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Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Pure Breeds, Diagnoses, And Vets

Paul sent me this email in response to a recent blog I posted.  

love your blog.  just wanted to comment on your most recent post about messed up breeds.  You have answered, almost in the post a question I have always had about vets - but you might just comment to clarify.

I have always believed that as a vet, knowing more about animals than we, non animal doctors could ever know about species and breeds, I have always thought that it must be difficult for you (by you, I mean vets) not to look at your clients when they bring in their breed dogs and cats and immediately think - oh X breed - probably will get cancer, arthritis etc depending on the breed.  For example I love Bernese Mountain dogs but I would never own one because being such a large breed they will be old by the time they are 7 and dead by the time they are 10, likely to get cancer and arthritis.  King Charles - could have that awful brain condition where the brain is too big for the skull.  I could go on and on.  Most vets I know own mongrels or sturdy crossbreeds or small terrier dogs - is this why? because they won't be as prone to diseases and conditions.  I guess sometimes too much knowledge can have its down sides.  When I was young - all of 40 years ago, german shepherd dogs and alsations had straight backs but we humans have created a terrible situation where these beautiful dogs now have hind legs that are very bent causing the dog to have curved spine and develop arthritis - certainly from a visual perspective this development is not an enhancement, and from a health perspective its not an improvement either though I understand it enables the dog to jump higher and scale walls etc useful if these dogs are guard dogs or keeping intruders out - great police and drug sniffing dogs but the legs going under the dog in the back and curved spine look awful and spell pain and discomfort and shorter life for this breed as result.

Paul brings up some great points and questions.  As I blogged before, we have messed up most of the modern dogs in our pursuit of a certain "ideal".  And vets know this better than anyone.  Paul is right that when I see a certain breed, especially a puppy or kitten, I'm immediately thinking about what problems that breed has.  If it's a young pet I will spend time talking to the owner about the potential health problems they could face during that pet's life.  If I see a sick pet I definitely take their breed into account when I'm trying to figure out what is wrong with them.

This is one of the reasons why it's typically harder being a vet than a human doctor.  And please understand that this is not meant to disparage my human colleagues!  Most of the physicians I've known are very skilled, knowledgeable people.  They have to know one single species while vets have to know many.  You'd be surprised at how many anatomical and physiological differences there are just between dogs and cats, let alone the other kinds of animals we see.  There is simply no equivalent differences in humans.  Then when you throw in the dozens of different breeds and the incredible anatomy variations and health tendencies it becomes even more complicated.  In human medicine there are several racial differences, but you won't find as many between blacks, Asians, and Caucasians as you will between Yorkies, bulldogs, and Great Danes.  I have incredible respect for my human medicine counterparts, but by comparison they have it easy.

Paul also asks about vets having mostly mixed breed dogs.  I have to say that this isn't necessarily the case.  The vet that I grew up working for bred English bulldogs and Labrador retrievers.  I have a pure-bred Lab myself.  A tech I worked with bred cocker spaniels.  One of my current staff has several pure-bred Pomeranians.  I've known a lot of vets and veterinary staff who have had pure-bred dogs, and while many of us also have mutts, I would say that it's pretty evenly distributed rather than being predominantly towards mixes.  

You would think we should know better, but that's not always the case.  I absolutely adore English bulldogs, while at the same time being all too aware of their multitude of health problems.  While I've never personally owned one I definitely will do so.  I grew up around the breed and have since gotten to know many of them as a doctor to the point where some clients think I specialize in them (which I don't...I just love them).  Seeing the numerous allergies, skin disorders, eye problems, respiratory issues, joint problems, and so many other serious health disorders you'd think that I'd avoid them like the plague.  Instead it just makes me want to be extra careful when finding a good breeder.

While I generally recommend mixes based on average health problems I have also seen plenty of these multi-breed pets have serious problems.  "Hybrid vigor" is real but doesn't eliminate the risks completely.  If you are considering a pure-bred dog or cat, please research the breed's typical health problems ahead of time so you can know how to prevent some of them and be aware of the others.