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Canine Trauma

Why Look Into PennHIP?

Fred Lanting

People take actions based not so much on logic and reasoning as on emotional bases. This is something I learned in some 33 years in the business of chemicals marketing. I saw the same thing in my experience as a breeder since the '40s, a handler since the '60s, and a judge since the '70s. And it's been a hard lesson for me to assimilate, because I am the penultimate logic-based person. So much so that I've been accused by some as not only being from Mars (women are from Venus) but from the dark side of a moon of Mars! Trained in the scientific method, which is based on careful observation and collection of facts, cause-and-effect, testing and proving all things (including following the Scriptural admonition in I Thessalonians 5:21 to do that very thing), I never quite learned complete patience with those who would not use analytical processing of data to come up with a sensible conclusion and subsequent actions.

That said, I must acknowledge that even among those who attempt to use and follow precepts of science and logic, there will be emotion-mediated decisions and courses of action. Take for example the decisions relating to canine hip joint integrity. I think we can all agree that HD (hip dysplasia) is a serious problem, and that only a few ostrich-brained relics are still sticking their heads in the sands of ignorance and avoidance, claiming HD to be simply an environmental problem. Even among the ranks of the cognoscenti, however, there are those who hang onto the hope of a "magic pill" approach, like Linus clutching his security blanket, or a religious person holding by his fingernails the notion that his good aspects should outweigh his bad ones at the final judgement. Vitamin C or seaweed or chicken joints or anything else that comes along with the false promise of an easy, mystical or non-understandable (or rationalized) way out of the suffering that severe HD can bring - any of these approaches are emotional roads to the goal of better dogs. Only their proponents have unintentionally or ignorantly twisted the road signs to make you think they are accurately pointing to the same destination. Only the hardcore of those who want the easy ways out are today avoiding the logical, science-supported fact that HD is essentially a genetic disorder and can only be finally dealt with by selecting breeding partners.

As my nephews and grandchildren used to say about the dinosaur days when this Grandpa was a kid, "in the olden times", people who wanted to avoid the health problems looked to the proven working dog breeder for their stock. My principal breed is the German Shepherd Dog. When von Stephanitz and colleagues were establishing the breed a hundred years ago and more, they looked down their noses at "the city dog" because they saw many health deficiencies among those communities; the working farm and sheep dogs, the "country dogs", were sturdier, longer-lived, and more resistant to almost everything. Von Stephanitz liked to tell of the sheepherder who, after a full day's work with the flock (dog running a good 10 hours) bicycled many miles to a trial with his dog trotting beside him, competed in it, and made the long trek home again. Sled dog racers before the snowmobile era used to mush across great expanses of wilderness in order to race from Juneau to Nome or similar competitions. This type of demanding work eliminated the dogs with bad hips from most of the breeding opportunities. Less strenuous but similar work did not have the same effect, as discovered by Australian Shepherd breeder and vet John Pharr who with Dr. Joe Morgan studied HD in the working stock dogs of his breed and found more than half of them to be dysplastic. Apparently modern dogs, in this hemisphere at least, are not pressed to the same limits that uncovered weaknesses and eliminated HD in bygone gene pools.

Still, in the early days of the GSD in America, many found some benefits to using HGH (European-style herding certified) dogs in hopes (and some success) of putting the brakes on HD in their lines. With the decline of sheepherding and the percentage of strenuously selected working dogs, that option went the way of spats and buttons on shoes. We just don't work our dogs today in any way that comes close to natural selection. Survival of the fittest is only practiced in the wild, I'm afraid; there the slowest, weakest wolf gets the leftovers of the weakest elk, and doesn't stand a chance of getting near a breedable female. Passing along genes is reserved for those at the pinnacle of the hierarchy. Responsible breeders today must do something else do copy Nature, and that is to select breeding animals on the basis of genetic quality as measured by such yardsticks as joint congruity.

In the 1960s, growing out of the observations of past decades' pioneers like Gerry Schnelle, the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals (OFA) was founded. The use of radiographs to see defects and details in the hips of dysplastic and normal dogs proved a boon to the serious efforts of the better breeders. About the same time, the SV (GSD Club in Germany) was using Schnelle's foundation stones to erect an edifice that would eventually deny registration rights to dogs with severe HD (unfortunately they never outlawed the moderate and mild cases from breeding). In East Germany and other Iron Curtain countries, where working ability and health were at a premium and money was not to be wasted (except secretly by party officials), faster progress was made by more restrictive breeding, of only those with the best hips (and bitework). In the U.S., the categories of relative hip joint tightness (and other features) changed somewhat over the years, until lately when we have three grades of OFA-certifiable "normal" hips: excellent, good, and fair. The OFA also classifies Borderline, mild, moderate, and severe HD. The best progress in percentage of normal offspring is seen in the mating of "excellent" to "excellent", then "good" to "excellent", and so on. In recent years more and more fanciers have concluded that "fair" is not worth much more than "mild HD" as a criterion for breeding.

Two movements arose in the past decade or two that promise better progress than given by adherence to OFA numbers as the way to coxofemoral nirvana. One is the proposal to use a voluntary "open registry", and that is promulgated by Center for Genetic Disease Control (GDC), an organization which has laudably focussed our attention on the elbow dysplasias that are big problems in some breeds, nagging ones in others. The other is PennHIP (University of Pennsylvania Veterinary School Hip Improvement Program). I had the pleasure of working with the OFA's first "program director", Dr. Wayne Riser, when I was researching and preparing my book, Canine Hip Dysplasia, and I also have had the good fortune to visit Dr, Gail Smith (PennHIP) in Philadelphia and was a special guest at their 1998 seminar in Orlando years later. I reviewed his methods, philosophy, and results, and am increasingly a supporter of this protocol. My experience with "wedge" radiography, palpation, and follow-up OFA-AVMA radiographs has convinced me that joint laxity is by far the leading indicator of incipient dysplasia, and that early diagnoses or pre-diagnostic predictors are not only possible but entirely feasible. Good statistical evidence is being developed to prove that breeders (through PennHIP-licensed vets) can detect the signs of future dysplasia and degenerative joint disease (arthritis) at a pup's early age. Early enough to cull it or them from the breeding programs, start over with better stock, choose better partners, and improve the general welfare of their chosen breed. Or at least the quality end of the breeding publics.

What PennHIP appears to offer are younger ages at which to identify the most likely carriers of the most bad (or good) genes, a more quantitative (numerical index) evaluation, a more natural positioning of the dog, and faster progress in reducing the incidence of HD. This is no Topsy who arrives on the scene "full-growed, not born", nor a sudden discovery like that of penicillin, but the result of building "line upon line, precept upon precept". It has its roots in the fulcrum method I practiced in the 1960s and '70s, in various attempts to position the patient more closely similar to the stance in which weight and stresses are put on the joints, and in the Bardens-Ortolani concept of palpation to discover covert laxity in young puppies. Statistics so far indicate very good reliability in radiographically predicting which pups are at greatest risk of developing DJD (secondary degenerative joint disease), even to as young as four months.

My logical, skeptical, analytical bent leads me to favor the position utilized in PennHIP, that of a dog that looks like it is standing, but the picture is upside-down. I tried for a long time to devise a means of radiographing the dog while it was awake and standing, but the difficulties included keeping the dog from moving, and placing a film cassette between its thighs and getting the shadow of its hips exposed while at the same time not having the dog stand spread-eagled. I knew that the extended-leg AVMA standard-view position actually "wound up" the joint capsule, the ligaments around the hip socket, when the dog was in that ventro-dorsal mode on its back on the table; that the position tended to show a false tightness of the soft tissues, driving the femoral head into the socket and making it look like a deeper seat. My own recourse was the wedge, a can or firm roll placed between the femurs while the hocks were pressed toward one another, in a leverage action that pulled loosely-held heads out of the sockets. This was fairly good in pups from four to about twenty or so months, but had a few minor drawbacks. The PennHIP method first seats the heads of the femurs in the acetabula by pressing them in from the "outside" (laterally). Then, while still in the knees-up position and still under anesthesia, the distraction force is applied medially to push the femurs apart and reveal latent or otherwise hidden looseness. Measurements of joint space in both views are made, and a ratio reported (Distraction Index, DI). A threshold level of 0.3 (30% of the way from no space to "horrible") is probably the best "feel-good" floor for the serious breeder, though other aspects must be factored in, such as size of the gene pool (as in a rare breed), or scarce but extremely valuable characteristics such as hunting ability, health, or temperament.

A breed with very few representatives might have to accept a slightly slower rate of progress (through less stringent initial joint laxity/congruity requirements) until the other desirable characteristics are assured of survival. After all, you wouldn't want to end up with all the dogs in a breed missing half their teeth just because in the beginning of the program those with such mouths also had the best hips. In the case of the German Shepherd Dog, the critical genetic diversity is not really easy because of heavy linebreeding. In America it has been Lance or Bear; in Germany it's Q-litter Arminius, Palme, Lasso di Val Sole, and one or two others. Several years ago Dalmatian breeders had the opportunity to rid their breed of a widespread genetic defect by simply adding a sprinkling of Pointers (these breeds are very close in origin, anyway) and following that with blood testing and elimination of carriers. They rebelled against the idea, even though there would not have been any change in the appearance of future Dals. Today this breed is one of the worst in regard to health problems. It was a "simple" trait, governed by one or two alleles (genes).

HD, on the other hand, is a polygenic trait, governed by many genes, and therefore much more difficult to weed out. In addition, HD is not the only problem in the breed. We are seeing many other defects that can be tied to a lack of genetic diversity, and to climb out of that hole, Americans need to use German lines (judiciously selected so we don't get all their problems along with any benefits), and Germans need to keep some lines going that avoid the bottleneck of gene pools now being used. There are almost no choices of studs coming down from Marko Cellerland, anymore, for example. While genetic diversity may be the only or best way to improve on the health and structure problems we have in both German and American lines, there is another answer or approach to the HD problem. That is a more stringent criterion for selection of breeding partners, a criterion based on better diagnosis of hip joint laxity than we have been used to for the past 30 years. After between 15,000 and 20,000 evaluations so far, the PennHIP database has more than sufficient evidence and logic-based conclusions on which to decide in favor of looking for a PennHIP-certified practitioner before you breed those dogs.

Fred Lanting is the principal of "All Things Canine" Consulting, behavior analysis, evaluations, seminars, and lectures. He is the author of "The Total GSD" and "Canine Hip Dysplasia."

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