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Lisa Nicolello

Never Had Any Problem with H.D.?

By Sylvia Evans

Reprinted with permission from the Winter, 1993 OEMC Newsletter. Yes, it's that woman again, rabbiting on about hips. Bear with me for a moment as I'm about to try to catch your attention with a novel statement.

I confess I do have a problem with HD. I plead guilty to having bred dysplastic mastiffs. We've had some very good scores, but also some poor ones. In our last litter there were two out of the six who scored 44 and 45 - in spite of a policy of using low scoring dogs for breeding.

In a breed with such a narrow genetic base as the mastiff, you'd think that those who don't have such a policy, who don't even know the hip status of the dogs they use for breeding, would have at least a similar problem. Oddly enough, they don't! At least, when I ask people why they don't support the BVA/KC Hip Scoring Scheme1, the answer is often along the lines of "Never had any problem with HD." In a breed in which HD is endemic, you'd think these lucky people would be keen to score their dogs and prove their freedom from the problem. Again, oddly, they don't. Modesty, perhaps?

To be serious now, if you don't hip score you can avoid knowing you have a problem. There is a poor correlation between the clinical signs of HD and hip status as revealed by an x-ray, but even if your dog does show symptoms you can always put them down to something less unpalatable than an inherited defect. Hip scoring might tell you something you'd rather not know. If I didn't hip score I too could claim "never had any problem with HD" as there'd be no evidence to the contrary.

Recently, a breeder who'd learned that a dog she'd sold had scored 45 made the brave decision to score its litter sister, which she'd kept for breeding. The bitch scored 81, conferring on her owner the dubious distinction of having bred the mastiff with the worst score so far. But, and it's important to stress this, the breeder only had that distinction because she had the courage and integrity to score a bitch she knew might do badly. If she hadn't, she too could have claimed she "never had a problem with HD," could have bred from the bitch and probably have produced more dysplastic mastiffs.

There's no doubt there are other mastiffs with hips as bad or worse than those of that bitch. Since 1986 when I became Recorder for the O.E.M.C.'s Register of Scored Dogs, I've had occasional phone calls from distressed pet owners whose vets have told them their mastiffs have severe HD. Without exception, these dogs were bred from unscored parents; they came from well known kennels and three were sired by champions, one of which was a Crufts BOB winner. Unfortunately these dogs had been x-rayed not for hip scoring, but for diagnosis of their problem; the KC numbers hadn't been x-rayed onto their plates so they couldn't be sent to the BVA for scoring. If these plates had been scored, the present mastiff average of 16 would look less healthy.

The average score is distorted because in general, only dogs with the better hips have been scored. The tendency is for owners to have a dog x-rayed if it's apparently sound, but if the vet is pessimistic about the chances of a good score the plate is not sent to the BVA. Dr. Willis, the geneticist for the HD scheme, says that we in mastiffs will not reduce HD in our breed until we score a lot more dogs and we score them unselectively. So far only 124 mastiffs have been scored, 20 of these being Australian dogs. This compares badly with the scoring of other numerically similar breeds.

I think many owners are reluctant to score their dogs because they believe a mastiff is bound to do badly, which simply isn't true. While there are certainly some mastiffs with awful hips, there are just as certainly many mastiffs with very good ones. In fact, mastiffs have a better overall hip status than some of the other affected breeds -- the bullmastiff average score is 29, and the newfoundland's is 35. I am convinced that there are enough mastiffs with good hips to enable us to reduce, if we wanted to, the number of severely affected dogs. But do we really want to? Not if, collectively, we claim that we "never had any problem with HD."

It's sometimes said that selection for better hips would lead to loss of type, but why should it? Hip scoring identifies dogs of good breed type which also have good hips. Nobody would suggest that a mediocre dog should be bred simply because it scored 0, or that an otherwise good dog shouldn't be used because it scored somewhat above the average. There's not much point in having a dog which scores 0 if it doesn't look like a mastiff, but for me, there's not much point either in having a beautiful mastiff which is a semi-cripple. Hip status is not the be-all-and-end-all, but it is, I believe, a factor which should be taken into account.

Those who do want to take this factor into account face great difficulties -- the lack of information in depth, and particularly, the dearth of scored stud dogs. Even if the concerned breeder finds a typey low scoring dog, it's unlikely that anything will be known about the hip status of its parents and littermates. Apart from ourselves, I don't know of anyone who scores all their dogs as a matter of policy and makes it a condition of sale that their puppies are scored at twelve months. We know from our own experience that there can be a wide range of scores within a single litter. A breeder might well chose a low scoring dog who is a lucky fluke in a litter of unscored dysplastics, passing up a higher scoring dog who had simply drawn the short straw in an otherwise very sound but unscored litter. The lucky fluke would be unlikely to pass on his good hips, while the one who'd drawn the short straw would be more likely to produce hips better than his own, mated to a low scoring bitch.

Without more information, it's difficult for anyone to make progress in reducing the incidence of HD. It requires the cooperation of breeders in scoring their dogs unselectively, and most of all, it requires honesty in accepting that the problem exists and that because of the mastiff's narrow genetic base, it is one we all share. There is no shame in having bred a dysplastic mastiff. I believe there is shame in failing to do what we can to try to prevent breeding more of them. Certainly, not one of us is in any position to claim we "never had any problem with HD" unless we can produce the evidence of good hip scores for all our dogs, not just one or two, and for all their progeny. Without that evidence, such claims may be taken with the proverbial pinch of salt.

May I make yet another plea for mastiff owners to have their dogs scored? It doesn't matter whether the scores are those of show dogs or family pets, or whether the dogs are to be used for breeding or not -- each score adds a little bit more badly needed information. If anyone would like to know more about the HD Scheme, I will be very glad to talk to them, just give me a ring, or nobble me at a show. I would be delighted to receive more scores for the O.E.M.C. Register.

I would like to thank all the people who have sent me photocopies of their scores. In particular, I'd like to thank the breeder who bravely stuck her head above the parapet by sending me her score of 81. Mastiffs deserve more people with that kind of honesty and courage.

1 The BVA (British Veterinary Association) Hip Scoring System is used in Britain much like we use the OFA in the United States. The system looks at nine radiographic features of the hip -- Norberg Angle, Subluxation, Cranial Acetabular Edge, Dorsal Acetabular Edge, Cranial Effective Acetabular Rim, Acetabular Fossa, Caudal Acetabular Edge, Femoral Head/Neck Exostosis, and Femoral Head Recontouring -- with a scoring on each item from 0 to 6 (item 7 goes from 0 to 5). Thus a dog can score from 0 to 53 per hip or 0 to 106 for both hips combined. (Definition from Practical Genetics for Dog Breeders, by Malcolm B. Willis).

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