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Breeding opportunity

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IT MAY have been controversial, and the issues highlighted may not have been new, but the programme ‘Pedigree Dogs Exposed’ broadcast on BBC1 last August has certainly stimulated interest in tackling some of the inherited animal welfare problems associated with the selective breeding of dogs. Subsequent developments have included a revision of breed standards by the Kennel Club, and the initiation of various reviews into the welfare aspects of dog breeding. The ramifications continue, and the topic will no doubt be the subject of much discussion among those attending Crufts this week. Among other things, this year’s event will include a dedicated ‘health zone’, at which vets and scientists will be on hand to discuss some of the means available for reducing the risks of inherited defects in dogs. Crufts itself will not be broadcast by the BBC this year, as the Corporation decided to suspend its coverage of the event in the light of some of the issues raised by the programme.

The BVA has called for an independent review of the breeding of all dogs, not just pedigrees, and for all registered pedigree dogs to be permanently identified (VR , November 8, 2008, vol 163, p 553). Earlier this week, it welcomed news that the chairmen of a review of breeding being undertaken by the Associate Parliamentary Group on Animal Welfare and of an independent review commissioned by the Kennel Club and Dogs Trust have agreed to collaborate, on the grounds that this will add weight to the case for action (see p 286 of this issue).

The current level of interest presents an ideal opportunity to make progress in tackling hereditary defects in dogs. However, this will be a long and difficult process requiring the active collaboration of everyone involved. Some of the challenges have been highlighted in recent reports from the Companion Animal Welfare Council (VR, December 6, 2008, vol 163, p 669). Given the nature of the task, the BVA feels it is important that the reviews currently under way should consider solutions that would benefit the health and welfare of dogs in the long term. These include permanent identification, accreditation schemes, genetic testing and better use of the Animal Welfare Act.

The BVA believes that secondary legislation could be put in place under the Animal Welfare Act to protect the health and welfare of potential offspring produced as a result of breeding from dogs with known hereditary defects. It further believes that guidelines being developed under the animal welfare code for dogs could be amended to include a recommendation against mating closely related dogs and restricting the number of puppies an individual stud dog can sire. As well as making best use of the legal means available for restricting inappropriate breeding, it believes that there is scope for progress through voluntary mechanisms such as breeder accreditation schemes.

As with any other measures aimed at improving animal health and welfare, it is important to be able to relate any actions to the animals concerned. Permanent identification of all registered pedigree dogs would facilitate the reporting of hereditary health problems and of surgical procedures resulting in conformational changes. In addition, the introduction of a ‘pet passport’ database, linked to an identification microchip, would allow information such as parentage, DNA and health test results to be known for a particular animal.

To introduce breeding programmes which control hereditary defects without eliminating desirable traits, it will be necessary to isolate the specific genetic mutation(s) responsible. Funding will be required to create DNA databases of affected and unaffected animals and for the development of appropriate tests

The BVA believes that breed standards should be based primarily on health and temperament, with less emphasis on the conformation of the dog. While welcoming a commitment from the Kennel Club to review all breed standards in consultation with the veterinary profession, it believes that, in addition, an independent expert advisory group should be formed to review and advise on the way forward on a case-by-case basis.

Vets see the impact of inbreeding on a daily basis in practices across the UK. Consultations provide an opportunity to advise clients but, unless veterinary advice is sought before animals are purchased, options are limited to reactive advice and treatment. Methods to enable owners to make more informed choices before they purchase their animals need to be investigated.

Advances in genetics, diagnostic tests and information technology, combined with the current level of interest, present unprecedented opportunities for tackling inherited welfare problems in dogs. The current level of interest in the subject makes it all the more important that these are used to best effect.

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