Sleeping Dragons . . .
By C. A. Sharp
(Reprinted from the Double Helix Network News, Volume III No.
Hereditary Disease Breeder
The world of purebred dogs rests on the shoulders of (two) sleeping
dragons. The stockman in his pasture, the exhibitor in the ring
and the breeder beside the whelping box feel the earth shudder
when either is aroused.
One of these dragons -- hereditary disease -- seems to have taken
a heavy dose of caffeine. Breeders find themselves faced with
a growing list of ills. The situation has become so serious that
it has caught the attention of the general public, resulting in
major stories in the mainstream press and electronic media.
The second dragon -- breeder ethics -- is sleeping far too soundly.
He could bring his fractious brother under control if we could
only find the alarm to arouse him.
That alarm is ethics. Until individual dog breeders and those
who promote and encourage their activities -- the breed clubs
and registries -- begin to do more than pay lip-service to ethics,
that second dragon will never wake.
The registries hold up their hands, insisting hereditary disease
control is the province of breeders. If the largest of them --
the AKC -- can go to the trouble of fighting one breeder's efforts
to register a healthy black Airedale (a color which could occur
as a result of a single mutation of the recessive gene for tan
trim into its dominant form for solid black), why can't it make
an effort to halt the breeding of animals with major heritable
diseases? If the AKC wanted to, it could. And so could all its
Just one example of what a registry can do is the International
Sheep Dog Society's control policy for Central Progressive Retinal
Atrophy. In the early 70's there was a 14% incidence of CPRA in
Britain. Two decades later only three dogs in 2000 were diagnosed
with the disease.
The registry accomplished this by requiring that dogs entered
in competition be examined. They published the results, whether
clear or affected. They also reworked their fee structure so a
pup whose parents had clear eye exams cost less to register than
one with only one examined parent, and less still than one with
neither parent examined.
While such a program would be much more complex for a multi-breed
registry or when a single breed has multiple problems, the explosion
of computer technology makes excuses based on the burden of record-keeping
weak at best.
Breed clubs tout themselves as guardians of all that is precious
in their breeds. Most, if not all, have codes of ethics. But codes
of ethics tend to be toothless documents that get dusted off and
waved about only when a club is accused of not having addressed
an ethical issue.
Codes of ethics ought to have sharp teeth, but this is not enough.
Breed clubs should spend a lot more time -- and money -- educating
their members and the public about the hereditary problems in
their breeds. And on funding research on those problems.
No single entity will be more aware of what a breed's genetic
drawbacks are than a breed club. It is in an excellent position
to monitor those which have already been identified and look out
for new ones. Someone needs to bring the attention of the veterinary
community to specific breed concerns. Who better to do so than
the organizations that allegedly exist for the protection and
improvement of those breeds?
In a pilot program, The Golden Retriever Club of America, with
AKC's cooperation, distributed informational pamphlets describing
the hereditary problems of the breed and how to test for them
to everyone who registered a Golden, thereby by-passing pet stores
and irresponsible breeders. If GRCA can do it, so can others.
Which brings us to the breeders themselves. Every person who puts
dog to bitch should do so only with the intention of producing
puppies as good or better than their parents. Dogs with hereditary
disease, however beautiful or intelligent, are not better. It
is unethical to produce them, it is unethical to foist them off
on other breeders. It is even worse to dump them on unsuspecting
non-breeding owners or overseas breeders too new to a breed to
know its problems.
Virtually all serious breeders, including those who baldly state
that their only goal is to win, will make some effort to clear
breeding stock, especially studs, for generally recognized problems.
Most do it out of a feeling of responsibility, some do it only
because no one would breed to their studs if they didn't. Peer
pressure can be a wonderful thing.
Genetic screening must become much more rigorous. If a disease
can be tested for before a puppy leaves the breeder it should
be, whether the puppy is bound for a breeding home or not.
All breeding and performance animals should be tested for other
diseases as soon as they are old enough. If multiple exams or
tests are required to assure that the animal is clear of disease,
those tests/exams should be repeated as often as current veterinary
If a dog has a disease, it should not be bred. Its parents, offspring,
and near kin should be bred only with caution, especially when
specific carrier animals cannot be identified.
All this testing is only half of what breeders must do. They must
also communicate. Failure to disclose hereditary disease is as
unethical as lying about it, but the pressure to "shoot,
shovel and shut-up" is intense.
Many years ago I acquired my first show dog. Like most novices,
I was highly influenced by the breeder from whom I got that dog.
I owed the breeder a puppy back by a stud of her choice. My bitch
had a preliminary OFA of her hips at a year of age and was bred
at 18 months.
I booked her to a stud I wanted for the following year. After
she was two, I had her permanent OFA done. She failed.
The first thing I did was call the breeder. She told me the bitch
should not be bred again, to which I agreed. But she went on to
tell me that I should tell no one about what was wrong with my
bitch. It would damage her reputation. I would damage mine (I
had kept a pup from the first litter). It would also damage the
reputation of the (unrelated) stud to whom she had been bred.
I respected this woman. Everything I knew about these dogs, she
had taught me.
I spayed my bitch and called the owner of the stud to whom I had
booked her, making a lame excuse for the cancellation. I could
tell from the woman's tone of voice that she didn't buy what I
was saying. I felt dirty.
Not coincidentally, the sire of my bitch was a half-brother to
the dog which founded a line which was -- and still is -- known
for problems with hip dysplasia.
The conspiracy of silence, of which this episode is but one small
example, promotes the spread of hereditary disease while attempting
to hide it.
Another example is the case of a breeder who wrote a letter to
a breed magazine, stating that she had discovered her stud dog
was a carrier of Collie Eye anomaly. She had placed the dog in
a pet home.
She was vilified for having spoken out. Perhaps the most astounding
criticism came from a man who blasted her in the magazine's letter
column for her terrible treatment of her dog. The animal was alive
and healthy, living in a home where he was appreciated, but since
this man's letter appeared in a different issue than the breeder's
original announcement, readers who missed it would have to assume
something terrible had happened to the dog. So rumors grow.
Urging people to lie, intimidating them into silence, even threatening
them, is not ethical behavior. Not for breeders any more than
anyone else. Nor is it ethical to heap scorn and ridicule upon
those who exhibit the moral courage to be open about hereditary
The twin dragons continue their slumber, one half-waking and the
other deaf to the world. It is up to the registries, the clubs
and the breeders to still the one and sound the alarm that will
rouse the other.
(Although the Double Helix Network News deals mainly with the
Australian Shepherd, this and many other articles are quite relevant
to Mastiffs or any breed. Thanks to Ms. Sharp for her very pointed,