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Lisa Nicolello

Troubling Case of the Medicated Mothers

by Larry Shook

(Reprinted by permission, we will be featuring this five part series of articles which originally appeared in The Spokesman-Review, Spokane, WA/Coeur díAlene, ID beginning February 19, 1995)

She is one of the top breeders of golden retrievers in America and she would tell me a secret, she said, as long as I didnít tell anyone the secret came from her.

"Iíd say 50 percent of the bitches that come in here for breeding come with their Soloxine taped to the top of their crate."

That was her secret. Soloxine is a supplement given to dogs with thyroid disease.

A veterinarian, a fellow golden retriever breeder, referred me to the keeper of the secret because the keeper is also a leader of a movement to clean up genetic disease in goldens. So I assumed the point of her anecdote would be: She promptly sent the sickly females home, unbred.

"Your dog shouldnít make babies," is what I imagined her telling the owners of sick mothers-to-be.

But I was wrong.

After considerable stammering, I asked why she allowed such questionable matings in her prestigious kennel. Experts like Dr. W. Jean Dodds, a leading veterinary researcher, consider thyroid disease among the worst hereditary defects. The burden of the scientific literature, says Dr. Dodds, is that weak thyroids weaken immune systems, leaving dogs vulnerable to a host of ailments, including, apparently, early cancer and death.

"Good question," said the breeder. She didnít have a good answer, though. Only to say that thyroid disease is now so common in golden retrievers that itís become acceptable in golden circles to breed medicated dogs.

In reply to my query, the veterinarian told me that she, too, breeds dogs with thyroid disease because, as she said, "itís easy to treat."

Dr. Dodds counters, "itís dangerous, it doesnít make any sense because the thyroid has such a major impact on all the functions of the body. Regulating thyroid disease with thyroid hormone does not mean that you can exactly regulate every tissue at the appropriate level." Worse, said Dodds, the practice is likely to concentrate thyroid disease in golden retrievers. Little wonder, she noted, that among the nationís purebred canines, the popular golden has the highest incidence of thyroid disease, followed by shelties and Old English sheepdogs.

I donít know exactly what to say about this, except that I find it curious. The golden retriever is a wonderful breed. I think that most people would like to see the breed healthy rather than otherwise.

Unfortunately, the golden is not alone in feeling poorly these days. Far from it. There are many wonderful dog breeds -- the particular friends of humanity lo these countless years -- and the majority of them suffer from similar complaints.

On a bright Saturday morning shortly after my interview with Dr. Dodds, I happened to take a long walk with my wife through some pretty, tree-lined neighborhoods. Along the way, I encountered four separate tableaus involving golden retrievers, any one of which Norman Rockwell might have put to good use.

There was a leashed golden accompanying three children on Roller Blades. There was a handsome young couple jogging and pushing a baby stroller, merry golden in tow. There was a woman walking her golden. And in a tidy yard, a golden retriever gave moral support to a family busy with gardening.

This business of unchecked genetic disease in beloved dogs seemed to me curiouser and curiouser. So for the last year Iíve been researching the subject, and Iíll spend the next four columns telling you what I found.

A summary of what youíll learn:

  1. Basically, what genetic disease is. Hint: Itís normal. I got genetic defects, you got genetic defects, all Godís creatures got genetic defects. Mother Nature has a system for dealing with them, but when people breed animals, they need to come up with their own system -- or else. Right now, Americaís dog lovers are experiencing or else.
  2. What the average dog owner can do to minimize the risks of bringing home a dog with genetic disease. Important new resources are available.
  3. What dog breeders can do individually and collectively to improve the health of dogs. A dramatic new tool exists.
  4. The sociology of dog breeding and what needs to be done to straighten it out. As a wise old veterinarian told me recently, what ails dogs "isnít a four-legged problem, itís a two-legged problem."

Next Issue: Bugs in the DNA

Larry Shook is author of "The Puppy Report," winner of the Ethical Issues Award of the Dog Writers Association of America.

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