Thursday, February 10, 2011

Top Dogs and Westminster

AKC recently published their statistics for the most popular breeds (by numbers registered) for the past year. For the 19th year in a row, Labrador Retrievers top the list. It's understandable why these dogs have remained popular for so long; they are hard to beat as an all around family dog. Labs tend to have a reasonably high pain tolerance (great for dogs around young kids- they're not going to mind if their tail gets pulled or their foot gets stepped on); they are smart enough to be trainable but not "doggy einsteins" that are hard to stay one step ahead of, and are reasonably wash and wear (though NOT low shed- I always laugh when my clients tell me they picked a Lab because they wanted a short haired dog that didn't shed. HAH! Short hair does NOT equal no shedding- it just means they shed every day of the year, instead of seasonal coat blows like some of the coated breeds).

Downsides to Labs for some people are that many of them during their younger years are very high energy; couple that with a "goofy" personality and some of them can be exhausting at times. Highly food motivated means you have a great training tool, but you will never be able to leave ANYTHING on your counters (I have had some clients whose Labs ate through cans and opened refrigerators). Young male retrievers are our number one dogs to have intestinal foreign bodies- these dogs put EVERYTHING in their mouths and this can sometimes cause problems, so be prepared to "Lab proof" your house for the next few years. Be sure to buy from breeders who screen their breeding stock for hip dysplasia by certifying them through OFA (Orthopedic Foundation for Animals)- this ideally means that ALL, or nearly all, of the dogs in a 5 generation pedigree with have OFA numbers- one parent or grandparent with a certification and no info on the rest is not sufficient. This is not a guarantee of hip health, but it sure helps. Keeping these guys very lean is the other part of the equation- they are much less likely to develop hip problems as well as other problems if kept just a bit on the lean side; easier said than done as this breed tends to be "easy keepers" and gain weight just by looking at food! In our area of the country, we also see a high incidence of seasonal and food allergies in Labs.

Number 2 on the list was the German Shepherd. I find this a little surprising, as in our practice we see many more Labs, Goldens, Boxers, Yorkies, and Dachsies than GSDs (short for German Shepherd Dogs). There is good reason for this...a good GSD is a hard dog to beat, but also very hard to find. GSD have traditionally been bred and used for many practical working applications, often involving police and protection work as well as search and rescue. They are very well suited to this work. However, one of the things that makes a good guard dog is that they have a low threshold to stimulate an aggressive display- that is, it doesn't take much to make them fire off and show threatening barking and growling behavior. This is desirable in a guard dog. In a GOOD guard dog, there is a common sense element involved- the dog learns what is appropriate to react to and what is not, and the best of these dogs have an incredible sense of when something is wrong. However, in many dogs, the basis of this reaction is rooted in a fear response. When breeding stock is not evaluated and selected carefully, this response can get out of balance. The result is that we see a lot of fear aggression in GSD. Sadly, many of the GSD who come through my clinic that were bought as pets do not come from reputable, knowledgable breeders, and the unfortunate result of these circumstances is that I see poor temperaments more frequently than correct ones. In addition, we see quite a few major health issues in this breed. Orthopedic problems are extremely common, including hip dysplasia, elbow dysplasia, spinal issues, and juvenile bone/developmental diseases. We see a disease called degenerative myelopathy, which at first can look similar to hip dysplasia, but is actually a disease of the nerves rather than the bones. Unfortunately the current treatments for this problem are of limited effectiveness. Many of these deep chested dogs have a tendency to bloat, which can be life threatening.
That being said, a GOOD GSD can be one of the most versatile, talented working dogs around. However, be prepared to do your homework and spend some time looking; look at parents and as many other relatives as you can find and evaluate temperaments, and screening for health is an absolute must in these dogs. A good GSD is not cheap and is probably not advertised in your local newspaper.

In the number 3 spot is the Yorkshire Terrier. These are one of the most common breeds we see at our practice, and in recent years the toy breeds have been outstripping the Labs and Goldens in our new puppy population. There are lots of reasons for this, varying from the ease of keeping a smaller dog compared to a large one, to the popularization of dogs as accessories by celebrities such as Paris Hilton. Yorkies can make nice pets, though we typically recommend them for households without children (or at least, with older children, say junior high and up). They are small enough that they are just not hardy enough to tolerate the handling that most kids will give a pet, and we see many, many injuries secondary to accidents such as being stepped on or dropped. Common health issues include retained deciduous (baby) teeth which must be removed, frequent dental and gingival issues which may require more attention than average, and luxating patellas (kneecaps) which can result in arthritic changes and, in severe cases, require surgical repair. Their low shed coat is an advantage, but does require regular grooming appointments. Temperament can vary in these little guys; but MANY of the problems I see are created by the owner. These are dogs, not Gucci purses. They need to be treated like dogs. They have feet which actually function and do not need to be carried everywhere (though for their safety using a carrier when traveling or taking them places where larger dogs are present is wise). Biting and growling during grooming or nail trims are no more appropriate in a Yorkie than a Rottweiler, but the Yorkie owners are much more likely to tolerate it or think it's cute. IT'S NOT; and failure to teach these dogs everyday doggie basic manners such as tolerating restraint can significantly impact on the length and quality of their life. I am much more likely to have a Yorkie owner whose dog will not allow them to medicate their ears or trim their nails than the giant breed owners. It is very hard for us to help them when they have medical problems if the owners cannot touch any part of their body that they don't like, etc. So remember, basic obedience training and manners are JUST as important for these dogs as the big guys! And let them stand on their own four feet and face the world- clutching them to your breast and protecting them from every possible or imagined fear only results in an unhappy, neurotic dog. Confidence and mental stability are a gift and your pet will be much happier if you allow them to function normally and independently.

Dog #4- the Golden Retriever. Similar in many ways to the Lab, the Golden tends to be mentally a little softer, a little more motivated to work to please their owner, and a little smarter. They also can have the same high energy level which can be difficult to live with in their younger years. Goldens (and GSD) are a little more prone than Labs to some of the obsessive/compulsive issues such as lick granulomas (chronically licking an area until it becomes thickened and inflamed). They have similar issues with hips and allergies; chronic ear problems are a frequent complaint in both types of retriever and often have underlying allergy as the root of the problem. Sadly, we also see a high incidence of cancer in this breed, with lymphoma and hemangiosarcoma being all too frequent (Labs and GSD are our other two breeds we see hemangiosarc in very commonly, however, and I see a pretty good number in mixed breeds as well). Goldens are one of my favorite recommendations for family dogs. They are the favorite of competitive obedience trainers as they are so willing, bright, and driven to work. Of course, these things can all backfire in a dog who is not kept mentally stimulated! To me they have just a little sweetness of temperament that is often lacking in the harder headed Lab.
#5-The Beagle- another great family dog that can do very well with kids. Beagles are a nice managable size; the "offical" standard calls for two sizes, 13 inch tall or 15 inch tall; we see the beagles sold as pets range from the tiny end at under 15 lbs, all the way up to the giant economy size occasionally approaching 60 lbs, but most typically end up in the 20-25 lb range (or at least, SHOULD- this is a breed that gains weight easily so we often see them weighing much more than is ideal!). Beagles tend to be hardy and generally healthy dogs. Their short coats are low care (but again, not really low shed!). One big drawback is their big voice- these dogs were bred as hunting dogs, and they tend to bay while on the hunt. A bored beagle will bay A LOT. Due to their voice, they are not always the best choice for condo or apartment living. Beagles are a bit independent and, once the nose gets to the ground, all other brain functions shut off, so they are not a breed to be trusted off leash without a LOT (that means, probably years) of training. They tend to be very tolerant of children, particularly the females, and are often a good choice for young families.
The number 6 dog is the Boxer, a breed that is very popular in our practice. Boxers have great appeal and charming personalities; almost all boxers I have met will turn themselves inside out wiggling with pleasure to meet you. They tend to be high energy as young dogs, but frequently morph into couch potatoes in middle age. Boxers have a great sense of humor and will make you smile. Like most large breeds, check for hip clearances; but the major issues in this breed are heart problems (we see several congenital heart defects with some regularity, but most concerning is a tendency to develop cardiomyopathy, a disease which is frequently not symptomatic until the sudden death of the dog). Boxers are also prone to several types of cancer, with the most concerning being a high rate of brain tumors. Despite this, this is a nice breed and a good choice for many families.

Bulldogs have made the number 7 position on the list. I think this calls for all veterinarians to designate a national holiday; because this could be a great practice builder! I always joke with my clients who buy bulldogs that they obviously did not think they were spending enough at the vet. Bulldogs have the advantage of a great and loving personality; I have only met a very few who had temperament problems. Their face is hard to resist and the reason that many people fall in love with them. However, I could write a whole series of books, much less a blog post, on the wide variety of health problems that plague this breed. It is not unrealistic to advise people that their annual expenses for medical care for this breed could easily be a couple of thousand a year or more, and that's just for the typical, expected bulldog problems- nothing unusual. Sadly, this is one of the cases where the breed standard is not compatible with health. (luckily, in most breeds this is not true). Bulldogs have been bred for extreme physical features which we find appealing, but ultimately are mutations that carry a physical toll. Their short faces, prominent eyes, and skin folds make them prone to eye injury and a problem called entropion which is when the eyelids roll inwards and rub on the corneas (this usually requires surgical correction, in some cases MULTIPLE corrections through the life of the dog). Breathing problems abound, soft palates are often long and obstruct the trachea (this can need surgical correction as well). Heavy skin folds compounded with a tendency towards allergies result in chronic issues with dermatitis and skin odor, and we see demodectic mange commonly in these dogs as well. I sadly have to say I have never radiographed a bulldog who did NOT have hip dysplasia, and frequently other joint issues as well. Bulldogs generally cannot breed without artificial insemination and almost all need to be delivered by C section. We also see many congential heart problems in this breed....I could go on, but you get the picture.
Bulldog lovers don't mind the snoring, skin odor, and vet bills, and we can see why because almost without exception these are sweet, sweet dogs. However, this is one of those cases where I really feel our breeders must work to moderate the standard to make their dogs' quality of life better. I honestly do not see them remaining on the top ten list for long, particularly in this economy.
#8 is a breed we are seeing a lot of in our practice, the Dachshund. Dachsies come in three varieties- smooth, long haired, and wire haired- as well as standard and miniature sizes. Most people think of the smooth, miniature version. One thing I have noticed about Dachshunds is that their owners tend to have more than one and have many generations of them- they are very loyal to the breed! Dachsies are often a good choice for empty nesters and older folks; they are not always the best with children. My experience is the long haired variety have a significantly mellower temperament. With their long back, weight control is a must and we see many back issues. Dachsies also have a higher than average incidence for endocrine problems such as diabetes and cushings disease. They can be great dogs for condo or apartment living (although some of them can be barky, especially if kept in multiples).

Rounding out the top ten we have the Poodle at #9 and the Shih Tzu at #10. Poodles come in three sizes- toy, mini and standard- ranging from the tiny toys who may only weigh 5 lbs up to the standard who can be quite tall- as tall or taller than some of our retrievers, though significantly lighter in bone and weight. Poodles are very, very bright dogs, though they often can be a little independent and frequently can outmaneuver their owners! In general, many of my poodle patients are very hardy and healthy, though we can see some health issues. I tend to see more serious issues more frequently in the standards, including occasional endocrine and autoimmune problems. The smaller versions can be more prone to diabetes and other endocrine disorders, and frequently develop heart problems in old age, but overall many of these dogs are fairly healthy. They do require frequent grooming, but on the plus side don't generally shed when groomed appropriately and are low dander so often tolerated well by folks with allergies. Shih Tzu are one of my favorite recommendations for families looking for a small dog. They are one of the hardier, sturdier dogs in the toy group. Shih Tzu are not brain surgeons, but they tend to have sweet, forgiving personalities and are quite easy to live with. Like the poodle, they will require regular grooming and you will almost never see a pet kept with the full show coat you see in pictures- it is far too hard to maintain. Kept in the typical pet cut, their shedding is minimal and they are another good choice for the allergy prone. I tend to see eye and skin problems in this breed, and yeast dermatitis secondary to allergies is a common complaint. If you are looking for a lapdog without the shrill bark that many of the toy breeds have (Shih Tzu have more of a hoarse throaty gurgle and they aren't prone to doing lots of it), with a bit of a mellower temperament than the typical Yorkie or Chihuahua, this might be the dog for you.
(As an aside- the dogs pictured above are friends from our training group or patients. I am happy to say that ALL of them embody the best of the temperaments of their breeds- which is probably how I ended up with each of their pictures- their personalities are as cute as their appearance, so they have all been memorable!).
When talking about the pros and cons of the various breeds, it is inevitable that the health problems of each come up. Without going into too much detail (that's another whole series of posts), I just want to point out that I see ALL of the conditions mentioned above in mixed breed dogs as well. For example, I would estimate that the proportion of my allergic patients who are mixed breeds is similar to their overall proportion in my practice. I can frequently predict what diseases a mix may be prone to by guessing what breeds are in the mix; but by virtue of being mixes they are NOT conferred any particular protection. "Hybrid Vigor" is touted a lot as being a big advantage in mixed breed dogs. The thing no one tells you is that some traits are greatly affected by hybrid vigor, and others are highly heritable (that is, depend on the traits of the parents). Things that improve with increase hybrid vigor tend to be things that involve ease of reproduction (bigger litters, ease in getting pregnant, increased survival of puppies, etc) and faster, larger growth. This explains why the neighbor's mix gets out, gets bred once, and has a litter of 10 pups, while the Westminster champion has might have a litter of 2 with ovulation timing! For most pet owners, the reproductive advantages are a non issue and the growth rate effects may or may not be desirable. There are some other issues with immune system involvement that are a little more complex, but in my experience it is primarily the very tightly inbred individual that has significant issues related to this. "Inbreeding", or, the non-word "Overbreeding", is often touted as the reason many purebreds have problems. What is really funny, is that the people touting this generally have no idea how to read a pedigree and often have as their example a typical pet store quality pup, who is so outcrossed that it is suspect as to whether or not they are truly purebred. To shorten this up, for now, suffice it to say that your BEST shot at health is choosing a puppy from stock that has had appropriate health screening and selection for normal parents and grandparents. I see allergies, hip dysplasia, and cancer as frequently in my mixed breed patients as I do in my purebred patients. I simply have an easier time PREDICTING in the purebreds which problems may (or may NOT!) be an issue, whereas with mixed breeds it's more of a crap shoot. We'll delve into that in more detail in another post someday.
On a related note, this coming Mon and Tues Feb 14/15 Westminster Dog Show will be broadcast on USA (switching from USA to CNBC for the last two hours on Mon). It's always entertaining to watch and see the incredible variety of breeds, and is one starting point for "shopping" for what your next dog might be. However, REMEMBER that looks are only what get your attention- make sure you chose a dog whose characteristics fit your lifestyle and who has the appropriate health screening, not just an impulse buy based on appearance! Have a good time watching!

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Happy Holidays

Merry Christmas! Hope things are calm and enjoyable at your house. I am way behind on Christmas this year. I am so far behind, in fact, that I started this post in mid December and am just now coming back to it in early February! But I figured, what the heck; most of the tips are still valid, plus I had already loaded the pictures of Christmas past and pets gone ahead (except for my puppy Robbie's Christmas Elf shot) and I didn't want to wait till next year to use them. I'm sure no one who knows me will be surprised that, as I write this, I still have wreaths on my windows and stockings on my fireplace mantle! At any rate , read on, use what you can now and remember for next year!

With all the hectic activity at Christmas, it's easy for our pets to get lost in the shuffle. Already we are seeing some of our common "Christmas cases". Remember, it is important to make your house as safe and "pet proof" as possible. If you had a two year old, you wouldn't wait to see if they were going to fall down the steps before you bought a baby gate, would you? NO! Not only would you invest in baby gates, but you probably would get electrical outlet covers, make sure book cases were secure so they can't be pulled over, place hot pots far back out of reach on the stove, etc. It's no different with pets, especially puppies and kittens under a year of age. Take a long hard look at your home (especially now with all the holiday decorations in place) and take steps to prevent problems before they occur.

Since I have a six month old puppy and two 18 month old "kittens", I have taken the easy way out this year and skipped a Christmas tree- since I'm not hosting any formal Christmas get togethers it seemed easier. However, you don't have to forgo a tree, just use some common sense. Make sure electrical cords and extensions are placed safely so that they can't be reached for chewing or tugging (and pulling over trees!). If you have a puppy going through that intense chewy period, you may want to use something to protect the cords. Ikea sells cord protectors, I'm not sure if they are commercially available elsewhere but quick and easy alternatives are shower curtain rod covers (for smaller less aggressive chewers) or running the cords through lengths of PVC which can then be tucked under the couch or along a baseboard.

Cats find strings and ribbons irresistable; particularly kittens. "Icicles" on the trees have fallen out of vogue, but in case you are tempted and have cats, skip them! Be cautious with tinsel though this does not seem quite as appealing. Ribbons on gifts, particularly the skinny ribbon you curl with scissors, can be tempting; either put gifts out of reach or consider using stick on bows instead if you have a playful kitty. And don't forget the strings on balloons- as the balloon loses it's helium and starts to sink, the string can come into reach for the cat. In everyday, non-holiday life, thread (with or without needles) is quite appealing- the cats bat the spools around and as the thread unravels they end up swallowing some. Hair bands and scrunchies are another irresistable item with similar consequences. Why are strings such a problem? As the cats play with them, they often swallow an end- and then more, and more...sometimes and end ends up wrapped around the tongue with the rest in the stomach, sometimes there is just a wad in the stomach. As the string starts to pass through the intestine, frequently part of it will "hang up" somewhere- often the part wrapped around the tongue or the other, wadded up end in the stomach. As the intestines contract and push part of the string through, if an end is caught the string makes the intestines start to bunch up, like curtains on a rod. This can cause an obstruction so nothing else can pass; and in some cases the string starts to saw through the intestinal walls resulting in leakage of the contents into the abdomen and setting up a peritonitis. String foreign bodies are very common and VERY serious; they can easily be fatal. Many of the cases we see could have been prevented if the owners were aware of the problem and took steps to limit the cat's access. My own cats are OBSESSED with my hair bands; so the rule at my house is a)only one at a time "out" and in use- any extras are stowed safely in a drawer b) band is NEVER left on a counter or table- it goes from my hair to wrapped around the handle of my brush, and back to my hair again. It takes my cats about 30 seconds (not exaggerating!) to hone in on it if I should forget and leave it on my nightstand. I have to admit my pets have trained me to be a MUCH better housekeeper than I was a few years ago!

Be careful with any gifts wrapped by someone else and brought to put under your tree until Christmas! Don't hesitate to ask if there is anything in them that might be edible or even SMELL like it might be edible. It is a pretty common occurrence for us to have dogs brought in who have eaten packages containing candy or cookies, sometimes unbeknownst to their owner. And their definition of edible is pretty relaxed- I remember years ago when big candles scented like various cakes were very popular and someone had wrapped one and given it to my mother. She put it under the tree to open later; however, our cocker had other ideas. She was sure that the package contained a REAL double chocolate cake, unwrapped it, and ate a pretty good amount of the candle that was as big as her head! Luckily it did no real damage (though I no longer remember, I suspect she probably had a pretty good case of diarrhea for a while though!). Also remember if you buy and wrap treats or chews for your pets for Christmas, DON'T put these under the tree- stow them in the pantry until time to open them!
Also remember if you have overnight guests for the holidays, make sure to check with them about anything edible (or edible smelling, like toothpaste) they might have in their suitcases, and ask them to keep any medications either in their purse (stowed appriately in a closet) or in a cabinet out of reach of children and pets. Another place where I speak from experience!

Finally, not a warning but a funny family story that has reached legendary proportions at our house. Years ago, we had a cat named Ziggy and for Christmas we bought him a toy that was common at the time; it was a little plastic "punching bag" shaped toy. The top of the punching bag unscrewed so that you could fill it with fresh catnip, and the other end had a suction cup so you could attach the punching bag to the floor or the wall. We wrapped it and put it under the tree. I was in college and my sister probably in high school at the time. One Sunday just before Christmas we were upstairs getting ready for church when I heard my mother WAIL from the living room "Thom (my dad), there's MARIJUANA under the Christmas tree!". My sister and I fell over laughing; we didn't know what she had found, but we were pretty sure it wasn't pot! As it turned out, the cat toy had a little zip lock baggie of catnip that came with it to fill the bag; Ziggy apparently had smelled it and decided to unwrap it in the night and have a little pre-Christmas celebration. My mom, not being the most hip and happening chick around, found the baggie with the green "herbs" the next morning and made her own conclusions...25 years later, thinking about it can still make me laugh till I cry!
Hope you all had a great holiday and that you are ahead of me in taking care of the aftermath! Just think how far ahead I am of the game- you can consider this post my contribution for Christmas 2011!

Pictured in this blog, and always missed especially at Christmas time, shelties Andy and Levi, cat Grouch, and cocker own Christmas angels.