65 FOR DOGS' SAKE
FOR DOGS' SAKE
"...I believe we should do our best to breed healthy dogs and, by and large I think in this country we do. But that does not stop vets, journalists (and others including Beverly Cuddy) sounding off as if the train is about to go over the cliff." So wrote David Cavill in his foreword to the August 2007 issue of Dogs Monthly. His reference to Beverley Cuddy, editor of Dogs Today, was probably sparked by her impassioned plea for the Kennel Club to introduce mandatory health checks, in both her magazine and a daily broadsheet. My impression was that her concern was over the 'direction of the train', rather than any imminent disaster. That is my stance too. I thought her words in both publications were fair, balanced and brave. Those heavily involved in the show dog world need to be vigilant less they fall victim to what the French term 'deformation professionelle'; vocational imperatives can blur the judgement. Both David and Beverly strive to promote healthier dogs.
Vets, as in every profession, have their self-promoters, those who choose to spread alarm in transparent attempts at attention seeking. But veterinary scientists have a duty to speak up, without being alarmist, when they have legitimate concerns over animal welfare. I have yet to read of any vet in any country pooh-poohing statements of concern over the lack of attempts to obtain effective controls in pedigree dog breeding. Most of the conclusions I have read resulting from veterinary studies have been slightly understated not headline seeking. Do we truly not want vets to speak up when they have worries about failures to acknowledge the threat to dogs from inheritable defects? What is the veterinary profession actually saying?
In 1990, the respected reputable American magazine The Atlantic Monthly published a report into 'how greed and AKC policies are endangering the health and quality of American dogs'. It was angrily dismissed by US dog breeders but its findings were never faulted. And the AKC took action on the points made. One of its conclusions was that "The AKC not only has been slow in investigating genetic disorders but also has not taken steps to encourage their elimination. This failure is inexplicable, given that dog shows are supposed to present breeding stock." Another hard-hitting statement read: "For many faddists, the dog has become little more than equipment for a game. They justify the game in the name of freedom, arguing that no organisation or government body has the right even to recommend changes in their approach, despite its destructiveness, and the AKC has endorsed their ideology through word and policy." Doesn't our own KC argue a similar plea to be left alone to run the dog game their way?
Twenty years ago, leading geneticist and dog fancier Dr Malcolm Willis wrote in the KC's own Kennel Gazette: "In some breeds, admitting to the occurrence of an inherited defect is hazardous. Many breeders will openly condemn those who confess to having had a problem. It is as if breeders believe that silence will make the defect go away...It is far more mature to admit to problems and collectively try to solve them. In the short term there may be heartache and economic loss for some, but in the long term the breed will benefit." If that had been written by a journalist in Dogs Today no doubt a responding complaining letter from the ever vocal KC secretary would have ensued. Airing a problem is better for dogs than suppressing it. The KC argument that mandatory health checks will ruin a gene pool doesn't seem to be supported by evidence from mainland European countries where they are in place.
A decade ago, the chief scrutineer of the BVA/KC HD scheme, Gary Clayton Jones, stated that in order to make progress with this and other hereditary diseases, breeders and exhibitors must be stimulated by 'people who control dogdom' to follow the path which he and others advocated ten years ago and this was that every dog and bitch should be eye and hip tested before they can enter the show ring. Now if a journalist had written this, what an outcry there would have been from the cosier elements of the dog press. No wonder the 'faddists', as The Atlantic Monthly called them, have been able to maintain the highly unsatisfactory status quo over health checks for so long. But vets can be accused of 'fence-sitting' on this subject too; the reporting of incidences of hereditary defects from vets' surgeries is still unsatisfactory.
Is it surprising that writers get all 'het-up' when there is a woeful lack of joined-up canine care? Is drawing attention to this state of affairs really scare-mongering? A far better example of scare-mongering is the absurd rumour-spreading that European legislation to curb exaggerations in dogs (ETS 125) will destroy some of our native breeds. The truth is it may well restore them to their rightful traditional physically-sounder form and that is surely better for the dogs. One day soon, the FCI will recognise a breed called the Continental Bulldog. It will be like our unexaggerated Bulldog of the early 19th century and this will embarrass us all. Time and time again when changes are proposed in dogdom it is breeder-interest which is defended not dog's well-being. That is simply scandalous and shame on any magazine which pursues such a line.
What actually is the state of aortic and sub-aortic stenosis in Boxers, GSPs, Pointers, Rottweilers and Newfoundlands? What truly is the incidence rate of PDA in Border Collies, GSDs, Pomeranians and Maltese, DCM in Dobermanns, Great Danes, St Bernards and Irish Wolfhounds and MVD in Cavaliers, Cairn Terriers and Boston Terriers? What really is the threat of idiopathic epilepsy in Mastiffs, Poodles, Schnauzers and Tervuerens? How liable is your Flatcoat to glaucoma, your English Toy Terrier to juvenile DCM, your Aussie Shepherd to cataracts, your Dobermann to Von Willebrand's, your Tibetan Terrier to lens luxation or your Beardie to Addison's? There are more than 50 different health concerns in the Dachshund. If 90% of Cavaliers have a heart murmur by the age of 10 and 80% carry syringomyelia, is their train not going over the cliff?
We can all become too close to our pursuits to accept a need for progress. There are times when each of us, in every field, need to sit back and challenge the status quo, the received wisdom. That was how ancient beliefs were qualified, baseless superstitions dismissed and harmful prejudices defeated in so many human activities. Knee-jerk opposition to change contributes little to dog care. The key question must always be: what is best for dogs? Not, what is best for dog breeders.