Two stories recently crossed my desk almost simultaneously.
The first was how the tallest dog in the world, a Great Dane living in Southern California, was dead at age 7.
The second was about how the oldest dog in the word, a cross-bred Jack Russell in Louisiana, was still kicking at age 26.
I was not too surprised by either story.
You see, the health and longevity of dogs is directly related to such things as size, breed, and gene pool diversity.
Pick the wrong breed of dog to love, and heartache and jaw-dropping veterinary bills are likely to follow.
Follow a few simple rules, however, and you may save a lot of money, as well as avoid a lot of pain and heartache.
10 simple tips for selecting a happier and healthier canine companion:
- Rethink the dog.
Do you really want a dog? This is the first question that needs to be asked. You see, most people want a puppy; they do not want a dog. A puppy is cute and triggers both maternal and paternal instincts. They seem like no problem at all. A dog, on the other hand, will get you up at the crack of dawn, will bark in the back yard, will eat your couch, and may occasionally urinate or defecate on your rug. Here's a test: If you will not consider getting an adult dog from a local shelter or over-stocked breeder, you do not want a dog. You want a puppy. And what you need is a cat.
- Don't become breed-fixated.
Having decided to get a dog, most people start flipping through the pages of an all-breed book trying to decide which breed. Big mistake. Deciding to get a specific breed can dramatically increase your chance of getting a dog with serious health issues. Dog insurance records show pedigree dogs are less healthy, as a group, than cross-bred dogs. Canine health surveys show that 40 percent of Kennel Club dogs in the U.S. 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, progressive renal atrophy, and genetic predispositions to cancer, to name a few. Instead of focusing on a breed of dog, consider focusing on a broad type of dog: a terrier, running dog, lap dog, guard dog, herding dog, retriever, or pointer, for example. After that, look for either a cross breed of the type, or get the healthiest breed of that type.
- Avoid giant breeds.
The larger the dog the shorter the life, and the more expensive the care and maintenance. This is particularly true for giant breeds like Wolfhounds, Deerhounds, Great Danes and Mastiffs, which often come with expensive veterinary bills and short lives due to cancer and gastric torsion (bloat). Other common health issues associated with giant breeds are heart problems, and spinal injuries due to massive heads being supported on overly long necks. Along with sobering veterinary bills, also expect to pay more for fencing, crates, food, and boarding. Finally, after shelling out a lot of money, expect a really giant dog to be dead by age seven or eight.
- Avoid "tea cup" dogs.
Tea cup dogs generally come with a host of problems. Their jaws are almost always over-crowded with teeth, and their bones can be so small and brittle they may break if the dog jumps off the couch. Another common problem is hydrocephaly (water on the brain) caused by too much cerebellum crammed into too-tiny skulls, leading to domed-shaped heads and skull plates that do not completely close over.
- Try to get a dog weighing less than 40 pounds.
Cruciate ligament and other expensive joint problems are far less likely in dogs that weigh less than 40 pounds. By going with a dog that weighs less than this limit, you remove some of the most common, and most expensive, health care problems from the table.
- Avoid dogs with misshaped bodies.
Dogs that are out of proportion tend to have higher-than-normal health care issues, whether these dogs have massive heads (like English Bulldogs), or tiny legs (like Dachshunds and Basset Hounds). A lot of truly misshaped dogs suffer from a kind of dwarfism called "achondroplasia" which not only stresses joints, but is also associated with serious back and heart problems.
- Avoid flat-faced dogs.
Dogs that have extremely flat-faces are called brachycephalic breeds, and they typically have a hard time breathing, get winded and overheat easily, and often have soft palate issues which may require corrective surgery. In addition, due to the flatness of their faces, English Bulldogs, Pugs, Pekingese and other flat-faced breeds are especially prone to eye injuries.
- Avoid merle-coated dogs, dogs with pure white coats, spotted dogs, and dog with blue eyes.
The genetics here are complicated, and change a bit from breed to breed, but as a general rule dogs that have spotted coats (such as Dalmatians), merle coats, pie- bald coats, all white coats, or blues eyes, are best avoided if you want to decrease your chance of getting a deaf dog.
- Avoid dogs with exaggerated features.
Exaggerated features are almost always maladaptive, which is why they are not found in natural dogs. Dogs with deep skin wrinkles, long pendulous ears, and extra long backs all come with health problems associated with those conditions. As for "hair dresser dogs" with long, thick coats, remember that they rarely look as good at home as they do when on display at ringside or in a book. Do you really want to spend more time and money on your dog's hair than on your own?
- Avoid any breed with a disease named after it.
If the breed under consideration has a disease named after it, consider that fair warning! Almost all breeds carry a genetic load of some kind, but some loads are much heavier than others. The last thing you want to discover is that your breed is "really prone" to cancer, hip dysplasia, heart problems, "eye anomaly," epilepsy, or congenital skin conditions.
What about that Great Dane, dead at age seven? He was euthanized after coming down with cancer -- a very common outcome for this breed.
Of course the sadness with this dog probably started right at birth. You see, this was a Harlequin Great Dane. About one in four Harlequin Great Danes are born deaf, and most of these dogs are put to sleep -- something a professional breeder might "take care of" on their own by simply slipping a new-born puppy into the freezer.
Buy a Harlequin Great Dane or a Dalmatian, and you become complicit in the routine and predictable euthanasia of puppies born with these kinds of preventable problems. Who wants to be part of that?
And what about that cross-bred Jack Russell?
Most terriers are small dogs and, as noted, smaller dogs live longer. Cross-bred working terriers like Jack Russell's are particularly hearty due to their genetic heterogeneity. When small size, genetic diversity, and a low-calorie diet are combined, a terrier's lifespan routinely reaches 15.
A 26-year old dog? Clearly, this dog is a very special case. That said, it's no surprise that the world's longest-living dog is not Kennel Club registered, is a moderately small dog, has a normal body shape, has a pointed face, and does not have a spotted or merle-coat.
Bottom line: Canine health and longevity are not an accident. By following just a few basic "rules of thumb" when selecting your dog, you and your family can avoid a lot of unnecessary pain, heartache and expense.