Why Dalmatians are a Train Wreck


There’s a lot of blame to go around concerning why Dalmatians are a train wreck of a breed and the favorite targets of such scorn are Disney and Backyard Breeders.  Neither of these are responsible for the problems facing Dalmatians, being a Dalmatian is the one and only factor to blame.  By this I mean that the major issues facing the breed {predisposition toward deafness, urinary stone disease, and temperament problems} are all intrinsic, universal, and inextricable from the breed.

The pervasive issue with urinary stones can be solved by changing very little of what we understand a Dalmatian to be (just one gene out of 19,300 need change), but the pureblood brigade is resisting the only fix for this universal problem (every dog in the breed has two copies of the bad gene), as it would require violating their fundamentalist and inane orthodoxy of breed purity.  The other two issues can not be solved without robbing Dalmatians of their signature looks: their spotted coat.

Deafness in Dalmatians isn’t caused by over-breeding, popularity swings, or backyard breeders. It’s caused by the predominance of white in the Dalmatian coat caused by the extreme piebald allele (sw).  ALL Dalmatians are susceptible to acquiring coat-related deafness and the more extreme the whiteness, the greater chance of deafness; i.e. dogs with blue irises or missing tapetal pigmentation are more likely to be deaf.  And the rates of deafness are not as favorable as you’ve probably read.  In 2003, Strain recorded 7.5% bilateral deafness and 18% unilateral deafness.  In 2004, he documented 8% bilateral deafness and 22% unilateral deafness in Dalmatians using BAER testing, making for 25-30% deafness incidence in the breed.  Dubbed the “Dalmatian Dilemma” by Dr. Cattanach, you can’t remove deafness without breeding against the breed standard which mandates the extreme piebald coat and favors a rather limited expression of black.  A strong predisposition for deafness is thus a sine qua non disorder in Dalmatians.

Urinary tract problems are not caused by over-breeding, popularity swings, or backyard breeders. In fact they are caused by under-breeding and founder effects. The gene pool of Dalmatians is so small that the gene which causes uric acidosis / hyperuricosuria / high uric acid (HUA) /urate stone disease / bladder and kidney stones / urinary obstruction  is SATURATED and homozygous in every dog in the breed.  Their urine is filled with sharp crystalline sludge which can cause pain, irritation, infections, blockages, and death.  There is not a single multi-Championship Best In Show lovingly bred and sold for a mint Dalmatian dogs that is free of the disease gene. Not one.  They all have it and they will all pass it on.  Even though this disease is not intrinsic to the breed standard nor to any other traits of the breed that need to be preserved, it remains another dilemma because there are no healthy pedigreed Dalmatians who carry a safe gene.   Thus, the only way to rid the disease and the gene from the breed is to bring in new blood in the form of an out-cross and there are still pedigree purists who will hold the breed hostage to a fundamentalist and unwavering interpretation of purity.  There’s no practical barrier to solving this problem, there are Low-Uric-Acid (LUA) 99.99% Dalmatians ready to breed to, and as of July 2011 the political barrier to registry with the AKC has been torn down.

Dalmatian rage isn’t caused by over-breeding either.  White-skin related shyness and anxiety and thus aggression and biting is known and documented over many species such as chickens, Holstein cows, horses, and several dog breeds.  Despite their black spots, Dalmatians are a profoundly white skinned breed (extreme piebald) and unlike “white” Golden Retrievers, it is a true white where there are no surviving melanocytes in their white pigmented skin.

Nervousness is also common in animals with large areas of depigmented hair and skin. For example, dairymen report that mostly white Holstein cows are more nervous and difficult to handle for milking compared to more pigmented cows. Also, I recently observed some extremely abnormal behavior in a highly depigmented Paint stallion at a horse show.

While blue eyes and large areas of depigmentation on most of the body might signal neurological defects, it seems that smaller amounts of depigmentation are linked to calm temperaments and large amounts of meat and milk in cattle. For example, high-producing Holstein dairy cows are partially depigmented with black and white patches. Herefords are a high-producing beef breed that are reddish-brown with a white face and belly. These animals also have mostly calm temperaments.

A certain amount of piebaldism tends to make an animal quieter, but too much might make it nervous. There are many good horses with white socks and a blaze, but every horseman in the last century noticed a relationship between piebaldism and the value of a horse. The old saying goes:

One white foot, buy him.
Two white feet, try him.
Three white feet, be on the sly.
Four white feet, pass him by.

Temple Grandin discusses the albino/melanin issue in depth in her book Animals in Translation, using white Dobermans and Dalmatians as examples:

Pure white animals (and people) have more neurological problems than dark-skinned or dark-furred animals, because melanin, the chemical that gives skin its color, is also found in the midbrain, where it may have a protective effect. You see all kinds of problems in white animals. Dalmatians with the highest ratio of white fur to black are getting close to true albinism. They’re more likely to be deaf than other dogs, and they are often airheads you can’t train. Black-and-white paint horses have problems, too. It’s not unusual for a paint horse to be plain crazy, especially if he has blue eyes.

The color of the animal’s skin is more important than the color of its fur. If its skin is dark, that’s good. The inside of a dog’s mouth should be mostly black, with some white.

I am definitely against human doing things like deliberately breeding albino Doberman pinschers because they look so pretty. These animals are not normal, and they suffer. People who own albino Dobermans report that their dogs have poor vision, intolerance to sunlight, skin lesions, and problems with temperament, usually aggression. In one survey 11 percent of owners said their dogs had bitten people. That’s an enormously high number considering how rare dog bites are in comparison to the number of dogs living with humans.

Nature doesn’t evolve a Dalmatian. The Dalmatian has been artificially bred to be mostly white, and is starting to be closer to albinos than to normally pigmented animals. It’s not an albino, but it’s getting there.

The wonderful fancy dog breeders are not breeding for more black on their dogs, in fact they most often breed for less. The temperament issues persist and blanket the breed because the breed is defined by their mostly white coat and it’s a sine qua non feature.  It has nothing to do with the dogs being bred in a puppy mill or a mansion.  There is no breeder who can tell you they are “breeding for temperament” who can overcome this effect and still be breeding a Dalmatian with a spotted coat.  Shyness, erratic behavior, and biting are NOT caused by “backyard breeders” who don’t care about temperament, they are caused by ALL Dalmatian breeders who care more about the unique coat than they do temperament.

Being a Dalmatian is what is wrong with Dalmatians.  No amount of finger pointing at popularity bubbles, Walt Disney, backyard breeders or any other cause can change this.  To be a Dalmatian is to be prone to deafness and to be predisposed to suffer from mental disorders caused by insufficient melanin.  Not every Dalmatian will be deaf, some 70% are not, but that’s just the luck of the draw and 30% deafness is a disgrace!  Obviously the same can be said of Urate stone disease and Melanin deficient temperament problems: not all Dalmatians will present with clinical symptoms but they all have the genes for it.  To be a pedigreed Dalmatian means that you will likely piss shards until you die, unless you’re one of the lucky few Dalmatians to come from breeders who have put aside fundamentalist interpretations of “breed” and taken advantage of the LUA Dalmatian program or fate spares you from your genetics.

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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.