Thursday, May 15, 2008

Selecting a Dog: Rules of Thumb

A predictive chart of America's purebred dogs would give any consumer pause, as 40% of the dogs carrying AKC papers today have genetic defects of one kind or another -- hip dysplasia, heart murmurs, deafness, cataracts, spinal problems, glaucoma, Cushings disease, autoimmune disorders, hypothyroidism, epilepsy, congenital skin conditions, polyarthritis, and progressive renal atrophy, and genetic predispositions to cancer, to name a few

Yet, when most people decide on what dog to get, they seldom give any thought to the long-term financial and emotional cost of buying into an expensive and hear-wrenching canine health care problem.

Some basic rules of thumb:

  • Go With GOD (Good Orderly Design):
    As a general rule, God doesn't make too much junk (man does that), and so one of the rules of thumb is to stay within the size world we see among natural dogs in the real world, and to stay away from any canine gene pool that has become too "evolved" through human intervention.

    Yes, what I am saying is think about adopting a small to mid-sized mutt. First of all, you may get real hybrid vigor. You may not too. That said, a dog from a pound is as likely to be as healthy or healthier than any raised in a closed-registry system. Second, a dog that weighs more than 15 pounds is going to be tough enough to "take it" at the dog park and in the back yard for a half hour on a cold day, while a dog under 40 pounds is far less likely to have expensive hip and ligament issues, and will also be cheaper to raise in terms of crates, travel, and food. Hotels and apartments generally green-light dogs under 40 pounds. When God made the Pye dog, He knew what He was doing!

  • Avoid Really Massive Dogs:
    Dogs at the extreme end of the size scale generally have more expensive health issues and generally do not live long, to say nothing of the costs of fencing, crates, food, and boarding.

    Massive dogs tend to have serious joint and heart problems, as well as gastro-torsion issues.

    In addition to hip and heart problems, dogs with massive heads and overly long necks tends to get "the wobbles" -- a kind of neck problem in which the spinal vertebrae compresses on the spinal cord.

    Some massive breeds such as St. Bernards and Great Danes are also prone to bone cancer, perhaps due to too much pressure being put on their weight-stressed frames.

    Finally, massive dogs tend to over-heat in summer, and as a consequence you may find your massive dog spending a large huge portion of the year panting in the shade.

  • Avoid Really Tiny Dogs:
    The rising popularity of super-small toy breeds is particularly unfortunate, as these dogs tend to be genetic wrecks with jaws that are over-crowded with teeth and bones so small and brittle than they may break if the dog so much as jumps off the couch.

    Some tiny breeds, such as toy poodles, may haves badly luxating patellas (slipping knees) which leave the dog three-legged much of the time.

    A common problem among some very small dogs is hydrocephaly (water on the brain)caused by too much cerebellum crammed into too-tiny skulls, leading to domed-shaped head and skull plates that may not completely close over, leaving a soft gap at the top called a "molera." And far from being rare, these bulging heads and molera are actually being bred for!! The AKC breed club for the the Chihuahua calls a molera a "mark of purity," sniffing that not all dogs with molera actually have hydrocephaly, which is true. That said, when your dog does have hydrocephally, you have a dog that is mentally retarded. And hydrocephally and the molera are being caused by the exact same thing: breeding dogs too small.

  • Avoid Dogs That are Really Out of Proportion:
    Dogs that are really out of proportion tend to have higher-than-normal healthy case issues, whether these dogs have massive heads (like English Bulldogs), or tiny legs (like Dachshunds and Basset Hounds). A lot of the dogs that are out of proportion suffer from a kind of dwarfism called "achondroplasia" which not only stresses joints, but also tends to be associated with serious back and heart problems.

  • Avoid Dogs With Very Flat Faces:
    Dogs that are bred to be very flat-faced (brachycephalic) typically have a hard time breathing, get winded easily, and often have soft palate issues which further complicate air intake. In addition, due to the flatness of the face, dogs such as English Bulldogs, Pugs, and Pekingese are also prone to eye injuries.

  • Avoid Dogs With Any Seriously Exaggerated Feature:
    Dogs with deep wrinkles, such as Shar Peis, and long pendulous ears such as Bloodhounds and Bassets, tend to have a lot of smaller problems, ranging from cherry eye (Bloodhounds and Bassets) to skin and ear infections (Shar Peis and Bassets). I would also avoid any dog with incredibly long coats. "Hair dresser breeds" may seem fine while flipping through an all-breed dog book, but living with them for 10-15 years is not for everyone.

  • Avoid Any Dog Breed With a Disease Named After It:
    Almost all breeds carry a genetic load of some kind, but some loads are heavier than others. At the very least go into any dog acquisition with your eyes wide open, and research the health issues that are most likely to come up with your breed or type of dog. The last thing you want to discover is that your breed is "really prone to cancer" ... or hip dysplasia .... or heart conditions ... or "eye anomaly" ... or congenital skin conditions ... or epilepsy or .... and the list goes on and on.


Pai said...

I think that genetic issues, and temperment/energy levels are the things that most often get overlooked when someone decides on a breed of dog to get -- everyone seems to go after 'looks' first. Nothing wrong with wanting a dog you can stand to look at, but it shouldn't be the number one reason you want to own a breed.

When the top reasons why dogs are surrendered to shelters include 'cost of care' and 'no time for the dog', people should take such factors much more seriously than they currently do.

PBurns said...

Great link -- thanks for that. I put up a couple of posts about the need to "unsell" dogs a while back you might find them of minor interest. See >>


Sean said...

Looking for something I think I read on your blog about tick disease and humans. If you did, can you lead me to it? Sean

PBurns said...

If you are looking for stuff on the blog, see the search box at right in the column above the book, or the search on the upper left of page. You might be thinking about the post on zoonotic diseases at


smartdogs said...

Another option is to go with purpose-bred dogs. There are just a few private registries out there protecting working breeds that are bred to perform specific tasks - as opposed to most breeds which are now bred to look a specific kind of way. Working stockdog registries are particularly interesting and several still allow for selective cross breeding and entry of non-pedigreed dogs.

The American Border Collie Association, National StockDog Registry, American Working Farm Collie Association, National English Shepherd Club, Working Kelpie Council and others come to mind as examples.

dp said...

I think you meant to write "congenital skin conditions"

Other than that, I agree wholeheartedly with what you have to say. Nonetheless, it is not easy to get all the necessary information from most breeders.

Pavel said...

Hi, I love your blog but I think you are mistaken about miniature poodles!
They are not tiny. I think you are confusing them with toy poodles who are tiny and supposed to be under 10".
Mini poodles fit into God-made size dogs, averaging at 14-15 inches and 15 pounds, size of Border or Parson Terrier. They have a lot of energy too.
As far as knee problems, it is more common in toys and in BYB minis.
I own a mini poo, she is turning eight and just now is starting to slow down and never had any health issues.
She is great hiking companion too!

PBurns said...

Yes Pavel, fixed that. Thanks!