Bone and Joint Health
This is an area of health that actually seems very straightforward at first glance.....but truly has a lot more behind it than meets the eye! Let's see.....where to begin?
I suppose the start of this should be to say that bone and joint issues are not common within the Cockapoo breed. The three main ones people are sometimes concerned about are elbow dysplasia, patellar luxation, and hip dysplasia. Let me give you the statistics from the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals on each of these for the breeds involved, and then we'll go to the next step of today's lesson :)
Now, a few things to keep in mind from these statistics. First of all, within all of these joint issues, there are grades of the level to which the problem presents which are not noted here. And secondly, at the time of my writing this, the OFA statistics do not separate Poodle varieties, so with some of these issues, the standard size Poodle is actually bringing the statistics artificially higher than we would likely see the numbers if just toys and miniatures (the size we deal with) were figured on their own. Also, an interesting note is how (again, although Cockapoo testing samples are limited) you can see the effects of hybrid vigor, in that the Cockapoo is always close to or below the lower parent breed's statistic.
I suppose my next step will be to talk about the OFA and how they got started with all these statistics. The Orthapedic Foundation for Animals was started in 1966 with a goal of reducing hip dysplasia in dogs. They have since moved into many areas of health, and into testing of companion animals outside of dogs as well. In the last 50-some years, the OFA has done a lot of work on building databases and compiling statistics with the goal of helping responsible breeders work toward the goal of reduction of issues within their breeds. However, it is not as cut and dry as testing a dog, and then breeding them. This is where we have to look a little deeper.
There are several issues that arise in OFA testing, and we know that these issues are real as other countries have seen the same things in their OFA-equivalent agencies. Although I am in no way intending to speak ill of the OFA and their work, I do think these are points that you need to keep in mind while seeking your puppy. I will touch on a couple, and then go on to focus more on one particular issue and what it tells us about the bigger picture of skeletal issues.
One issue is that OFA testing is subjective. It is not based on measurements or hard data, but is a compilation of the opinion of three veterinarians on a panel that x-rays are sent to. While these are very knowledgeable doctors, the reality is that the same x rays can receive a different grade from one day to the next. In addition, a dog's grade can change within the same day based on the positioning of his x-rays. I know breeders who have lost faith in the process when they have culled a dog from a program based on a bad hip score, only to find out that the dog was screened again later with very good results. A very small, informal survey I have worked on in talking with breeders who do OFA testing has revealed that many of them look at it only as a marketing tool, and not as data that truly predicts outcomes in their program. It is simply that their puppy families have come to expect it.
Another issue is that breeding prospect dogs can obtain their clearances at two years old, while issues can take many more years to show up! This means that a dog can be bred to produce many puppies with puppy families understanding that their pup's parents were clear, while the parents go on to develop those skeletal issues families were concerned about later in life.
Although these screenings are valuable in some aspects, and can be useful at looking at family patterns over time, over five decades of implementation are seeing only very modest results in actual reduction.
The main issue that I see with this testing, and the issue I will focus on today for my purposes here is this----The tests that we have for elbow, patella, and hip issues are phenotypic tests. Remember genotypes and phenotypes from your school days? Genotypes are what we can't see.....what actually is "written" in our genes. Phenotypes are how those genes actually present in what we see physically. Trying to reduce an issue that is thought to be genetic by solely looking at phenotype is a very frustrating (read: nearly impossible) process indeed!
On one small level, we can understand an example of this in colors produced by breeding. If you look at our (now retired) Cocker Spaniel, Lilly, you would never dream that this deep, rich, coal black girl has the genes to produce not only black, but also chocolate, cream, buff, apricot, and red pups! This cannot be guessed by her looks (phenotype)! If you were trying to get chocolate puppies, she would never be the mama you would pick based on looks!
This is why only looking at a phenotype can be maddening when you are trying to produce a certain outcome genetically. OFA testing of joint issues does not look at genotypes, only phenotypes. But this cannot be blamed on them as.....
Even with all of the work done to map the canine genome, our understanding of how these joint issues are inherited is still very limited! What we do know is that skeletal issues are polygenetic---"poly" meaning "many". This means that it is the additive action of several (we don't know how many) genes that work together to give a dog a certain (we don't know how much) amount of risk of developing skeletal issues. And to make it even more discouraging, according to the Institute of Canine Biology, "Genes that are associated with hip dysplasia have been identified in some breeds, but they are breed-specific; that is, the assortment of genes is different in every breed." So, what this means is that at this time, and really for the foreseeable future, we can't genetically test for skeletal issues. So, if these issues are purely genetic (spoiler alert....they aren't) the only thing we have is flawed, unreliable phenotypic testing. What are we to do?!?!
Okay, take a deep breath. I'm getting ahead of myself. Let's jump back to that quote from the Institute of Canine Biology in the last paragraph: "Genes that are associated with hip dysplasia have been identified in some breeds, but they are breed-specific; that is, the assortment of genes is different in every breed." See the emphasis placed on associated? That is their emphasis, not mine. Here is what they went on to say, "Genes that could cause hip dysplasia have not been found in any breed." What! Does that go against everything you've ever heard? Me too! But it's true!
Hip dysplasia, along with the other skeletal issues discussed above, has a genetic component, but the truth is----we have very little understanding of how much, and even less understanding of how the inheritance of those genes work. What we do know, though, is environment plays a strong role. And this is the point I've been building to through all of this. What can we, as breeders, and you, as dog owners, do to give you pup the best shot at a healthy skeletal system through life? That is the real question, and I hope to fill you in on what we do, and what you can do at home to provide the best case scenario for your valuable and beloved pet.
Before we totally switch over to that, though, for fear of someone thinking that I am trying to over-emphasize the environmental role to excuse some lack of phenotypic testing, I do want to focus on just how important progressive animal medicine is finding enviroment to be. Although there isn't one true figure that tells us the percentage of genetic factor vs the percentage of environmental factors------every knowledgable person in this area does recognize that there is a balance. For example, since hip dysplasia is the one you hear the most about, and the most common (although overall still uncommon) in the Cockapoo, we will focus on that for a minute. You will often hear older vets who have not remained up to date on the research throw out a number like "85% genes to 15% environment", however, more recent findings are telling us that environment plays a much bigger role, especially the environment during the time a puppy is growing! Check this out:
Is that not crazy! That is just offering less of the SAME DIET while changing nothing else in the environment or genes, and they saw a SIGNIFICANT reduction in the appearance of hip dysplasia, and even in those that still had hip dysplasia according to an x-ray, the debilitating arthritis was cut by an ADDITIONAL 57%!!! And this was only with changing one thing-----the AMOUNT of their food!!!! Amazing!
And look here:
Do you see that? Let's turn it around.....this means that SIXTY TO EIGHTY FIVE PERCENT CAN BE A RESULT OF ENVIRONMENT!!! In fact, one particularly interesting group has studied this, and come to surprising conclusions! The SV in Germany is the German club for German Shepherds. German Shepherds are a breed where 1 in 5 of those tested has dysplastic hips. The SV has worked long and hard on figuring out the patterns and inheritances of joint issue in their breed, and have proven that genetics is only responsible for about 25% of the bad hips in dogs. This means that 75% of the bad hips are caused by other issues! In fact, the breed warden for Germany’s SV noted that after 40 years of x-raying hips, the breed was more unhealthy than ever, because the focus became the x-rays, and they were looking at the wrong thing. He spoke of the Belgian Malinois breed——a dog very similar to the German Shepherd Dog, but whose hip dysplasia statistics show at 5.2% of the breed vs the German Shepherd’s 20.5% of the breed;
Again, there is most certainly a balance, and a dog with a known familial history of skeletal issues should NEVER be bred——-PLEASE don’t feel that I am downplaying the importance of the health of the parent dog! However, finding a pup from OFA screened parents IS NOT any sort of a guarantee of future skeletal health! There are stories all over the place like this one from a family in British Columbia whose German Shepherd with 10 generations of OFA Good to Excellent hips behind him ended up with life altering hip dysplasia:
And in the reverse, a perfectly normal puppy can be born to dysplastic parents. In fact, being born to a dysplastic parent only doubles a puppy's chances of dysplasia (James Giffin, The Dog Owner's Home Veterinary Handbook & Michelle Allen for PetCareRX.com). Don't get me wrong, this is significant, and a dysplastic dog should NEVER (let me say it again, NEVER) be bred......but this backs up the evidence that inheritance is very tricky…..and only a piece of the puzzle! Think about that-----if inheritance was simple genetics, as is often painted, dysplastic parents would almost CERTAINLY produce dysplastic puppies. Instead, a puppy born to dysplastic parents only has two times the chance of developing dysplasia that a puppy born to excellent parents has! The importance of other factors CANNOT be overstated!
Here is what Ed Frawley of Leerburg.com (one of the very first dog-related websites, and one of the largest dog training websites, with over 20,000 pages worth of information) says:
So, before we move onto what we do, and what you can do in bringing a puppy home, let me make sure a few things are clear:
The Cockapoo is an overall healthy breed, and the incidence of bone and joint issues is not common.
Genotypic testing is not available for Patella, Hip, and Elbow problems, as they pull information from multiple genes which are not fully understood, and vary breed to breed.
Therefore, phenotypic testing (as in x-rays and manual evaluations) are all that are available, and this is not proving to be a very accurate way of reducing issues.
Do not underestimate factors outside of genetics for prevention of joint issues!!
Now, with these things in mind, lets talk about what we do as breeders to help set puppies up for their best chance at a lifetime of healthy bones and joints, and what you can do at home!