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The Big Picture
Westies on the wane


Emma Huntley discusses new research that delves into the demography and frequency of common disorders of the West Highland white terrier

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Ownership preferences for dog breeds are becoming increasingly polarised

The population of West Highland white terriers (WHWTs) in the UK is declining.

Research, by the Royal Veterinary College’s VetCompass programme, found that WHWTs made up only 0.43 per cent of all puppies born in 2015, compared to 1.69 per cent in 2004.

Researchers studied the records of over 900,000 dogs under primary veterinary care during 2016 – just 0.7 per cent of these were WHWTs. The average age of the population studied was 7.8 years, which, they say, reflects declining demand for WHWT puppies and an ageing population of adult dogs.

The study, which has been published in Canine Genetics and Epidemiology, also aimed to determine the frequency of common disorders in the breed.

Dental disease was found to be the most common ailment among the population studied, affecting 15.7 per cent of WHWTs. Other common disorders were ear disease (affecting 10.6 per cent), overgrown nails (7.2 per cent), allergic skin disorder (6.5 per cent) and obesity (6.1 per cent).

Lower respiratory tract disease and cancer were the two most common causes of death, both with a 10.2 per cent prevalence, followed by spinal cord disorders with a 7.8 per cent prevalence.

In contrast to other breeds previously studied by the VetCompass team, male WHWTs were found to outlive females by about one year. However, male WHWTs were more likely to be diagnosed with ear disease and aggression than females, while females were more likely to develop dental disease.

The researchers suggest that the veterinary profession may have contributed to the declining popularity of WHWTs by emphasising poor health within the breed to their clients, particularly with regard to skin disease.

However, co-author of the study Camilla Pegram said the most common disorders seen in WHWTs were also common in the wider UK dog population. She added that declining demand for WHWTs may be bringing benefits in terms of the health of the breed.

‘What is particularly interesting is the level of skin disorders, which although relatively high, are still lower than might have been predicted a decade ago.

‘It is possible that the reduction in Westie ownership has relieved the pressure on breeders to breed from less healthy individuals to meet demand and therefore contributed to improved skin health within the breed. Paradoxically, reducing popularity may have led to better health in the Westies that are now being born.’

Dan O’Neill, lead author of the paper, said social media was driving the popularity of different breeds of dog.

‘With the ascent of social media as a dominant influencer of public opinion, ownership preferences for dog breeds are becoming increasingly polarised and susceptible to the whims of internet celebrity endorsement and advertising.

‘Previously, preferences for dog breeds used to wax and wane gently over time. But VetCompass breed data now show rapid changes in preferences among breeds that create bubbles and troughs of demand that can have far-reaching implications for these breeds. Flat-faced (brachycephalic) breeds are currently the darling of the nation but this has created huge welfare problems for breeds such as the pug and French bulldog – and breeds such as the WHWT and Cavalier King Charles spaniel have fallen sharply out of favour.’ •

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