BS#6—Food for Thought

Susan Thorpe-Vargas, Ph.D., & John Cargill, M.A., M.B.A., M.S.


In this last of the six-part genetics for breeding series, we look at the options open to the dog fancy in controlling the transmission of genetic disease.  The simplicity of the process is shocking; the difficulty of making it happen is discouraging.


As we have demonstrated throughout this series, the fancy has traditionally selected dogs for breeding programs on the basis of arbitrary conformation traits, rather than on the basis of soundness of structure and overall health.  In some cases, form no longer follows function.  We have shown that breeders (and clubs) tend to focus on a handful of traits (if that many) rather than the whole dog.  Registries abound, however, they tend to be narrowly focused such as Canine Eye Registration Foundation (CERF)[1] and Orthopedic Foundation for Animals (OFA)[2].  Lacking are “whole dog” registries.  The relatively simple days of Mendel are not even a memory.  Simple dominant or simple recessive genes do not cause most of the disease problems we face in purebred dogs—they are usually polygenic with most of the genes unknown.  In short, we have been playing “on a cloth untrue, with a twisted cue and an elliptical billiard ball.”[3]


The essence of this series, when distilled to the point of purity, revolves around the question of how to pick a potential breeder.  We have seen that DNA testing is expensive, and available for only certain diseases in certain breeds.  The canine genome is not yet complete, and even when it is, it will be many years before the combination of genes causing diseases of interest are identified, and then years before tests are widely available for those diseases.  These are noble and necessary goals for sure, but how do they factor into your life as a breeder?  In truth, they don’t.  A word of caution is warranted here: do not hold your breath waiting for the magic test that will tell you whether or not to breed your dog.  People pass out from doing things like that. 


Let’s look at the solutions.  There are two, and they have been right under our noses all the time.  Genetic diseases do not skip from dog to dog as viruses do.  You do not have to inoculate against genetic disease.  All you have to do to keep genetically transmitted disease out of your line is not to breed affected dogs.  It is just that simple.  Then what is the problem?  We have gone through mounds of genetic information with those readers who have trudged through the mire with us.  We have explored the mechanisms underlying the disease processes, and yet, even with new and greater understanding, we have yet to find the solution to the problem.  There  are solutions, but many will find them distasteful, even horrifying.  They could put people out of work; even close down most registries as we know them.  Just think: no more OFA, no more PennHip[4] and even no more CERF at Purdue.  What we offer is the “consumption/use” tax approach to breeding.  All it takes is a series of relatively minor but wide reaching changes in philosophy, policy and practice throughout dogdom. 


Plan A-The Breeder’s Plan


First, clubs must talk to, inform their members and achieve a cohesive consensus.  Second, clubs must talk to each other and form a coalition that cannot be broken by the AKC.  Third, AKC must be convinced, coerced or otherwise encouraged to participate in a widespread reform and redefinition of breeding stock.  We do not suggest that purebred registries be scrapped—there is too much history and tradition supported by a huge pyramid base of love and devotion to the dogs.  We do suggest a new category:  breeding stock. 



Plan B-The Buyer’s Plan


The second solution is not only simpler, but may be more palatable, and would quickly become beyond the control of breeders.  As we have seen earlier in this series, puppy lemon laws are here to stay.  Open registries, such as the GDC, will register dogs for no charge if they have a genetically transmitted disease.[6]   This registration includes pedigrees.  Ahhh!  Here it comes: it is easier to get information from dissatisfied buyers about what they bought than it is to get information from breeders protecting their standing in the fancy.  If breed clubs and AKC were to cooperate, any person registering a puppy would receive along with the registration from the AKC, a postage-paid card to an open registry.  If the puppy develops a genetically transmitted disease, this card would be completed by a veterinarian and forwarded to the registry.  Breeders might hide this information, much as they do radiographs of dysplastic dogs they so not send to OFA and PennHip.  On the other hand, puppy buyers, who feel they spent good money for a product lacking in quality, would be more likely to comply.  It would take only one of the puppy buyers from a litter with an affected puppy to file a report for the process to work.


The registries, if there is more than one cooperating with the AKC would make their information easily accessible.  They could be independent of the AKC or under contract, or even be a division of the AKC.  The important point is that the probability would be high that should a genetic problem show up in a litter, that litter and the pedigree supporting it would be flagged.  Most puppies sold by breeders do not go to show homes and other breeders where this information could be carefully hidden.  Rather, only two or three dogs out of most litters ever make it to the show circuit.  While the process might not be one hundred percent in one generation, over 5 or 10 generations, with a little computer-aided back-tracking and cross-referencing, almost every litter with carriers or affected puppies could be identified.  The nice thing about genetic disease is that if you know which litters had an affected puppy, you know which dogs to test.  It is much easier to seek out, test and eliminate carriers if you know one of their littermates was affected.  This would prevent the wholesale testing suggested by some.  We make the point, that you only need to test potential breeders related to an affected dog.


Plan A&B-The Total Plan


Breeders need something to differentiate their product.  After all, given a breed standard, their products are similar to the product of other breeders meeting that standard.  Thus Ch. Black Dobie #1 looks very much like Ch. Black Dobie #2.  Having a Plan A “breeding certificate” to demonstrate the quality of their animals will encourage them to participate in both plans A and B.  If the AKC registration packet contained a brochure on the importance of reporting genetic faults, puppy buyers would gain the knowledge of what and how to report even if they were not told by their breeder.  The more conscientious and ethical breeders would also inform the puppy buyers and encourage them to report back any genetic faults encountered during the life of the puppy or in any of its get.  Puppy mills and pet stores would not be exempt.  Not only would the incidence rate of genetically transmitted disease go down, but the pressure from the puppy buying public on legislators to enact puppy lemon laws would also be reduced.


In part five of this series, we threw down the gauntlet for parent breed clubs to accept the challenge.  As we conclude this series, we leave a standing challenge to parent breed clubs, the AKC and the various registries to do something meaningful about the genetic problems plaguing the purebred fancy.  We are not talking about lip service—we are talking about enlightenment, cooperation and action.  Over the several decades that hip x-rays have been done, and the incidence rate of hip dysplasia in the general dog population has been virtually unaffected.  OFA and PennHip, both closed registries, have had minimal impact; and CERF probably less because most dog people do not have their dog’s eyes examined every year.  Under the current parent breed club and AKC policies,  the OFA, PennHip and CERF approaches are just plain flat wrong.  At best they are only expensive stabs in the dark which produce little or no results.  With the Breeder’s Plan, the Buyer’s Plan or with the Total Plan, these registries could become very effective.  But, they would have to become open registries with on-line searchable databases cross-referencing diseases to pedigrees.


Will breeders, fanciers and the AKC go along with either of these proposals?  We don’t know.  Some important bloodlines would be come extinct.  Others would remain well-established, not doubling up on disease transmitting genes.  Several things are for sure.  The AKC could lose its monopoly to another national registering body and lemon laws could be legislated to bring plans A and B into effect.  The cynics among us suggest that it is easier to get lemon laws enacted to solve the genetic disease problem than it is to cause clubs, AKC and registries to cooperate.  As difficult as it is to amend a club or registry’s charter, it can be done.  After all, we have tacked a Bill of Rights and several amendments to the U.S. Constitution.  Think about it.


[1] Canine Eye Registration Foundation,

[2] Orthopedic Foundation for Animals

[3] W.S. Gilbert, The Mikado.

[4] PennHip,

[5] George Padgett, title, Dog World, date, pp. x-y.

[6] Institute for Genetic Disease Control in Animals, xxxx