SLEEPING DRAGONS:
HERIDITARY DISEASE AND BREEDER ETHICS

by C.A.Sharp

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 would 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 the 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 smaller cousins.

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 are required to assure that the animal is clear of disease, those tests/exams should be repeated as often as current veterinary science dictates.

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 the 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 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 disease.

The twin dragons continue their slumber, one half-waking and the other half-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.

this article was first published in Double Helix Network News, Volume III No. 1/Winter 1995