For more than 30 years, I have served as a veterinarian at one of the largest veterinary emergency hospitals in the country. Each year, our hospital treats more than 11,000 cats and dogs in our emergency room. Thousands more see our veterinary specialists. As you might guess, I’ve taken care of a lot of dogs and have likely seen just about every type of canine illness you can imagine. I am also a longtime owner and breeder of Afghan Hounds. One thing I’ve learned through my experience is that when it comes to illness, pretty much any dog can get sick. Despite articles claiming that mixed-breed dogs are healthier than purebred dogs, my extensive first-hand experience, and an important study conducted by the University of California-Davis, tells us otherwise.
The study, titled “Prevalence of inherited disorders among mixed-breed and purebred dogs: 27,254 cases (1995-2010),” was reported in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association on June 1, 2013. Research utilized more than 27,000 patient cases to determine the likelihood of occurrence of 24 of the most common hereditary diseases in dogs. Despite articles that claim that there is a higher concentration of hereditary disease in purebred dogs, this extensive study proves otherwise.
What researchers found was, “Of the 24 disorders assessed, 13 had no significant difference in the mean proportion of purebred and mixed-breed dogs with the disorder when matched for age, sex and body weight.” One disorder was more frequent in mixed-breed dogs and the other 10 were more prevalent in purebred dogs, although no one breed was dominant in suffering from any particular illness. Many of those disorders that are often attributed to a specific breed are just as likely to be found in mixed-breed dogs, including common health problems such as lymphoma, mast cell tumor, specific cardiac issues, hip dysplasia, and lens luxation.
This makes sense since most domesticated dogs are believed to be the descendants of just a handful of lines of wolves. As a result, all dogs share strong genetic tendencies, some of them health-related. In purebred dogs, national breed clubs such as the Golden Retriever Club of America and the American Kennel Club Canine Health Foundation have worked together to identify breeds with an increased risk of specific health issues and to take steps to minimize the risk. In fact, the Canine Health Foundation has funded more than $35 million in research to improve the health and well-being of dogs.
So, perhaps the most important question is, “How can potential dog owners increase their chances of getting a healthy dog?” The good news is that thanks to the work of the American Kennel Club, their Canine Health Foundation and breed clubs, responsible breeders are able to reduce the risk of some of the more prevalent diseases in dogs. Breed groups recommend specific testing for disease before breeding a dog. Responsible breeders utilize those tests before mating dogs, thus reducing the risk of a specific disease in the puppies they produce.
For example, in my beloved Afghan Hounds, responsible breeders generally test potential breeding pairs for hip dysplasia and juvenile cataracts. In breeding nine generations of Afghan Hounds, I have never had a dog with either of these health problems. I have always bred dogs with personality and health as my priorities. As a result, I have no doubt that my Afghan Hounds today are better dogs than my first generation.
People select dogs for a variety of reasons. Sometimes appearance plays a role, but certainly is not, and should not be, the only factor. Whether you choose a dog from a breeder, or from a shelter, it’s important to remember that any dog, like any person, can become ill in its life. All dog owners need to be prepared for that possibility because the fact is that dogs, like people, suffer from a number of hereditary diseases. That is true of all dogs – both purebred and mixed-breed.
The best way to minimize that risk of serious illness is to do your homework. If you decide on a purebred dog, be aware of what the breed club recommends in terms of health testing. Work with a responsible breeder who utilizes testing and breeds ethically. If you select a dog from a shelter, learn about the animal and its possible breed mix. Then pick the animal that best suits you and your lifestyle and work with your veterinarian to keep your dog as healthy as possible. Most importantly, select a dog that you love and that you are willing to care for, in sickness and in health, for the rest of its life.
Dr. Jerry Klein is an emergency and critical care veterinarian who has been a valued member of the Chicago veterinary community for more than 35 years. In addition to his work as a vet, Dr. Klein is a licensed judge for the AKC and has judged shows both nationally and internationally.