Posts Tagged ‘dog health’

I’m so sorry that this dog has now gone, but I’ve never seen a Neapolitan mastiff with such extreme (and very uncomfortable and unhealthy conformation).


It’s sad when dogs die. They ought to live to be in their forties!

However,  we have a moral responsibility to breed dogs that have a good quality of life. Dogs with eyes that hang open, very loose connective tissue, bacteria and yeast-filled skin folds, and flews that never stop dripping really can’t be said to be living a good quality of life.

This dogs eyes were so severe that it was completely blind.

This is the kind of dog that is being produced through breeding according to its breed standard. This dog likely wouldn’t have won any prizes at a dog show, but its siblings might have.

This is one of those dogs where “pet quality” actually meant “vet quality.”




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There aren’t a lot of genetic differences between a golden retriever and a yellow Labrador.

Something funny happens to the gene pools of domestic dogs. Breeders of pedigree Pekineses [sic] and Dalmatians go to elaborate lengths to stop the genes crossing from one gene pool to another. Stud books are kept, going back many generations, and miscegenation is the worst thing that can happen in the book of a pedigree breeder.  It is as though each breed of dog were incarcerated on its own little Ascension Island, kept apart from every other breed.  But the barrier to interbreeding is not blue water but human rules.  Geographically the breeds all overlap, but they might as well be on separate islands because of the way their owners police their mating opportunities.  Of course, from time to time the rules are broken. Like a rat stowing away on a ship to Ascension Island, a whippet bitch, say, escapes the leash and mates with a spaniel.  But the mongrel puppies that result, however loved they may be as individuals, are cast off the island labelled Pedigree Whippet.  Other pure-bred whippets ensure that the gene pool of the virtual island labelled Whippet continues uncontaminated.  There are hundreds of man-made ‘islands’, one for each breed of pedigree dog. Pedigree whippets or Pomeranians are to be found in many different places around the world, and cars, ships, and planes are used to ferry the genes from one geographical place to another. The virtual genetic island that is the Pekinese [sic] gene pool overlaps geographically, but not genetically (except when a bitch breaks over), with the virtual genetic island that is boxer gene pool and the virtual island that is the St. Bernard gene pool (pg. 33-34)

–Richard Dawkins The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution (2010)

This passage from Richard Dawkins’s work is really the best explanation of the problems facing purebred dogs today.

No. Dawkins is not necessarily opposed to man creating these “islands.”  He does not make this criticism.

Instead, he uses it as way to show how geographic isolation can create new species. The lack gene flow between related population can create entirely genetically distinct populations that can become unique species over time.

With dogs, the “islands” are  utterly contrived. With the possible exception of giant breeds mating with the smallest toys, dogs are all capable of interbreeding. Dogs can also interbreed with wolves– their wild ancestor– golden jackals, coyotes, and Ethiopian wolves. There are behavioral barriers that normally keep dogs from swamping these other species with their genes.

But there are no behavioral barriers that stop dogs from very different breeds from mating with each other.

Humans have decided that the breeds will remain islands.

The problem is those islands didn’t have a very large founding population.

And what’s more, the mating systems within those islands are not random.

They aren’t really based upon Darwinian selection pressures either. They are bred solely upon human caprice and fashion.

Even working-bred dogs that are used for trials are based upon human selection.

And in most breeds, the real problem is that very few male dogs wind up siring too many puppies per generation. He may not be the healthiest dog in the population. His dominance has nothing to do with his fitness but rather how well he fits what humans perceive as the ideal in either trials or shows.

This is a recipe for genetic depauperation.

But the truth of the matter is that these islands are very new to dogs.

It has been only in the past century or so that a huge percentage of dogs in Western countries have been placed  in genetic islands.

Historically, dogs were bred for purpose. No one cared what they looked like. It was only that they were able to do the task at hand.

In many societies, dogs freely roamed, mating with bitches as they encountered them. The pups born from these populations would then be selected for whether they fit the task or not.

Breeds that existed were developed from very diverse populations, and selected for whether they fit that task.

This is very similar to the way natural selection works to create new species. Sexual reproduction produces variety,  and some of the variety produced has advantages in survival.  Ancestral swift foxes living in the arctic would occasionally produce kits that had lighter-colred winter fur. Lighter-colored winter fur is an advantage in places where the snow is on the ground for much of the year, and over time, these swift foxes became a specialized form that was well-adapted to living in the arctic. We call them arctic foxes.

In the same way, people would select for water dogs that were faster swimmers, and they discovered that dogs that had a bit more webbing between the toes were actually better swimmers. Over time, we developed dogs with very webbed feet and fast swimming abilities.  Thousands of years ago, people selected dogs that were fast sprinters, selecting heavily from dogs with the double-suspension rotary gallop. They created a canine cheetah, just from the variation that dogs were producing in their litters.

But in all of these populations, there was some variation.

It was only with the rise of the institution known as “the dog fancy” in the middle part of the nineteenth century that keeping dogs pure became virtue unto itself. It is certainly true that people kept inbred strains of dog before this time, and there are indeed accounts of people trying to avoid crossing different types of dog hundreds of years before this time.

But the fancy came about mainly because two things happened: technological advances meant that industrialized countries were now quite wealthy and democratization had meant that a large percentage of the population could now claim a bit of this wealth.  Democratization had led to policies favoring higher wages and more leisure time, and both of these assets meant that a larger percentage of the population could do the things that had previously been accessible to only the wealthy.

When dog shows became mass activities,  the caprices of fashion took over. Breeds did not remain static.  The fashions of the ring often led to dogs derived from different strains winning prizes at different shows and at different times.

So in many breeds, it was decided that the best way to keep the dogs of a constant type was to close off the registry. I cannot find the oldest example of a closed registry breed, but it surely dates to no later the end of the nineteenth century.

Once the registry is close, the variation is instantly truncated.  A breed club can then divine a breed standard and the breed the dogs to fit that standard.

Consistency of type is maintained over time, but the rigors of selection and the finite nature of the founding gene pool mean that the animals are put at an increased risk for genetic disease. All sexually reproducing organisms have some genetic tendencies toward disease. It is the fact that reproduce through sexual reproduction that keeps many of these diseases from being exposed. When a population becomes closed off in this fashion, the tendency for some of these diseases to come to the fore is greatly increased. It becomes even more so, when the breeding system becomes based upon breeding from elite sires.

In closed breeding population, the descendants do become more and more related over time, but if just a few elite sires are producing a huge percentage of the offspring in each generation, then this process becomes accelerated. When related individuals are bred together, the greater the likelihood of them producing offspring with genetic disease.  In an entirely outbred population, these genetic diseases become statistically less likely.

Typically these described as deleterious or harmful recessives, but they can have a very complex mode of inheritance– see hip dysplasia.

When these diseases started to come to the fore, it was decided that the first thing that should be done is to breed the diseases out.

In some cases they were successful.  Golden retrievers don’t suffer from hip dysplasia at the same rate they did twenty years ago.

But when you select for or against a feature in a closed population, you cannot avoid selected for or against something else.

Dog breeding is like economics– a very dismal science. The notion of an opportunity cost is always there.  If one breeds for something, one automatically selects against something else.  One cannot always see the consequences of selection in phenotype. For example, Western dog breeders have selected for heavy wrinkling in shar-peis, but the exact same gene that causes the heavy wrinkles also causes the periodic fever disease in this breed. When Portuguese water dog breeders funded a program that provided a genetic test for “improper coat”– feathered like a golden retriever, instead of poodle-type–they were warned that it was a bad idea for breeders to select against the recessive improper coat. Selecting against this coat might lead to a selection against an important variant of a regulatory gene in the breed, which would be very bad for a breed that has some issues with genetic diversity.

Domestic dogs have only been relegated to these islands for a comparatively short time, but it’s pretty clear that we aren’t able to control all the genetic diseases or potential genetic diseases within these island.

Dog breeders like to pretend that they are controlling these diseases. I remember reading a website that gloated over how much Scottish terrier breeders had reduced von Willebrand’s disease in the breed within a decade. However, over that same time period, the incidence of cancer in Scottish terriers greatly increased, and the average lifespan dropped to 10.15 years.

It is here the that concept of the opportunity cost appears once again. Von Willebrand’s disease’s inheritance is well-understood, and it is much easier to select away from it. Cancer is much more complex, and it’s much harder to breed out. Maybe they should have worked on reducing cancer rates in the breed through breeding from long-lived studs instead of carefully selecting away from von Willebrand’s.

But in the end, all we’re doing is playing the whack-a-mole game with genetic diseases. We are hitting one, and another pops up.

The only way to get out of this cycle is to change the breeding system.

We can increase genetic diversity within the islands.

We can make sure that elite sires don’t swamp the gene pool.  We can stop rewarding “outstanding sires” in breed clubs. We can place limits on how many litters a male can sire his lifetime.

We can also make sure that more than just a few puppies in each litter winds up producing offspring. In our current system, we want only a few pups per litter having offspring, but if more puppies are being allowed to breed, then more of their parents’ genes will be spread through the population.

But the best way is to do away with the islands altogether.

I’m not saying that we should scrap the concept of breed entirely. I think there is a reason why someone would chose a particular breed over another.

However, one thing we have learned is that the genetic differences between breeds are quite small.

Golden retrievers, for example, are mostly derived from St. John’s water dogs that have been selected for two recessive traits– the yellow to red color and the feathered coat. If one breeds a golden to a yellow Labrador that does not have the recessive long-haired allele, the pups will be smooth-coated. However, they will carry the long-haired allele, and when bred back to a golden retriever, the chances are very high that some of the puppies would have feathering and would be virtually indistinguishable from typical golden retrievers.

Indeed,  many golden retrievers descend from a yellow Labrador named Hayler’s Defender, who was crossed into the breed in 1929. His descendants don’t have much Labrador in them, but even his closer descendants looked just like normal golden retrievers. In those days, you could interbreed two retriever breeds, and after two generations of them being bred back into one of the constituent breeds, then the puppies could be registered as pure.

Furthermore, golden retrievers are derived from the same root stock as the flat-coated retriever, and detailed analysis of their genomes reveals that they are very closely related. Flat-coated retrievers are quite genetically depauperate and suffer from a very high incidence of cancer.  Consequently, their average lifespans are significantly shorter than those of golden retrievers, which also have a high incidence of cancer.

Golden retrievers also descend from at least one well-known curly-coated retriever. He was black and curly, but all of his golden retriever descendants look like golden retrievers.

For much of their history, retrievers didn’t exist as breeds. There were only two divisions:  a curly-coated retriever and a way-coated retriever/St. John’s water dog type, which included feathered and smooth coats. The dogs that became the Chesapeake Bay retriever in the United States were all interbred short-coated, curly-coated, and long-coated dogs.

Interbreeding was not seen as a disease.

But now it is entirely forbidden– though special dispensation is given to service dog organizations that cross golden and Labrador retrievers.

The modern dog fancy has contrived these islands.

These islands have provided a lot of consistency in type, but over time, they have produced a lot of misery.

Now, we have breeding populations coping with varying levels of genetic load.

It’s not getting significantly better in any of them. In most, it’s getting significantly worse.

So are we going to try to manage these islands, which will ultimately be a losing battle, or are we going to make the common sense changes that are needed?

I would like to think that the latter will happen.

But I know it won’t.

Or rather it will only happen once the kennel clubs are brought kicking and screaming to reform because the law has decided to intervene.

People love dogs.

I mean really love them.

In the past few decades, the status of the dog has greatly increased in the West.

People want dogs that live good lives. They want them to healthy and comfortable.

The vast majority of the dog owning public is appalled when they find out how cavalier breeders are about breeding for unhealthy conformation.  They will be appalled when the find out how many people in the dog fancy deny the concepts of population genetics and hold onto blood purity as a religious dogma.

People are starting to learn these things.

And the dog fancy had better understand it.

The old ways just won’t cut it anymore.

It must adapt. It must embrace science.

It must do away with that which it cannot defend rationally and logically.

It must listen to the real experts– i.e., real scientists and not someone who has “been in Clumber spaniels for 40 years.”

The islands we have contrived are not serving dogs well.

We need something better. We need to allow for greater diversity in genes and a greater diversity in phenotype.

Dogs deserve so much more.

We cannot solve problems by holding onto erroneous ideas of the past.

We can only solve them when we embrace new ideas that are well-grounded in science.

The hope for dogs is that science triumphs over dogma.

And maybe it will.

It may just be a matter of time.

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Chris has a killer post up over at BorderWars.

Just because a dog has “been tested” doesn’t mean that it’s healthy.

Health testing is useful and important, but it’s not the full picture.

That’s why some of the DQ’d BOB’s at Crufts got dismissed, even though they “had been tested.”

It’s simply a red herring to use the ruse that these dogs passed their breed specific health tests to attack the vets for DQ’ing for health purposes.

We’re talking about two different things here.

Of course, it’s a great argument tactic. It muddies the water and further adds to the histrionic, paranoid collective meltdowns we’ve been seeing over the last week.

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The answer is yes.

After all, most dogs are brachycephalic when compared to the wolf and other wild dogs. Short muzzles are a diagnostic of a domestic dog.

However, when we breed for healthy conformation, brachycephalic dog breeds are going to have to have some muzzle– enough for the all the teeth, tongue, and soft palate. One of the reasons why these dogs have so much trouble breathing and cooling themselves is they don’t have enough room for their tongues and soft-palate. The tissue in the soft palate winds up obscuring the trachea, and that prevents air from flowing. In a dog, that also prevents the animal from effectively cooling itself.

So when we evnetually get around to correcting breed standards, we are still going to have bulldogs, pekes, bostons, and Frenchies. It’s just that they are going to have a bit more muzzle.

And I don’t think that’s too much to ask.

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dark and light golden

Now for some good news on the golden retriever health front.

We soon may be able to screen for sensory ataxic neuropathy in golden retrievers.  This disorder is not terribly common in golden retrievers, but affected dogs have severe deficits in motor coordination and sensory perception. A dog with this disorder is not going to be able to run and play, and it certainly will be of no use as a working dog or dog sport competitor. (I think this disorder is limited to European strain goldens, but I could be wrong.)

The disorder was traced to a mutation in the mitochondrial DNA. It turns out that all dogs that have this disorder trace their lineage to a single female dog that lived in the 1970’s. Because it appeared to be maternally inherited, the researchers examined the mtDNA sequences of these dogs. It turns out that affected dogs have had one base pair deletion in the mitochondrial tRNA-Tyr gene. This mutation causes the mitochondria (the engine of the cells) to malfunction, and the dogs start losing neurons as they mature.

Because the gene has been identified, it will soon be possible to screen dogs for that mutation. Then breeders can select breeding stock that are free of that mutation, thereby producing dogs that no longer have sensory ataxic neuropathy.

This is good news for golden retriever health and for dog health in general. The more precise screenings we have for the genes that cause these inherited disorders the better.  If only all of these inherited diseases were caused by easily identifiable genes, then we would be able to really breed healthy animals without much worry. However, life is not that simple.

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Because I’m getting lots of comments from people who don’t get it, I’m posting  a link to this again.

This isn’t sensationalized journalism. Of course, if you don’t like the message, you’ll say everything to tarnish the message and the messenger.

Hey, I’m in politics. I get it.

When you give a hit, you’d better be prepared to take one.

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Some issues about dogs are just too contentious for me to discuss on this blog. There are two that I’m not going to touch with a ten foot pole.

1. Training methods.

I have my own opinions on which methods work best to train dogs. You probably have your own. Whatever I write about my views on dog training is not going to change your mind, because we both have a system that works for us. Why should we have this discussion anyway?

2. What you should feed a dog.

Same reasons. And in feeding dogs these days, we have so many different warring camps that I’m pretty sure a discussion of dog nutrition is going to launch some people. I have little interest in listening to these various polemics about dog food. If it works for you, continue using it. That’s my advice on dog food.

Those two issues right there start more fights among dog people than anything else. And I think we should be devoting more of our energies to making dog conformation and breeding practices better.

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CH K-Run's Park Me In First ("Uno") won last year's Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show.

CH K-Run's Park Me In First ("Uno") won last year's Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show.

The owner of the winner of the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show lets PETA have it in the LA Times. This article is a response to a PETA demand that the USA networks stop showing Westminster. This debate is between two extreme positions.

I have already said that PETA has jumped the shark with their “Sea Kittens” campaign. They also have a vendetta against domestication, which is, sadly, not logical. But for domestication, dogs wouldn’t exist at all. Further, dogs have co-evolved with people. We need each other. We co-evolved.

PETA’s solution to ending domestication is to kill 97 percent of all dogs that enter its shelters. This position very obviously causes problems with the mainstream of the American body politic. What is worse is that PETA has used good science, science that people like me also use, to promote their views. That’s okay, but it seems rather bad that PETA gets to be the only promoter of these views in the media. And if the American people already have negative views of PETA, I am found guilty by association, even if it is that we merely used the same information.

However, Uno’s owner’s position is also extreme. This is what she said about the unhealthy conformation in some breed standards:

 “Those are breed traits!  Those breeds have always looked like what they look like.  No, those traits come naturally when breeding dogs of the same breed…Peke to Peke produces all puppies that look like Pekes.”

No. Those so-called “traits” are exaggerated deformities. They are not natural in the least.  Most pekes can’t even breathe properly. They can’t whelp or breed naturally. They are the result of “artificial selection,” not natural selection.  They are not functional conformation either. Pekes don’t have any function other than to be held and cuddled.

So the media is able to set up a straw man using PETA as the main spokesperson for reforming the dog fancy. It is because PETA is the straw man, that I can’t even converse with some conformation breeders about breeding for greater diversity and a greater emphasis on health and working ability in the conformation standards. They will just say, “You’re one of those PETA extremists,” and the conversation ends.

The truth is I am not opposed to selective dog breeding or to breeding for some conformation, after all a dog does need good conformation to be a good working dog. However, the conformation shows have all become about glitz and glamour, finer points, and unusual mutations. It’s not about working function. (There are a few breeds that still have good working conformation as part of their standards, including the flat-coated retriever.)

Conformation is just one way of determining a dog’s quality. It must also have the working ability and temperament, and those breeders who focus more on those things deserve as much respect as the conformation breeders. Working ability, health, and temperament are  still far more important than adhering to very finely delineated breed standards. But I’m not opposed to conformation judging, provided that this is the main focus of the show.

I would also like the closed registry system to updated to allow from some intelligent outcrossing. I don’t think we’re doing our breeds an service by maintaining closed registries, when we  need to increase some genetic diversity in our breeds, just to make sure that genetic problems are less concentrated in our lines. I don’t think its possible to eliminate genetic diseases from dogs (Have we done so in people?), but greater genetic diversity prevents these disorders from becoming too concentrated.

Further, some of these breed classifications were originally quite arbitrary. I usually mention the golden/flat-coat split, which was originally on color alone. But there’s also the cain terrier/West Highland white terrier split, which was alson on color. The Norwich/Norfolk terrier split, which was on ear carriage (and that’s still pretty much the only difference). And there are certainly others. These are the breed splits with which we could use some intelligent outcrosses.

These are modest proposals, designed to work with creating a better dog fancy with healthier dogs. It is not PETA extremism. It is simply better animal welfare. PETA wants to destroy the dog. I want to save it, and that’s the difference.

PETA does not speak for me, and if PETA and I agree on something, it will be by accident.


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The Neapolitan mastiff is a molosser breed from Southern Italy.

It was essentially saved by the author and journalist Piero Scanziani, who rediscovered this breed after World War II.

The dog is supposedly the ancient gladiator dog of Rome, fighting witht Roman legions and in the Colosseum. This dog supposedly descends from the Ancient Greek Molossus dog and the Pugnaces Brittanae, the mastiff of the Britons, supposedly also the ancestor of the bulldog, the mastiff, and the bullmastiff.

In reality, this dog may or may not have these dogs in its ancestry. It is the mastiff of the southern Italian estate owner. It probably has dogs of that ancient type in its background, but it also has other mastiffs crossed in.

The breed made it to the US in the 1970’s, where it was sold as an Italian bulldog.

The founding individuals of the breed that were found in Italy were not as massive or exaggerated as the modern dog.


As this breed developed into a show dog, it was developed into a massive mastiff. The dewlaps and flews became heavier.  The haws became more exposed.

As a result of breeding for these characteristics the breed has a pethora of genetic problems or health problems caused by its conformation. It lives 7 to 9 years on average (about as long as rabbit).

The breed is susceptable to cancer, which is not unknown in big dogs. You cannot name me a molosser breed, other than some of the livestock guardian breeds, that is not known for devloping cancer. Maybe breeding for that flattened face is also trapping in some cancer genes.

Hip and elbow displasia are the result of the massive frame. Entropion and ectropion affect the eyes, along with tendency to develop cherry eye. These are the result of breeding for such exposed eyes, and putt so much skin and weight around them.

Skin infections and a tendency to develop demodex mange around the skin folds is the result of breeding for such deep skin folds.

Caridomyopathy is not unknown.

Hypothydroidism plagues the breed. In fact, I will go so far as to say that the really “typey” Neos are almost always low thyroid. The big, blocky frame may be the result of thyroid issues, as I know it is with golden retrievers.

The dogs are often uncomfortable in the heat. Their flattened faces, giganatic frames, and dark coat color cause them to overheat realtively easily.

So are Neapolitan mastiffs healthy? Well, if we define healthy as a dog that can live 12 or 13 years (the average life expectancy) without major health problems or without major discomfort, then we have to say the Neapolitan mastiff is not a very healthy dog.

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