The Limits of “Health” Testing

Guaranteeing "health" in the absence of comprehensive documentation is simply false advertising and there are no comprehensive tests.

One of the enduring talking points of the fancy is that “health testing” means that their dogs are healthy.  Breeders will trot out two, maybe three tests and declare total and absolute health. They’ll offer money back guarantees! And they hold that this makes them superior breeders and their dogs superior stock.

The truth is that you can not test for health. You can only test for disease, and only some diseases at that.  Very, very few in fact.  Health is defined by the absence of injury or illness, and thus it is an illusive and measured quality.

The menu of tests currently offered to breeders is simply too sparse to make any great claims about their ability to certify healthy dogs. For example, let’s look at the DNA tests currently offered for Border Collies:

Collie Eye Anomaly (Chorodial Hypoplasia) [CEA/CH]
Neuronal Ceroid Lipofuscinosis [NCL]
Trapped Neutrophil Syndrome [TNS]

CEA affects less than 2% of Border Collies and among those affected the disease ranges from minor expression to serious impaired vision. There is no treatment.  It’s great there is a test and that most BC breeders have not given up the desire to work it out of their lines like most have in Rough and Smooth Collies where the gene is much more prevalent.

Rough and Smooth Collie breeders will tell you that CEA and the other eye disorders in their breed, despite being at near saturation levels, are not of much concern and there is little political will in that breed to do anything about it.  Basically, if the vast majority of your stock is going to fail the test, just stop taking the test, appears to be their plan of action.  Some have gone so far as to demonize the clear dogs in those breeds.

TNS is fleetingly rare and of more concern to breeders than to puppy buyers given that TNS puppies are ill from birth and rarely live to the age of placement as the disease effectively leaves the puppies without an immune system.  There is no  treatment.  It’s smart for breeders to test for TNS and to avoid line-breeding on kennels known to carry the genes, but this is an issue that is never likely to affect a single placed puppy, let alone confer the greater quality of health to a breeding program.

NCL doesn’t affect dogs as soon after birth as TNS, but it is likewise a self-limiting disease as most affected dogs are symptomatic by one year old and dead or euthanized by two.  The disease attacks the brain leading to blindness, seizures and brain death and there is no treatment.  Clearly a horrible disease that has the potential to burn a puppy buyer, but no American Border Collie has been documented affected or carrier via the DNA test.

Outside of the paltry 3 DNA tests available to Border Collies (and at 3 tests Border Collies have a larger menu of tests than most other breeds), we have the more generalized diagnostics for hearing, vision, hips and elbows.

Taken together, these tests look at only a small fraction of the actual conditions known to affect Border Collies and there are no early tests for conditions like epilepsy, cancer, kidney disease, exercised induced collapse, osteochondritis dissecans, panosteitis, arthritis, cryptorchidism, or any behavioral issues like light and noise phobias, separation anxiety, aggression, or obsessive compulsive disorders.

No tests means no prior knowledge which means ignorance. And how often have you heard “I don’t know and have no good way of knowing save the worst case scenario happening” from a breeder?  These breeders would rather offer “health guarantees” than to admit this ignorance.  See, ignorance doesn’t make for a good sales pitch, but unwavering confidence does.  This is why scam artists always have an answer to every question and well practiced lines that sound great but fail to address the truth.

You’ll often hear that experienced breeders can trump this ignorance with decades of experience and knowing their lines well enough.  No amount of experience can tell you about what disorders your dogs carry that are not expressed, and few breeders treat their kennels like scientific experiments, taking detailed observations, applying randomness,  and tracking every puppy they produce from birth to death.  There are probably few breeders in any breed that could even produce enough dogs themselves to make statistically relevant observations for the more rare conditions.

Pedigree analysis and research also has its limits given how little health information is contained on most pedigrees (usually none) and how reticent breeders are to share negative health outcomes.  I’ve called every living breeder on my dogs’ pedigrees and not a single one had a single issue to report.  The odds of this being an accurate reflection of all those dogs and their offspring and relatives is remote at best.

Given the divisive and competitive climate most breeders find themselves in, full disclosure of extant issues is rare.  It’s estimated that 3 in 4 Collies are affected by CEA, but you’ll be hard pressed to find top flight breeders who advertise this.  Good luck finding a Dalmatian breeder that advertises that all of their stock is affected by a predisposition for high uric acid levels and kidney/bladder stones.  How many Shar Pei breeders can you find that will admit that the characteristic folds of skin come at the price of a fever disorder?

Testing for disease is clearly a benefit and more information is almost always superior to less information.  Despite the many advances science is making in this area, the current diagnostic tools available to breeders are few and growing very slowly.  Treatments and successful breeding strategies are even more illusive.  While it’s easier to say “health tested” and “money back guarantee” than it is to say “I don’t know, and not for a lack of desire or effort,” it’s time breeders had a bit more humility about the actual state of affairs in dog breeding.  More honesty, less sales pitch.  Fewer guarantees and more disclosures.

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About Christopher

Christopher Landauer is a fifth generation Colorado native and second generation Border Collie enthusiast. Border Collies have been the Landauer family dogs since the 1960s and Christopher got his first one as a toddler. He began his own modest breeding program with the purchase of Dublin and Celeste in 2006 and currently shares his home with their children Mercury and Gemma as well. His interest in genetics began in AP Chemistry and AP Biology and was honed at Stanford University.