AKC eNewsletter

Testing Helps Breeders Achieve

By Theresa Shea, editor
Responsible breeders can use genetic testing to improve the health of their breeds. (Great Pyrenees; Isabelle Francais ©AKC)

Choosing which sires and dams will produce your next generation of show dogs, field trialers and devoted family companions is an arduous, educational and potentially very rewarding process.

Now more than ever before, breeders are able to take advantage of an increasing variety of pre-breeding tests that can tell them essential characteristics about their dogs. After carefully selecting your best bitch or stud dog based on phenotype (those dogs which best conform the AKC breed standard, which specifies the ideal specimen of a particular breed of dog), it’s time to take advantage of a wide variety of pre-breeding tests that can help ensure the success of your breeding program.

Start with the basics
It’s a good idea to have a semen check performed on an intended stud dog prior to breeding.

“You don’t want to use your dog three or four times to find out that he hasn’t produced puppies and won’t ever produce puppies,” said Dr. Frances Paulin, a Connecticut veterinarian and German Shorthaired Pointer breeder. “We just had an incident where someone was bringing in a male to check for semen quality, and there was nothing there. You want to find the root of the problem. Sometimes there’s a question of maturity. Sometimes I might refer a client to a reproductive specialist.”

Any veterinarian should be able to perform a semen check, and some experienced breeders do the checks themselves.

“I’ll take a bit of the dog’s collected semen and put it under the microscope. I usually let the owner look under the scope as well so they can get a feel for what I’m looking for,” Dr. Paulin said. “You need to make sure the semen is active, that there is an adequate concentration of sperm and adequate motility.”

Breeders should also have their dogs tested for brucellosis, a not-so-common sexually transmitted disease. Brucellosis, an infectious bacterial disease, can cause sterility or spontaneous abortion in affected dogs. It’s known as a sexually transmitted disease, but brucellosis can be passed in urine. Dogs can contract the disease by coming in contact with an infected dog’s urine, even without having had direct contact with the infected dog.

“We don’t see brucellosis very often now, but you certainly want to test for it,” said Dr. Paulin. “If your dog has been around other dogs, you could come into contact with it and never know it.”

The test for brucellosis is a simple blood test, and results can be available in about 10 minutes. If the test is positive, veterinarians will usually send it to a lab for confirmation.

“Typically what we recommend if a dog or bitch tests positive for brucellosis is spay or neuter,” Dr. Paulin said. “The disease lives in the reproductive tract and could render a bitch or dog sterile.”

“We just don’t hear about brucellosis very often, but the one time you don’t test for it, you may pay for it,” Dr. Paulin said.

Genetic Testing:
Making the science work for you

Each day scientists get closer to identifying more genetic causes for disease and developing tests that identify these diseases or disorders in dogs. Much research and testing is breed-specific.

For instance, just last month, at the English Cocker Spaniel Club of America National Specialty in Sacramento, Calif., the AKC Canine Health Foundation announced the identification of the genetic cause of autosomal recessive hereditary nephropathy (ARHN) in the English Cocker Spaniel. Dogs affected with ARHN develop juvenile end-stage renal failure. However, carrier dogs that carry only one mutated allele do not show symptoms of the disease. Testing for the presence of this mutation in the English Cocker Spaniel population will allow for the identification of carrier dogs. Once carriers of the disease are identified, they can be mated to dogs that do not carry the causative allele. The patented genetic test for ARHN in the English Cocker Spaniel is being licensed to a corporation and will be made available for English Cockers.

“We sponsor scientific research today that’s leading to the availability of more and more genetic tools that enable us as breeders to make sound breeding choices and decisions. Genetic testing means that breeders can identify the ailments that affect their particular breeds. Not only can we identify those dogs who show phenotypic signs of disease, we can identify those affected dogs who are carriers for the disease as well,” said AKC Canine Health Foundation President Wayne Ferguson and longtime Saint Bernard breeder. “Genetic testing is leading to better breeding practices and healthier dogs who live longer. This research allows us to make changes to improve our breeding programs.”

Some of the best ways for novice breeders to find out about genetic disorders affecting their particular breeds are to talk to experienced breeders or mentors in the breed, read the national breed club’s website and publications, visit other websites, such as the Canine Health and Information Center (CHIC), and the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals.

Pre-breeding genetic tests are good investments for conscientious breeders. (Labrador Retriever; Mary Bloom ©AKC)

“Inherited disorders, some of which do not manifest themselves for several years, are present in virtually every living creature, and Poodles, unfortunately, are no exception,” said Mike Wahlig, first vice-president of the Poodle Club of America Inc. and director of the Poodle Club of America Foundation. “All three varieties of Poodles have been diagnosed with hip dysplasia, progressive retinal atrophy (PRA), cataracts, seizure disorders, thyroid disorders, Cushing’s, and von Willebrand’s disease. Other genetic disorders occur as well.”

While the existence of these disorders can seem intimidating, there is good news, Wahlig said, such as the discovery last year of the PRCA and PRA Optigen test and a test for von Willebrand’s Disease (an inherited bleeding disorder), which has been out for many years, among other research successes.

“Those are the types of things we’re very pleased with,” Wahlig said.

The OptiGen prcd-PRA test is a DNA-based test that helps breeders avoid one form of Progressive Retinal Atrophy (PRA). PRA refers to a group of diseases that cause the retina of the eye to degenerate slowly over time. The result is declining vision and eventual blindness. “prcd” stands for “progressive rod-cone degeneration,” which is the type of PRA known in several breeds.

“You can still use a carrier (of PRA) and continue to breed that dog if you’re careful only to breed it to clear dogs,” Wahlig said. “You may not be able to wipe this disease out, but you’re going to be able to produce healthier puppies. With the prcd-PRA test, careful breeding of clear and carrier animals will get you to the point where their occurrences in puppies will be dramatically reduced.”

“Breeding is about making judgment calls,” Wahlig added. “You have information about certain inherited diseases and know the overall type of your animals. If you’re careful, you can preserve the type aspects you want as well as improve health.”

The costs of having different tests done can add up. But the investment is well-worth the money, Wahlig added.

“The tests are absolutely necessary. Breeders have decided that these tests are
a value that they are willing to invest in,” Wahlig added. “The key for anyone who
is going to be breeding is to make sure the animals you’re breeding to have had testing and that their status is known. Find the more responsible breeders who are doing these tests on their dogs, and use their animals.”

Where do I start?
Carefully choose your bitch or stud dog that most closely matches the AKC breed standards, which specifies the ideal specimen of a particular breed of dog. Then it’s time to take advantage of a wide variety of pre-breeding tests that can help ensure the success of your breeding program. There’s a lot of information out there — much of it breed-specific — about hips, elbows, eyes, hearts, thyroids and more.

If you’re interested in finding out more about the genetic tests available for your breed:

  Ronald N. Rella, director, Breeder Services
Theresa Shea, editor | Email: AKCbreeder@akc.org
Customer Service | Phone: 919-233-9767 | Email: info@akc.org

© The American Kennel Club 2006