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Forging a Partnership in the Fight against Genetic Disease
By C. A. Sharp
(Reprinted from the Double Helix Network News, Vol III, No. 3, Summer, 1995)

Developing a working relationship with a good veterinarian is one of the most important things a breeder can do in the on-going battle to reduce the incidence of genetic disease. Good vets keep themselves up-to-date on advances in veterinary science, especially in those areas of most concern to their clients. Your vet will know about new things that might benefit your dogs before the "canine grapevine" gets it to you.

However, most breeders at one time or another express confusion, frustration and even anger over their dealings with vets. To be fair, the reverse is also true. And, all of this aggravation does nothing to benefit our dogs. What can a breeder do to make the relationship work? Choose the right person to work with and know whether your expectations are reasonable.


Veterinarians are responsible for the medical care of a wide variety of species. Of necessity, even a general clinician must specialize and as a student will choose a course of study in either large or small animal practice. A few specialize in the care of exotics.

None of you would approach the vet at your local zoo to help you devise a genetic disease screening program for your kennel, but many breeders who have large animals let the vet who tends their herds or flocks treat their dogs. For routine care, this is fine, but your horse doc will be able to tell you far more about CID in Arabians than CEA in Australian Shepherds (PRA in Mastiffs). Let the large animal vet treat your livestock -- that is where his or her expertise lies. Find a small animal vet to deal with your dogs.

Sometimes a specialist is needed. One of the most common needs a dog breeder faces if for someone to do regular eye exams on puppies and breeding stock. Veterinary ophthalmologists, like other specialists, have taken extra courses of study in their field. They will also have passed exams for board certification.

But specialists donít grow on trees and they rarely set up practice in remote areas. They also donít come cheap. Because of this, some breeders fall to the temptation of finding an easy way out by using someone who is not board certified to perform exams. This is asking for trouble. If a vet has not done the extra course work, how can he be qualified to do a specialty examination? If he has done the course work but has not been able to pass his boards, do you really want him diagnosing your dogs? If you had a brain tumor, would you go to a neurological surgeon who had a little problem with that silly board test?


Vets -- and breeders -- are human. Like everyone else, they have likes and dislikes. If you are uncomfortable with your vet, or vice versa, the two of you will not be able to do your mutual best on behalf of your dogs. Seek someone whom you can respect and with whom you are comfortable.

This does not mean your vet must be your best buddy. He has a business to run and really does not have the time to catch up on all your personal news. Yours is a business relationship, so approach it in a businesslike manner.

Breeders, especially those who have been at it for a while, can develop a formidable level of knowledge about breed matters, far beyond what any vet will have the opportunity to learn. With 400+ breeds of dog in the world -- never mind cats, poultry and livestock -- it is impossible to learn all the problems and quirks common to each domestic breed. Genetics itself is often only a minor portion of a vet studentís course work. It is possible that you might know as much about genetics as your vet. Also, you probably know more about what hereditary diseases affect your breed unless your vet has a lot of Aussies (Mastiffs) in his practice. This makes a few vets very uncomfortable. Such a person might be excellent for the pet ownerís needs, but he will not serve a breeder well. Find someone else.

Breeders can be very certain of what they know -- whether they know anything or not. The breeder who strides into the exam room insisting the sky is orange with purple and green spots is not going to have a functioning relationship with her vet. Present facts, not opinion, then shut up and listen to what the vet has to say. If you have questions, ask. If you donít agree with the advice offered, no one will force you to take it. Voice any concerns you might have, but getting into heated arguments is a waste of everyoneís time and energy and wonít help your dogs.


Opinions are just that. Even highly-qualified experts will disagree on some points. Unfortunately this can make it very difficult for a breeder to make the best decisions for his kennel. In the case of a diagnosis that could prove fatal to your dog or punch a big hole in your breeding program, get a second opinion. This is not disloyal to your vet, nor is it going behind his back. You need to be sure of what you are dealing with before drastic steps are taken.

An extreme example of the importance of second opinions occurred a number of years ago. A veterinary specialist discovered a "new disease" in Australian Shepherds. Dogs he diagnosed as having the disease were neutered and at least one was euthanized. It turned out that the "disease" was related to normal merle pigmentation but the vet was unfamiliar with it. Second opinions would have saved a lot of grief.

A recent letter in the Aussie Times expressed a breederís confusion when her vet insisted that the recently developed PennHIP technique for diagnosing hip dysplasia was vastly superior to the traditional OFA exam. He implied that if she were a good breeder, she would abandon the older technique. Veterinarians should not be in the business of sending their clients on guilt trips. Especially where new -- and still controversial -- methods of diagnosis or treatment are concerned.

If someone is trying to sell you a guilt trip, donít buy the ticket. You should also make sure you keep as up-to-date as possible about new techniques such as PennHIP. A good vet will be knowledgeable or be willing to discuss the pros and cons involved.

Sometimes there simply is not enough information for anyone to be certain about a particular problem. Several months ago a woman whose Aussie has an iris coloboma was given veterinary advice that ran the gamut from shoot-the-dog-and-all-its-kin to "itís nothing, ignore it." Does anyone wonder that she was confused?

I suspect that the vet who advised the woman not to breed the dog and to stop breeding anything related to it spends more time with test tubes and microscope slides than flesh-and-blood animals. Yes, the logical way to eliminate an undesirable gene is to eliminate anything and everything that might carry it. Using this reasoning, there are entire breeds of dog that ought to go extinct. Out go the Bedlington Terriers and the Clumber Spaniels. German Shepherd Dogs have a lot of skeletal problems, so out with them. And, Collies with their eye problems. This approach is throwing out the baby with the bath water.

The vet who expressed the other extreme -- ignore it -- may have been right from a clinical standpoint since the health implications of an iris coloboma are minuscule. But encouraging breeders to use animals which have defects known to be of genetic origin is hardly enlightened.

There are also, unfortunately, a few snake-oil salesmen out there who will tell breeders what they want to hear for fun and profit. A number of years back, a veterinarian wrote articles for dog publications and toured the country speaking to clubs. He preached that hip dysplasia could be prevented, if not cured, by administering a vitamin treatment. No coincidentally, he was selling a dietary supplement containing that vitamin. He would dismiss a variety of hereditary ills, claiming they could be treated so breeders ought to disregard them. No doubt this built up his practice, but it didnít do dogs any good.

The man was telling breeders exactly what they wanted to hear -- that genetic disease was nothing and his magic dust would make one of the big ones go away. I imagine he made lots of money but hip dysplasia is still with us. If something sounds too good to be true, it is.


Learning is a life-long process that should happen outside formal settings as well as in. As stated earlier, good vets keep themselves up-to-date. Let your vet know what improvements or advances are of interest to you. Tell him about general breed concerns, even if your kennel or line is free of the problem. Scientific studies can take years to carry out and publish. You are his best, most up-to-date source of information about what is happening in your breed today. If you are the only Australian Shepherd (Mastiff) breeder among his clients, you are his only source of information on what is happening in your breed.

For instance, a number of cases of patent ductus arteriosus, a hereditary heart defect, have been found in Aussies. At present there is no mention of this as a breed problem in professional publications. If you, the Aussie breeder, do not let your vet know that this is a new concern in the breed, he wonít be looking for it when he does routine exams of Aussie pups -- yours or those of anyone else.

In summary, a good vet is invaluable in the breederís effort to prevent genetic disease. It is every breederís responsibility to seek out qualified people and build a solid, mutually respectful, working relationship. Such a relationship can enable both breeder and vet to learn and grow. The relationshipís ultimate benefactors will be our dogs, now and for generations to come.

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