choosing a breeder 101: health testing

Health tests. What are they? Why do they matter?

A few years ago, I was running a training class in Brighton (where I lived at the time), and I noticed a very short labrador in my class.

His body was the same size and shape as a ‘normal’ labrador, but his legs were a fraction of the length. In fact, he looked like a Bassett hound, with a labrador body.

I knew he was a pedigree labrador from the application form which new owners fill in, and from his breeder’s affix.

After a few weeks went by, I very tentatively brought up the subject with his owners.

‘Flash is very short for a labrador’, I said.

They replied, somewhat defensively: ‘Yes, we know. But he is a pedigree labrador. We have his papers and everything. He looked just the same as the others when we got him at 8 weeks old.’

Flash was suffering from dwarfism.

Dwarfism is just one condition which we can now screen for.

It’s important to know that buying a KC registered dog is no guarantee of health, whatsoever.

On another occasion, at another training class, someone came to tell me that their 8month old labradoodle wouldn’t be able to attend class anymore, because she had developed hip dysplacia, and her exercise had to be severely limited.

This dog went on to have a full hip replacement, costing thousands of pounds. She had to be crated for months, to prevent her from moving too much.

She found this so distressing and boring, that she took to pulling her hair out. Which is when her owners re-approached me. A course of behavioural treatment followed.

Crated so much, and deprived of much contact with other dogs, she went on to become very frustrated when she couldn’t reach them on the lead — and very loud, frustrated barking would take place whenever she spotted another dog. More behavioural work followed.

The life this dog had lived, come 1 year of age, was nothing like the life a happy, healthy, labradoodle would have experienced.

And yet her owners had paid £600 for a puppy, from someone they thought was a good breeder.

Where to get started with all this health-testing stuff…

What I’m about to say now, is REALLY REALLY IMPORTANT!!!! If you take anything away from this blog post, please do take this bit!

Health testing before breeding, is NOT about taking your dog to your regular vet and asking if they’re healthy enough to breed from!

A regular vet doesn’t 1) know what tests are required for the breed 2) doesn’t have the facilities to be able to carry out the tests 3) isn’t suitably qualified/won’t know how to carry out most tests.

If a breeder tells you that their own vet gave their dog a full bill of health, that doesn’t mean a thing! We are looking at things which are not apparent to the naked eye, here, folks.

What health tests should a specific breed have?

A good rule of thumb is to look at the KC Assured Breeder Scheme and the tests recommended for breeders of the various breeds, there.

You don’t need to choose a breeder who’s a member of the scheme, since there are many excellent breeders carrying out these tests who are not members of the ABS. But checking out the health requirements for ABS breeders is the best and easiest way to find out which health tests you should be asking any breeders for the results of.

Secondly, check out the breed club and what they have to say about health. Do this with our old friend Google, by googling ‘[dog breed]’ and ‘club UK’ or ‘society UK’.

Health-testing is only relevant for pedigree dogs, right?

No. As you can see from the example above…

A poodle and a labrador are two different breeds, which each have a high incidence of hip dysplacia. Therefore, a poodle x labrador (or labradoodle, as they are known), has just as great of a risk of hip dysplacia as a pedigree poodle or a pedigree labrador.

And so, just as you would want both parents to be ‘hip scored’ if you were buying a pedigree poodle or a pedigree lab puppy, so you should want both parents to be hip-scored with a poodle x labrador puppy.

There are fewer scrupulous breeders around, when it comes to crossbreeds, than with pedigrees — and it is harder to find health-tested puppies. But not impossible.

I hear all the time people saying things like ‘oh, he’s a mutt, so he’s much healthier than a pedigree dog’. There may be a grain of truth to this idea, but it has become hugely oversimplified and really is a bit of an urban myth. Recent research suggests that, when the bigger picture is looked at, pedigree dogs are as healthy as crossbreeds.

Health-testing in brief

There are specific health tests which are recommended for different breeds of dog. They vary, depending on the breed.

The results of these tests are recorded permanently by a centralised official body (Kennel Club) and added to the dog’s pedigrees.

Some breeds are recommended to have eye-testing, for example. Again, this does not mean going to your regular vet and asking their opinion about your dog’s eyes! Eye-testing needs to be done by BVA-appointed panellist vets for a measurable result which ‘means’ anything. There are 33 of such panellist vets in the UK. There are none resident in Jersey. Want to check? See the BVA website for a list of eye testing clinics and locations and BVA-appointed panellist vets.

Eye tests for breeds affected should ideally be ‘current’, or within the year that breeding has taken place, so a good eye test a couple of years ago is not ideal — since heriditary eye conditions can develop at any point in a dog’s life. Popular stud dogs should have annual eye-tests, for this reason.

When it comes to breeds which need hip-and elbow scoring, your own vet can take the x-rays but must submit them to a panel of experts, who assess the x-rays and grade the hips and elbows accordingly.

Although your regular vet can take the hip and elbow plates, many believe that getting the best x-rays — in terms of positioning of the dog - is important for getting a good hip-score, and travel far and wide to use vets experienced in positioning dogs for the hip and elbow x-rays . (With my dogs, I travel to Southampton for hip-scoring with a specialist vet — who runs special clinics weekly, for hip and elbow scoring.)

Great tools available, for free!

The UK Kennel Club has some great free tools available for checking out health results, which many people don’t even know about!

If you have a KC registered dog, try typing in the KC names of your dog’s parents and see what comes up.

The first thing to tell you about, is the ‘Health Test Results Finder’. If you know the KC registered names of either of the parents of the litter, you can search for any health tests which have been carried out on them — the results are held by the KC.

Second, there is a whole suite of useful online tools called ‘Mate Select’. This is designed for breeders who are thinking about which two dogs to put together. It gives them all kinds of information about the result of any prospective pairing. However, it is also pretty useful for savvy puppy buyers — for the same reason!

I won’t describe what the various tools there are for, since this blog post will be very long then — but, again — try typing in the KC names of some dogs you know, and see what comes up. (If you don’t know any KC registered dogs, look at some breeder’s websites or show catalogues, for some names!).

PS: ‘COI’ refers to Coefficient of Inbreeding, and tells you how inbred your dog is. The lower the figure, the better.

‘Jersey’ problems

We live in Jersey and Jersey is an island. This leaves us with specific and unique issues, in dogdom as in everything else.

Firstly, it is expensive to health-test a dog, full-stop. When tests involve travel to the UK, that expense rises further. With the result that many breeders in Jersey are skipping health tests. Puppy buyers, be warned!

Again, because of the expense, and also the tricky timing involved in travelling to the UK to visit a UK stud dog, there are breeders in Jersey who are just using the nearest available male dog, in Jersey. Sometimes this dog is not even KC-registered, let alone coming from health-tested lines.

Finally, puppy buyers often don’t want the extra hassle and cost of getting puppies from the UK (involving a flight or a ferry trip) and sometimes lower their standards just to get a pup locally.

Try to think about the dog you will hopefully own for upwards of ten years. Don’t pay over the odds for an untested local breeding which has pups going for the same price as UK-bred, fully-health tested pups, from parents with many achievements to their name and raised by experienced breeders who will socialise a litter well.

Of course there are good breeders in Jersey, too! I don’t want people to take from this post that local = inferior (because there are too many people who mistakenly assume that, as well). But you might need to be prepared to wait a good long while before what you are looking for, happens locally. So, if you can’t find what you want locally, and you don’t want to wait, ask yourself if you wouldn’t be better off importing the right pup — after all, s/he will be your companion for a long time.

Which brings me onto the last bit of this blog post…

The reason the breeder had a litter

We all know that there are far too many dogs in the world. Rescue shelters are overflowing with them, and many dogs are destroyed simply because there is no room for them. Every home which a new puppy occupies is, by this way of viewing things, a home which a rescue dog could otherwise have taken.

If breeders are going to bring even more dogs into an already-populated world — and, so, contribute to the problem — then they need to be breeding for a purpose beyond just producing nice pets, or because they want their female to have a litter. Because (in case it’s not obvious), we don’t have a shortage of dogs. To justify breeding in this climate, breeders need to be breeding to ‘better’ the breed.

(And, by the way, if someone has even one litter, they are a ‘breeder’. Many times I hear people say ‘I didn’t get him from a breeder, just a woman who had puppies from her dog’. Er, that’s a breeder!)

What does it mean, to better the breed?

Well, that’s a whole can of worms and it depends who you ask — it also depends on the breeds concerned.

But the main point is: Why has this person bred this litter…?

Good luck, if you are looking for a puppy. And do get in touch with me, if you are looking, because I see a lot of puppies from a lot of different sources coming through class and I might just know of a breeder I could recommend.

Like what you read? Give DogWorks a round of applause.

From a quick cheer to a standing ovation, clap to show how much you enjoyed this story.