Jerold S Bell, DVM – Tufts Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, N. Grafton, MA (Adapted from an article published in the “Healthy Dog” section of the October, 2003 AKC Gazette)

No one wants to produce affected dogs

An inevitable consequence of breeding is the occurrence of genetic problems. No one wants to produce affected dogs, yet some breeders and owners are quick to assign blame. There are no perfect dogs, and all dogs carry some detrimental genes.

The emotional reaction to producing a dog with a genetic disorder often follows what is called the grief cycle:

  • Denial: This isn’t genetic. It was caused by something else.
  • Anger: This isn’t right! Why is this happening to my dogs?
  • Bargaining: My dog sired more than 100 other dogs that are healthy. So this one doesn’t really count, right?
  • Depression: My kennel name is ruined. No one will breed to my dogs.
  • And, finally, acceptance: My dog was dealt a bad genetic hand.

There are ways to manage genetic disorders, breed away from this, and work toward a healthier breed.

Getting beyond denial

Unfortunately, many breeders can’t get beyond the denial stage. Some will hold to increasingly improbable excuses, rather than accept that a condition is genetic. They will falsely blame relatively rare disorders on common viruses, bacteria, or medications. The fact that these organisms or drugs are common to millions of dogs annually who do not have these disorders is not considered.

Some owners state that their veterinarian recommended not sending in a hip radiograph to the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals (OFA) because the dog would probably be diagnosed with hip dysplasia. Then these owners lull themselves into believing that since the dog wasn’t evaluated, it does not have hip dysplasia. The fact that a dog does not have an official diagnosis does not mean the dog has normal hips, “not affected” with hip dysplasia.

It is important to confirm diagnoses of genetic disorders with blood tests, radiographs, or pathology specimens. However, the primary concern should always be for the individual dog. If an affected dog is not suffering, it should not be euthanized simply to obtain a pathological diagnosis. The increased availability of noninvasive techniques has made diagnoses easier to obtain.

Once confirmation of a genetic disorder is made, denial sometimes becomes deception, which is not acceptable. There are breeders who actively seek to prevent diagnoses and later necropsies, but who eventually realize those actions are detrimental to the breed, and in the long run to themselves.

Working together to improve our breeds

Reducing the stigma of genetic disease involves raising the level of conversation from gossip to constructive communication. Dealing with genetic disorders is a community effort. Each breeder and owner will have a different level of risk or involvement for a disorder. We do not get to choose the problems with which we have to deal. Breeders should be supportive of others who are making a conscientious effort to continue breeding their dogs while decreasing the risk of passing on defective genes.

Breeders should follow up on the puppies they have placed. Breeders should periodically contact their puppy buyers and ask about the health of the dogs. Some
breeders fear they will be castigated if a dog they placed develops a problem. However, the vast majority of owners of affected dogs are pleased that their breeder is interested in their dog, and in improving the health of the breed so that other affected dogs are not produced.

A breeder cannot predict or prevent every health problem. If an owner’s dog is discovered to have a problem, show your concern.

Breeders and breed clubs should be cooperative and supportive of researchers studying genetic disorders in their breed. Through research funded by breed clubs and by the AKC Canine Health Foundation (CHF), new genetic tests for carriers of defective genes are continually being developed.

The Canine Health Information Center (CHIC; established by the OFA ( CHIC is an online registry that works with
the breed parent clubs to establish a panel of testable genetic disorders that should be screened for in each breed. The beauty of the CHIC concept is that dogs achieve CHIC certification by completing the health checks. Passing each health test is not a requirement for certification. CHIC is about being health conscious, not about being faultless.

My hope for each breed is that there will eventually be so many tests for defective genes that it will not be possible for any dog to be considered “perfect.” Then we can put emotions aside and all work together on improving our breeds.

Breeders must lead the way to remove the stigma of genetic disorders. The applications for both the OFA and CHIC health registries include options that allow
for open disclosure of all health-test results or semi-open disclosure listing only normal results. It is up to breeders to show that they are ready to move genetic disorders out of the shadows and check off the boxes for full disclosure.

More and more national clubs are having health seminars and health screening clinics at their specialties. This shows those breed clubs and breeders care about the genetic health of their breeds, and are working toward a healthier future.

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