Friday, December 5, 2008

The Dalmatian Club Embraces Purity and Pain

I'm taking a break today and turning the blog posting duties over to Ron Zimmerman, who has been showing Dalmatians since 1988, and has had over 40 Champions with his ex-wife.

Ron comes to his commitment to improving the health of his breed the old-fashioned way which is to say, sadly, that he had to put down one of his beloved Dalmatians due to urate stone disease.

Ron made a promise to that dog that he would speak up on behalf of the thousands of Dalmatians that continue suffering in silence from this breed-specific, and entirely preventable, genetic defect.

_ _ _ _ _ _ _

Choosing Canine Pain

  • The Dalmatian Club of America
    Puts the Health and Welfare of Dogs Second

by Ron Zimmerman

On this blog, we have been talking a bit about closed gene pools, closed registries, closed stud books, and closed minds.

To ground the debate a little bit, let's take a real-world look and see how the American Kennel Club and show breeders really feel about the relationship between breed purity and canine health.

This is the story of the Dalmatian -- a kind of case study.

The origin of the Dalmatian is less than clear. Some claim the dog originates from an area along the coast of the Adriatic known as Dalmatia, while others point to spotted dogs in Egyptian pictographs as proof the dog is as old as the pyramids.

No one knows for sure, and more than likely that the Dalmatian has a mixed-origin found among various morphologies of spotted dog found across the Mediterranean basin for many hundreds, if not thousands, of years.

One thing is for sure: Dalmatians are the only spotted breed today, and they came to prominence in England and Europe in the days of horse-drawn carriages.

The Dalmatians rise as a "coaching dog" was due, in no small part, to its ability to run for many miles and keep pace with horse-drawn carriages. Dalmatians not only helped pace the horses, but they also served as carriage guards while providing a visible sign of status for the wealthy who could afford them.

The association of Dalmatians as "fire dogs" came early on, when fire engines were drawn by horses and fire companies began to use Dalmatians as work partners to keep stray dogs away, and as mascots.

Dalmatians have been used for more than carriage work, of course. Over the breed's long history they have also been used for herding and guarding, and especially for pointing birds.
Dalmatians were first recognized by the American Kennel Club in 1888, and by the United Kennel Club (UKC) in 1914.

The Dalmatian club of America (DCA), the AKC parent breed club, currently has around a thousand members; a small fraction of the total number of Dal owners in America.

Though the DCA represents a minority of all Dalmatian owners, the AKC breed club controls the "design standard" for the Dalmatian within the AKC, and is also the arbiter of what (if any) health issues will be investigated and addressed.

Bottom line: This delightful and charming breed is troubled by two very serious health problems.

Take the issue of deafness within Dalmatians, for instance. The fact that a significant number of Dalmatians are born deaf in one or both ears, is widely known in Dalmatian circles, as is its genetic heritability, and its correlation with blue eyes.

Despite this, many in the Dalmatian Club of America were strongly resistant to simple low-cost BAER testing of all dogs for fear that their own stud dogs or lines would come into disfavor.

Deafness is not the only problem Dals face. There is also a less well known condition called hyperuricosuria.

Hyperuricosuria is a fancy word for a dog having an abnormally high level of uric acid in its urinary system.

Dalmatians with High Uric Acid (HUA) have about ten times as much Uric Acid as a normal dog. In short, it's not a small rise over normal, but a magnitude of difference.

High Uric Acid leads to urate crystals and stones in the bladder of the dog, which can cause urinary obstruction, especially in male Dalmatians.

Urinary tract blockage is life-threatening and requires veterinary intervention. And, as Wendy Brook Wendy C. Brooks, DVM notes, "it is not unusual for a Dalmatian to require several stone removing surgeries during his or her lifetime."

Sometimes catheterization and "backflushing" of the urinary tract works, but sometimes it is necessary to cut into the bladder or urinary pathway in order to clean it out.

In chronic cases with repeated blockages, a more serious surgery in males -- called a uresthrostemy -- is necessary. In this procedure, the scrotum of the dog is removed and the urinary tract of the dog is permanently relocated to end at the base of the penis, so that male dog will urinate like a female. A common misconception is that the penis is amputated. This is generally considered unnecessary.

The HUA gene found in the Dalmatian is found in other breeds, but it is endemic in Dals and appears to come from the breed's founders.

In short, all American Kennel Club registered Dalmatians have HUA, and the predominant majority have "sludge" in their bladder - sediment and small stones - that can cause blockage. In a study of 377 Dalmatians by Dr Suzanne Hughes, 71% of the males had significant sludge present in their bladder, and many of those who didn't were simply young.

High Uric Acid sludge is rare or non-existant in dogs with Low or Normal Uric Acid, and the HUA gene (recently identified by Dr Danika Bannasch, a respected Dalmatian breeder and exhibitor and researcher at the University of California at Davis) is a simple single recessive pair, for which there is now a genetic test, which means that it should be possible to breed away from HUA stock provided the breed registry is opened up to closely related dogs that are outside the Registry and which do not have the HUA gene.

How common is urate stone disease in Dalmatians? Dr. Irv Krukenkamp M.D. did a combined statistical analysis of several studies of urate stone disease in Dalmatians, and reports that the incidence of blockage is conservatively estimated to be at least 15 percent, and is probably higher in males. Here are some of the evaluated studies with quantification:

  • University of Minnesota Stone Center reports that "The odds that uroliths (stones) from Dalmatians were composed of urate were 228.9 times greater than for other breeds. The odds that a Dalmatian admitted was affected with urate uroliths were 122.4 times greater than for other breeds."

  • The Bartges Study, commissioned by the Dalmatian Club of America Foundation, found that 22.8% of 2,118 Dalmatians had a history of stone disease, and 91% of the stones of known composition were urate. Male Dalmatians were reported to be 6.5 times more likely to have blocked by stones than females, making the incidence of bladder stone blockage in males about 36%.

  • The Dalmatian Club of America Ultrasound Study done in 2005 and 2006 by Susanne Hughes, DVM & Cynthia Wilson, PhD of 377 Dalmatians found 71% of males had substantial "sludge" in their bladders.

Clearly, the Dalmatian is a breed facing numerous serious health challenges.

With all registered Dalmatians carrying the recessive gene for HUA, the way forward to improve the health of the breed was clearly an outcross to a related dog with low or normal uric acid.

The obvious candidate was a Pointer -- a similar breed thought to be closely related to the Dalmatian. In fact, some of the older references to the breed actually call the Dalmatian a “Spotted Pointer.”

A Dalmatian-Pointer outcross was done in the early 1970's by Dr. Bob Schiable, a Ph.D. geneticist and breeder of Dalmatians.

In short order, Dr. Schiable was able to "fix" the gene in a line of Low Uric Acid Dalmatians descended from the original breeding to a Champion Pointer. In short, the inheritance obeyed strict Mendelian rules, like any normal autosomal dominant gene.

In 1981, with help from other Dalmatian people, including the then board of the Dalmatian Club of America, Dr. Schiable applied for and was granted AKC registration for two dogs from the 4th generation of Pointer-Dalmatian backcrossing.

That was great until these registrations were announced to the general membership of the Dalmatian club.

Pandemonium ensued. There was a huge uproar, and very acrimonious arguments ensued.

In time, those opposed to the Pointer-Dalmatian won out, and they asked the American Kennel Club to rescind the registration of Dr. Schiable's two backcross Dalmatians.

Instead, the AKC put a "hold" on the registrations, not allowing registration of any of the offspring of these two dogs.

And that has been where we have been ever since.

Not content to mothball the two backcrosses, the Dalmatian Club of America passed a resolution banning the topic from discussion.

Yes that's right: It is not permitted to even officially talk about the possibility of registration for the backcrosses!

And, believe it or not, it has been that way for more than 25 years now.

What is going on?

Simple: fear.

The fear is that if the public knew that an alternative pool of healthy Dalmatians existed, they would reject those that are not part of the backcross program.

The good news is that the line of backcrossed Low Uric Acid Dalmatains is now in its 12th generation. In each generation, Dr. Schaible has bred to Dalmatians from the best lines, and the pedigrees of today’s backcross Dalmatians read like a "Who's Who" of the top producing sires and dams in the breed. Furthermore, these dogs have been continuously registered with the United Kennel Club (UKC), which has chosen not to go down the road to "pure pain" and genetic suicide with the AKC.

What do these dogs look like? Like the phtoto above right (click to enlarge), and below.

What positive things are happening on the health front with the AKC breed club? Not much. There have been recent efforts within the Dalmatian Club of America to revive interest in Dr. Schaible's line of Dalmatians and undo the hold, but as recently as September of this year, by a vote of 324 to 279, the club voted to not even allow discussion of a path toward registration, rebuffing a fervent minority who strongly support the backcross effort, including yours truly. See

The arguments given by the opponents to backcross registration are truly astounding, in my humble opinion, basically boiling down to the "not a drop of foreign blood" theory of racial purity.

What's ironic here is the dog they claim to seek to preserve was not created by the Kennel Club or in the Kennel Club, and prior to Kennel Club admission was no doubt frequently outcrossed to other similar looking hounds!

But of course this is fact, and when facts do not fit the frame the tendency is to toss the facts, not to adjust the frame.

And so it is with many in the AKC Dalmatian Club where many prominent breeders claim they have never produced a Dal with urinary blockage so it must not be a serious problem. According to them, if a Dalmatian does come down with urinary tract blockage, it's not because of a congenital defect in the dog and the breeding program; it's because the owners of afflicted dogs did not taking good care of their dogs!

Despite a ban on even talking about the problem people are still speaking out. Check out this website >> where a list of over 50 members of the Dalmatian Club of America voice their support for the backcross effort. Dr. Susie Hughes, veterinary liaison for Dalmatian Club of America (and a principle in the DCA Ultrasound study mentioned above), puts the matter simply, calling the actions of the Club "wholly unethical". Others voice similarly strong sentiments.

What about AKC? Where do they stand on this type of health initiative?

The short answer is that they stand for nothing.

The AKC takes the position that all matters relating to a breed are the province of the parent breed club.

"We are only a registry" they repeat ad nauseum, and have no responsibility for breed health, regardless of the seriousness of the problem, the pain and misery inflicted on the dogs, or the suspect nature of the financial interest of dog breeders controlling the AKC parent club.

In fact, there is some indication that the AKC's current top management is complicit in preventing any move to open stud books to improve breed health.

In 2002, the American Kennel Club decided that submitting a request for opening the studbook from a breed club will now require a two-thirds super-majority of the parent club, and even then that vote is still subject to AKC staff and board agreement and approval.

In the meantime, Dalmatians are suffering, undergoing surgery, often multiple surgeries, and too often being euthanized in the name of breed purity and closed gene pools.

The good news is that there are a lot of show breeders aware of these issues and passionately working in the right direction.

The bad news is that they're a minority and they face strong resistance and hostile opposition from the majority.

For an in-depth blow-by-blow look at the history of the Great Healthy Dalmatian Backcross Debate, check these pages:

If you want to see what the opponents of the backcross effort are saying, check out these sources -- all published in the DCA quarterly magazine, The Spotter:

Click picture below for a video of the Low Uric Acid Dalmatian Backcross Parade.

Or go to links >> Link or Link

This video was made at the Dalmatian Club of America National Specialty in 2008.

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