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Being a breed health coordinator

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Liz Branscombe describes what the role is and how it can help improve breed health for pedigree dogs

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I have been a veterinary nurse for over 30 years. It was in my first job as a student nurse that I met a beautiful flat-coated retriever owned by one of my colleagues, there began my love of the breed. Hector, my first flat-coated retriever, joined me in 1986 and since then I have owned six flat-coats from subsequent generations and have bred two litters. I was invited to join the Flatcoated Retriever Society health subcommittee in 2013. At that time I felt the breed, along with a lot of other pedigree breeds, was being harshly judged and condemned where its health was concerned. I was pleased to accept a role on the health committee in order to support and promote our breed health initiatives with my veterinary nursing experience. In 2015, I took on the role of the breed health coordinator (BHC) for flat-coated retrievers.

We know health concerns can lead to heated discussion

The BHC is pivotal in setting up and maintaining a communication pathway between owners, breed organisations, the Kennel Club’s health team and veterinary professionals who may be involved in breed research projects. The role is, at times, demanding and difficult, requiring professionalism, confidentiality and impartiality, as we know health concerns can lead to heated discussion. While a number of the BHCs, appointed by breed associations, are veterinary surgeons, registered veterinary nurses or members of allied professions, they may not always be people with a veterinary or medical background. However, they will be people who are experienced, knowledgeable and enthusiastic about improving their breed’s health and welfare.

A key element of the role is health surveillance and monitoring the incidence of disease in order to highlight emerging conditions. It is vital that, for each breed, a health strategy is developed and regularly reviewed to help inform the direction health monitoring should take. Breed health surveys and health testing sessions help gather breed-specific data. In addition, larger projects to collect data can be undertaken, such as a study instigated by my breed society in 2010 which follows the health of a group of dogs throughout their lifetime.

Another important monitoring ‘tool’ we have instigated, with the support of Jane Dobson at Cambridge university, is an online cause of death register. However, this relies on owners feeling able to record information at what is understandably a difficult time for them. Geneticists and epidemiologists are working with the BHCs, breed organisations and research communities to collaboratively develop a breed health and conservation plan for every breed over time. The plan will prioritise health concerns and help breeders make balanced decisions to improve health. It will also identify where future research is required.

As in veterinary practice, owner education and the promotion of breed health generally, in conjunction with breed-specific conditions, is essential. Health reporting must be easy for owners to undertake, either via paper or online forms. This sounds straightforward, but it is often very difficult to engage owners and breeders in the process of reporting health information. Developing a link with veterinary specialists who can help in breed-specific education is one way to gain the respect and trust of the breed community. If advice is to be given, it must be informed and evidence based. Links with the veterinary profession are invaluable to the BHC. Many breed societies will organise regular health seminar days for owners, and these can be very useful collaborative opportunities for both veterinary researchers and the breed communities.

Do you want to get involved?

If you know a client who might be interested in writing for us, please contact us at vet.clientview{at}bmj.com. Any contributions will be assessed by the column’s veterinary coordinator, Zoe Belshaw.

Finally, compassion and empathy are undoubtedly important attributes for anyone working with animals and helping to support their owners. I am lucky to have many years of experience working in the veterinary profession and this has been invaluable in equipping me for my role as a BHC which, although extremely rewarding, can be challenging and frustrating too. I am therefore pleased to be part of a caring community of BHCs and happy to offer support and advice to others when I can.

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