Health Issues and the Environment

Recently I read a column by a noted dog breeder whose opinion I respect but with whom I must disagree. Assuming every shortcoming in our dogs is due to genetic defect might work for this person as a working hypothesis while trying to improve stock, but the truth is a resounding “maybe.” The more scientists delve into the expression of the genetic code, the more facts come to light about influences on gene expression, or epigenetics.

Endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs) are a case in point. The modern environment is full of these chemicals – food containers, plastic products, furniture, toys, carpeting, building materials, additives in shampoos, the list is endless. EDCs interfere with hormonal function in various ways that lower the efficiency of body systems and can even cause disease. EDCs in the bloodstream of a bitch carrying a litter may have an influence on gene expression for those puppies and the next generation as well. Pet dogs and dogs owned by hobby breeders may seem to have a good life, but they often spend way too much time indoors. (Can’t have the neighbors disturbed by barking, someone might complain and the city find out you have more dogs than the allowed limit.) Even the veterinary profession has noted that mixed breed dogs have the same health problems as purebreds. One would expect hybrid vigor in a crossbred, but that is not the case.

So how does a dog breeder navigate the minefield of environmentally influenced health problems? There is no quick fix, of course, but the key to minimizing environmentally influenced health issues is to work with the dog’s own physiological systems.

Optimum nutrition can help a body clear toxins. Regardless of what you feed, make sure it is fresh and stored properly. (Some very good information on use and storage of commercial dog food products can be found in Unlocking the Ancestral Canine Diet by Steve Brown.)

The Lakeland breed is noted for health and longevity. Is that vigor due to generally superior genes, genetic diversity in the gene pool, or specific detoxification metabolic pathways? Terriers as a group used to be very long-lived. Was that because they were the “poor-man’s dog” and there was zero tolerance for a working dog with a delicate constitution? Whatever the source, a healthy constitution should be prized and preserved. It is important for those of us who would preserve such a gem of a breed to pay attention to all the science regarding environmental influences on gene expression as it emerges. The decisions on which dogs will carry their genes forward into future generations need to be based on more than potential wins in the show ring.

— Pat Rock, AKC Gazette Breed Columnist · hollybriar@widomaker.com

© AKC Gazette, February 2014 · Lakeland Terrier Breed Column · Reprinted with permission