Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Great Scott, That's a Good Breed Health Study!

The Scotch Terrier Club of America meets in Mineola (Long Island) New York in 1915.

The 2005 Scottish Terrier Health Survey produced by Great Scots Magazine publisher and editor Joseph Harvill, Ph.D is a monument to solid canine research and clear writing.

Read the whole thing here (PDF), but because I am pretty sure most people won't, let me summarize some key points:

This is a very comprehensive survey:

  • The survey encompasses records of 902 deceased Scotties and 785 living Scotties for a total of 1687 dogs, making it the most comprehensive look at Scottish Terrier health in the breed's 105-year history.
  • A complete cross-section of Scottie health is represented, including show dogs, non-show-dogs, and even pet-store Scotties.
  • To the extent there is bias in this survey, it is towards healthier dogs, as the average survey respondent is a reader of Great Scots magazine, and has over 20 years in the breed.

Scotties face very serious health challenges:

  • Nearly half of all Scotties die from cancer, and the lifespan of the breed is just 10.15 years.
  • Scottie health issues are very clearly genetic. "Underlying today’s short-lived Scotties appears to be impaired immunity and lack of general genetic fitness as manifested in the breed’s susceptibility (and even predisposition) to cancers."
  • Scottie health is not improving; it is getting worse. Comparisons between the 1995 and 2005 Great Scots Magazine health survey suggest the breed has lost a tenth of its lifespan in the past decade. Harvill notes that "This is an alarming trend ... and may signal the rapid declension in a gene pool which can happen when inbreeding depression reaches critical mass in a small, closed population."
  • Scottish Terrier health risks and issues are breed wide: dogs bred by "good" breeders are not healthier than those bred by backyard breeders or puppy mills. As Harvill notes: "Whether Scotties are ‘well-bred’ or otherwise, on average their morbidity is the same and medical costs are the same, with the non-professionally bred Scottie owners spending an average of $36 less last year ($473 compared to $510). This evidence contradicts the received wisdom that a Scottie from a show breeder assures better health and fewer medical bills. Furthermore, this data shows our health problems cannot be attributed to puppy mills since show dogs manifest the same health risks on average as pet store Scotties, indicating a Scottie gene pool thoroughly homogeneous in terms of morbidity."

Scottie health has an economic and emotional impact on owners:

  • Scottie owners spent an average of $492 per dog per year on Scottie medical bills — and 12.9% spent between $1000-$5000 per dog. These are health care costs alone, and do not reflect other basic canine care costs such as food, toys, boarding, and grooming.
  • A person buying a professionally bred Scottish Terrier is twice as likely to have that well-bred dog die at two years of age as they are to have that Scottie live to be 16. Almost 1 in three (29%) of Scotties will die before their ninth birthday, 36% never make it to ten, and fully half of well-bred Scottie owners will bury their Scottie soon after a 10th birthday (10.15 years average age at death). On average, only four out of 10 professionally bred Scotties make it into their 12th year.

"Professional" and "Show" Breeders are not producing healthier dogs

  • Harvill notes that while professionally bred Scotties are more expensive than casually-bred dogs, they are not healthier. In fact, says Harvill, "The empirical evidence indicates that the best shot — even if a long shot — at a long-lived Scottie is from a non-professional breeder."

What hope exists lies with reducing COI:

  • Harvill writes: "While the endemic nature of health problems across all Scotties in the gene pool may render breeding out our problems difficult and maybe impossible, it is now more important than ever to practice breeding as genetic conservationists by carefully monitoring inbreeding coefficients (COI) to lower kinship ratios across the gene pool and so move our breed toward more genetic diversity as a way to boost natural immunity and so help our dogs toward relative hybrid vigor."

Hats off to Great Scots Magazine and its readers for producing a model health survey on their breed. This survey shows something all too rare in the world of dogs: a willingness to invest considerable money and time in collecting and analyzing data about all dogs within a breed (pet dogs as well as show dogs), and to report out the facts in a clear way, with conclusions drawn without flinching.

Clearly, Scottie owners love their breed, for true dog lovers will always put their dogs before their egos, and will embrace the truth no matter how painful.

If there is hope for the Scottie, it is in will be found with folks like the readers of Great Scots Magazine.

Read more excellent articles from Great Scots Magazine, below. Each one of these article is a true gem of clear thinking and good writing. Read them all!

  1. Troubled Breed: How Did We Get Here? (PDF) from Great Scots Magazine editor Joseph Harvill:
    "Today’s Scottie is a genetic shadow of the rugged Highland Chieftan he once was, and worse, he carries a crippling genetic load."

  2. Pet Dollar$ and Deconstruction: Fundamentals of Scottish Terrier Gene Pool Peril (PDF):
    "Classic signs of inbreeding depression are manifest in our Scotties: (1) shorter lifespans (2) weakened immunolgy (3) smaller litters (4) increased whelping problems, and of course, (5) spread of genetic diseases."

  3. Community Crossroads: Tallying the Price of ‘Well-Bred' (PDF):
    "We will get different outcomes in Scottie genetic health and vigor only when we change the way we breed and buy our dogs."

  4. Identifying Dream Pools that Poison Scottish Terrier Gene Pools (PDF):
    "Our diversity-reducing breeding practices now are normalized and ensconsed as responsible breeding practice setting in motion the irony of breed guardians who believe they are saving the gene pool by holding for rigid ‘type’ when in fact they are adding to the ravages of depleted genetic diversity in our breed. The Scottie gene pool, it turns out, is poisoned most by our own contaminated dream pools."

  5. How Does Our Standard Grow?: Form vs. Function In The Scottish Terrier Breed Standard (PDF):
    "We recognize that the status quo must change but our problem comes down to this: how do we change the way we ‘breed to standard’ without losing the standard?"

Humphrey Bogart with Scottie.


Joseph Harvill said...

Patrick ~
Thanks for your efficient summary of my Scottish Terrier Health Survey data. You condensed a world of material into a readable, small space! Well-done.
I wish I could say the reception my health data has received inside Scottie circles has been as favorable as yours ... but it hasn't. Turns out, it's not just my breed that is terrier-aggressive; the Scottie establishment is, too, especially against anyone challenging breeding traditions and questioning the breed club's 108 year record as proprietary "responsible breeders."
At the same time, I am pleased to report that the mass of Scottie owning public is passionately behind my magazine's efforts to speak up for our dogs, even if that means speaking out against my breed's friends and gatekeepers. Also some of my most cordial and supportive letters have come from club breeders who know we cannot continue the thinking that has brought us to the present Scottish Terrier predicament if we truly wish to have a different outcome in the future.
Thanks for your great work on behalf of Jack Russells. I thoroughly enjoyed your book.
Joseph Harvill, publisher of Great Scots Magazine

Amanda Samuels said...


Thank you so much for providing links and also your summary to this wonderful set of articles. I have printed them all out (well not the full health survey!) and read them carefully.

And thank you too to Joseph (if you come back to read this) for writing the articles.

My interest in the subject of the way animal breeding is done stems from my concern about the degree to which Siamese cats have been changed from the ones that I grew up with to the ones that are generally available today.

A few years ago I was fortunate enough to obtain a couple of old style Siamese cats from the only breeder here in Australia that breeds them. The cats they have are bred from the few old style Siamese (not registered) that they could find in Australia and a couple of cats they have imported from Holland where there is a successful group working to revive the breed. I mention this because I am impressed that this group includes a minimum ancestor loss coefficient in its breeding requirements.


So I wondered whether either of you knew of any other group breeding cats or dogs which has incorporated a population genetics perspective into their rules?

The Dutch group have combed the world seeking out suitable animals to breed. For instance a few cats were imported from Ecuador where there is no show cat structure. The cats that are bred there today still look the same as those that were imported decades ago. I wonder whether this approach might help some other breeds in trouble, like Joseph's beloved Scotties for example?