wires in the UK and began a collaboration that led to the discovery of the gene and mutation which causes Lafora.

Lafora Disease is a late-onset myoclonic form of epilepsy that affects humans and dogs. In people, the disease, which is progressive, usually results in death in the teenage years. In Miniature Wirehaired Dachshunds, just under 10% of UK dogs have been identified as Affected by the DNA test that Dr. Minassian’s team developed.

In January, he returned to the UK to seek their support in the development of a therapy which has been shown to be effective in mice and which, it is hoped, will benefit humans and dogs. The Wirehaired Dachshund Club’s Lafora Team will be working with Berge and Dr. Clare Rusbridge to recruit a group of clinically affected Mini Wires, plus a control group of dogs, to run the trial with the new therapy over a 2 year period once funding and ethical approvals have been confirmed.

This could be a landmark moment in what is a unique collaboration between breeders, veterinary medicine and human medicine. The potential to develop a viable therapy for Lafora Disease would be life-changing, both for the people affected by the disease and for affected dogs.

The gene genie is truly out of the bottle and it opens up opportunities to benefit people and dogs that could barely have been imagined just a few years ago.

Time for individual Breed Improvement Strategies?

Quite a lot has already been written about the KC’s Genetics and Diversity reports with a range of comments from “good news” to “it’s the end of the line for some pedigree dogs”. No prizes for guessing which commentators were at opposite ends of that particular spectrum!

From my perspective, the availability of more data is always good news. There are, however, challenges. Firstly, what we have is a report (or a series of reports at breed level) and it will only have value if somebody can make use of it. It needs to be read, understood and acted upon by the people within individual breeds.

There is a clear role here for Breed Health Coordinators and their associated Health Committees. They need to take the report for their breed and distil it into some key messages using language that will be accessible to breeders and owners.

Each report includes data on 25 years of registrations, trends in Coefficients of Inbreeding, Effective Population Size and the use of Popular Sires. Taken in the round, rather than cherry-picking individual elements of the data, provides a unique insight into the current situation faced by each breed. A breed with growing registrations, but declining EPS and increasing COI will need a different response to a numerically small breed with stable registrations and an already high average COI, but with a variety of recent imports.

What is the picture for your breed?

A potentially useful technique from the world of Systems Thinking is General Morphological Analysis (GMA). This is a method for structuring and analysing complex problems and can be used for developing scenarios, for example when considering options for improvement. It’s also helpful when looking at the relationship between ends (e.g. COI, EPS) and means (breeding strategies).

Taking the data from the KC reports and developing a GMA matrix could result in something like this for “ends”. Each column is for a set of data in the diversity reports and each row describes a range of results that might be found for a breed (e.g. colouring the text to show current status for an individual breed):

Registration Trend COI (Current Mean) COI Trend EPS Popular Sire Use
Declining (>25 p.a.) >25% Increasing 0-25 Extensive; increasing
Declining (5-24 p.a.) 12-24% Static 26-50 Extensive; static
Static 6-11% Decreasing 51-75 Extensive; decreasing
Increasing (5-24 p.a.) 2-5% 76-100 Moderate; increasing
Increasing (>25 p.a.) 0-1% >100 Moderate; static
Moderate; decreasing
Negligible; increasing
Negligible; static
Negligible; decreasing

In practice, this needs to be developed collaboratively, with involvement of the interested parties (genetics experts and breeders) to agree the criteria and “levels” that describe the current situation for any breed.

What actions are needed in your breed?

The second challenge is that there is no “one size fits all” response. Having looked at the data sets for each of the 6 varieties of Dachshund, there are definitely different strategies required. Wires have benefited from numerous imports and have a relatively high EPS, but the breed has a history of Popular Sires. Smooths and Longs have declining registrations and could benefit from imports to increase their gene pool. Mini Longs are declining in popularity, have an increasing level of inbreeding and are also adversely affected by Popular Sires and this appears to be a worrying combination of factors. Mini Smooths have exploded in popularity in the past few years (TV adverts seem to be a causal factor here), but also have an issue with Popular Sires which could create a problem in the future.

For the Dachshunds, a recurring theme is the use of Popular Sires and, I suspect, that will be a theme in many other breeds. While the FCI guidance on Breeding Strategies (*) provides suggestions on how many litters/puppies any individual sire should have, this sort of approach is typically not welcomed in the UK. It seems unlikely that this type of “regulation” would be acceptable to, or popular with, UK breeders in most breeds. Whether any degree of self-regulation is likely to happen, I doubt. I fear that the desire to use the latest, greatest, import or top-winning dog will outweigh any considerations for the future viability of most breeds.

The KC’s website has a page devoted to “managing inbreeding and genetic diversity”. In theory, this could be developed into a GMA matrix for the “means” to address the “ends”. Each column represents “levers that can be pulled” to influence genetic diversity, with rows showing some of the available options. For example, here are some of the options (which range from the “denial” options to the “nuclear” ones!):

Manage Popular Sires Use COIs before Breeding Use Health Tests Use DNA Tests Use Sub- populations Use a different breed
Don’t restrict use Don’t consider litter COI Don’t carry out health tests Don’t carry out DNA tests Inbreed to a line/ family Don’t outcross to another breed
Provide guidance only Breed above COI average Ignore health test results Don’t breed from Affected dogs Breed to other lines Outcross to another variety of the same breed
Recommend limits for use Breed below COI average Take health tests results into consideration Don’t breed from Carrier dogs Breed to dogs from another discipline (e.g. working) Outcross to a different breed
Set rules for use Only breed from Clear dogs Breed to an imported dog
Only mate Affecteds/ Carriers to Clears

Some of these are options that can be influenced or regulated by the KC and Breed Clubs, while others are choices available to individual breeders.

If you wait for the perfect set of data, you’ll wait a very long time!

A final challenge associated with the KC’s Genetic Diversity reports is that some people will simply criticise the data and argue that the conclusions are based on dodgy data! We’ve had this criticism before; we know the KC’s COI calculations are based on available pedigree information and, in the case of imported dogs, that may be from as little as 3 generations.

Tom Lewis and Sarah Blott countered that criticism with a letter to the dog press in December 2013. They said “We know that truncating the pedigree when calculating COIs leads to an underestimate of the rate of inbreeding in a breed. We can then be deceived into thinking the breed has an acceptable rate of inbreeding when, in fact, it does not.

Overall, that one factor probably means COI values quoted in the reports are underestimates for those breeds where there have been multiple imported dogs. All the more reason to acknowledge the lack of genetic diversity in many breeds and agree, at breed level, what actions are required.

Unless breeders wake up to the implications of the past 25 years’ breeding strategies as demonstrated by the KC’s reports, we will see the inevitable consequences of Darwinism in action. Some breeds are already defined as “vulnerable”; the KC reports highlight others that really ought to be implementing conservation programmes. If we were looking at Pandas, Rhinos or Tigers there would be worldwide conservation programmes in place and global cooperation. Breeds such as the Otterhounds have already recognised this risk and are trying to do something about it.

It’s not the KC’s responsibility to make change happen; they have provided the data and can influence the direction of change, but it’s down to breed club communities and individual breeders to act now for the benefit of their breed.

* FCI Breeding Strategies: “As a general recommendation no dog should have more offspring than equivalent to 5% of the number of puppies registered in the breed population during a five year period.”