Last night I was watching 60 Minutes as a father and mother related the tale of their young son’s battle with cancer. A big part of the story was the double whammy that struck when, in the reporter’s words, “Life’s game of chance delivered another cruel hand.”
Namely, the boy’s father was diagnosed with cancer just a few months after his son. The father explained to us, “I mean, how do the two boys in the family get cancer at the same time? It’s just ridiculous. I mean, [my cancer] is not related to [my son’s]; this is not some rogue cancer gene.”
This resonated with me as a dog breeder, for it occurred to me that all too often breeders are guilty of setting themselves the impossible expectation that every creature they breed will enjoy a blessed and trouble free life. Yet as human beings, we don’t even hold this unrealistic expectation for our own species.
Good dog breeders are their own worst enemy in this regard, I have found. If we hear of any ailment among our flock – whatever the age – we agonize over the if-buts-and-maybes in a way nobody would if a human friend or family member was dealt the same ‘cruel hand’.
In truth such agonizing is a measure of the breeder’s care-factor. We feel the pain of the dog owner and the dog and we want beyond anything for that pain not to have happened and never to happen again.
Just mention the word ’genetic’- even just in passing and even as an unproven possible link to a dog’s health problem – and the breeder thrusts themselves into the hot seat as if they miraculously somehow have control over all-things-bad in life.
And so it was the 60 Minutes segment gave me insight that might help other breeders who occasionally find themselves grappling in the wee hours of the dead of night with the seemingly capricious nature of life’s game … for that’s the game we are in.
I am speaking here to breeders who are already doing everything within their power to breed healthy dogs. Just as most people set out to produce the healthiest children possible, so too good breeders set out to produce robust puppies.
In the case of animal breeding, this means working with the best knowledge and science of the day. This involves a sound knowledge of the possible disorders of dogs generally and your own breed specifically. There are industry recognized authoritative guides in this regard, such as the LIDA list of genetic conditions in the various breeds assembled as a breeding tool for Australian dog breeders. It lists the very numerous genetic conditions that can exist for the various purebreeds.
Good breeders are armed with such knowledge and have scrupulous screening processes in place for breeding adults, plus a means of recording any reported ailments. Specialist pet breeders go one step further and embrace a wide gene pool, never breeding relative to relative no matter how distant. The wide gene pool is a good safety measure against the unknown, because it reduces the chances of any harmful recessive genes lurking within a family to surface in the form of disease.
Over and above this, there is not a lot more that can be done. It would be nice if there were screening tests for every conceivable disorder, but there are not. And even the few tests that do exist have big question marks over them (the PRA genetic test is just one example here).
Yet despite doing all humanly possible, still the desire to be all-controlling pervades into the wee hours for many of us. And so it is here I will continue the analogy of our more logical and reasoned acceptance of human ailments in the hope that breeders can take heed and drop the breeder God complex.
I’ve chosen three diseases as examples, because these are commonly known and occur in both humans and dogs. Of course the list could be very much longer – and people can do their own Googling in this regard.
Brain seizures have a genetic link. A whopping 10% of Australians suffer from brain seizures. A cause can only be found in half of all sufferers, and these are numerous in origin with a genetic link just one of them. And in regard to that genetic link, there are thought to be 500 different genes at play in bringing about the condition.
It is therefore the case that brain seizures can occur in an individual without any trace of that condition in any of their relatives, past or present.
Accordingly, from a dog breeding perspective, the opportunity to have ‘better bred’ an afflicted animal is nigh impossible, exception being in the rare case that a breeding animal or their progeny presented with the condition.
Breast cancer has a genetic link. Specifically, it has a genetic link in 5% of cases. In 95% of cases, there is no genetic link. About 10% of women will get breast cancer.
Is it rational, therefore, for a dog breeder to beat themselves up if breast cancer should develop in an individual dog when there has been no familial link at all? No clue, no evidence, no signs?
Diabetes has a genetic link. But the causes are unknown and in many cases, diabetes strikes without any family history at all.
In dog breeding terms, the hereditary cause of diabetes can be tackled if it appears in breeding dogs or their progeny. But for the plethora of other causes, the best breeder simply has to accept that they have no control here.
So, to all good breeders out there Lady Fi says: keep agonizing and searching because that reminds us just how much we care and keeps us all on our toes to continue doing our very best. But when the best is done, sleep soundly in the knowledge and acceptance that you are not God and you never will be.