VetGen - The leader in veterinary genetic disease research and genetic disease detection services for purebred animals

Barb, there's no easy way to say this. Holly's dead

Scottie Tails Winter 1997 Barbara & Charlie Lounsbury, Editors

I had just walked through the door. It was 10 PM and I had been teaching statistics more or less continuously since mid-morning. I had just driven over an hour in a torrential rain. I was exhausted.

My mind began to scan. Holly. A rescue dog we placed? An old dog belonging to a friend? But, no; it suddenly hit me with a force akin to a physical blow. Holly was the puppy we had sold to the southwest. Little Holly, the pick of our last litter. Little Holly, who had covered me with kisses at Montgomery. Little Holly, dead.

"Why? How?" I cried. "I don't know," replied my husband. " They just called and said that she had been sent to the west coast to be bred, and she died there. They'll call when they know more."

Thus began one of the longest weeks of my life. I called the owner of the kennel where she had been sent to be bred. She revealed that the bitch had been there for several weeks and had just in the last few days contracted a stubborn case of diarrhea. They had doctored her with chicken, rice and Kaopectate. And three days later found her in a pool of blood. They rushed her to the vet's, but it was too late. She had bled to death.

The kennel owner was, as you might imagine, distraught. She informed me that she was convinced that it was vWD. I tried to tell her that vWD didn't typically manifest itself like that and that the bitch's mother had tested clear on the old vWD factor assay test. She insisted that they were going to send DNA for analysis anyway. I could understand her singlemindedness. A diagnosis of vWD would remove even the appearance of any responsibility for the bitch's death; she wouldn't have to spend the ensuing months or years, as we all would, wondering if there was something more she might have done. I would probably have responded the same way. The owner of the bitch informed me that they were not blaming me. "For what" I asked. "For what obviously looks like a vWD-type clotting problem," I was told. I again reiterated that the dam had a factor assay score well within the clear range. They didn't seem to be listening.

I knew that the new DNA test had resulted in the identification of a number of previous "false positives,", i.e., dogs who had tested in the borderline (or worse) range on the old test but who were, in fact, genetically vWD clear. I was, however, aware of no "false negatives," dogs who had originally tested clear, but whose DNA now identified them as carriers. But was this so? No one seemed to know. Cornell is in the midst of a validation study, comparing the old test results (many of which had come from their laboratory ) with the new. The data support my hypothesis, but the numbers are so small as to be statistically meaningless. And what about the status of the sire? I had been confident enough in the dam's vWD status not to be concerned about the stud dog. Now I was.

I contacted his owner. He didn't know. I tried to contact the dog's breeder, and couldn't reach her. I left an urgent e-mail message. And agonized. She got back to me the next day. No, she hadn't tested the dog before she sold him, but both parents had tested clear. With the old test. If my hypothesis regarding the absence of false negatives was correct, we were home free. If not… I spoke to the folks at VetGen, the people who discovered the mutant gene and implemented the DNA test for vWD. They were very nice, but politely informed me that their test results are confidential, sent only to the person who has ordered the test. I could see their point, but could they make an exception in this case? After all, I was the breeder of the little bitch in question. Sorry - no exceptions. And so we waited.

And then, about 10 days after Holly's death, the phone rang. Her owner had just received the results of the DNA test. Clear.

After numerous phone calls to the veterinarians in California who performed the post mortem examination, and just as many conversations between them and my own vet they closed the case. Diagnosis? Death due to hemorrhagic gastroenteritis, cause unknown. They found some congestion in her lungs and an almost complete erosion of the lining of her gastrointestinal tract. And nothing else.

"It happens," they informed me.
"More often than you'd like to think."
"Caused by what?," I asked.
"Who knows?" they replied.
"Some kind of bug we can't find."

The question that had been haunting me was finally voiced: could she have been saved? The answer: maybe, maybe not. Sometimes quick intervention with fluids and antibiotics can save the dog; sometimes, not.

The kennel owner is a compassionate and caring breeder who is devasted by what happened. In retrospect perhaps she should have rushed the bitch to the veterinarian's when the first symptoms of bloody diarrhea occurred. But she thought it was just a minor upset, and chose to doctor it herself I might have done the same.

She and the bitch's owner allowed themselves to be convinced that the bitch's untimely death was the result of genetic disease, far beyond their ability to control. In their place, I would have hoped so, too.

I, like many other breeders, did not overly concern myself with my dogs' vWD status. After all, the little bitch's Mom had tested clear, even if the test was notably unreliable. And I was aware of no vWD in the line. And the new test was expensive, and I had other, more pressing, things to do with my money.

This tragic experience quickly changed my mind. I never want to go through such a horrible ten days again. I have since VetGen tested all of my bitches and can breed them knowing that I am not going to be responsible for producing dogs which can cause someone else future heartbreak. I know that all of my breeding stock is clear.

Do you?

Editor's Message

The focus of this issue is on breeding and related health issues. I tentatively planned this way back in October, little knowing that tragedy would strike our little Hollyloch Almond Bark a few weeks later. Her death, and the issues surrounding it, firmed up my conviction that this was the right time to present some important information and raise some critical issues regarding the breeding of our beloved little guys. As program chairperson for STCNE-, I am also proposing that we hold a round table discussion/seminar on breeding and health issues sometime this Spring, at which we can share experiences and ideas which will help us all to become better informed and make better decisions on behalf of our Scotties. More on this when plans become more concrete.

There are a number of problems which afflict Scottish Terriers. Among the more frequent or more serious of these are vWD, Scottie Cramp, CMO, hypothyroid and allergies. VetGen is reportedly now turning its attention to Scottie Cramp. There are, of course, a plethora of other diseases which can crop up unexpectedly in a line which appears to be free of the affliction, including liver malfunction, kidney problems and heart disease. To breed dogs who appear to be free of such afflictions and to produce affected puppies is tragic. To breed dogs known to have or to carry such afflictions and to produce affected puppies is criminal.

I recently inquired about a dog I had thought about using on one of my bitches. "If you decide to get serious about him," his breeder said, "let's sit down and talk. There are a few problems that I've seen in this line. They may never reappear, and they may not come from him, but I believe in complete and unreserved "genetic honesty'." Responsible behavior like this should serve as a model for all Scottish Terrier breeders. We should, like this woman, be motivated by what is good for the breed, not what is good for the pocketbook.

Some unwise decisions are motivated by lack of information and some by misinformation. The bitch whose death I described in the opening article of this issue was shipped to a distant kennel, to be bred, at the age of 16 months. It was her second season. This ultimately tragic decision was reportedly prompted by a controversial seminar about breeding which apparently was interpreted by some as encouraging fanciers to "breed early and often." The Scottish Terrier Club of America Code of Ethics, which all prospective members must sign, "…condemns the following practices as unethical:

  1. The indiscriminate breeding of stock without due consideration of hereditary defects, good health and physical condition of stock to be bred, and the quality of puppies produced by such breeding…
  2. The misrepresentation of failure to disclose known hereditary defects…"

The Membership Packet which is sent to all prospective STCA members further contains a page entitled Good Breeding Practices: Info for Buyers and Breeders. It contains several very pertinent statements, for example:

  1. Familiarize oneself with the American Kennel Club's official standard for the Scottish Terrier, striving to breed only dogs and bitches that are of characteristic type, sound a structure and temperament, and free of genetically transmitted defects…
  2. Approve of testing for genetically transmitted conditions common to the Scottish Terrier.
  3. Breed no bitch before its third season, or in no event 18 months of age. Bitches should not be bred every season.
  4. Limit the number of litters one breeds, and not breed primarily for the pet market. Undertake the breeding of a bitch only if prepared to keep the resultant puppies until suitably placed; and only if one has the time and facilities to provide a adequate attention to physical and emotional development.
  5. Sell pets with spay/neuter or other nonbreeding agreements, and expect the same of any owner allowed to breed to one's stud dog. Except in the sale of show bitches, one should resist the temptation to sell bitches with puppy2 back positions, thus leaving novice owners to deal with finding homes for puppies…

The STCA introduces this document with the statement,
"The following practices are common to many reputable breeders."
Hopefully, this includes all of us.

STCNE Supports VetGen Testing for vWD

Phyllis Kuhn had been speaking with the people at VetGen, the laboratory which offers the DNA test for von Willebrand's disease, and they mentioned a price reduction if a group of sufficient size could be gotten together within the next month. Phyllis told Linda Orsborn, who took the bull by the horns, called VetGen, and got the details. The tests would be done at a significant discount she was told, if she could guarantee 25 dogs and if the test kits could be returned by the end of January. She went to work and, in the space of a week or so, had convinced more than the required number to participate.

The test is simple. VetGen sends a small envelope which contains three "swabs," things that look like long cotton swaps with soft bristles in place of the cotton. You slide the swab into your dog's mouth "between cheek and gum" as the old chewing tobacco ads used to say, roll the swab gently for 30 seconds or so, and replace in its envelope. Do the same with two more swabs, label the envelopes, and return them to VetGen. Results should be received within two weeks.

A conversation with one of the test's developers this fall revealed their disappointment that apart from their original "test sample, only 30 dogs had been vWD tested. Cost seems to be the significant issue.

Linda made an attempt to contact nearly every breeder in the club. Most of them were receptive and agreed to test someone, if only a single dog or bitch. The major impediment was monetary. Even with the discount, the test would cost $99 - not a trivial sum, particularly a few weeks after the Holidays. Of course, $99 is only a fraction of what most of us charge in stud fees, and is only a smidgen of what we normally reap in puppy sales. A small price to pay for peace of mind, I should think. Nevertheless, we are overjoyed with our members' response: at last count Linda had nearly 30 participants. We understand that clubs al I over the country are also taking advantage of the discount, and are testing lots more dogs than has been the case to date.

Perhaps lowering the cost and making breeders and puppy buyers more aware of the tragic ramifications of this disease will help. Carole Fry Owen's article "Life With A Bleeder" in the No. 2 issue of The Bagpiper for 1996 went a long way toward helping us understand the consequences of vWD.

Such quotes as:
"She died in my husband's arms at the vet's,"
"Spaying nearly killed [her],"
"My husband's life was wrapped around this dog. I don't think we'll ever forget this,"
bring home the heartbreak of owning and loving an affected animal. With the advent of the new DNA test, such tragedies need never happen again.

The mutant gene for vWD is a simple recessive. If a dog is clear, he does not possess the "bad" gene. A carrier is a dog who has one copy of the disease gene, and one normal gene. He will exhibit no symptoms, but will pass the disease gene on 50% of the time. An affected dog has two copies of the disease gene. This dog is a bleeder and should, of course, be removed from any breeding program immediately.

Breeding two clear dogs produces only clear puppies. Clear to carrier produces a 50/50 carrier to clear ratio. Two carriers bred to each other - a particularly foolish move - would likely produce 25% clear, 50% carriers and 25% affected. Needless to say, there is no excuse for ever breeding an affected animal at all.

Bear in mind that should you sell puppies which may be carriers, the new owner must either test the puppy before breeding, or run the risk of producing still more carriers, or, even worse, an affected puppy. The prevailing philosophy seems to be that carriers can still be used in a careful breeding program, as long as the mate is clear. This should be done, however, only if the carrier is of such outstanding quality that to eliminate him or her from the gene pool would be a tragedy. In a breed with a gene pool as diverse as ours, it is difficult to imagine the necessity arising.