As with all living species, it is not uncommon to suffer from health problems. Health problems can be genetic, environmental, nutritional or caused by a combination of these factors.
As a veterinarian with 40 years of experience and Chair of the Dogs Australia Canine Health & Wellbeing Committee, we spoke with Dr Karen Hedberg BVSc about health issues in dogs and ways we can reduce their occurrence.
The Dogs Australia Canine Health & Wellbeing Committee oversees the implementation of health testing regimes in many breeds, suggesting different testing regimes which can become mandatory as agreed upon by Dogs Australia registered breeders, breed clubs and breed councils.
Like in any specie, health issues are common. Compared to other species, there is an enormous range of variation in dogs, be it size, build or type.
“They have a very big range of genetic diversity”. Dr Karen Hedberg said.
“The average human is estimated to have about seven genetic defects and most dogs will have similar figures.”
“In breeds with smaller gene pools these figures may be higher as they would be with humans too.”
Keeping gene pools as wide as possible helps to reduce occurrences of health problems. Health testing is done for the major diseases that affect that breed.
Hip and elbow schemes are common health testing regimes for many of the larger breeds. These schemes can be recognised internationally.
Genetic diseases can be caused by single enzymes that are deficient or not expressed properly.
Genetics can also be affected adverse nutritional and environmental factors.
“An enzyme that breaks down certain things may be missing and abnormal tissues may be stored in the brain like Ceroid Lipofuscinosis in the Border Collie or Fucosidosis in the Springer Spaniel.”
DNA testing is now available for Ceroid Lipofuscinosis and Fucosidosis.
Dr Karen says DNA disease testing should be breed-specific, and it will help to prevent breeding dogs producing affected puppies.
“Health schemes aim to produce healthy dogs while retaining as much of the gene pool as possible."
Some methods used in health testing dogs include but are not limited to:
It’s important to note not all health conditions have a specific DNA test available, therefore regular checking is needed.
It is important to identify the genetic diseases of concern. To reduce the occurrence of genetic disease, DNA and other health screening testing are commonly used.
Some genetic diseases can be minor like itchy skin or more severe like blue alopecia, which is common in breeds with ‘blue’ coats. Dogs with this condition can’t grow a normal coat and can suffer from skin issues and discomfort.
“Genetic conditions that affect movement, sight, hearing, reduce working ability and life expectancy should be the main focus for breeders.”, Dr Karen said.
To a degree, environmental conditions can be controlled and maintained to help prevent health conditions. Maximising nutrition to allow proper growth, good conditions such as adequate shade, shelter will all help to minimise environmental effects. Lack airflow, high humidity, ‘hairy’ ears and wax production increase chances of ear infections. Good ventilation, trimming excess hair and cleaning waxy ears out once a month is recommended.
“I have a rule that if the ears are going well, it’s best to leave them alone.”
“If you’re over-cleaning them you can create other issues with too dry ears.”
Similar to environmental conditions, nutrition can be controlled and maintained to prevent health issues.
Appropriate diets should be given based on a dog’s circumstances. Working dogs do better on diets with more protein and less fat. Dogs used in strenuous sports like sledding are given higher percentages of fat and protein as they expend lots of energy.
“Too many additives can make skin itchy in some breeds, if your dog is doing well on its diet don’t change it.”
“Dalmatians do better on low purine diets, as they don’t form uric acid properly and can end up with bladder stones, it’s more common in male Dalmatians.”, Dr Karen said.
Instances of some health conditions like hip dysplasia can be reduced by stringent health screening. To reduce the chances of hip dysplasia, breeders have their breeding stock’s hips scored through x-rays. Breeders are advised to not use dogs that have high scores for their breed. In some breeds, there may be cut-off points prohibiting dogs over the recommended results.
A well-bred puppy whose parents have low hips scores make it less likely to develop hip dysplasia, although environmental and nutritional factors may affect the chance of that.
“Hip dysplasia has genetic, environmental and nutritional factors, the degree of inheritance, rate of growth, and strenuous exercise are all factors.”
“If you grow your puppy too fast and well above weight for age parameters, you’re more likely to see elbow problems and OCD (Osteochondritis dissecans) which is cartilage defects.”
“Normal exercise won’t cause hip dysplasia in a genetically sound dog, if you have a dog with hip dysplasia and overwork it, you can make it worse.”, she said.
Dr Karen Hedberg has been involved with German Shepherds for 40 years and in the hip and elbow scheme for the breed.
“We started from having a breed average of 20 for hips with about a third having elbow issues.”
“Now our breed average is 10 for hips and only less than five per cent experience significant elbow issues.”
“It doesn’t mean we stop health testing, it just means we have got it to a stage where it’s not as major as a problem as it used to be.”
“Through the German Shepherd Dog Council of Australia, we put on a limit on breeding with dogs with hip scores of more than eight per hip and over grade one in the elbows.”
Through the German Shepherd Dog Council of Australia haemophilia A testing scheme, this condition in German shepherds registered by Dogs Australia breeders has been successfully eradicated.
Dr Karen Hedberg praises the use of generational health testing data to help plan successful breeding’s and to reduce the incidence and severity of serious health conditions.
Dr Karen Hedberg advises puppy buyers to call breed clubs and ask what health testing is required, what are acceptable results and that they see copies of those results. The breed averages and medians for some specific health conditions can be found on ORCHID database.