The health of your dog by Steve Dean

Created: 18/04/2012

The subject last week was canine health and this philosophical theme continues with the question what is health? The concept is a human approach providing hope for a long life – good health equates with a long life. In the wild good health gives a chance of survival whereas poor health invariably means death. Wild animals that survive tend to be fit for purpose and the natural world operates on the basis of failure (ie death).
Civilisation has changed nature’s rules significantly. The human approach demands maximum survival, the preservation of life at almost any cost and protection and support for all offspring. Furthermore, humans seek to make our animals ever more suited to our lifestyles and, in some cases, apply this to wildlife too. 
Domestication comes with a price. In short, humans have taken responsibility for animal health and welfare and history shows we are pretty average at this duty, largely due to a lack of knowledge, but on occasions it is ignorance. We have made some fairly significant mistakes but the biology of life has proved fairly resilient.
As knowledge and experience has expanded we have been able to increasingly avoid some of the worst pitfalls and have achieved some reasonable attempts to reverse some of the mistakes of the past. In short, in the UK, animals are generally better cared for today than they ever have been. This is not an excuse for a lack of further improvement however.
The veterinary profession emerged in the 19th century largely from the skills of farriers. Initially the profession targeted the horse, which at the time was the major provider of motive power for the citizens and the armed forces. Anyone who has seen the stage production or film of War Horse will realise how man used the horse with little regard to welfare and you almost certainly felt remorse and sadness.
Veterinary skills rapidly developed for the farm livestock sector and of course pet animals. However, vets are not the only business sector to emerge from this societal soup. The animal charities began to provide care and aid for those animals that needed help. From this arose the lobby for better welfare standards. Given their remit it was inevitable the charities took a critical stance against those who bred livestock or pets and this antipathy persists today. Without doubt they are partly responsible for the improvement in the husbandry of animals.
Animal charities are assured a future, for domestication continues to provide challenges for those who own animals. There is ample opportunity for anyone who ‘cares’ about animals to criticise both health and husbandry. This extends into the wildlife area where welfare organisations seek to mitigate against the ravages the human species has inflicted on the planet by preserving wildlife species at all costs and in many cases allowing the weak to survive. Perhaps it is a good job mother nature is not a tangible entity as she would be in the dock for cruelty to animals for sure.
For the dog owner and breeder the plethora of health and welfare messages in the public arena is confusing and lacks direction. Thus it is important we consider what health means for the domestic dog if sense is to be made out of the emotive media messages. Good health suggests a freedom from disease or injury. The World Health Organisation takes the concept much further: health is a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity. If extended to animals, this would appear to remove the need for ‘animal welfare’ as a separate concept as this seems to be included.
So how can dog owners make sure they pay attention to health? Health can be detrimentally affected in five areas:
1 Bad husbandry.
2 Acquired disease or injury.
3 Poor socialisation leading to unacceptable societal behaviour.
4 Inherited genetic mutation leading to disease.
5 Conformational extremes giving rise to disability, injury or disease.
There is likely to be considerable overlap between all five. For example, acquired injury or disease may arise because of any of the other four. In addition, it is increasingly being recognised how genetic structure drives physiological function and may therefore affect behaviour as well as the individual dog’s susceptibility to disease and injury.
So armed with this knowledge what should the dog owner do to influence health? Good husbandry is essential and there is best practice to follow. Clearly the choice of nutrition is in the dog owner’s hands and they can significantly influence immunity to disease through good husbandry and vaccination.
It is possible to provide a degree of protection from predictable danger through training alongside the provision of good security (ie microchips, leads and collars and fencing). In addition, vets can consulted to treat or repair the pathology caused by disease or injury.
Scientific knowledge allows some control over genetic make-up, thus avoiding some known inherited conditions and controlling the extent and incidence of some others. Epidemiology enables an understanding of disease prevention and treatment and the development of surgical techniques to repair injury or developmental defects has also assisted in maintaining canine health.
It is therefore surprising that the impact of conformation on health has not been well developed. It is understandable for society to desire pets that fit their lifestyle and as a result different dog breeds have emerged. Size, coat type, temperament and working skills have all been adapted to provide humans with the ideal companion.
The extreme view of the animal welfare lobby suggests there is something inherently wrong with this approach. Even members of the veterinary profession, who should be more analytical and science based in their opinions, have been overly emotional in their views describing established breeds as mutants. In fact any geneticist will confirm all plants and animals are mutants as this is the basis of evolution but that is a word game not to be indulged here.
Is there justification to regard breed type as injurious to health? There is evidence that conformation can cause poor health. Yet is this as widespread as poor husbandry, acquired disease or poor socialisation as a source of poor health or welfare? Every type of dog is subject to the same pressures arising from human responsibility. The mongrel has an unknown ancestry and although often assumed to be ‘healthier’, its genetic structure is less predictable and therefore so is its physiology, behaviour and conformation.
People mainly choose a dog on appearance and there are benefits associated with predictability. This is something the pedigree dog offers simply because of a known ancestry. The responsibility of the dog breeder, producing pedigree, crossbreed or mongrel, is to ensure health is the primary consideration. However if the dog looks and behaves as anticipated, it also stands a very good chance of living a happy life. 
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