Posts Tagged ‘dog longevity’

Sussex spaniels are in deep trouble, but if you read propaganda from their breed clubs, they are long-lived and healthy. Sussex spaniel breeders would rather live in denial than take the steps to solve the breed's problems.

Breed clubs are notorious for inflating the average age of their breeds– especially if the breed is rare.

Most people know about the health problems in golden retrievers and boxers, so it’s really not useful to deny that these dogs have problems. In fact, it’s much more to the club’s benefit it takes health issues seriously.

Well, with rare breeds, one can sort of fudge it. Many people have bought into the notion that if a breed is less common, then it will have fewer health problems. That’s because that a breed club has more power when the dog is lower in popularity. More popular breeds have more people breeding them, and the power structure within those breeds is greatly decentralized. With rarer breeds, the club has much more power over what gets done. As a result, its very commonly stated that popularity is a curse for dog breeds, which results in all sorts of health problems. And there is some truth in it, but the corollary that comes from it is ultimately false– that rarer breeds are going to be more healthy because the breed club has more power over them.

It’s very easy to deny health problems with  certain dog breeds. Nova Scotia duck-tolling retriever fanciers continue to deny that their breed is the shortest-lived of all retrievers, and that it has real issues with autoimmune disorders, which are likely the result of low genetic diversity within the breed. You can do that with tollers, but you cannot deny that golden retrievers have a very high incidence of cancer. People already know that golden retrievers have cancer issues.  You can’t deny it.

But you can if they are pretty rare. Most people who own pets from these rare breeds don’t talk to each other, and if one of their dogs dies, the problems really aren’t discussed widely.

So the breed clubs can get away with what are obvious lies.

Here’s a good example of a breed club lying about the longevity of a breed:

The Sussex Spaniel Association (of the UK) makes this claim on its website:

Generally the Sussex Spaniel is long lived to 14-16 years. The Health Survey of the Breed has been completed, and results are available to members from the secretary.

There is a breed health survey that the KC did on its own. The Survey had 42 deaths reported, which is a good enough sample from a breed that is both quite rare and quite inbred.

The results show that “generally” (which is such a weasel word), the breed’s median age at death was 11 years and 2 months, which is just slightly younger than the all-KC breed median of 11 years and 3 months. The most common cause of death was cancer.  And the dogs tended be diagnosed with inherited diseases at very young ages.

How is 11 years and two months 14-16 years?

It’s not.

The truth is this breed has been in trouble since before there was ever an institutionalized fancy or a closed registry system.

The breed we call the Sussex spaniel today is derived from a strain of liver spaniels that was found by Augustus Fuller in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries., who owned the estate called Rosehill Park in Sussex.  He’s usually referred to as just “Mr. Fuller.” The Fuller family made its fortune with Jamaican sugar plantations– meaning they were direct beneficiaries of the slave trade.

The Rosehill spaniels were heavily inbred, for at the time, it was accepted that inbreeding was the best way to establish a strain.  In the eighteenth century, English agriculturalists had managed to greatly increase the productivity of livestock through intense inbreeding. The notion of breeding “in and in” for “improvement” was at the heart of English animal breeding practices at the time, for these ideas had first been promulgated by an agriculturalist named Robert Bakewell, who saw improvements in the English longhorn, the Leicester longwool sheep, and the shire horse through such extreme inbreeding.

Works for sheep, cows, and horses. Must work for dogs.

Well, it didn’t.

A supposed rabies outbreak hit the Rosehill spaniels in the 1840’s.  There is some debate about whether this disorder actually was rabies or whether it affected the spaniels or the hounds. But at some point after the 1840’s, the original Rosehill strain disappeared. There were a few dogs at other estates, and it is from these dogs that the Sussex spaniel breed was developed. The two major strains that make up the Sussex spaniel were the Wolland strain, which was heavily inbred, and the other was the Newington strain, which had some liver English water spaniel crossed in.

Whatever destroyed them, it is possible that intense inbreeding may have made the Rosehill spaniels more susceptible to disease, for we know that inbreeding reduces MHC haplotype diversity and reduces the effectiveness of the immune system over the generations.  The remnants of the Rosehill strain were outcrossed to liver English water spaniels and to the old short-legged field spaniel.

However, the Sussex spaniel that came up in the new institutionalized fancy was kept mostly through inbreeding. Virtually every text I find on Sussex spaniels talks about how inbred they are– and several of these are nineteenth and early twentieth century texts.

This breed had periods of popularity in Britain as a sporting spaniel, but it almost always collapsed.

The dogs were often described as “delicate,” which is not at all what one would want in a gun dog.

Now, the breed may be capable of doing gun dog work, but that’s not the issue.

The issue is whether it is fit for it.

And if you actually look at the Sussex spaniel objectively, its structure actually drives much of its lowered popularity.

Sussex spaniels have a lot of health problems, not all of them the result of intense inbreeding.

Inbreeding has likely increased the incidence of severe heart problems in the breed, but inbreeding likely didn’t increase the likelihood of the dogs getting hip or elbow dysplasia (over 40 percent have hip dysplasia and at least 20 percent have elbow dysplasia) or suffering periods of paralysis from Intervertebral Disc Disease.

These are all derived from the dog’s structure, which is based upon a heavily-built dog with dwarfism. Dwarf dogs have relatively short legs and longer backs, and this puts stress on the spine. If a disc ruptures or bulges from these stresses, pressure is put on the spinal cord, and the dog is paralyzed. It’s usually temporary, but it can be permanent.

This means that Sussex spaniels have a very high likelihood of being put out of commission for weeks at a time– and a lot of these dogs are going to have both hip and elbow dysplasia.

These structural problems mean that very few people want them as gun dogs– and it’s been that way for a long time.

But that means that the population will stay very low, and very few people will be engaged in trying to breed these dogs, which means fewer and fewer dogs and more and more inbreeding.

Now, as if that weren’t bad enough. The breed very nearly died off during the Second World War, when British dog fanciers were not breeding dogs.

A woman named Joy Freer managed to re-establish the breed’s number from the five dogs that survived World War II, and she very proudly inbred from them.

So this breed has essentially been screwed since the middle to late nineteenth century.

It’s literally holding on by only a thread.

It has spent the decades since World War II circling the drain.  Its popularity continues to decline, and there is no evidence that this trend is changing.

But its breeders continue to make up facts about how long the breed lives.

If they actually were into saving the Sussex spaniel, they would change some of its conformation– and they would allow outcrossing with other spaniels.

Both of these are heresies in Sussex spaniels.

No one wants to admit that the conformation of the dog is destroying it from a functional perspective, and because it is largely structurally unsound, very few people actually want it.

Which just makes its problems that much worse.

I will get some negative comments on this post. I guarantee that most of them will come in the form of people with anecdotes about how good their Sussex spaniels are at hunting or how long one or two of their dogs lived.

Those are nice stories.

But those stories are not scientific data. If you can’t understand this, please do not comment on this blog post, for you simply don’t get what I’m talking about.

Anecdotal evidence is nice, but nothing can be generalized from it.

So until someone shows me a study with at least 40 dogs in it that shows Sussex spaniels live to be 14 to 16 years old on average, I am going to call the Sussex Spaniel Association’s claim a lie.

It is a lie.

It may be a delusion, but delusions are the lies which the liar refuses to admit are untrue.

Which makes them much more dangerous.

The Sussex spaniel is a very good example of a breed that has been ruined the dual forces of extreme conformation and extremely low genetic diversity.

The dog may have had a future had it been bred for greater structural soundness and with some concern for its genetic diversity.

But unless someone begins an outcross program in the breed, it is doomed.

The extinction will be slow, but it will come.

It’s been a long time coming.


“It’s not a lie if you believe it.”

–George Costanza

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