Fernfall Golden Retrievers  Est 1980  

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article by Dr.Ian Billinghurst



Hip Dysplasia, Elbow Dysplasia, Osteochondritis, these diseases continue to mount their attacks on young dogs, particularly the larger breeds, despite mass radiography and culling. What are we doing wrong? Why do these problems appear and reappear in supposedly disease free lines? Our failure to eliminated Hip and Elbow Dysplasia compels us to ask..."Are our efforts entirely misdirected?" Should we be looking elsewhere for a solution?

Dysplasia, (or other juvenile skeletal diseases) are suffering from completely avoidable problems. Most of the blame, are we barking up the wrong tree? The answer is yes, most definitely. Most dogs that develop Hip and Elbow problems should be laid at the dor of incorrect nutrition and poor exercise regimes, rather than 'bad genes'. Let me explain. Unfortunately, what we vets DO NOT KNOW about Hip and Elbow Dysplasia, far outweigh what we do know! Fortunately there are answers, they are found in the history of these diseases. Understanding that history allows the basic causes of Hip and Elbow Dysplasia to leap out at us, making solutions crystal clear. Ironically, those causes and those solutions have stared us in the face for decades. It is accepted "truth" that bad genes cause Hip and Elbow Dysplasia. We assume that schemes to remove these genes have proved impossible. Yet nobody has asked "exactly which gene are we trying to eliminate?" Those genes have never been identified because nobody is looking for them. And if we don't know which genes we are looking for, what chance do we have of getting rid of them? And even if we could get rid of them, would their elimination remove traits we actually want to keep? DIET and EXERCISE play a vital role in bone development. In all the Hip and Elbow Dysplasia schemes, nobody is asking what and how much did each dog eat and how was each dog exercised while its bones were developing? Diet and exercise are ignored as we assume they play no role in bone health, As we assume that all radiographic abnormalities are caused only by faulty genes, we ignore basic biology and genetics which tell us this cannot be. The role of diet and exercise in bone production is crucial. Diet and exercise interact with genes, producing either sound or unsound bones and joints. For any dog with skeletal disease, we must ask "what was the relative contribution of genes, poor diet and inappropriate exercise?' If diet and exercise were the major contributors, logic would dictate that these must be the first areas we should look to when seeking a solution. There is a more fundamental question. How long have these problems plagued our dogs? Tens, hundreds or thousands of years? Are these diseases a new phenomenon? The surprising answer is that these bone and joint abnormalities are a product of the twentieth century. 

The story begins with a sudden appearance of Hip Dysplasia in the 1930's when it was considered a rare disease, unknown before that time. By 1965, Hip and Elbow Dysplasia had been identified in 55 breeds of dogs worldwide. They were known common problems. In just thirty years, the dog world had experienced the sudden appearance and rapid spread of these and a multitude of other skeletal problems, including shoulders, elbows, hock and stifle dysplasia, all having gone from rare or non-existent, to exceedingly common. By 1950 it was standard "truth" that the causes of Hip and Elbow Dysplasia were genetic. The "truth" has never been questioned despite all Hip and Elbow Dysplasia elimination schemes (which rely on that "truth"), having failed utterly! Both these problems remain as serious, as prevalent and as seemingly impossible to eliminate as ever. If these diseased did not exist before the 1930's, where did they come from? What caused them to appear and spread rapidly? Why are they now so common? Basic biology dictates that a mass of bone wrecking genes, can not suddenly appear in the dog population and spread like wildfire in two or three decades through most breeds of dogs, specifically targeting the larger breeds. These genes must always have been present, but not causing any problems until the 1930's when some environmental change occurred which allowed these genes to express themselves. We vets are not willing to face this possibility because we have developed (in conjunction with breeders), an enormous emotional and professional investment in believing that the bone and joint problems in our young dogs are caused by genes alone and can therefore ONLY be eliminated by breeding. We have produced a gargantuan juggernaut of an elimination scheme which depends on mass radiography, highly questionable interpretation of same, and wholesome culling to eliminate the genes which produce Hip and Elbow Dysplasia. Unfortunately, this machine is making very little headway after many decades of rolling roughshod over countless canine corpses which lie strewn in its wake. This begs the question. Does the failure of these schemes rule out genes as the basic cause of these bone and joint problems? Not at all. Our fifty years of futility clearly points to a major environmental change which occurred in the 1930's. This change allowed genes which cause these problems, to express themselves. But what was that environmental change? Fortunately, we do not have to look very far to discover the answer. During the 1930's the diet our dogs evolved to eat was drastically changed. Until that time, most people fed their dogs an evolutionary type diet of raw foods, whole foods and not a lot of grain. In the 1030's this was replaced with masses of cooked grain plus meat and bone meal and calcium supplements. The new diet lacked the raw whole animals- including bones and organ meat, fish, birds, plants, faeces and soil, dogs had eaten for millions of years. 

This change occurred during the depression of the 1930's. Dog owners were looking for cheap alternatives to the fresh food they normally fed their dogs. Astute businessmen of the day, realising the enormous money-making potential in the pet food market, obliged by changing the labels of commercially produced pig, calf and poultry feeds and throwing in some extra calcium. For the first time in millions of years of canine evolution, our dogs were deprived of fresh whole foods and forced to eat a diet based on masses of cooked grain, meat meal and bone meal together with artificial calcium rather than raw bones. That massive dietary change occurred in conjunction with a more aggressive approach to exercise. These changes, and most especially the dietary change, proved to be the ideal set of conditions to allow certain genes to express themselves in the form of skeletal disease. Modern commercial dog foods have changed very little. However, there is now an enormous body of evidence that this catastrophic change in food (and exercise) wreaked havoc on our dogs' bones and joints, particularly the larger and giant breeds, whose genetic makeup renders them particularly susceptible to these changes. The new starchy diet, designed to support the rapid growth and fattening of livestock, produced accelerated growth rates and obesity in our pups. Their rapidly increasing weight out-stripped the ability of their soft young bones to support them. High starch resulted in damaging hormonal changes which wreaked further havoc on bone growth. Nutritional excesses and deficiencies, together with a total loss of protective nutrients found only in fresh whole raw foods, added further insult to bone growth. Excessive artificial calcium added further problems. Throw in excessive exercise to traumatise and re-shape these soft badly growing bones, and we have the perfect conditions for skeletal disease in young dogs. These problems were particularly noted in the larger, faster growing, more poorly muscled, more obese, the poorly engineered breeds. As you can see, the causes behind Hip and Elbow Dysplasia are much more than genetic! But what about the genes? If genes are the basis of the problem, why has the attempted removal of these genes failed to fix the problem? 

The answer is simple, we have not fixed the problem because the genes have not been removed. Despite years of not breeding from dogs which demonstrated faulty skeletal structure( according to radiographic evidence), and only breeding from dogs with relatively sound bones and joints (according to radiographic evidence), the genes which cause those problems still remain. Why? Because nobody has asked, 'which genes are we trying to eliminate?' The genes we must eliminate are very well known. They appear in most articles dealing with Hip and Elbow Dysplasia but nobody has recognised them as such. The genes which predispose for skeletal problems in our young dogs are the genes which code for large size, fast growth rate, small muscles, great obesity, and finally genes that code for poor engineering. Could it be that simple? Yes it could, that simple and that difficult. The major difficulty is that those genes also happen to code for the very distinctive characteristics of each and every breed. The genes we want to eliminate to solve the bone and joint problems are the exact same genes we want to keep! To retain our breeds in their recognisable form, most of the genes which pre-dispose to skeletal disease are the genes we must not remove! This makes any attempt using a genetic solution, an exercise in futility. To solve the problem of bone and joint disease in our young dogs, we have to re-visit the basic underlying factors which caused these problems to appear in the 1930's. These are the factors we must eliminate. The key to eliminating skeletal disease in our dogs is found in diet and exercise which thankfully are the two factors over which each breeder and dog owner can have maximum control. We must return our dogs to their evolutionary exercise regime. Of greatest importance is to find modern foods that are equivalent in nutritional terms to the evolutionary diet. 

This is simple. An evolutionary diet is based on 50-60% raw meaty bones, 20-30% raw and crushed vegetables and fruit, 10% offal, no artificial calcium, together with simple additives such as kelp, flax meal, cod liver oil and yoghurt. This diet is not to be fed in enormous amounts. Pups are grown slowly, as nature intended. Enough is fed to ensure that the pups grow at about 60-70% of their maximum growth rate. Exercise along evolutionary lines is vital. Bones require normal stresses for normal growth. Neither too much nor too little. The only "bone healthy" exercise for juvenile dogs is PLAY. Plenty of play, not rough play, but play where the puppy stops as soon as it becomes tired. Until the bones are mature, that is the only exercise that should be allowed-as Nature/God/Evolution intended. Raised this way, no matter what genes they have inherited, the vast majority of pups will grow sound and healthy with little or no trace of Hip and Elbow Dysplasia. However a few pups will still develop skeletal problems, these pups have directly acting genes, genes that express themselves no matter what the diet or the exercise, Now is the time to cull the animal from the breeding program that carries them. Should we still radiograph our dogs? Yes! By combining a radiographic program with sound management, we will maximise the chance of raising sound pups and eliminate any genes directly responsible for causing skeletal problems, while keeping most of our predisposing genes so as to maintain our breed characteristics. In a nutshell, pups must be grown slowly, kept slim without artificial calcium supplements on an evolutionary type diet-high in raw meaty bones. Until the pup's bones are mature, the only exercise that should be allowed is play with age and size matched peers. This will produce normal stresses allowing normal growth. These are simple but powerful tools, they have kept dogs' skeletons sound for millions of years. Employing them will eliminate most Juvenile Bone Disease, no matter what "nasty" genes are present. Are you barking up the wrong tree when it comes to producing sound skeletons in young dogs? Think carefully before dismissing the ideas in this article. To not use those simple but profoundly effective tools, can make breeding and rearing dogs a difficult and painful exercise, and very costly from a monetary, an emotional and a genetic loss point of view.

By Dr Ian Billinghurst


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