Life is a lot more exciting when there’s a dog in it. They’re our running partners, our Netflix buddies, and the best roommate in any apartment. We want to keep them healthy and happy for their whole lives. But nobody, human or dog, makes it through life without a sneeze or sniffle. Nobody can guarantee that a dog will never be hurt.
While some dogs might be more likely to suffer from certain genetic diseases (or accidents--one recent study says mixed-breed dogs are most likely to be injured by cars), that doesn’t mean you’re helpless. You can take some steps to increase the odds of a healthy and happy life for your companion.
Blame the Victorians
Dogs, of course, come in a marvelous variety of types. Whatever your hobby, there is a dog happy to participate or else gaze adoringly while warming your feet. The lithe spotted Dalmatians, the lion-like Great Pyrenees, the peppy Pomeranian, or the workaholic Border Collie are distinguished by character as much as appearance.
But— beyond choosing a dog that will be happy going cross-country skiing, or perhaps resting in your lap as you read Russian literature— you should prepare for your new friend by learning a little knowledge about canine health in general, and your breed in particular.
To understand why certain genetic conditions are more prevalent in specific breeds, we’ve got to go back to the 1800s. Most dog breeds originate in the Victorian era, when Darwinism was an exciting new theory and well-bred ladies and gentlemen bred dogs as a genteel hobby. Along with spots and fringed ears, these early hobbyists also inadvertently concentrated genetic diseases in certain lines of dogs. Consider the pug’s nose, or the dachshund's long body. These adorably distinctive traits, or "extreme morphological characteristics" to veterinary scientists, also led to increasing rates of inherited disorders.
Beyond "extreme morphological characteristics," what other visible characteristics increase a dog’s health risks? Three studies agreed that smaller dogs generally live longer. Other than that, it’s hard to say.
Finding a Dog
While many people think that mixed-breed dogs are healthier, research is inconclusive. One 2013 study found that mixed-breed dogs lived longer. Another found no evidence that any one breed of dog, including mixed, was more likely to suffer from eleven common inherited diseases, although it found several diseases that purebred dogs were more likely to inherit. With serious uncertainty in the purebred / mixed breed question, what can increase your odds of finding a healthy canine family member?
As common wisdom has it, look for your dog in the kennels of a responsible breeder or reputable shelter. (Hint: your local vet can help you find one.)
Responsible breeders should health-test their dogs. If your dog is purebred, you can look at a American Kennel Club (AKC) or Orthopedic Foundation For Animals (OFFA) data on what specific health problems you should be aware of.
Mixed-breed dogs are trickier, even though most shelters make good-faith effort to be upfront with adopters about any health problems that might be present. If all you can do is make a best guess, it might be helpful--or at least it will be fun--to give your doggie a DNA test to alert you to what genetic predispositions might have tagged along with your dog’s adorably short legs or purple-black tongue.
Your Dog Now
Even though dogs might be more likely to be injured by a car-- or to suffer from elbow dysplasia-- some conditions can be mitigated. Like people, dogs are healthier if they don’t play on busy streets. They’re also healthier if they maintain a healthy weight; hip dysplasia affects purebreds and mixed-breeds about equally. However, heavy or obese dogs suffer from dysplasia much sooner, and more severely, than dogs at healthy weights. For people and dogs, healthy diet and moderate exercise can reduce the risk of disease.
Knowing what kinds of disorders or health conditions to watch out for with your dog can help you do as much prevention as possible. It’s also helpful to understand your dog’s health risks when you shop for pet insurance, because you’ll want to choose a policy that doesn’t specifically exclude common conditions in your dog’s breed. And if you’re on the fence about buying pet insurance or thinking about putting it off, knowing the potential risks early will help you make the decision.
So, whether your heart is set on a Puerto Rican Sato adopted from the Caribbean streets, or a Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever from icy Canada, you’ll find that when it comes to health, where you find your dog is as important as what kind of dog you get. And health doesn’t end when you’ve brought your dog home: lifelong good care increases your dog’s chances of lifetime good health. So get ready for a lifetime of taking care of your dog and yourself: all those morning jogs, afternoon adventures, and evening cuddles do both of you good.
Photo credit: Daniel Stockman