Wednesday, 4 January 2012

Breeds Apart

Imagine, if you will, I go to the doctors. There's nothing particularly wrong with me, I'd just like a check-up to make sure everything's tickety-boo. The doctor (I'm imagining an elderly distinguished chap, something like John Le Mesurier, but hey! It's your imagination, they can look however you like. So can I, now I think about it. Can I be handsome, please? More hair than that. Great, you've got it.) asks me about my family history, and at this point I break into a broad grin.

'Oh, no problems there, doc,' I say, reaching into my man bag (what? They're fashionable now, aren't they? Or was that the nineties?) and retrieving a document. 'Take a look at this!'

I then proceed, proudly, to show the doctor my family tree. 'All great specimens, doc! Champions, the lot of 'em.'

Doctor Le Mesurier, at this point, can't help but notice that three of my great-grandparents appear to be the same person. Not on that, it looks (to his increasingly concerned eyes) as if my grandfather also produced several other children from my own mum, and my dad has likewise done the nasty with with maternal grandmother. At this point, he could be forgiven for thinking that this particular family tree would not be out of place adorning the wall of a backwater redneck banjo-playing (and if you're reading this, Jon, I do apologise. I don't mean to drag the good name of banjos into the mud, but it's an easy stereotype, and I'm sticking with it) web-toed buck-toothed cannabalistic clan, and he's starting to wonder if it might be a good idea to page the nurse.

'What do you reckon, doc?' I say, proudly. 'Impressive stuff, eh?'

Now lets talk about dogs, and the concept of a 'pedigree'.

Canis lupus familiaris is a remarkable species - genetically speaking. Think of the smallest adult human in the world. What are they? Let's say two feet tall for the sake of argument and unnecessary googling. That'd be about twenty kilos in my money. Now think of the tallest. Shall we go crazy and say ten feet tall? Tiny bit of googling suggests this would give you a weight of about two hundred and fifty kilos. (I won't get into obesity, because I'm really thinking of body frame rather than fat, plus that's a far too depressing subject to get into this close to Christmas). So, quite a difference - the tallest human weighs about 12 x more than the tiniest.

Back to the dog. The smallest breed that springs immediately to mind (and there's probably smaller out there) can weigh in, as an adult, at as little as 1 kilo. (Sorry about metric weights, but I'm sorry to tell you it makes a hell of a lot more sense than pounds, and a lot easier to do in your head). Now, the largest dog that springs to mind that I see regularly is a great dane - and squashes the scales in our practice to the tune of 80 kilos. It doesn't take Stephen Hawking to work out there's an 80 fold difference between the teeny tiny yorkie and the great dane - and there's definitely bigger dogs than her out there.

The point of that slightly tedious maths exercise was to illustrate the amazing genetic variation that exists within the doggy gene pool. Remember, this is the same species. Tiny tim the yorkie could (with some mechanical aids probably best left only to the imagination) in theory mate and produced fertile offspring with Gerta the great dane (their names have been changed to protect them so don't go ringing the Daily Mail in disgust). I picked on body mass as it's the easiest to visualise, but just about any characteristic in dogs shows the same variation - tail length, hair thickness, nose size, ear shape - they're all incredibly variable. Astonishing, and fascinating, and unlike most other species on the planet.

Which is why it's upsetting to me, and to many vets, that this variation has been turned into a torture implement.

Now, I'm aware torture is an emotive word (certainly our governments seem to think so. Good job they don't do it, then, and thank heavens for these new-fangled advanced interrogation techniques that I'm hearing so much about. They sound terribly effective) but I use it quite seriously. The wondrous genetic variation within dogs has, in the hands of humanity, caused more profound suffering to this beautiful, loyal and trusting species than anything I can think of (and trust me, I can think of some pretty horrible diseases).

Y'see, the concept of breeding like animals together to get offspring that were similar to their parents has been around for a long time - long before Darwin (and Wallace) developed the elegant theory of evolution, people knew it happened. They just didn't know why. (The difference in evolution, of course, being -natural- rather than -artificial- selection, but let's not get into that now). Farm animals have long been interbred to produce more meat, more milk, more honey, more pencils (okay, not the last one). Even this form of breeding has it's problems - you select for one trait, and often get weaknesses in others - but at least you're trying to get something useful out of it (well, useful to you, anyway. Quite what the cows get out of it is another matter, for another blog). That're breeding for a function. It's when you stop needing your animal to do anything, and you just want it to look a particular way (breeding for a form) that the problems really start.

Enter the dog.

Poor Canis lupus familiaris may be man's best friend, but I must say if any of my friends treated me like we have them, they'd be off my Christmas card list before you could say 'inbreeding'. Dogs, who are unlucky enough to have a very wide gene pool, have been moulded over the years into the craziest shapes since the invention of silly putty. The difference is, silly putty can't suffer. Dogs can. And 'pedigree' dogs most of all.

Roughly 50% of my canine consultations for ill animals (i.e. not vaccinations, neutering or check-ups) are to try and deal with pain and disease caused by inbreeding. In the practice right at this moment we have a bulldog on a drip because it can't stop projectile vomiting (due to a hiatal hernia - guess what? An inbred trait), a spaniel recovering from surgery to repair a condylar fracture (inbred weakness), and a labrador that can barely walk because of it's chronic severe hip arthritis (caused by hip dysplasia - you get the idea). This is not an unusual day for us.

The minute some idiot (sorry, did I say idiot? I meant the kennel club) that they'd like this particular breed's nose to be shorter than a certain length, or it's spine to be yea long, or even something relatively innocuous, like thinner, shorter hair, you're asking for trouble. Two dogs that look very similar on the outside are likely to share genes that affect more than their looks. Genes for a slight propensity to have malformed hips, for instance. You'll be fine the first time you do it. Probably the third. Possibly the tenth. But sooner or later, along with those genes for lovely silky coats, you'll have a whole load of crappy genes that you really didn't want.

All this is pretty basic genetics, and apologies if I'm patronizing my readership, but this fairly simple point seems lost on a large proportion of dog breeders, not to mention the Idiots (oh, oops, I did it again, sorry, I mean the Kennel Club). Of course, this happens when you're breeding for a function, too, but there comes a point where you have to breed out with a different stock, so your animal can still do what it was supposed to do in the first place. The problem with breeding for a form instead is that your animal doesn't need to be very healthy to do what you want it to do, which is just to sit there looking (according to Idiots) pretty.

This is a problem when the form you're breeding for is relatively sensible - you still get poor genes when you're inbreeding, hence my little doctor scenario above. It's a major problem when the form you are breeding for is actively, and obviously, deleterious to an animal's welfare - and it still blows my mind that there are so many breeds like this out there. Daschunds bred with legs so short and spines to elongated that you can almost hear their discs slip as they walk in the door (and it takes a deal of self control on my part to try and make that sound funny, considering the number of cases I have seen with dogs in absolute agony because of it. Thanks, Idiots), bulldogs bred with such short tails that they grow in upon themselves (and that's only one of many many anatomy problems I could suggest about a bulldog. More than 50% (in our practice, probably 75% of bulldogs are brought into this world via caesarian, because they can't give birth unaided. Doesn't that set any alarm bells ringing with the Idiots?), pugs bred with noses so short they can barely breathe (and if Hal or Lindsay are reading this - please don't take offence, Ruby is clearly one of the sweetest loveliest there ever was. But given the choice, she'd like to be able to breathe a bit easier, trust me).

The Idiots, when discussing Basset Hounds, like to talk about 'furniture' - which basically means the amount of skin folds they have on their stumpy legs. This is, apparently, a good thing. The fact that the majority of bassets suffer from chronic pain due to their malformed elbows seems not to matter very much to them (which makes me want to drop large pieces of furniture on them. Maybe that's where the term comes from?).

In bassets, as in other breeds where the genetic problems have reached crisis point (like West Highland White Terriers with skin disease, or Labrador Retrievers with hip dysplasia) the Idiots have instituted 'screening programs' to 'breed out' the unwanted traits. I have a very simple breeding program - stop breeding mother with grandparent, and your problems will go away.

All of which means, to me, that a 'pedigree' is simply a history of how inbred your dog is. The longer your pedigree, the less healthy you are likely to be, no matter how many bloody times your ancestors won at Crufts. These dogs cost hundreds, if not thousands, of pounds, are going to cost you a great deal of money in veterinary fees, and also, (and this is my key point, which is why I keep returning to it) they will suffer.

Things are changing a little. A few years ago all this information was news to my clients, but no more often than not they are well aware of the problems. I can't tell you how many westie puppies I've seen with the first hints of atopy which will likely mean they will be on steroids for the rest of their life, only for the owner to tell me 'Oh, I know they suffer from that, our last one did.' It depresses me and upsets me that they can't see that perhaps going out and purchasing another one will, ultimately, lead to more animals spending their whole lives in pain.

I'm aware my tone has shifted from flippant to angry, and that's the very reason I've avoided writing this blog for some time. The unfairness of life aside, it was probably the main reason I wanted to start a veterinary blog at all. Because I'm tired. I'm tired of seeing wonderful dogs in pain and chronic misery because some shithead decided his legs needed to be -this- short, or his eyes should bulge out just so. I'm sick and tired because our profession, the 'champions of animal welfare' have let this misery go on for far too long. It took a BBC documentary on the subject to bring it to peoples attention, and finally have the horror show that is Crufts taken off air.

Okay, I'm going to stop ranting. For those gluttons for punishment who want more of the same, here is a letter Kerry and I had published in the veterinary times several years ago. For everyone else - please reconsider buying that puppy with the long pedigree. I know it's nice to know exactly how big it will get, and you can buy a nice bumper sticker that looks like them - but remember Dr Le Mesurier, and try to consider what that means for the dog, and not you.

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