The Role of Veterinarians in Managing Hereditary Diseases in Dogs
World Small Animal Veterinary Association Congress Proceedings, 2017
Åke Hedhammar, DVM, PhD, DECVIM-CA
Department of Clinical Sciences, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, Uppsala, Sweden

Small animal veterinarians nowadays are commonly faced with health problems in dogs that have a genetic background. Breeders and cynological organizations have been blamed for the situation - past and current. With a critical look also at roles and responsibilities of the veterinary profession, the aim of this paper is to review past and current involvement by small animal veterinarians in the enhancement of canine genetic health and to propose an even stronger involvement in the future.

Genetic factors are involved to a greater or lesser extent in congenital malformations, metabolic disorders, disorders of immune function, disorders associated with aging, and cancer. These categories of disease have become relatively more important as infectious, parasitic, and nutritional diseases have become less common due to vaccination programs and advancing knowledge about nutrition, treatments, and diagnostic methods.

With this change in pattern of disease, issues related to inherited disease now comprise a considerable proportion of their practice for many veterinarians.

We are now better suited to assist in the selection of breeding stock by diagnosing specific clinical entities and screening for early signs. An increasing interest in preventive measures and animal welfare calls for a closer tie with other stakeholders in these measures. To reveal their inherited nature we are collaborating with geneticists and breeders. To arrange for screening programmes and certification we need to ideally work together with the national cynological organisations.

The sources of information about genetic diseases for the veterinary community are now numerous compared to what was available in the 60s in, e.g., the first edition of textbooks like Current Veterinary Therapy1 This kind of information is now available online2,3 and a website on diagnostic testing have been launched by WSAVA in Collaboration with VIN4.

A special issue of the Veterinary Journal (formerly British Veterinary Journal) on hereditary defects in dogs features several review articles on issues related to veterinary involvement in control measures against hereditary disorders in dogs.5 Likewise, the entire fall issue of European Journal of Companion Animals was devoted to hereditary diseases in dogs.6

As an example of earlier collaborations between the veterinary and the cynological organisations it should be noted that as early as 1967, at the WSAVA congress in Paris, the late Professor Saki Patsaama reported on the breed standards that encouraged exaggerated anatomical features and an increased risk of various health problems.7

The long-time work on hip dysplasia in many countries and the work of The International Elbow Working Group3,6 are other good examples of how the veterinary profession over many years, in collaboration with geneticists and breeders, have contributed to enhance genetic health by the launching of a screening programme.

Much of the work that is needed must come from or at least be supported by veterinary professionals in their various roles. The following section outlines specific needs or areas of development and how veterinarians might support them.

Our Prime Responsibilities as Vets

Is to Diagnose and Treat

As practicing veterinarians our prime responsibility is to cure whenever possible and at least to give symptomatic relief. For hereditary diseases, which most commonly are congenital and/or developmental or metabolic and/or degenerative it is usually not possible to cure. It is, however, equally important to come up with an etiology-based diagnoses. Even if it is not to permanently cure these conditions, it is of outmost importance for any breeding advices to be given.

Is to Assist in Control and Prevention

As small animal practitioners we are more and more involved in preventive measures.

For hereditary diseases it is mainly to assist in the performance of various screening programs and registration of verified cases of genetically defined diseases. Specialists in various sub disciplines are also involved in the introduction and design of screening procedures and health programs.

We as veterinarian should guarantee that proper inclusion/diagnostic criteria are used for screening procedures as well as for inclusion in registries of identified cases.

Is to Investigate and Reveal the Etiology

It is the prime responsibility of researcher within the field of small animal medicine to reveal the etiology and to evaluate thereon based treatments. With the canine genome recently discovered an extra dimension has been added to research on canine genetic diseases by its comparative value also for human health. With a great value of well validated cases (and controls) for various inherited diseases in such research, the assistance of practitioners (specialists as well as general) are of utmost importance to take full advantage of it.

Different Roles

By different training and positions, our roles and responsibility for canine genetic health may vary. It is becoming evident that we all can contribute with special skills and experiences.

General practitioners are the ones most exposed to various health problems with a genetic background. The ones in general practice are seeing a wide variety of cases and those specializing in a discipline a greater number only within their field of specialization. Daily contact with owners of these dogs should be utilized to not only relieve suffering of the individual animal but also to inform about an animal’s suitability for breeding.

Practicing specialists are commonly involved in various screening programs for hereditary disorders and, thereby, a very important “launcher” of these programs. As sampling for molecular genetic testing can be performed by any practicing veterinarian, these screening programs should ideally be well known by all of us.

Practicing veterinarians involved in reproduction and pediatrics have a special exposure also to breeders - experienced as well as those with very little experience. At deliveries it is appropriate also to discuss whether or not a bitch is suitable for further breeding. In some countries including Sweden it is already common practice to have all puppies “inspected” before delivery. In UK a special puppy contract has recently been launched.

Veterinarians at academic institutions and other vets involved in research are playing an important role to apply their results into practical dog breeding and to take advantage of and promote the noted value of canine research also for comparative studies for the benefit of humans.

Veterinarians Employed by Kennel Clubs

Nowadays, some kennel clubs have veterinarians and/or geneticist full-time employed to assist in matters related to health and breeding. Others have veterinary and genetic consultants on a part time basis for specific purposes i.e., serving on hip, elbow, and eye panels.

Veterinarians with Dual Roles

By involvement in breeding, breed clubs, dog “sports” including showing, and as consultants, many veterinarians are strongly involved in the cynological organization in various functions; commonly serving on health committees, presidents of breed clubs, and even national kennel clubs. Veterinarians with such involvement have a responsibility to function as a bridge between the profession and the “cynological” world.

Roles by Our Professional Organisations

At an international and regional level WSAVA and FECAVA and at national levels, the national veterinary organizations should promote collaborative efforts, i.e., to work together with the cynological organizations in the setup of screening programs and registries.

As specialist organizations the American and European Colleges should serve as authorities to validate diagnostic criteria and procedures in their special area of competence.

As a conclusion of views presented above the following is proposed:

  • That the veterinary profession takes a more active part in pre-breeding inspections and advices regarding potential breeding stock.
  • That the veterinary profession is involved in the launching of puppy health certificates.
  • That veterinarians in conjunction with routine procedures for individuals such as microchipping, vaccinations, flea control, and deworming also bring up discussions on whether an individual is suitable for breeding or not.
  • That the veterinary profession by introduction in the curriculum is better prepared to take a more active part in breeding advices related to screening procedures they are involved in.
  • That the professions nationally and internationally take an active part in collaborative efforts with other stakeholders for enhancement of canine genetic health.


1.  Patersson A. Catalogue of hereditary diseases of the dog. In: Kirk RW, ed. Current Veterinary Therapy. 1st ed. WB Saunders; 1975.

2.  Inherited diseases in dogs.

3.  OMIA 2013 Online mendelian inheritance in animals.

4.  Slutsky J, Raj K, Yuhnke S, Bell J, Fretwell N, Hedhammar A, Wade C, Giger A. Web resource on DNA tests for canine and feline hereditary diseases. Vet J. 2013;197(2):182–187.

5.  Nicholas FW, Wade CM. Canine genetics: A very special issue. Vet J. 2011;189(2):123–125.

6.  Breeding healthier dogs: the vets role. Euro J Comp Anim Pract.

7.  Anonymous. Report of the World Small Animal Veterinary Association Committee appointed to consider breed standards in relation to the health and welfare of dogs. J Small Anim Pract. 1969;10(3):135–141.

Speaker Information
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Åke Hedhammar, DVM, PhD, DECVIM-CA
Department of Clinical Sciences
Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences
Uppsala, Sweden

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