Vet Talk

Form and Function: Choosing Healthy Pets

Any animal you get should fit into your lifestyle

Published: May 23, 2016

old horse graphic BigStock

If a camel is a horse built by committee, this colt was at least three quarters dromedary. His mouth was a mess. His legs might as well have been holding signs saying “I will be lame and unrideable by age five. And he had a bad attitude to boot. Not exactly the ideal yearling.

Now, the default state for most riding horses born with male parts is gelding (castrated male). Generally, it’s much easier to convince a half ton animal to go from point A to point B if his testicles aren’t sending him distracting messages about the pretty filly across the arena.

So, I was taken aback, about a full continent aback, when the owner’s response to my suggestion we schedule surgery for their misfit mount was, “Oh, we aren’t going to geld him! We want to breed him. He’s going to throw color.”

For those unfamiliar with the American Paint Horse world, “throw color” has nothing to do with Jackson Pollock-style paintings. It means that the horse is expected to pass along the genes for the desired splotchy coat. In this horse’s case, it was dramatic black and white.

Okay, I admit it. Sometimes my filter has holes you could drive the entire Budweiser Clydesdale team through. The first thing that popped out of my mouth wasn’t, “Oh how nice. I’m sure he’ll make lovely babies.” It was instead, “You can’t ride color!”

Unfortunately, these owners aren’t alone in their desire to perpetuate visually pleasing traits over ones that allow an animal to do frivolous things like walk and breathe.

Fourteen years after a test became available to detect the genes that carry a potentially lethal disease in Quarter Horses, those genes remained exactly as common in the bloodlines as before the test was available. Why? Because the genes that code for the disease – hyperkalemic periodic paralysis or HYPP – also produce Schwarzenegger-circa-1980 style muscles. After all, what’s the matter with a few seizures and death as long as the horse looks good in a Speedo?

The horse world isn’t the only perpetrator of genetic mayhem.

Dog breeders have made such an art out of creating physiologically improbable canines that this Onion article really wasn’t that far outside the realm of possibility.

Those cute squishy-faced bulldog types are so smooshy and adorable, aren’t they? Sure. Right until they turn blue and die because breathing counts as excessive exertion in their world.

Shar-Peis with all their floppy wrinkles? A dermatologist’s dream.

Okay, fine, but what about a good, old-fashioned breed, one that’s almost wolf-like? How about the German Shepherd? Nope, even they aren’t immune. The “Best in Show” at a major dog show in the U.K. was a three-year old German Shepherd with such a sloped back that it was slammed in the media for being “deformed.”

What’s an animal lover to do? Is it hopeless? Are our favorite domestic creatures all morphing into chimeras worthy of Hieronymus Bosch’s brush?

All hope isn’t lost. Although genetic selection is a little like choosing a prom date – does that rock star face conceal a brain that can only discuss the price of turnips – there are breeders who carefully screen for genetic diseases and who select for more functional traits than spots and squishy wrinkles.

It’s your job as the buyer (or adopter) to educate yourself enough to sort out the durable companion from the mutant disaster on four legs.

Step 1:
Research the breed that interests you. Learn about common disorders and diseases in that breed. Talk to folks who have these animals; not just the breeders, but people like you. What were the benefits? What were the challenges? How long did their animal live? What sorts of veterinary care and grooming did it require?

Step 2:
Research the breeder. How long have they been breeding these animals? What sort of genetic screening do they do on their breeding stock? Do they have a relationship with a local veterinarian that consists of more than emergency care? Will they give their veterinarian permission to talk to you? Does their breeding contract have weird vaccination, parasite prevention, or feeding restrictions that would void the warranty (that is a red flag, in case you couldn’t guess)? Do they have clients who are willing to talk to you? Will the dog or cat breeder take the animal back if there is an unsatisfactory first vet check and discovery of disease, or throughout its life for other reasons? The dog and cat breeders that refuse to take an animal back are ones to watch out for.

Step 3:
For horse purchases, get a pre-purchase examination (a vet check) performed by a reputable veterinarian. Ideally this should NOT be the seller’s veterinarian. The pre-purchase exam is a several hour head-to-tail-to toe evaluation of the horse’s anatomy, conformation, history, and soundness. The examining veterinarian is looking for anything that might interfere with the horse’s ability to perform long-term at the level you desire. For adult animals of any species, a similar but less complex exam is a good idea.

Step 4:
Evaluate all of the above information, keeping the following questions in mind. Is this animal going to be able to do the things you want? For example, your average bulldog isn’t a good choice for a jogging companion. Is it likely to hold up physiologically and temperamentally under those activities and remain healthy for a long time? Does it have or is it prone to conditions that are going to require specialized veterinary care? If so, are you willing and financially able to commit to said care? What traits are most important to you, and can you cope with the corresponding risks?

Cuteness wears off rapidly in the face of frustration. The bottom line is that any animal you get should fit into your lifestyle: don't select a breed just because it's pretty. If you like dogs who are content with half hour daily walks, don't get a dog bred to work or hunt all day. If you like a tidy house, look for a short-haired cat or a dog that doesn't shed. If you want to groom a horse and ride it once in a while, don't get a horse who wants to run races. If you want a pet who can breathe without surgical help, don't get one that looks like it ran face-first into a wall. When the animal you select fits your concept of an ideal pet, your pet will enhance your life, and vice veresa. This pairing is for life, not the prom.

1 Comment

Valerie Hertzler, RVT
June 1, 2016

What is wrong with a Heinz 57? Sure they don't have the so called 'social status" attached to them, however they often don't have near the genetic issues that man has managed to breed into purebred animals. My wish for our animals is that we are able to get past our ego and need to have something that looks they way we want them to look and start accepting animals for who they are more naturally.

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