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Prioritising problems in dogs

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THE Advisory Council on the Welfare Issues of Dog Breeding was set up in 2010 following recommendations made in three separate reports on the subject after the broadcast of the television programme ‘Pedigree Dogs Exposed’ in 2008. A non-statutory committee, it aims to encourage and facilitate significant improvements in the welfare issues associated with dog breeding by providing independent expert advice to governments and other stakeholders. Given the extent and complexity of the problems in this area, and the continuing need for progress, its latest report deserves attention.

Produced as part of the advisory council's wider programme, with input from council members and other experts in the relevant fields, the report (available at www.dogadvisorycouncil.com/page2/index.php) sets out and describes eight priority problems that need to be addressed, and makes recommendations for doing so. These are: ocular problems linked to head conformation; breathing difficulty linked to head conformation; syringomyelia and Chiari-like malformation; idiopathic epilepsy; heart disease with a known or suspected inherited basis; breed-related and inherited skin conditions; limb defects, including hip dysplasia and elbow dysplasia; and separation-related behaviour. Although separation-related behaviour might sit uneasily in a list mainly concerned with breed-related or inherited conditions, the report makes the point that responsible dog breeding involves not only the selection of appropriate animals to ensure the physical health offspring, but the provision of a suitable early environment. It says that the council was unanimous in adding separation-related behaviour to the priority list, on the grounds that this is a common problem with considerable welfare implications, and one that arises predominantly as a result of early life experiences.

The report does not pull punches in describing the problems that can arise as a result of selective breeding for certain traits. For example, discussing ocular problems linked to head conformation, Sheila Crispin, the council's chairman, notes that grossly exaggerated features can result in ‘acute pain or chronic low-grade misery’ for the dogs concerned. Discussing breathing difficulty linked to head conformation, Dan Brockman, of the Royal Veterinary College, notes that the breathing problems that accompany poor head conformation cause increased lifetime risk for acute airway obstruction and long-term compromise to airway function that can result in reduced quality of life. ‘Put simply, during normal or routine activities, the body of affected animals writes cheques for oxygen that the airways simply can't cash,’ he says. ‘Affected animals are not fit for normal life.’

Recommendations are made in relation to each of the problems prioritised. They range from stopping breeding from and showing dogs with exaggerated conformational defects and making use of official screening schemes, to more research into the prevalence, genetic basis and physiological effects of different conditions and the development of more effective means of identification, prevention and treatment. The importance of cooperation between breeders, breed clubs and researchers is emphasised, as is the need for owners to be properly informed.

In some concluding remarks, the council's chairman comments that responsibility for ensuring that healthy dogs are produced lies firmly with breeders, who should ensure that ‘good welfare drives their ambitions, that the dogs they breed are healthy, that they have taken sensible steps to reduce the risk of infectious and non-infectious disease, and that they are aware of any health issues, including breed-related genetic disease, within the breed or crossbreed’. However, she says, ‘responsibility for ensuring that puppies from parents with health problems, such as exaggerated defects, are not purchased from poor breeders must rest, in part at least, with potential owners’. She recommends that puppies should be seen with their mother in the premises where they were born, and be permanently identified before they leave. She also recommends that a formal puppy contract between buyer and seller, such as the one produced by the BVA Animal Welfare Foundation and the RSPCA, should be part of the transaction.

The advisory council's report represents the latest manifestation of a number of initiatives aimed at tackling inherited and breed-related problems in dogs since Pedigree Dogs Exposed was aired in 2008. Assessing progress in a report published last month, the Associate Parliamentary Group for Animal Welfare (APGAW) noted that quite a lot had been achieved over the past three years but that much remains to be done (VR, July 14, 2012, vol 171, pp 30, 31-32). In drawing attention to priority problems, the advisory council's report underlines this point. It also serves to underline the value of the role being fulfilled by the council and lends weight to the APGAW's suggestion that its powers should be extended and that it should be provided with long-term funding.

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