Selective Breeding

Selective Breeding & The Resulting Health Problems – Is Your Dog At Risk?

Selective Breeding & The Resulting Health Problems – Is Your Dog At Risk?

Jock was everything we wanted in a collie puppy – bright, playful and affectionate. My children thought Jock was going to live forever, a long healthy life.

What could possibly go wrong?

In time we noticed that he was also clumsy, so clumsy that he banged his head on doors, tripped over small toys, tripped over the baby, and never learned to walk down stairs. But we adored him still!

When he was about three months old, Jock developed a slight hernia and off we went to the veterinarian to have it checked. Feelings of relief that the hernia was unimportant gave way to panic when the vet said, “Let me check his eyes while you have him here. We make it a point to check all collie eyes.”

Trying to pass it off, I made a joke about Jock’s clumsiness, but the joke turned sour when the veterinarian spoke again. “I’m surprised this dog gets around at all. He’s totally blind. He has been since birth.”


“We call it collie eye” the doctor continued, “He has massive detachments of the retina in both eyes. There is one small retina where he may be getting minimal vision, but not enough to call it functional sight.”

The American Obsession With Breeding The Perfect Canine

Jock was a victim of the American obsession with dogs and dog breeding, for his blindness was due to a genetic condition bred into collies during the process of seeking the “perfect collie”.

Collie eye, technically called ectasia, is a condition of purebred collies, proven to be congenital and hereditary. Fanciers have long prized the narrow head and “pencil nosed” face of the collie, and breeding programs have continually been directed toward achieving this type of look.

Too little attention has been paid to breeding to eliminate hereditary disease conditions. As a result, it is estimated that up to 90% of all collies to date experience some form of the disease, and the numbers may be slightly higher. And this of course is speaking of only one breed.

Many Breeds Are Affected With Their Own Problems

To cite collie eye as a lone example of genetic flaws in purebred dogs is grossly unfair. There are a few breeds not affected by some kind of inbred problem. One expert claims, for instance, that we now produce Irish Setters that are beautifully gazelle-like but totally lacking in the work habits or capabilities of the original breed.

Another less-kind comment came from an Irish Setter owner who bitterly said that breeding for a narrow head has squeezed all the brains out of the dogs. Poodles are subject to hypoglycemia and progressive retinal atrophy; Basenjis have eye problems too, and so the list continues.

Selective Breeding & The Resulting Health Problems – Is Your Dog At Risk? (2)

Selective breeding and the unwanted disease and health problems are not just limited to a few breeds. Other congenital problems affect more than one breed.

Hip dysplasia, for instance, has been demonstrated in almost all large breeds and some small ones. This abnormality of the hip joint has been given so much publicity by dog raisers, as well as the veterinarian profession, that the public is generally aware of the condition – though often unaware that dysplasia is not usually evident in young puppies.

The standard guarantee that a puppy comes from X-rayed stock is only fair insurance that dysplasia will not develop during the rapid growth phase or even later in the dog’s life.

Recent studies report that in some cases, dysplasia causes no apparent discomfort or crippling and is not progressive. In others, pain and inability to walk may become so severe that they necessitate euthanasia for the dog.

Other mutations which occur too frequently in more than one breed include brachycephaly (round head), achondroplasia (short limbs), floating kneecaps, and dwarfism. The frequency of all these conditions can be traced directly or indirectly to constant inbreeding to achieve certain qualities in the various breeds.

Can The Problem Be Stopped?

These genetic flaws could be controlled, even eliminated in some cases, by selective breeding programs, however, it would require years of cooperation among dog breeders, the veterinary profession, and the general public.

Some blame for the spread of genetic mutations must undoubtedly lie with a few commercial breeders. Those, for whom money-making is paramount, unfortunately counter-balance every effort toward breeding programs aimed at improvement of dog lines.

Little, of course, can be done by individuals to harness the damage done by these puppy mills, beyond not giving them your business when it comes time to purchasing a puppy. The American Kennel Club, local kennel clubs, humane societies, and other agencies are constantly striving to tighten licensing laws and take other measures against the worst of these businesses.

Even while professional organizations are striving for long-range alleviation of genetic problems in dogs, there are things that can and should be done by the individual dog owner and buyer.

Much of the problem may be traced to a lack of knowledge on the part of the general public and a blind assumption that any purebred dog registered by the American Kennel Club is eligible and recommended for breeding. This is simply not the case.

Selective Breeding & The Resulting Health Problems – Is Your Dog At Risk? (3)

Most new puppy owners are under the assumption that just because their new companion is registered with the American Kennel Club, it is guaranteed to be a healthy purebred.

Nothing Could Be Further From The Truth

Registration by the AKC means nothing more than that the dog is a purebred, with its ancestry traceable several generations. The slip given with a puppy at sale testifies to nothing more than that both parents were registered. It makes no guarantee about quality, health, or freedom from disease.

It is, in fact, completely possible that both parents were rather poor specimens of their breed, even though it is a purebred and registered as such. Many dogs affected by congenital conditions are not only eligible, but are in fact registered and could be used for breeding by unknowledgable owners.

Such breedings, done without study, are another thing at the root of this problem. Too many owners mate their purebred dog with the neighbor’s purebred dog, register the litter and sell the puppies as “AKC registered” which in fact they are.

Such “backyard breeders” contribute to the problems of many breeds simply by their ignorance of the science of dog breeding and, often, their lack of real knowledge about their own breed.

Pay More Money With A Professional & Enjoy A Healthy Pet

Professional dog raisers consider breeding a science and carefully study the lineage of both the male and female before a mating. The aim, of course, of each planned breeding is to produce the ideal dog, but knowledgeable breeders are aware that the same laws of heredity apply to faults as well as desirable characteristics.

The backyard breeding, on the other hand, is planned with only registration in mind and generally overlooks faults in the parent dogs.

Further, many AKC registered pets may have some minor congenital problem which does not matter as long as they are household pets. However, when such a dog is allowed to mate and produce a registerable litter, it passes on the hereditary problem.

For example, many collies carry the genes for collie eye and are themselves affected to some degree, but their eye problem many not be as extensive as others, and they may have functional vision. Such dogs make perfectly satisfactory pets but, if allowed to mate, they will pass on the collie eye genes to their offspring and may conceivably produce a blind dog.

Other problems such as minimal hip dysplasia or undescended testicles are similarly of importance primarily to a breeder but need not disqualify a dog from the pet category.

Remember that if a reputable breeder sells a dog as a pet, he has, for some reason, eliminated that animal from his breeding program, and it might be well to ask why and inquire whether or not he would recommend breeding the dog.

Selective Breeding & The Resulting Health Problems – Is Your Dog At Risk? (4)

With so much bad breeding practices going on around the world today, how can families choose the right puppy for their home that has as limited health problems possible?

Educate Yourself Before Buying A Puppy

Potential dog owners should undertake a fairly extensive self-education program before committing themselves to the purchase of a pet.

Standard “How To Pick A Puppy” articles are an excellent place to begin, though too often they tend to rely on AKC registration as the major guide for purchase.

Note: Mongrel dogs (dogs that are the result of various inbreedings) are not recommended, in spite of the fact that they often make lovable pets, because the dog world, like the human world, suffers from a population explosion and every effort needs to be made to limit the number of unwanted dogs. Promoting purebred dogs as pets and encouraging limitations of the breeding of such pets seems to be one of the best approaches to the problem.

Your first decision must be the type of dog suited to your family, and the standard articles offer excellent ideas here on the advantages of large dogs, small dogs, noisy ones and less active breeds. But once you have decided on a breed, you need to learn much more about that breed type. Talk to other owners of the dogs and read about the breed first hand.

Breed Clubs

If possible, check with the secretary of the national breed association. There is, for example, a Collie Club of America. There are similar clubs for other breeds and by contacting them the staff will be happy to supply a list of recommended kennels and breeders in your area.

Memberships in these breed associations are generally by invitation only and the prospective members must demonstrate a strong interest in the breed before being invited to join. Thus, a breeder recommended by such an association is likely to be more dedicated to the improvement of the breed than the turning of a dollar.

When you locate a breeder in your area, talk with him or her frankly about your interests: Do you want a show or pet quality puppy? Do you intend to breed it? Ask about congenital problems in the breed and inquire what kind of health guarantee is offered.  What vaccinations has the puppy had and what more does it need?

Finally, be sure that the breeder agrees to a 24-hour examination period during which you may have your own veterinarian check the puppy before the purchase is final.

It’s Well Worth The Trouble

All this, you may say, makes the addition of a puppy to your household a major project, far more complicated than simply reading the paper and finding an ad for a litter of “purebreds” on the weekend.

Yes, it does, but the experience that so many families go through with dogs that ended up with poor health problems with disease is worth the effort that may ultimately save you and your own family the heartbreak of losing a puppy too soon.


The information shared on this site is for information only. It does not take the place of professional advice from your pet’s healthcare provider.

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