Vet Talk

The Real Cost of a Cute Nose

"A lot of what I do is trying to deal with bad genetics.”

Published: October 16, 2017

I had a stark realization one day in the clinic. I think I had been out in practice for several years, so my mind was a little less preoccupied with the day-to-day tasks of medicine and I had a little mental leeway to think about big-picture issues in veterinary medicine. The thought was something like this: “Wow, a lot of what I do is trying to deal with bad genetics.”

Right off the bat, I don’t want to give the impression that I don't think of my patients as beloved family members. Dogs are more than just a bag of chromosomes; they are individuals who bring much joy and love into the lives of their families. But much of what ails modern pets - not all, much; that’s less than all - came about through someone, at some point, thinking, “Wow, that trait (insert here: short and cute nose, coat color, skills at protecting a family) sure is nice and I want more dogs with it.” And it all unravels from there.

Geneticists call this artificial selection to differentiate it from the process by which animals evolve in nature: natural selection. While natural selection favors (in general) individuals whose traits make them more likely to have offspring, artificial selection chooses based on appearance or one specific function. So, you get more dogs that look a certain way – and that may come with problems.

Genes tend to run in groups. The gene for having a tan and black coat, such as we see with German Shepherd Dogs, may also decide to travel the genome along with one that causes hemangiosarcoma,  a deadly and aggressive form of cancer. If you unwittingly choose your German Shepherds to have a consistently lovely black and tan coat, you might also be concentrating all those cancer genes in one bloodline. It’s an unfortunate side effect of breeding dogs to look a certain way.

The way a dog functions, while also related to genes, is also important. Pugs and other snub-nosed breeds are adorable (I grew up with a pug and they can be some of the nicest dogs ever) and have been bred for centuries to look like they ran full-speed into a parked car. But with that look comes the risk of overheating due to inadequate heat exchange. Dogs can’t sweat, so they get rid of excess heat through panting. Hard to pant through the tiny (but cute!) little holes in that little nose. To make matters worse, many snub-nosed breeds also have a too-small trachea (windpipe) to breathe through, so the overheating risk intensifies.

While attitude and demeanor are an important part of what makes each dog breed special, the primary distinguishing factor is how they look. Again, taking a page from the geneticist’s playbook, that’s called a phenotype: the outward appearance of any living thing. The genetic makeup is known as a genotype. If we want healthier pets and wish to avoid scourges of the dog world, such as cancer, bloat, autoimmune diseases and whole panoply of disorders that likely have a basis in a dog’s genes, we should select dogs to breed based on genotype (or at least family history, which is a consequence of genotype) instead of purely on looks alone.

Some responsible breed clubs and breeders are already doing this. They are scanning bloodlines and coordinating efforts to reduce the effects of certain diseases on dogs. This is admirable, but it is a huge undertaking and might be beyond the abilities of a single person who wants to breed a particular dog. I don’t have a solution to the bigger issue of how to breed healthier dogs so they can live longer, disease-free lives, but raising awareness is surely part of the fix.

1 Comment

Caroline Mitter
October 17, 2017

Thanks for writing about this. Awareness is definitely part of it, as is teaching people about how to choose a dog responsibly. People selling puppies on Craigslist, in pet stores, through brokers, or on puppy-selling websites are generally not paying attention to the health of their lines. People who care about the health and safety of their puppies are selling by word of mouth and can be found by going to shows (conformation, obedience, hunt trials, etc.) or by contacting the local breed club. They want to meet each buyer personally to ensure they're a good fit, since these puppies are part of their family. These responsible breeders are part of their breed clubs in part because the breed clubs have helped fund research into improving the genetics of their breed. They are testing for problems that we have tests for and should be willing to share PROOF of the results, such as through OFA identification numbers. They should be willing and able to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of the conformation (structure) of their bitch and how they complement the strengths and weaknesses of the sire they chose. The best match is rarely found in their own household. They should keep track of any health problems in puppies they have sold and openly disclose any issues in their lines. In some cases, it may be acceptable to breed dogs with genetic imperfections, such as being a carrier of a disease, because limiting the breeding pool to only dogs with perfect testing may shrink the gene pool and cause other problems which we can't test for in advance, like cancer, to become more common due to inbreeding. This is just a partial list of things to look for when selecting a breeder. The Canine Health Information Center has information about health concerns for each breed so that puppy buyers can find out what testing the breeder should be doing. For most breeds, you can expect to spend $1000 to $3000, depending on the breed, to get a dog from someone who is truly looking out for the welfare of their puppies and the long-term health of the breed. This reflects what it costs to do health testing and proper veterinary care but also to show or compete the parents in one or more venues to show that they are objectively good examples of what their breed should be. My Golden Retriever is from parents who have done well in the show ring and he isn't just handsome - his skeleton is proportionate and structurally sound, which reduces his risk of injury and makes it easier for him to do his job. My first dog was a rescue from an unethical puppy producer and I spent far more on veterinary bills due to genetic problems in her short life than I spent to buy my current dog. I don't pretend that the dog showing and breeding world is perfect but the good ones are at least trying to improve things. I do think that there are a few breeds, such as the English Bulldog, where the breeding goal has gone so far into left field that it is unethical to keep producing these dogs.

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