Hereditary Defects & Health Testing Schemes
Alongside temperament, the health of your Labrador throughout its life is of primary importance to both the breeder and the owners. Conscientious breeders try to reduce the chances of inherited problems in the puppies they breed by using the health tests available.
Three of the most frequent problems that affect the Labrador are Hip Dysplasia, Elbow Dysplasia and GPRA (a problem with the eyes that causes blindness, often by three or four years of age).
The eye problem is ENTIRELY genetic (so passed through the genes from the puppies parents to it and its littermates).
The Hip and Elbow problems have a very strong genetic influence, but can be aggravated by over-exercising a young puppy, falls, injuries and general roughhousing whilst the dogs joints are still growing.
Therefore, it is very important that only dogs free from these problems themselves are bred from to give the puppies produced the very best chance of being free themselves of these painful and traumatic problems.
The common misconception is that only competition kennels use the health schemes or that they are not for breeders who ‘only produce pets’. The schemes are not expensive to put breeding dogs through, and, remember, every dog bred from is a ‘breeding dog’, NOT just those belonging to people who show or work their dogs. To NOT health test the parents before breeding for these conditions is selling both puppy buyers and the puppies they produce short as they are playing Russian roulette by breeding ‘blind’.
To briefly explain the schemes:
At around a year of age, when the dogs skeleton has fully grown, an x-ray is taken of the dogs pelvis area. This x-ray is then sent from the vet to the BVA (British Vet Association). They will score this x-ray with each hip of the two hips scoring between 0 (lowest) and 53 (highest). So if both hips are scored the total that dog achieves will be between a TOTAL of 0 and 106 (2 x 53).
Currently the breed average for a total of both hips sits at around 16. So dogs around or under this score have average or better than average hips to give a guide.
The score can also be shown sometimes as two numbers, left hip/right hip – so, something like 5/4 (total of 9 – good)or maybe 33/21 (total of 54 – poor).
To recap, it is the PARENTS of the litter who are scored and not the puppies. This cannot be undertaken until a year of age as a minimum but can be done at any age after this. Only dogs to be bred from are usually hip scored, there is no need to score pet puppies not to be bred from. The information is FOR breeder and puppy buyers to decide if the dog is suitable to be bred from. Hip scoring is done once in a dogs life only and his score remains with him for the rest of his life. When buying a puppy, you should insist on seeing the official BVA/KC certificate with the dogs score on. NEVER just rely on verbal assurances that the parents are scored without seeing the proof. Hip scoring has been undertaken now for around 35 years and so the scheme is well known and well used. A breeder shows everything you need to know about them, even if a nice person with basically healthy looking dogs, if they do not use the health schemes.
Instances in our breed of 'front end' lameness are fairly widespread. There are certainly many cases that can be diagnosed as 'Pano' otherwise known as 'growing pains' which hit usually between the ages of 5 and 10 months, when the dog is growing very rapidly still, and its tendons, ligaments and so on can't keep up with the limb growth. Lameness caused by Panosteitis can usually be eased by rest and vet prescribed painkillers. The lameness also usually travels from leg to leg, not settling in any leg in particular.
Lameness during this period too can also be a more serious condition, generalised as Elbow Dysplasia (ED). ED has several forms but the most common in Labradors being Osteochondrosis (OCD) as it is more commonly known.
This is basically arthritis of the elbow joint with bony changes being present and so the ball and cup joint that an elbow is, does not roll smoothly as the dog moves causing him pain and discomfort.
Now of course, these joint deformities of varying degrees can be caused by injury to the young dog, by the dog being overweight and causing the joint stress day in, day out, OR by accident where the joint is struck, severely stretched or otherwise traumatised and changes occur whilst it is at a developmental stage.
However there is also a definite and proven genetic factor to poor quality elbow joints. For certain a VERY large percentage of the cases of ED amongst young developing Labrador Retrievers are due to a genetic element.
Therefore the British Veterinary Association (BVA) and Kennel Club (KC) developed a scheme along the lines of the Hip scoring scheme around 15 years ago. An x-ray is taken of each elbow both extended and closed whilst the dog is under general anaesthetic or strong sedation. These x-rays are sent to the BVA and are 'scored' (marked according to their quality).
Unlike the Hip scheme, the highest score achievable under the KC/BVA Elbow scheme is a total of '3'. The lowest, mirroring the hip scheme is '0'. Each elbow is scored individually and so its score will be, like in hips, a total of 2 numbers, so, for example, 0:0 (excellent) or maybe 1:3 (Very Poor).
The scoring range is quite small, just 0 - 3, so there is a feeling amongst breeders that it is hard to tell which dogs have TRULY excellent elbows because there is a BIG differential between the scope a '0' score gives us, ditto a '1' score and so on. It almost calls for a '+' system, so a elbow which is in the assessors consideration 'superb' needs a 0++ and one that is 'nearly a '1' needs just a 0 or even a 0.
But that is small-print. Responsible breeders use the elbow scheme. It has been around for some time, maybe not as long as the hip scheme, and maybe there are elements to it which are not perfect, but it is not expensive to put a dog through, and elbows that are scored '0' have been proven to produce much healthier stock than those who score higher.
There is a high element of environmental factors to elbow and shoulder problems. Indeed, many puppy owners do allow them to play roughly with bigger dogs, do allow them to jump continuously up and down stairs and in and out of cars etc etc, and so allow them to get overweight and create strain on growing joints, HOWEVER, it is a breeders responsibility to do all they can, within reason, to sell buyers a healthy fit puppy, and the elbow scheme plays a very strong part in this.
This is possibly even more essential for buyers of puppies to ensure they buy only from litters where both parents have been eye tested. GPRA is 100% genetic and so the status of the parents eyes entirely affects the puppies eyes for the future. This test is not undertaken at a regular vet but by a specialist.
There are many clinics and testing sessions around the country or you can book a private visit to one of the dozens of test specialists. An eye test will be undertaken and a simple certificate given afterwards showing if the dog was affected or unaffected by the problems being examined for. This eye certificate should be renewed every 12 months and so, when puppies are produced, the certificate should be valid. They last only 12 months, like a Car MOT so even if the breeder can show a certificate, firstly make sure the ‘unaffected’ box is ticked (not the ‘affected’) and secondly make sure it is dated within the last 12 months. If it is not, chances are the dog was retested and failed OR the owner didn’t bother testing again.
The trauma of a young pet dog going blind is so great that the £40 or so an eye test certificate costs a breeder is a SMALL price to pay to check their eyes are not affected before a mating is undertaken
Optigen PRA Testing
The BVA/KC eye testing scheme has been around for around 25 years. It has been tweaked and fine tuned and moved about but the general idea has remained the same. A dog is examined by an expert for the eye conditions common to Labradors, and is clear (or 'unaffected' as it is often written) then one can mate in safety to another dog, also carrying a current clear eye certificate and know you are doing the best possible by the puppies produced for future good eye health.
However eyebrows were raised when two dogs with clear eye certificates were mated, a puppy from that was tested at 2, 3 or more years of age, and FAILED his own eye certificate for Optigen GPRA. How can that be? Well, the answer is simple and that is that both his parents although clear themselves were genetically CARRIERS of the the condition, when put, perfectly ethically together, were always going to produce a proportion of pups affected with the most nasty of all eye problems, Late Onset PRA or GPRA as it is better known.
This finding initiated work on a DNA test which would show not only if the parents were affected or unaffected with GPRA but ALSO, importantly, the result the paper BVA/KC eye test itself could never detect, if they were Carriers.
After many years of waiting we finally have a test, run by the company 'Optigen' in the United States, to exactly as above, give the GENETIC eye status of any dog before breeding from it.
Results will return as your dog being either: Clear, Carrier or Affected.
This test is not to rule any dog out of the gene pool, but to give a clearer idea of the playing field and to be able to make responsible breeding decisions.
The various breeding combinations using Optigen results are:
Optigen Status of Parents Outcome for Pups Clear x Clear = 100% Clear offspring Clear x Carrier = 50% Clear 50% Carrier offspring Carrier x Carrier = 25% Clear 25% Affected 50% Carrier Offspring Clear x Affected 100% Carrier offspring So you can see that when Optigen tested, even an AFFECTED dog could be mated to a clear dog and never produce a single puppy who will be affected by GPRA.
You can Optigen test from a very young age, around 6/7 weeks of age, if you undertake a Carrier x Clear mating, and don't wish to keep a Carrier puppy, you can Optigen test the best two or three pups (at a reduced rate for this what is called 'litter testing') and keep only a clear puppy. The Carrier pups will never develop the problem, of that you can be CERTAIN, and so can be sold as pets comfortably.
Testing is by way of a blood test at your vets, and booking a test online at the Optigen website - www.optigen.com . Sending the blood from your vets to Optigen by way of airmail post and paying for the test by credit card when booking. It is not complicated and not daunting. It also costs around £100-£150 per dog to test and this is done only once in a dogs life. A small drop in the ocean for the 'value' of the results to that breeder and the gene pool as a whole.
You hear SO many reasons for not Optigen testing. The main reason really being that breeders are scared of what could be the result. Years and years of clear eye certificates or worse still simply an opinion that they have had 'no eye problems' can lull breeders into a false sense of security.
There has been around a 35% return on Optigen tests finding that dogs tested from the UK are in fact Carriers. This is a high percentage. I am entirely practical that the majority testing are those who consider there *might just* be a problem so therefore are being proved right. But many lines where people didn't for a second think there was any problem there are finding, in fact there are.
There are no clear LINES only individual clear dogs.
Q: I ‘only’ want a pet puppy. Surely the sort of breeder who uses health schemes and competes with their dogs won’t be interested in selling to me?
Breeders who show or work their dogs still always expect the vast majority of their puppies to go into pet homes. Just because they are experienced, regular competitors, doesn’t mean they won’t sell to pet homes. There is no NEED to buy from novice breeders, mating pet dogs for no good reason because you ‘only want a pet’. Prices will be almost exactly the same too for pet puppies from whatever source. So make sure your source is a quality one!
You can find more information about the various hereditary conditions and why health testing is important at:
British Vetinary Association- an explanation of Hip, Elbow and Eye health schemes for the Labrador
Labrador Health - things you must know before buying a labrador puppy