I am grateful to Dr Brenda Bonnet for sending me a copy of an interesting and useful paper published in January by a team from the University of Copenhagen Department of Veterinary Medicine. [Mapping of initiatives to prevent inherited diseases and exaggerated phenotypes in dogs – Bruun, Fredholm, Proschowski & Sandøe]
The team describes and examines 4 types of initiative designed to address the negative effects of dog breeding. These are: research, actions in the breeding community, education of the buying public, and legislation. The study draws on source material from the FCI and Kennel Clubs, animal welfare organisations, published research, and legislation.
I’ll cut to the chase and say that the report’s conclusions and recommendations mirror a couple of key points I’ve written about numerous times in this column:
- We need data and evidence, but endlessly seeking more data or the “perfect” set of data won’t make much difference to dog health
- The real issue that we need to address is human behaviour change and most of the solutions developed so far have been developed in isolation and fail to “join the dots” in what is a complex system
There are 3 main types of research initiative; epidemiological studies to establish evidence of the prevalence and severity of diseases; research to develop tests and diagnoses of diseases; and research to develop treatments. In the UK, the VetCompass studies that I have written about previously are among the most well-known and useful epidemiological research. These studies, together with breed health surveys (run by the KC and breed clubs), provide good baseline data and the potential to measure improvements over time. They also enable us to set objectives for improvement and to prioritise among different conditions. Our UK Breed Health and Conservation Plans are the key documents summarising this research and individual breed improvement plans.
We are all aware of the pace of development of new DNA tests but a major concern is the relevance of these. Just because a particular mutation has been found in a breed doesn’t necessarily mean it is associated with the clinical manifestation of a disease. Resources such as the IPFD’s Relevance Ratings in their DNA test database make it clear where tests are worth considering within a breed’s improvement plan.
Additionally, it’s all too easy for breeders and buyers to mistake “health-tested” for “healthy” and we still have a lot of education to do in this regard.
Initiatives by breeding organisations
The Danish paper acknowledges that Kennel Clubs and Breed Clubs have taken some effective action to improve breeding programmes but admits these are limited to dogs within the registries. We know there are at least as many “pedigree” dogs bred outside the UK KC registry and, therefore, these breeders are hard (or impossible) to reach with education programmes.
Unsurprisingly, amendments to Breed Standards are one attempt to limit the negative effects of extreme conformation or exaggeration.
Traditions like coat colour and specific conformational aspects are quoted as being considered to be equally important as health and welfare, which mitigates against many of the necessary improvement actions being adopted by breeders.
The paper describes breeding programmes imposed by Kennel Clubs as being “a balanced consideration of many aspects related to the breed, its health and breeders”. For example, the size of a breed is important and if too many criteria are included, many dogs would be excluded from breeding with a resulting further loss of genetic diversity and the emergence of new diseases. There will always be debate about whether KCs have got the balance right and the pace of improvement that is possible.
Initiatives such as Breed Watch and Breed Health and Conservation Plans are 2 key elements we have here in the UK, to support judges, breeders and breed clubs.
Open Studbooks and the introduction of unregistered dogs or cross-breeding with phenotypically similar dogs are other strategies available in some Kennel Clubs. These have the potential to increase genetic diversity and help breed away from issues in some breeds.
The paper concludes that the effectiveness of initiatives by the FCI and KCs is difficult to evaluate. They doubt whether instructions are being followed by show judges and breeders. They also worry that any improvements will be very slow to be seen.
Initiatives to influence buyers
There is plenty of research to suggest that many buyers do not emphasise health in their decision-making. Fashion and societal influence (e.g. via social media) often play a larger part in determining choice of breed.
There have been campaigns by veterinary groups and animal welfare organisations to discourage people from buying brachycephalic (and other) breeds. The paper concludes that these have not “had any measurable effect”. It is clear that traditional marketing campaigns and ever more websites with information for buyers simply won’t work (on their own). This, of course, takes me back to my point about the science that is missing is Behavioural Science.
You’d have to have spent the last year sleeping under a rock not to be aware of the legislation that has been introduced in Germany, Austria and the Netherlands to address welfare issues in pedigree dogs (breeding and exhibiting). The Norwegian court cases against the NKK and breeders of Cavaliers and Bulldogs have also been widely discussed.
While much of the new legislation does send strong signals about what is and is not acceptable, there appear to be significant variations in interpretation and enforcement. We’ve seen the same issue with the UK breeder licensing regulations, with huge variations between different local authorities. Legislation also risks driving breeders underground; unhealthy dogs will still be bred but are invisible to law enforcers. The unintended consequences of badly thought-through legislation should not be underestimated.
So, what works?
It would be easy to conclude from the Danish paper that nothing much works! I have written previously about the COM-B behavioural change model (Michie et al) and I still think this holds the key to achieving breed health improvements. The focus has to be on human behaviour change (breeders, judges, buyers, owners, vets) and we will need a different combination of initiatives for each group. It would be helpful to have a “roadmap” of options for different groups and it would be even more helpful if there was increased collaboration and pooled resources rather than multiple scattergun approaches.