The test we were discussing is quite a new one in my breed (Toy Manchester Terriers). It is for a condition called Xanthinuria that causes dogs to form a very rare form of kidney stone. There have only been three clinically affected dogs that I am aware of (full disclosure: we bred one). After encountering the issue, a fellow breeder did a little digging and discovered that a marker associated with the condition in humans worked for our breed as well. Kudos to her for being proactive and finding out more! The American and Canadian breed clubs helped proof the test and voila, it is now available commercially at quite a reasonable cost.
When I looked at dogs in my own breeding program that came up as carriers however, I was surprised as I would have expected more of our puppies to have or be forming stones than was the case. So, what does that say about the disease? Do all affected puppies form stones? If not, what is the rate? I found the answers to those Qs simultaneously helpful and troubling.
Apparently, current thinking is that approximately 50% of males with two copies of the mutation form stones or have associated kidney issues, while very few females with the same status have a problem (likely because they do a better job of emptying their bladders). Now, these are just rough estimates because the disease as a whole is rare and hasn't been extensively studied, but it does raise an important question: what are we as breeders to do with this information and associated results of the genetic test?
The simple fact is that the more tests we have, the more pieces of info we have to try and reconcile when planning a breeding. At present, Toy Manchester breeders as a group are variously clearing things like hips, patellas, eyes, thyroid, and hearts plus DNA testing for von Willebrand's Disease, and, now, potentially xanthinuria. That's 7 tests, some with questionable value based on anecdotal and surveillance evidence, if we're being honest. We're also actively working to identify a test for juvenile cardiomyopathy.
The end result of all of that testing is a ton of information, which is great from the perspective of evaluating the health of individual dogs but also creates a number of very real problems for breeders in areas like liability, reputation and cost.
In the past, these factors were certainly in play but their effects were somewhat muted. Breeders worked for years to learn about their breed and their lines so they could make informed decisions and minimize the risk of producing issues. Health tests initially concentrated on measuring phenotype as an indicator and we worked with what we had. The important thing was that we could confidently tell puppy buyers we had done everything possible to produce healthy, happy puppies and if a problem appeared we were solid in the knowledge we had used all available tools to their best advantage.
Enter the genetic test. In my breed, the first one was for von Willebrand's Disease (a blood clotting disorder). For years this disease was monitored by assay testing that measured the actual amount of the specific type of clotting factor in the blood and projected genetic status based on corresponding ranges. It was a pain to do but everyone muddled through as it was one of the few standard health tests most breeders did in the 1980s and 90s. When the genetic marker was identified, some breeders lost their ever loving minds. Dozens of valuable dogs were promptly spayed and neutered while breeders across North America began making pronunciations about "never" breeding a carrier even to a clear.
There's no question, needless damage was done to the gene pool -- especially when you consider there had never been a documented case of a Manchester actually bleeding out because it was vWD affected (at least not one I am aware of). Eventually breeders learned how to work with the DNA results and things calmed down. Our new test allowed us to easily avoid producing "affected" puppies (i.e., a dog with two copies of the gene, not necessarily clinically affected) and, regardless of the actual effects of the condition itself, doing so quickly became "right" and "just". It was an approach we ourselves endorsed and followed because, after all, "responsible breeders" test.
And thus, the line in the sand was drawn. It's a line we in the dog community drew ourselves and it's one most of us dare not cross.
The scientific advancements that brought us more genetic tests took place against an active backdrop that included the rise of animal rights, increasing anthropomorphization of pets, emergence of puppy lemon laws, and the advent of social media. Now, it may seem odd to bring those factors into a discussion of genetic testing, but they each play a very important role in describing the environment within which we are working. An environment that values reputation above all else and that pits breeding decisions against financial liability in a way many breeders don't consider.
Any breeder with two licks of sense knows that when it comes to breeding dogs, the most important possession you have -- more important than any ribbon you may ever win -- is your reputation. Your reputation affects everything you do, from access to stud dogs and puppies to demand for same. In a subjective sport like ours, it can even affect your ability to succeed in the show ring.
Protecting, fostering and growing a reputation can become all-consuming. Let's cut to the chase here: We're operating in an environment that can make a competition out of anything -- which is why sometimes reputation management, and by extension health testing, becomes as much about one upmanship and moral superiority as it is the well-being of the dogs in question. That probably explains why many of the tests done in my breed are done by rote...because they are available, not because we have objectively identified a need for them. Not because we have established that rates of thyroid problems or eye issues, for example, are any higher in our breed than in the general dog population. No, we do them because we can and because we feel (tell one another?) that we should. And why is that? It's because we have established as fact within our community that good breeders test and bad breeders don't. So, we all work extra hard to make sure our conduct is above reproach.
That core belief is just as strong outside of the dog community, where we have worked hard to battle animal rights messaging by establishing health testing as a key feature differentiating responsible breeders from backyard breeders. And it's a great message -- easy to understand and easy for the public to actively measure when they are talking to breeders. The trouble is, that message comes pre-loaded with expectations we can never live up to. Expectations that if you buy from a good breeder your dog will never ever have health issues. That health tested parents won't produce problems. That responsible breeders can be God.
And therein lies the problem. The more health testing we do, the bigger the gap grows between public expectations and the reality of what we can deliver...and with it, our financial liability. Because hey, don't forget, in addition to health testing, responsible breeders also guarantee their puppies. Whether through provision of a replacement puppy or return of purchase funds, those guarantees do carry financial risk and can't be dismissed at the best of times and even less so as puppy lemon laws increasingly make puppy health a legal matter. So, tell me...how do you think small claims court would view a breeder that knowingly produces a problem? Or one that unknowingly produces one because they failed to use the tests available? It's a perfect catch 22 in the making.
It's a simple axiom that the more health testing available, the less we talk about what we're trying to avoid producing and the more we talk about what we are willing to risk producing. There isn't a perfect dog out there and every biological organism possesses deleterious genes for something, regardless of whether we can test for it or not. The more tests available, the more complicated planning breedings becomes because we all naturally want to avoid the chances of producing any problem at all. But is that a realistic goal?
What did I say we were up to in my breed - seven tests? Eight? Heck, even I lose track sometimes. And all of these tests in an era when the number of puppies being produced continues to drop at an alarming rate. Under 200 Toy and Standard Manchester Terriers "combined" were produced in North America last year, so I'm sure you can image how difficult it might be to match test results for potential breedings (particularly if we're testing for everything under the sun). Or what the costs of doing those breedings might be as we look further and further afield, let alone the relative cost of doing the health screening to begin with in a breed with relatively small litter sizes and low purchase prices. The financials would rock your world and have you questioning my sanity, so we won't go there other than to say red is a better quality in a new coat than a ledger (but I digress...).
I asked a few researchers and vets what they felt breeders should do with test results when there are many to consider. The consistent response was that we need to prioritize -- and that's a completely reasonable thing for a scientist to say...and a very difficult thing for a devoted dog breeder to actually do.
Never mind the costs, appearance or liability -- I genuinely don't want to be responsible through conscious decision for producing a sick puppy. It is one thing to employ testing, tools and techniques to theoretically reduce disease and quite another to look at a plethora of results and say "This one I can live with."
And what happens once the die is cast? If we use Xanthinuria as an example, I could choose to breed two carriers together and test all of the puppies...but then what? Sure, knowing a puppy has two copies of the gene and is at higher risk of forming stones will be helpful to an owner who could keep the dog on a low purine diet and perhaps avoid issues altogether...but could I sell a puppy like that? For how much? Would anyone take it if I was giving it away? What level of financial responsibility do I hold if it does develop an issue two, five or 10 years down the road? What if there are multiple puppies with two copies of the gene in the litter?
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the ethical dilemma of the future. Perhaps we in smaller, rarer breeds are dealing with it sooner, but it is a dilemma I truly believe every breed and breeder will face at some point. It has the potential to be absolutely paralyzing as we seek to do the right thing in a world where that is increasingly less black and white than it seemed a few short years ago.
I don't know exactly how we can or should approach it -- perhaps I'm hoping you'll be able to tell me. I suspect that monitoring of actual breed health through health surveys and breeders sharing information on what they are seeing will be increasingly important if we wish to prioritize according to real information. And I do know that one of the things we absolutely must do is change how we discuss health testing. The way we talk about each other (oh Lordy, put a star next to that one!) and to each other as well as how we portray ourselves to the public. Just as important, we have to think about health tests and results holistically in the context of our breed and gene pool. In our rush to erase problems through testing, we are shown again and again that the devil we don't know is often worse than the devil we can test for.
What To Do?
This article isn't intended to form the cornerstone of a campaign against health testing. Far from it. I truly believe we need to use the tools available to us, particularly if they are able to help us avoid devastating issues facing our dogs and puppies. In fact, I and others in my breed have worked hard for more than a decade to see a genetic test developed for juvenile cardiomyopathy because it is a brutal, deadly disease and I want all of us to have a tool that will allow us to make informed choices and stop guessing at how to avoid it.
But I'm also a realist. Health management is a tough nut to crack even for trained geneticists let alone the average breeder doing their best to navigate an increasingly complex and technical landscape. Giving us the test results is the easy part, it seems -- figuring out what to do with them is our next great challenge.