Tuesday, November 25, 2008

The importance of responsible breeding

I hope all your weekends were great. My pets left mine on an ambivalent note. On the one hand, I've started training my dog up a bit more, and he goes into transports of joy whenever he sees the clicker because it means treats! for doing! practically nothing! On the other hand, my Angry Pig was treated to a bath, and her utter outrage was made worse by the fact that I turned her into a piggy burrito with an old handtowel afterward. Partly for my own protection. So my dog is pretty sure that I'm the coolest person in the world, but my guinea pig keeps leaving threatening letters in my pillowcase.

(Senile Gerbil snoozed through the weekend, waking now and then only to mutter cantankerously about young people and their crazy hairdos these days. Old people are adorable. Even when they're not actually people.)

I got a comment on this post and planned on replying before realizing it had spawned an entire entry's worth of thoughts. So here it is (and I'm not trying to single you out, Linny! Sorry!).

Linny said...
""Designer dog" sales are now outstripping those of purebreds. I think this is largely because all the scientific research show mutts live longer and healthier lives than purebreds.

Most people just want a happy, healthy family pet. Say "Boxer" a vet thinks heart disease; say "Golden Retriever" and they think hip dysplasia. The incidence and severity of inherited diseases increases every year, and yet breeders continue as they've always done, with outdated practices that continuously limit genetic diversity, using breed standards that often encourage disability and deformity.

If there's anybody out there that still really believes all is well in the purebred world, they should watch the BBC documentary "Pedigree Dogs Exposed" at http://vids.myspace.com/index.cfm?fuseaction=vids.individual&videoid=44215931"

Too right, Linny! Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying purebred dogs are perfect. Far from it! So I hope nobody here gets that impression. How often do we see cases like the Pekingese, the pug, the Dachshund, the Shar-Pei, where breeders continue to breed in myriads of health problems for the sake of decades-old breed standards? You will hear time and time again that pugs snore, but nobody stands up to actively eradicate the inferred problems, because of course, a pug that doesn't snore evidently just isn't a pug. Nobody wants to give those flat faces more definition, because a pug with a longer muzzle won't be winning Best in Show.

Breeding pedrigree dogs just ain't as easy as it looks. I'm one of those people who stands by the belief that you should only breed to improve the breed, but that's easier said than done. You need to find dogs who not only reflect the ideal temperament of the breed, but are also healthy in general. Meanwhile, the lifespan of the average Golden retriever gets shorter and shorter, because in the scramble to produce these well-balanced popular dogs, breeders lose sight of the rest of the family history.

And of course some breeders lose sight of the right objective altogether. I can yammer on about predictability in purebreeds all I like, but it won't always hold true. Just look at my dog. Pedigree Border collie, the smartest breed of dog in the world, and my dog ... shall we say, colours outside the lines. He's not quite the "intense" personality I'd have liked; in fact, he's downright soft - a goofy, good-natured, embarrassingly neurotic Lab in a Border collie body. I'd shudder to think of unleashing his genes on the unsuspecting Border collie community, and yet there are people who would breed him without a second thought, because dog people like and want Border collies. (Plus, whatever else I say about Tip, he's hot stuff.) There will always be breeders who grab the first purebreed to cross their paths and breed it no matter what qualities it has, because some breeds are just too popular for their own good. Then there are the lazy breeders, who simply accept that their dogs will have health problems because that's just the way they are. Breathing problems in pugs is inevitable, cherry eye in Saint Bernards is inevitable, and hip dysplasia builds character. Whatever they tell you, these are just weak excuses. It might be a trial; it might be time consuming and require effort; it might take a long time, but you CAN help make your breed healthier.

Oh, and don't forget the teacup breeders. It's purebreeds they're after, and they won't rest until they can fit a family of Chihuahuas in a thermos and carry them to work.

So the world of purebreeds is not without its share of problems.

What alarms me is that the sale of designer dogs is starting to outstrip purebreeds. It's a band-aid on the real issue. And it's a magnet for bad breeders. Why? Because they are popular, and because the belief that these dogs are healthier exists. Not all the studies are saying hybrid dogs are healthier, you see. You can lead a mutt breeder to literature, but you can't make it think. Trend breeders are dangerous whether they're selling a designer dog or a purebreed: all they want is to cash in on the dog's popularity. But designer dog breeders may be even more dangerous, because while those who breed numerous Labs are aware that their dogs will have problems and don't typically care, the muttpuppy breeder is just plain ignorant. The idea that the best genes will out is wrong, wrong, WRONG. I won't ever tell you that muttpuppies are for a fact UNhealthy, but I haven't seen any evidence to prove either way that they are any more or less healthy than a purebred. And let's not get started on temperament! Even breeders themselves will admit that Maltipoos can be a little neurotic, and puggles a little high-maintenence...

Basically, designer breeding is not the solution to all of dogkind's problems, and it frightens me that some breeders truly think it IS. The Ori-pei is a perfect example. The initial breeder wanted a Shar-pei that didn't have the health problems of a Shar-pei. He bred to a pug, and today we have a hybrid at large with more problems than it should have ever had in the first place. But they still sell, because people believe in hybrid vigour, and that's all a breeder has to say to sell a mutt.

Cross-breeding WILL NOT get rid of problems in a dog. A Peke or pug muzzle can still show up in a hybrid, just like a Dachshund or corgi back can, just like hip dysplasia and cherry eye and skin conditions can. The only way to help get rid of health problems in dogs is to change the breed standard. That's on you, pedigree breeders.

And this is how I do my part: not by ranting about teacup toys and designer dogs and bad breeders (even if I do all those things). What I want to impress here is that the purpose of this blog is to advocate responsible breeding - whatever type of dog we're talking about. It's fine if you want to get a Shih-poo; just take care to find a dedicated hobby breeder who knows that health checks are, in fact, important in designer breeding.

The trouble is that these types of breeders are few and far in between. You'll always find somebody dedicated to the welfare of their own particular breed, perhaps involved with the parent organization, breeding to represent their breed in the best way possible. But that isn't often the objective among hybrid breeders. They see the demand and they supply to it. These are the lazy, who, suddenly, have found a market for dogs they don't need to health screen. In fact, their new customers don't even want a health certificate! All some people need to hear is "family dog" and "hybrid vigour", and they're out the door with their new baby. This unshakeable belief that the best genes always shine through in a hybrid fosters irresponsibility like you wouldn't believe. Can't you imagine?

Breed devotees know what to breed for, but others have nothing to breed for but money, and they're cashing in on the fact that designer dogs have pulled the wool over the world's eyes. Hybrids are not better than purebreds; no worse, either, but until we start concentrating on breeding better purebreeds, we'll surely see the deterioration in both camps. It's already happening.


Linny said...

Muttpuppies on trial said that “Not all the studies are saying hybrid dogs are healthier, you see”.

Unfortunately, that’s not correct. All the scientific studies that have been done in this area show mutts live longer and healthier lives than purebreds. I've yet to see a single piece of scientific research that shows the reverse.

Purebreds suffer from more disease and disability, and die younger than their mutt cousins. And that’s despite all the health testing and pouring over pedigrees that purebred breeders do. Hundreds of years of “breeding to standard”, and the health of purebred dogs has just continued to decline.

I don’t think that “Designer Dogs” offer a perfect solution, either. However, I do believe that it's possible for intentional crossbreds to provide the best of both worlds, purebreds and mutts: the ability to carefully select the parent dogs for health and temperament, and test for inherited diseases (like purebreds); and the increased health and longevity provided by greater genetic diversity (like mutts).

Don’t get me wrong. You need to be very careful. There are hundreds of puppy mills and pet stores that have jumped on to the “Designer Dog” band wagon purely to make a profit.

However, there are also many dedicated hybrid breeders working to breed dogs that don’t suffer from the genetic and functional problems that plague many purebreds. They carefully select the breeds used for health and temperament, and test the parent dogs for genetic disease.

These breeders aren't trying to produce a particular "look", or compete with pedigree dogs. They simply want to provide what most people want, and that's happy, healthy family pets.

muttpuppiesontrial said...

The problem is that designer dogs have no breed standard to adhere to, apart from "mix this breed and that breed". That's why I love the Australian Labradoodle Association - because they do have a standard, and they're working to develop the breed, rather than repeatedly breed F1 dogs for hybrid vigour. When it comes to the rest of the designer dog world, you get a lot of unpredictability. Sure, some certainly are happy and healthy; others are disappointments.

I'd be more than happy to read any of the resources you've got lying around; in the meantime, here is a good article about hybrid vigour (PDF alert!) by this dog trainer. And while I'm still tracking down the source, in a Dog World interview with Jerrold Bell, DVM and geneticist (January 2008 issue), Dr Bell stated that a study he conducted at Michigan State University found that hip dysplasia and autoimmune thyroiditis occur just as frequently in mixed breeds as in purebreeds. In fact, the rate of thyroiditis was 10% in mixed breeds and 7.5% in purebreeds!

I've read arguments on both sides of the fence, though, so I'd say the jury's still out on this one. :) My opinion is that there are some dogs for whom hybrid vigour may work, and I'll always say so when I think I've found one; but it certainly can't be relied on.

Linny said...

Why do you need a breed standard for first cross dogs? Hybrid breeders are not trying to establish a “breed” *, just produce healthy family pets. There are already breed standards for the parent dogs, and their “Designer Dogs” offspring are destined for pet homes, so should be therefore be spayed/neutered.

The lower occurrence of diseases in crossbred dogs has nothing to do with hybrid vigour: it’s not so much that crossbreds are extraordinarily healthy, but that purebreds are most definitely NOT. The incidence and severity of inherited diseases in purebreds continues to increase each year, largely because the traditional breeders continue with practices that continuously limit genetic diversity (see http://www.telegraph.co.uk/health/main.jhtml?xml=/health/2007/03/07/ftcrufts107.xml)

In addition, changing fashions and fads in the show ring have caused breeders to exaggerate some physical characteristics that make dogs less functional, and more susceptible to health problems. A few weeks ago, the RSPCA in the UK cut its ties with the Kennel Club dog shows for "encouraging the breeding of deformed and disabled dogs" (see http://uk.reuters.com/article/domesticNews/idUKGRI63987020080916).

As I said before, all the studies show that the average crossbred lives longer and is healthier than a purebred. If you’d care to email me, I can send through the references I have at hand. In the meantime, if you do happen to track down any genuine scientific research that shows the reverse, I’d be only too happy to read it.

(* Australian Labradoodles are not “Designer Dogs” These dogs are a mixture of several different breeds, and so no longer qualify as a true hybrid. In any case, the "breed" is already in trouble, as a small gene pool and lack of testing by the “founder breeders” has already led to a high prevalence of PRA and other health problems.)

muttpuppiesontrial said...

Looks like we'll have to agree to disagree, Linny; you say hybrids make for happy, healthier dogs, and I maintain that a properly-bred purebreed can serve the same purpose just fine. Doesn't look like we'll change each other's minds on this one. :)

I'm no geneticist or so much as a biology major, so it's not my place to argue whether hybrid vigour does in fact exist or not and you'll never hear me say point-blank that it does or doesn't. I simply don't think it's a surefire thing. Some people believe hybrid dogs don't contract health problems at all, and I can state with certainty that that, at least, is false. It's the thoughtless people like that I'd rather get through to with all this talk. (They're out there - just check out Morkie World, where they breed for hybrid vigour alone and proudly state that they perform no health checks.)

One last note; as I mentioned in an earlier post, the UK Kennel Club changed its breed standards last month. Health is now the top priority. Cue the groans from the elitist breeders - but it's a breakthrough in my books.

Linny said...

I don't believe it has to be a choice between one or the other, purebreds or crosses. I like all dogs, purebreds and mutts, and I think it's up to the individual to make the choice as to what dog it right for them.

Personally (and as a scientist, albeit not a geneticist) I'm more comfortable choosing a cross from a responsible breeder, as I just want a healthy, happy family pet. However, I fully understand those that choose a purebred because they are after a particular look, or want to compete in dog shows etc.

I'm very glad to hear the AKC is revising their breed standards, and finally taking at least some responsibility for the health of the breeds they administer. Hopefully that may be the start of healthier pedigree dogs. I believe that every breed standard should first read, "health and temperament are of the upmost importance, and must not be compromised for any reason."

It's been fun chatting :)

GoLightly said...

Linny said
"Purebreds suffer from more disease and disability, and die younger than their mutt cousins. And that’s despite all the health testing and pouring over pedigrees that purebred breeders do. Hundreds of years of “breeding to standard”, and the health of purebred dogs has just continued to decline."

That may be, but only because of the poor breeding practices of the BYB & Mills, that have taken poor breeding to a new low. And of course, the blissful in-breeding that continues, amongst "reputable" breeders. I could NOT believe an article in (where else) Dogs In Canada Ragazine. A super-star pure-bred bitch, can't remember what breed, (whippet maybe)was featured as a star of her breed. They proudly spoke of breeding her back to her FATHER, to "fix" her good traits. I almost threw up when I read THAT line. The closed stud book is also a huge problem. I've also known pure-breds with no issues, at all. I've known mutts, my own included, with issues that could only come from their parents. My sister's dog, a lovely mutt, has had one problem after another. She's a very unhealthy, unsound dog, with a sweet temperament.
I don't think it's possible to quantify this issue. How do you count all the dogs that are healthy? You can't. They aren't in the stats. I think Designer Dogs have the pure-breeders terrified, and with good reason. It may be the impetus needed to stop "fixing traits", and start fixing the breeds. Out-crosses with original ancestral breeds of a particular pure-bred, can't be a bad thing. What we've done to pure-breds IS a bad thing. Those same traits crop up in Mutts, for sure, at least in my experience.

Linny said:
"I believe that every breed standard should first read, "health and temperament are of the upmost importance, and must not be compromised for any reason."
Sounds great, but that hasn't been true for a long time.

Linny said:
"Hybrid breeders are not trying to establish a “breed” *, just produce healthy family pets. There are already breed standards for the parent dogs, and their “Designer Dogs” offspring are destined for pet homes, so should be therefore be spayed/neutered."
That's the point, though. They aren't. Hybrid breeders are in it for the $$, too.

I think I'm more confused now, than when I started this comment:)

Great Post!

Joanna said...

I'm a (gasp!) breeder and I am trained in biology and genetics. I think that most good breeders end up with somewhere around a bachelor's level of knowledge in genetics, honestly. But I got it on a piece of paper, for whatever that's worth.

I see a TON of misconceptions here. I think one of the things that hurts our understanding of dog health the most is a very faulty system of definitions.

For one thing, there is no attempt to distinguish between a well-bred purebred and a terribly or carelessly bred one. Of the purebreds in this country, a conservative estimate would be that 90% are horribly bred by breeders who don't care anything about health or quality. I don't know any show breeder who would say that badly bred purebreds of our breeds aren't horribly unhealthy--we know they are, because we're the ones rescuing them and rehoming them. You can't lump the two populations of purebreds together.

And you also have to distinguish between TRUE mixed-breed/random-bred dogs and what we actually have in this country, which is deliberately bred crossbreds. Again - go to the Middle East and look at the true random-bred dogs that are shaped by natural selection and must survive on their own. They really are healthier. That's an entirely different "crossbreeding" than breeding a wheezy dysplastic Pug and an epileptic Beagle, or a Maltese with a liver shunt to a dwarfed and unsound Poodle.

You need to forget the labels. Say, instead, that the way you get a healthy dog is by breeding healthy dogs. That applies across the entire population, to purebreds and mixed breeds. And the way you tell whether your dogs are healthy is by HEALTH TESTING and KEEPING TRACK OF PEDIGREES. Both are essential; neither can be neglected. You can have a healthy dog that doesn't produce healthy dogs because every relative was unhealthy; that's why pedigrees are important.

Second definition: "Hybrid vigor" in virtually all dogs is a complete myth. Hybrid vigor is a very specific thing; it has a specific definition. It means breeding individuals who are so totally unrelated that the offspring are bigger, grow faster, and have increased resistance to disease than EITHER parent. The reason it doesn't apply to purebred dogs is that there is not enough separation between the breeds. Most of the European-origin breeds were freely exchanging genetic information as little as 150-200 years ago. So when you put a Lab and a Poodle together, you're combining pedigrees that actually haven't been separate all that long, in the grand scheme of Dog. You're in effect putting them BACK together. There's no automatic benefit to the offspring.

Hybrid vigor also requires that the breeds of origin are healthy themselves. Why on EARTH would you think that combining the cancer- and elbow- and hip-dysplasia-prone poorly bred Golden with the epilepsy-, SA-, thyroid-, heart-disease- and hip-dysplasia-prone poorly bred Poodle is going to give you a dog that lives a long time?

If someone tells you they're accessing hybrid vigor, ask them to prove it. Have them show you charts of growth rates, food utilization, and multi-generational health testing. If they can't do that, they're using a phrase they have no permission to use.

If "designer dog" breeders actually put their money where their mouths are, breeding only the best to the best (in other words, only using dogs who have not just health tested themselves but have parents and grandparents and great-grandparents who all have health testing) and rigorously selected their breeding dogs for sound structure and ability to do a job, none of us show breeders would object to what they do. After all, we have no issue with the Seeing Eye breeders who cross Labs and Goldens, or the bear-dog breeders who cross Ridgebacks and Coonhounds and Danes and various other breeds.

But it's important to realize that if those breeders DID do those things, did build a program that produced predictable, reliable results of health and structure, and did prove their dogs by opening them to peer review, they'd be one more purebred. They would no longer be mixed. There's no "magic" in mixing.

By the way, specifically on the Australian Labradoodles: There's a lot more (or maybe a lot less) there than meets the eye. The "breed" is now a mix of poodle, lab, cocker, curly coated retriever, some of the water spaniels, and they've been hitting up the Portuguese Water Dog people, all because they are not getting the "perfect" dog they're advertising. They do not have anywhere close to a finished product and they're not making the reliably fabulous dogs they say they are.

I want to add that one of the reasons it's so important to keep a population of reputable breeders is that we're the ones pushing for the genetic testing and treatments that, ironically, open us to so much criticism. If you look at the diseases that everyone screeches about, the hearts in Boxers and cancers in Goldens and syringomyelia in Cavaliers, the studies and research are virtually all funded by the breed clubs (and therefore the breeders). It's because we're so obsessed with producing a healthy dog that we get accused of producing unhealthy ones.

As a final note, because it illustrates this point, there's nothing about the "back" of the corgi that's an issue. The standard doesn't need to be changed. The things that happen in the long-backed dogs are illnesses like IVDD (intervertebral disc disease) and DM (degenerative myelopathy) and are almost certainly a function of how cartilage is formed in short-legged dogs and how the dog builds myelin around its nerve bundles. The community of breeders is working and funding research that will tell us how to select good breeding candidates that won't be prone to the diseases. But it's not a simple "they're just breeding freaks and that's what's wrong" situation. You can force Dachshund and corgi breeders to halve the lengths of the backs and it wouldn't change a thing.

And that's exactly why we as show breeders object to being painted as the villains in these situations. We KNOW it's not our standards; we ABHOR and obsess over genetic disease; and, honestly, we're in this because we adore our dogs so much. We want them around for full, long lives just as much as any pet owner does.

Joanna Kimball
Blacksheep Cardigan Corgis

PS: We don't actually have any good studies on purebreds vs. mixed-breeds precisely because we haven't separated the well-bred portions of the purebreds. My own breed, when carefully bred, routinely (and I really do mean routinely, as in virtually all of them if they don't get injured or pneumonia or something) lives to be 13-15; I know of at least a few who are 17 and 18. So show me a study that looks at 35-45-lb mixed breeds and gives a reliable measure of how long they live, and then we can start to really compare numbers.