Posts tagged ‘Animal Advice’

Breeding better dogs: a Cavalier attitude

I’ve been thinking a lot about Darcy lately. Week before last, I spent nearly an hour on the phone with the relative of a friend, plus follow-up e-mails. She’s interested in getting a Cavalier, so Janine suggested she talk to me. We talked puppy mills and finding a good breeder, grooming and shedding, exercise (hiking, yes; chasing seagulls at the beach, definitely; jogging, probably not).

Of course, the matter of their health came up. It’s hard for me to know what to tell people about Cavalier health. One of the reasons I liked them when I first chose the breed was because they were small but sturdy. Along with the Pug, they’re the largest of the toy breeds, with a weight range of 13 to 18 pounds–and some are a bit bigger. So they’re not fragile at all.

But there are a lot of health problems associated with the breed: mitral valve disease, syringomyelia, allergies, corneal dystrophy, weirdly low numbers of platelets (which don’t appear to cause a problem), and quite a few other conditions to varying degrees. Not every Cavalier will get all of these diseases and some won’t get any. They may get MVD or syringo and be affected only mildly, finally dying of old age. Or not. It’s a crap shoot.

That’s hard, especially when you’re not a gambler by nature. You won’t find me at the tables in Vegas, and my math skills are not suited to card counting or to genetic calculations. Every day I wonder whether and when it will all go to pieces. Whether I’m doing everything I can to ensure the best outcome. But I love the breed and I can’t imagine living without them, so I go on.

I’ve had four now, and I suppose you could say I’ve had a 75 percent success rate. The youngest seems to be starting off right. The oldest, who I frankly did not expect to still have at the ripe old age of 13, is chugging along quite nicely, thank you very much (with a little help from a couple of pharmaceutical friends) and until she slowed down the past year or two was the most athletic of them all. The one who’s nineish, whose background I don’t know, is in fine shape so far, with only a soft murmur. And then there was Darcy, from a reputable breeder, who was dead at six and a half.

Losing a dog to a breed-related disease is heartbreaking. But even if you’re not a breeder, it’s a powerful incentive to make things better. I talk to people about the breed–the pros and the cons. I write articles about what to look for in a breeder, what health certifications to demand, what’s necessary to be an informed and discriminating puppy buyer. I promote the Darcy Fund to help bring about improvements in health. Some day I may even follow Gina’s lead and breed a litter, if Harper or some other puppy has qualities that should be passed on. In breeds like Cavaliers, with limited gene pools, more diversity may be our only salvation.

I know from experience that no matter what I do, I’m unlikely to reach or persuade large numbers of people. But the ones I do reach are a start. And they’ll share their experiences and spread the word. Biology tells us that seemingly insignificant mutations can add up to significant change. Evolution is slow, but it happens.

(Image: Anything but fragile, visiting Cavalier Chase mixes it up with Gina’s flat-coated retrievers, Christmas 2005)…

March 22, 2009 at 10:57 pm Leave a comment

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