Do you have a happy family?
Well, I see this photo of you – you’re all smiling, aren’t you? That must mean you’re a happy family.
In fact, you look so happy in this picture that I am going to come to you guys for marriage advice and for counseling on how to raise my kids.
What do you mean that’s not a good idea – did you see this picture? You guys are practically bursting with love and joy!
That is, unfortunately, the attitude that a lot of owners have about health testing. If everyone’s smiling – if every test is passed – this must be a healthy dog from a healthy breed from a breeder concerned with health. If you don’t see that snapshot, this is not a healthy dog from a healthy breed and a good breeder.
If you are thinking about bringing a dog into your family and are trying to decide on a breed and find “responsible breeders” within that breed, you need to realize that the situation is much more complex than that. Health testing does not mean the breed as a whole is healthy. Lack of health testing does not mean that the breed is in bad shape or that breeders are irresponsible.
There are some health problems that really can be diagnosed and prevented by the kind of picture a typical health test creates. All health testing captures only a single moment in time. If it’s a condition that either exists or doesn’t exist, and is basically unchanging, that kind of moment-in-time picture is really useful. Using the example of the family snapshot above, that photo would probably accurately tell you if everybody had two arms. For conditions that are prone to change, are heavily influenced by environment, or develop over a lifetime, a moment-in-time picture is far less useful. Your family snapshot is NOT very likely to tell you how much the dad will be able to bench-press six months from now. It might give you hints in that direction, but the only truly reliable information is to go see him in six months and make him pick something up.
Here’s what you, as a buyer, should know:
– Health testing looks at a very, very small number of issues compared to the number of things that can hurt, sicken, or kill your dog.
– The available health tests are actually quite unlikely to be focused on the main issues of the breed.
– Health testing in many of the “big name” issues has a shockingly small influence on the incidence of those problems. Hip dysplasia is staying at a very steady rate despite decades of rigorous and even enforced testing. We used to think that we could avoid thyroid disease by not breeding affected dogs, but now we’re seeing a much more complex picture that’s not nearly so encouraging.
– The breeds in the worst shape, longevity-wise, tend to be the ones most heavily tested and vice versa. If you, as a breeder, are constantly fighting tons of health issues, you tend to focus on health testing. If, on the other hand, your dogs tend to be hard to kill no matter what’s thrown at them, you don’t. Look at the breeds with the most testing in the OFA database for hips, elbows, and heart – Goldens, Labs, Shepherds, Rotties, Poodles. Poodles also make the top ranks for thyroid. Danes are extremely high in thyroid and cardiac testing. Asking the breeders in the room now, are those breeds in good shape? Do they have a lot of longevity? Would you recommend them as a good risk for a pet owner who wants minimal health issues?
– A snapshot in time doesn’t equal a life free from the problem. Fortunately most breeders realize this, but the pet-buying public usually doesn’t. The fact that your dog’s father had a good thyroid test the year he produced your puppy doesn’t mean that he always will, or that he won’t go into an autoimmune thyroid crisis, or that he won’t die of thyroid disease, or indeed that he will not someday be implicated as the popular sire who so consistently destroys thyroid health that he ruined half a breed.
– Tests tend to focus attention. Don’t be distracted; there is almost always a completely different list of things that are actually far more problematic in the breed under consideration.
If you are a buyer and you are looking at a test, wondering if it is something you should cross breeders off your list for, here are some questions to ask your breeder that may help you determine how much weight to put on it:
1) How accurately does the test diagnose whether the condition is going to affect the dog? Does a good result mean lifelong safety? Does a bad result mean the dog is definitely going to get the condition?
2) How much influence does the disease have on the breed? (How common is it? Following the example of the family picture, is “not having two arms” a big problem in the breed? How much does having the condition affect the everyday life of the dogs?)
3) Does breeding based on the test change the incidence of the issue? (How “heritable” are good or bad results?)
4) Is there good research linking the test to the specific breed you’re looking at? (For example, as I talked about in a prior post, UPenn’s done some really good research on their method of hip testing and certain breeds, but has not done research on it in many others.)
If the answers are “Very well, a lot, a lot (ideally 100%), and yes,” then this is a “must” test within that breed community. As an ethical breeder I’d be making a terrible decision if I didn’t run it and didn’t follow its recommendations. As an owner, you’d better be very serious about only buying from a breeder who runs it.
If the answers are (and let’s choose an actual one – let’s do thyroid testing in Cardigans), “Not very well, unknown (as far as we know it has very little effect on everyday life in this breed), unknown but suspected to be quite low, and yes,” then you have a situation where I’d be very hard-pressed to get mad at a breeder who wasn’t running it.
If you end up with a “must” test for your chosen breed, you have to remember that EVEN THEN, it is only a test for that one particular thing. You STILL need to ask the breeder questions about the breed’s average longevity, the biggest health problems in the breed, the breeder’s own experience with those issues, and whether the breeder is seeing average, below average, or above average longevity for her dogs. What she answers, and HOW she answers (whether you get the impression that she’s really got a handle on the breed and understands the issues and is willing to be truthful with you about them) are actually going to tell you a heck of a lot more about whether that breeder is concerned about health than whether she tests.