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Navigating Prevalent Health Issues - Population Management in a Rare Breed

Updated: Mar 30, 2021

In every breed, in every mix, in every dog of unknown origins there will be health problems. Those problems might be as simple as a grass allergy or lax pasterns (wrists). Or as complex as a multigenerational polygenic (more than one gene involved) health issue with no test. Science is advancing rapidly. The options for health testing come in two flavors: phenotype and genotype.

Geneotype testing comes from running a sample of your dog's DNA through a test or battery of tests to see if they are affected for a particular health issues, carry it (usually this means they can pass it on potentially with the wrong breeding pair but don't express it), or are clear from it. This allows a breeder to understand how these health issues will be passed down to their offspring.

Phenotype testing is examining the physical appearance and structure of the dog and quantifiably noting whether the dog has any health issues. These tests include the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals' (OFA) tests for elbow dysplasia, hip dysplasia, thyroid abnormalities, eye abnormalities, hearing abnormalities, and more. At this time, most phenotype tests do not have known genetic markers, so physical traits are examined for abnormalities instead.

Not every testable disease is found in every breed (or mix) and not every test is applicable to every breed, even when they genetically show as affected. For instance, Hokkaido have been found with Collie Eye Anomaly, yet few to none seem to be physically affected, even though their genetics say they should be. In contrast, collies with CEA generally have vision that is affected. Nevertheless, genetic testing can be utilized to screen for known issues or to discover recessive genes that exist in the population unknown that will come out unexpectedly.

But what do you do when your breed has a health issue that doesn't have a test for it and your dog is affected by it? Simple, don't breed to the dog. Easy, right? Okay. Well, then, what about that dog's siblings? What about their half-siblings and cousins? Do you breed them? Do you cut every single one of those dogs out of a breeding program? If yes, what next? You acquire a new dog for your breeding program. You get lucky and this one doesn't have the same health issue. But two years down the line her brother develops the issue. Now what do you do? Do breeders systematically cut all of those dogs and related dogs out of their breeding population?

If so, what then? Very quickly, you can narrow a genepool to almost nothing. And it seems likely that while trying to eradicate the one problem, you accidentally perpetuate dogs that have an entirely new health issue.

I'm going to take a very quick sidetrack for those of you saying: this is the problem with purebred dogs. They're unhealthy. Up until recently, the only dog of mine that had health issues was Argos, a mix, who has idiopathic epilepsy. Unless you track your mix breed dog's health and familial relations as closely as pedigreed dogs are tracked, you are going to have much less information about the health and potential health of your dog overall. Are Argos' brothers and sisters affected by epilepsy? I don't know because I've only met one of each by pure happenstance and then never did again. Did his parents have seizures? Again, it's impossible for me to know. At least with a purebred dog with known lineage, as long as my breeder is honest, I have more information about what health problems my dog might develop. And if problems are known about, then breed fanciers can throw their support behind researchers, they can do studies, often funded by the breed parent club, to find a genetic marker for a disease or to develop treatments. Many many of the health tests and overall canine health information comes from studies and research backed and funded by purebred dog fanciers. I highly encourage you to look into the AKC Canine Health Foundation because they're doing wonderful work.

So then, focusing back on rare breeds with an untestable health issue that is pervasively distributed throughout the population. What do those fanciers and breeders do? Options include: stop breeding, outcross to a different breed, or attempt to breed away from the problem while maintaining diversity within the genepool. The maintaining diversity is a very important piece of the puzzle because marked decrease in genetic diversity can result in inbreeding depression and other health issues. Population management is a complex topic though and one that deserves its own post.

Stopping breeding doesn't fix the problem, though it does save the breeder the heartache of routinely dealing with it. Instead, let's look at the option of outcrossing to a different breed. First hurdle is going to be finding a similar phenotypical population that doesn't have the deleterious trait. Secondly, often the breed chosen for outcrossing has it's own health problems that you may incidentally introduce to the other breed through an outcross and this is a factor that must be kept in mind. Third, transparency with health issues is more difficult to come by than it should be and since you don't know the other breed like you know your own, you are trusting (often) relative strangers to be up front about the health of their dogs. And with small, scattered populations, it can be difficult to truly know whether a problem even exists within a rare breed population. Finally, and this is, in my opinion, the biggest hurdle: garnering support within the breed community for such an outcross project and then arranging for those dogs to be reintegrated into the registerable population. Perhaps this is a possible route, but to me at present, it hardly seems like it is the best path forward and it certainly shouldn’t be the only path forward.

The last option, breeding away from the issue, carries with it a host of its own problems. Again, transparency is going to be an issue. You have to be working with other breeders you can trust in regard to the health of their dogs or you are going to be in for surprises. With issues like seizures that can be latter onset (6 months-3 years, sometimes as late as 5-6 years of age) and unpredictable (a dog has one seizure ever vs seizures every week) breeding away from such an issue is going to be something of a trial and error. I’ve seen dogs who seizure whose parents and siblings don’t, for instance. Some of this can be mitigated by breeding dogs who are above the age of 3-4 and haven’t seizured, but with bitches, if you wait until they are over six (according to the renowned theriogenologist Dr. Hutchison) you might begin to encounter fertility issues. It's all a balancing act.

With any health issue, quality of life is going to be a huge mitigating factor. While I think thyroid and auto-immune issues can be pervasive and problematic, ultimately many of those issues can be managed quite successfully with reasonably inexpensive medication. With hip dysplasia, on the other hand, I have seen a nine month old puppy so crippled by it I had to excuse him from training because he was in too much pain to work. And while a dog can have hip dysplasia and never show symptoms, the above scenario is one I have witnessed multiple times. So where is the line?

With something like idiopathic epilepsy, it more of a spin of the wheel than some other health issues. Can the seizures be controlled with environmental management? Can you remove chemicals or other environmental factors that set them off and they’re solved? Can they be managed with drugs? Arogs’ seizures have been very well managed with Zonisamide, which is very reasonably priced from a human pharmacy, and his quality of life has not been affected at all. Or, does the dog seizure weekly, for hours at a time and the seizures are not controllable through medication or other intervention (homeopathy, CBD, etc)? In that last case, quality of life is heavily impacted, both for the dog and for the dog’s people.

Idiopathic epilepsy and masticatory muscle atrophy/myositis are two issues that exist within every Azawakh line. Neither has an accurate test within the breed (MMM does have a test but it has not proven to be accurate for the breed). When I got into the breed, I accepted that it was a matter of time before I might have a dog that had seizures. So far, I’ve been pretty lucky. But my dogs are still young. This is why I am waiting until my dogs are 3+ years of age to breed.

Photo by Sandy McArthur

However, last week, Tabiri had a cluster seizure. This is something I had been warned about when adding him to my pack – not that he’d had seizures, but that it was a possibility. I also believed that if he were likely to have a seizure, it would be most likely be shortly after the stress of moving to a new home. I knew the risks and brought him home, aware that a seizure or multiple was a possibility. Just like I took that risk with every single other Azawakh I have added. I took Tabiri on as a breeding prospect and I have spent the last week contemplating my path forward. His breeder has made it clear that if necessary, he will always have a place with her, but I am not about to step away from him so quickly and so easily.

For now, we play a waiting game. We wait and see what the future holds. It could be he’ll never seizure again - it could have been a one time incident triggered by something or some combination of things in the environment. It could be that it stays rare – once a year, etc. Or it could be they come quite frequently and it becomes difficult to manage.

But will I breed him? That’s the question everyone will want to ask. And the answer is, I don’t know yet. At a minimum, I wouldn’t plan to breed him for another year and a half, plenty of time to monitor him. How could I consider breeding him? For every single reason I listed above. Naturally, I wouldn’t breed him to a bitch who had ever had a seizure. I wouldn’t breed him to a bitch who has any seizures in her immediate family. But Tabiri has a lot physically that my dogs are lacking (nice rear assembly is a big one). Despite having been through a great deal with his near-skinning experience, the recovery, his return to his breeder, and then his trip to live with me, he is incredibly stable. He’s consistent and loves to work and have a job. I love his temperament, which I’ll be frank, is just not the case with many of the Azawakh I’ve met. While I don't have exact numbers, I am confident there have been more Azawakh put down for temperament issues than for seizures.

I have lived with a dog that has idiopathic epilepsy. It was mild and very manageable. That's not always the case, I grant you. But ultimately, it was straight forward maintenance - less than ideal, I'm truly not trying to romanticize it. Health issues are never fun, but it didn't affect Argos or me overly much. On the other hand, I look at some of the dogs who have truly unstable temperaments that I've worked with and I wouldn't wish those on my worst enemy. I haven't had to recommend behavioral euthanasia very often, but let me tell you, it was crushing for everyone involved every single time I've had to have that conversation.

So in Tabiri's case, do the positive traits mentioned above outweigh the seizure? They might. Again, I’m not sure yet. Add in that I haven't done any other tests like thyroid and I just don't have a full picture yet - the deleterious could outweigh the beneficial. I've had Tabiri for a month as of today. Regardless, if I do breed him, anyone who gets a puppy from him will be going into this with eyes wide open. I plan to talk to any of my puppy people about epilepsy regardless, but with a dog who’s had a seizure this is even more important.

Is this a controversial decision? Yes. I know that. And nothing is set in stone yet. But Tabiri has genetics that would contribute to diversity within the breed. He has physical traits that could contribute to the breed. He has a temperament that can contribute to the breed. We’ll see what the future brings. Keep your fingers crossed for us. But for now, breeding him is still a consideration and while you might disagree with my thought process, I hope you can understand a bit more now why I'm considering it.

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