South Coast Today Logo

March 28, 2010

Vet draws attention to breed-specific conditions

By Brian J. Lowney – Contributing Writer

<strong>Cocker Spaniel Image</strong>


Owners of purebred cats and dogs often find themselves paying large veterinary bills to treat genetically linked medical conditions after already spending a lot to buy the pet.

Sadly, these pets are often euthanized or brought to a shelter because owners can't afford the cost of long-term veterinary care.

That's why it's important for potential owners to conduct thorough research before making a purchase, and talk to knowledgeable breeders about the conditions that are linked to a specific canine or feline breed.

According to Dr. Tom Burns of Veterinary Associates of Cape Cod in South Yarmouth, particular breeds are at higher risk to develop hip dysplasia, heart conditions or even cancer.

"We have adopted a breed – specific wellness program to screen our patients with better sensitivity for prone conditions," Burns says. "For example, we closely monitor boxers for cardiac problems, cocker spaniels for glaucoma, Bengal cats for gastrointestinal disorders, and Abyissian cats for kidney disease. We want to detect these conditions early and be proactive in the treatment process."

Certain breed groups can often be more complicated than others.

Brachycephalic dogs, such as bulldogs and pugs, can have complex problems that often include breathing issues.

"At a recent conference I attended, the president of a pet insurance company referred to the bulldog in particular as the Ferrari of dog breeds," Burns says. "Mountain breeds can also be problematic, and no doubt some sporting breeds have their issues. That said, all of these breeds encompass some wonderful pets."

Surprisingly, the old adage that mongrels are healthier is likely true, Burns says.

"The mix of different DNA seems to produce a more reliable outcome. When clients ask me for the 'healthiest' breed, I often point them in the direction of a shelter dog or cat."

Burns says it's import for breeders to outcross – the use of healthy dogs or cats from other lines in breeding programs – to help eliminate genetically linked medical conditions from developing in subsequent generations of offspring.

"Narrowly bred breeds, like German shepherds and golden retrievers, traditionally had more problems because there was little genetic diversity within the lines," he says. "Some breeders have recognized the limits in their lines and have incorporated new breeding stock."

For these reasons, research is key before buying a pet. Most breeds have a national club and provide educational material written by experts.

The American Kennel Club (www.akc.org) offers puppy buyer information, breeder referral, health information and contacts for breed rescue.

The Cat Fanciers of America (www.cfa.org) offer information about feline breeds and genetics, as well as breeder referral listings.

"For genetically prone breed conditions, oftentimes the parents can be certified clear of concerning conditions," Burns reports. "For instance, golden retrievers can have certified hips and elbows, assuring that they themselves do not have the condition and are less likely to pass it along to their offspring. This same concept applies to Doberman pinschers and heart disease, and in collie puppies for ocular problems."

Burns advises purchasing puppies and kittens from breeders who focus on health and to avoid buying stock from commercial breeders.

For owners who seek a breed that usually enjoys longevity and will provide many years of companionship, he suggests purchasing a small canine, such as a hardy terrier like the Norwich or Cairn.

"Larger breed dogs tend to have shorter lifespan," Burns explains. "Great Danes are predisposed to heart problems, as well as an urgent medical condition called Gastric Dilatation and Volvulus (GDV). For reasons we still do no entirely understand, the stomach becomes bloated. If left untreated for only a few hours, it then twists, often resulting in a fatal outcome."

The veterinarian reports that more than 33 percent of all Great Danes will be affected by this condition and suggests employing preventive laparoscopic surgery when a dog is young to avoid the development of the medical problem.

He adds that veterinarians receive comprehensive training on breed-specific illnesses from the start of their schooling.

"It is an established part of the curriculum and continues through continuing education once in practice," he notes.

Burns offers a simple prescription to ensure that most cats or dogs, either purebred or mixed breed, will enjoy a long, healthy life.

"Good nutrition, great veterinary care and lots of love and care."


Swansea resident Brian J. Lowney has been writing about pets for more than a decade. He is a past president of the Wampanoag Kennel Club, an active dog show judge and shares his home with two shelter-adopted cats. All of Brian's columns are available online in our new pet section. Visit http://pets.SouthCoastToday.com