Our post and ensuing discussion on the Crufts vet checks several days ago inspired the following guest follow-up:
On Crufts Vet Checks & Purebred Health
This discussion was spawned by the emerging decision of Crufts officials to hold winning dogs to an additional level of scrutiny beyond the official dog show judges selections. This second level of judging is unprecedented in the world of dogs. To the dog show spectator or consumer/owner of dogs, this may seem like an idea whose time has come to help protect the dogs and the prospective dog owners. But to those who participate in this type of event, this second level of judging fails to serve the purpose of protecting the dogs, the breeders, the consumer, or the sport.
There are several reasons this approach is destined to fail.
First, the breeds and breed traits selected by Crufts were merely based on extremes of appearance. Appearance is what makes the breeds what they are in the first place. Whether we approve or not, extreme body characteristics are how these dogs were selected for breeding and competition. If we decide the extremes are too extreme, we should go back to the source and limit ourselves to more moderate body types. We should not allow this to be rewarded, and then snatch away the reward based on a veterinarian's opinion after the fact. There are better ways than this to move breed standards to where Cruft's officials think they should be.
Second, they are asking specially selected veterinarians to overrule the judge's decision after the judge has awarded the dog a winning place. If it is determined that this type of health screening is appropriate, it should be done before, not after, the dogs have been selected as winners. It would be far more fair to all exhibitors to screen the pool of participants prior to judging so the final decision is made by the judge. The point in all animal judging is to pick the winner based on its appearance or performance.
Third, a veterinarian's opinion is merely one more opinion. It is just as subjective as a dog show judge's opinion when appearance is the standard. As a veterinarian, I would not want to have to make a heavily scrutinized decision to take away a win without objective criteria. There is not a way to develop objective criteria – measurable characteristics – for the traits the Crufts officials seem to be targeting. In other words, there is no test that can be held up to be repeatable, for these traits. There is no equivalent to a blood sugar test to say what is normal and what is abnormal in this setting.
Fourth, they have decided to start with 15 breeds with the most "troublesome" characteristics. This group of dogs seems to be somewhat arbitrarily selected as we all have an opinion of which breeds have the most worrisome traits.
Fifth, the selected breeds seem to have been discriminated against based only on appearance. Appearance is an obvious health concern, but in no way does it reflect the real potential health concerns we experience in the world of dogs. Many of the biggest health threats we see in dogs cannot be seen with the naked eye, only with advanced diagnostics. We should be putting our efforts into eliminating disorders such as epilepsy and cruciate ruptures from the gene pool, not into telling judges how to do their jobs.
The purebred versus hybrid dog argument clearly has no easy answers. I will use "hybrid dog" as the term for any dog with more than one breed of dog in its background. There are many small studies, but no comprehensive studies on either side. It is unlikely there ever will be one of the scope that would help in this debate as there is no financial gain for either side that would make the expense of the study worthwhile. Patching together bits and pieces of retrospective studies does little to answer the big question of which is "healthier." As dog people, I am not certain we could even agree on what "healthier" means.
It is probable that many disorders we see today will be known in the future as having a genetic basis. There is probably a genetic basis that explains a tendency to develop or be resistant to bacterial, viral, and parasitic diseases. We know there are genetic tendencies to the development of certain types of cancer. Certain behavioral traits also play a role in the development of disorders, and these probably have a genetic basis as well. For example, there are risk-taking dogs – the ones who like to run, who are more likely to suffer trauma than the dog who won't leave the owner's side long enough for the owner to visit the bathroom.
Most disorders we see in purebred dogs were not created by the breeder or the breeding program. They are the result of a mutation or a magnification of a trait by combining genes. All dogs have at least one genetic disorder and usually have many, purebred or hybrid. No dog is perfect. If there is a genetic disorder in a breed, it is one that was in the foundation stock as a mutation or magnification, most that occurred hundreds to thousands of years ago. But that disorder happens to have traveled along generation to generation by being linked to another trait that was desirable and was perpetuated, intentionally or unintentionally.
Many purebred dog breeders have not only put themselves under the microscope in an effort to breed dogs with fewer defects, they have bought and paid for the microscope. By this, I don't mean they are paying for biased research. I mean they are the people who are trying to understand their breed's disorders and deal with them responsibly. The breed clubs are funding excellent, independent research to understand the disorders that may plague their breed. They are supporting the development of DNA and other tests to aid in their ability to screen for disorders, to work their way out of disorders that have occurred in their breed. So this is a double-edged sword for this group – the same tool that they have helped to develop to "improve" their breed is now being used against them to take them down. Does this seem unjust to anyone besides me?
Not all purebred dog breeders are created equal. Not all breed for conformation – some breed for performance, such as field work or herding – functions that still serve society today. Some purebred breeders screen and appropriately use the data they collect by screening. Some don't screen. Some don't use the data. Some don't use the data correctly and haphazardly slash dogs with valuable genetics from their lines because they may carry a trait or have a trait of relatively minor health consequences, further narrowing the gene pool in a breed of dog with too little genetic diversity to begin with.
Not all hybrid breed dog breeders are created equal either. Some (but not all) are every bit as careful with their genetic screening and selection as those who apply it to purebred breeding programs.
We should not paint all breeders with the same broad brush. Nor should we paint the expectations of dog buyers and owners with the same broad brush. Each has their own set of needs and goals. If a dog buyer wants to purchase a dog with a predictable appearance, size, temperament, and skill set, they should have that opportunity to do so. If they prefer to purchase a dog with such a varied genetic background that they cannot predict what they are likely to look like or act like, that too should be their option.
Every day in our veterinary clinic, we see purebred dogs and cats as well as hybrid dogs and cats. If only purebred dogs and cats became ill, what would veterinarians and their staff do all day? Hybrid dogs and cats fill the exam and surgery rooms of veterinary clinics all over the country as they too suffer from illnesses and injuries.
Farmers must have figured out along the way that there is something to purebred animals. Most production animals are purebred – such as Holsteins or Angus cattle. They are used for production because of predictable genetic performance, not to impress the neighboring farmer or for their own ego. Farmers do outcross animals when there is a trait they are specifically looking to perpetuate. But if they had severe health problems in purebreds, they could not be financially successful and would no longer use purebred stock as the backbone of their production program.
The human species is the most outcrossed species on the planet, due to our freedom to travel and mate with minimal restrictions. If simply outcrossing genetics made all the bad genes "fall out" of the gene pool, humans would be free of genetic disorders. Unfortunately, as we all know, this is not the case. So the same is true in dogs and cats – a mere random outcrossed breeding does not lead to freedom from genetic diseases.
In short, this approach to judging is too little too late. It may make Crufts officials and the general public feel warm and fuzzy – that somehow they are trying to move the agenda of protecting the dogs and consumers forward, but as you can see, it is merely window-dressing and does not truly address the problems of dog genetics.
-Dr Marty Greer, DVM, JD, NAIA Board Member
Dr Greer has run the Brownsville/Lomira Small Animal Clinic in Wisconsin since 1982. In 2002, she opened the International Canine Semen Bank-Wisconsin, which allows breeders to preserve their dog’s semen for use at another time or a remote location. A specialist in her field, she has contributed to pharmaceutical and nutritional research as an investigator and was appointed to the Wisconsin Veterinary Examining Board. Dr. Greer also trains service dogs for CCI, and recently earned her law degree from Marquette University.