Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Degenerative Myelopathy Part 2: Should We Worry About The Hovawart's Future?

After Degenerative Myelopathy Part 1: What Can You Do For Your Dog?, we continue with part 2 about what scientists, breeders and clubs are doing, in the fight against Degenerative Myelopathy, DM.


The news hit like a bomb shell.

"From the samples of 1,200 Hovawarts we investigated, the DNA test for the SOD1 mutation, a gene believed to be a major factor in degenerative myelopathy, showed 45% are free from the mutation, 45% are carriers, and 10% are affected."

Dr. Elisabeth Dietschi, Phd, and prof. Tosso Leeb, from the University of Bern, Institute of Genetics, presented their first result from the Research project of the Hovawart, to participants and breed clubs worldwide, back in 2012.

The numbers were dazzling, and the complete opposite of what was expected based on health statistics in the different breed clubs. Could 10% of today's Hovawarts be affected with DM? And 45% a carrier?

I wish there was a short yes or no answer to that question, but there is not.

As Dietschi already stated when she started the research project a couple of years earlier, the SOD1 mutation is believed to play a major role. But with the Hovawart, and a lot of other breeds, it is a combination of genes that play a role, and perhaps even some environmental factors as well. SOD1 on itself is not the smoking gun. From the Hovawarts tested as "affected", some did suffer from DM, but some lived a long and healthy life as well. Even some dogs that were tested "free", did develop DM at some stage in their life.

In an article from the German club "Hovawart Zuchtgemeinschaft Deutschland", HZD, some statistics were published from the club's health database, showing that from the records of 8,000 Hovawarts in their database, only 16 individuals suffered from DM. It underlined the contrast between research and breed-database quality, but also questioned how relevant SOD1 is as the cause for DM.

Back to the bomb shell. It had the affect most bomb shells have, and the clubs scattered in all directions.

Some examples. Two Dutch Hovawart clubs now require - as they name it - "DNA testing for DM" in their breeding program. The club "Hovawartvrienden", HVN, and the new club "Hovawart Rasvereniging Nederland", HRN. Which is odd, as we now know there is no full-proof DNA test for DM, but only testing for the SOD1 mutation, which is not the same. Just semantics? They do matter, and I will come back to that later in this post. The American Hovawart Club, AHC, started testing for the SOD1 mutation as well.

The Hovawart club of Italy took it one step further, and adopted the DM research project together with the University of Bologne, to continue further research into the causes of DM. As part of this project, they started to collect DNA samples of all Hovawarts in Italy.

Most clubs were of the opinion though, that further research is needed, before any DNA testing should take place and adopted in breeding programs, as there is too much uncertainty at the moment. Again an example hereof, from the Swiss Hovawart club's bulletin this time.

While clubs seem to disagree, let's also not forget DNA testing is not the holy grail either. Jerold Bell, DVM, Clinical Associate Professor of Genetics, Tufts Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, wrote in his article Maneuvering the Maze of Genetic Tests: Interpretation and Utilization about the ability to test your way to health:
"It is distressing when a genetic disorder is confirmed. Positive and practical genetic counseling recommendations can be made to maintain breed lines and genetic diversity, and improve the overall health of breeds. The total elimination of defective genes will probably be impossible for most breeds. "

It is clear though, that the majority of Hovawart clubs want to prevent rigorous DNA-testing for SOD1 in breeding programs, as it is uncertain it will solve DM. It would also open the door for a huge decline of the gene pool, if we would include SOD1 test results in selecting mates. Do we really want to throw out 10% or more of the genes available in the breed, for a test that is uncertain?

When scientist have finished their research, and a test is developed that can diagnose DM, we can first answer that question. Most breeders and clubs seem to agree on that. And I like to add, when that day comes, and there is a test available for DM, not only to attack DM through selection, but also to have a plan how to introduce new genes to avoid the ever shrinking gene pool, from which we know from other breeds, eventually will lead to nothing.

As Dietschi wrote in her research:
"Like every breed, the Hovawart also has a closed population, so no new genes are being added. All dogs are becoming more closely related, even though the inbreeding coefficient is taken into account for mating. As a result, there is a trend towards homozygosity and thus a fixation of characteristics. This applies to positive traits but, unfortunately, also to negative traits."

Should we worry about the Hovawart's future? On the short term, we are still uncertain of the role DM plays in the breed and how to solve it, but at least we haven't made it worse by trying to breed our way out of problems based on a possibly inappropriate DNA test, and put 10% or more of the population in the garbage can. On the other hand, we are in the dark of how much of the breed is affected based on sound scientific data, and to be patient until more is known is a hard pill to swallow.

So far for the macro view. Which doesn't help a responsible breeder or a Hovawart family one bit. They just want healthy puppies, who have a good life, With that said it therefore does make sense for breeders in the mean time, because the SOD1 test - although a poor indicator - is the only available indicator of DM available today, to test dogs for SOD1 before breeding in an attempt to at least not to pair SOD1 "carrier" and "affected" dogs with a mate who is not "free", to reduce risk until research is finished. It is the only thing one can do, with the tools at hand.

Breeders do run SOD1 test already today, either in club regime or outside it. Returning on the subject of semantics, unfortunately the SOD1 test is by some falsely seen as an actual DM test, and there are examples of breeders running away from everything that is not tested SOD1 "free". Which would be a disaster if it is allowed to continue, as it will in practice mean - when all would do that - the gene pool will be roughly cut in half.

What about you? Do you worry about DM, and what role it can play for the Hovawart's future, either the disease, or the "cure", for that matter?


Update: I earlier wrote "Also both American Hovawart clubs started testing for the SOD1 mutation.". This is not correct. The American Hovawart Club, AHC, is testing for SOD1. The Hovawart Club of North-America, HCNA, is not.


Monday, October 27, 2014

Degenerative Myelopathy Part 1: What Can You Do For Your Dog?

"Your dog probably suffers from DM, Degenerative Myelopathy".

For my friend Thomas, the vets' verdict was like hearing a death-sentence.

After months of testing, x-rays, blood tests, and CAT scans, several vets couldn't find the cause why Cliff was dragging with his rear right leg. And when no diagnosis can be made, the final diagnosis is always, "it's probably DM". DM is only diagnosed, when everything else has been ruled out.

Thomas knew it was severe. Maybe one year, two at best, for Cliff to have some quality of life.

That was more than two years ago. Maybe you remember when Thomas wrote on this blog, how he and Cliff fought back, and how they were able to celebrate life with Cliff, against all odds. Cliff sadly passed away some months after the story was published.

So what is DM, Degenerative Myelopathy? And what can you do about it?

DM is a disease of the spinal cord. The membrane that protects the nerves degenerates, and eventually the nerves themselves become affected. The disease progresses slowly, and symptoms start with dragging of the rear legs, until it progresses into paralysis of the rear legs, incontinence, breathing-problems, and finally complete paralysis when also the front-legs are affected. After this there is also a final stage with more complications like organ failure, but this is rare, as most dogs are humanly euthanized before reaching this stage.

DM usually first shows its face, when a dog reaches the age between 7 and 9 years of age.

The combination of several genes, together with perhaps some environmental factors, cause the disease. One of the involved genes has been identified, but which other genes exactly play a role as well, is not known, according to Dr. Elisabeth Dietschi from The University of Bern, Institute of Genetics. There is no cure for DM either.

That's a lot of bad news indeed. On the positive side it is worth mentioning though, that dogs with DM feel no pain, and by following a rigid daily physical therapy program, it is possible to slow the progress of the disease down. According to this research paper, Daily controlled physiotherapy increases survival time in dogs with suspected degenerative myelopathy, dogs with DM who follow a daily exercise program live on average 255 days longer, than dogs without such a program. Note that this research also involved Hovawarts.

Such a physical therapy program, according to the German physical therapist Anja Bulle, who completed her study with DM as a specialty, consists of massage, stretch- and active movement exercises, isometric training, balance exercises on a balance disc, and water therapy.

Although progress of DM is slowed down with physical therapy, it will progress nonetheless, and there is a need for tools to cope with this, like special protective boots, harnesses, and wheel chairs, as described in Thomas' blog post.

So far for what DM is, and what you can do about it. But what are breeders and breed clubs doing about this disease if it is hereditary? What can they do? As you probably noticed, some have started testing for one of the genes which seems to be mostly involved in causing DM. Will that help, or is it a knee-jerk reaction? Continued in Part 2: Should We Worry About The Hovawart's Future?


Monday, October 20, 2014

Groundhog Day Has Arrived

It seems our achievements to make a perfect Hovawart lady out of "you know who I mean", is suffering a minor setback.

I am afraid to call her by name, as I am sure just mentioning her name will wake her up for a new round of mischief.

It all begun, when I felt waking up started to resemble a lot like going through groundhog day.

I found myself scrambling to get some clothes on in the morning, because the "the lady of the house" was hanging on each item of clothing I wanted to put on. Fleeing to the bathroom and dress over there did help, although the bathroom door is taking most of the beating for me, and will soon need to be re-painted.

Going on with my morning routine, a strange creature started following me, developing it's abilities to walk on its hind legs only, and using every available part of me for front leg support.

Finally, when we reach the kitchen, I get some relief, as the kitchen counter is undoubtedly a much better spot to place your front paws on and to practice some more hind-leg awareness. Evolution seems to be spinning out of control, and a whole new species, "canine sapiens", the upright dog, might be evolving right under my eyes.

The mouthing has returned too. Although this time, "she" only likes to mouth on things that are alive, like yours truly. It's positive though, there is only time to mouth when there is nothing to bark at, and I am impressed over the wide array of opportunities there are actually available to practice your bark at.

It is raining a lot of "No's", and "Noooo's", during the mornings, to no avail. But as groundhog day progresses, and we go for walkies, and train, some control is returned back to me again, I like to think. But just like the real groundhog day, it just gives some respite, to be able to charge up for tomorrow when everything starts all over again.

What happened you might wonder? Why the relapse? We didn't solve her jumping and mouthing, but it went so much better, and it seems that now we are back at square one.

Well, adolescence has arrived. That wonderful period in every dog's life, somewhere between the age of 14 and 18 months, in which they wish to forget everything they have learned so far.

It is no big deal though. It'll pass. Just like human adolescence, it is just a phase. Nothing a little patience can't cure. Until then, it is groundhog day over here.

With Kenzo, it was over in just a couple of weeks as I remember. Although for some dogs, it is a lot like starting over, and Tilde might just be one of those.

Oh, oh. She heard me.


Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Hovawart Puppy Mill Breakdown: Change On The Way?

Many of you probably remember when the Danish Hovawart puppy mill was closed down in January last year, and the Hovawarts in the shelter welcomed an unexpected V.I.P. visitor, the Danish Minister of Agriculture & Animal Welfare, Mette Gjerskov.

She paid them a visit to learn more first-hand about the "puppy mill case" and the efforts from the shelter, "Dyrenes Beskyttelse", to re-home the survivors.

Back then, I wrote: "I am confident that our Hovawarts and Dyrenes Beskyttelse planted a little seed for the longer term aspects of this case - to make sure this never can happen again - and send Mette Gjerskov back to Copenhagen with some food for thought."

It took a while, and a change in Minister, but I do have exciting news.

Earlier this year in March, the new Minister, Dan Jørgesen - it's him on the photo - launched a new campaign, "A better dog life", containing among others initiatives to make people more aware of what it takes to care for a dog, to decrease the number of dogs euthanized because of behavioral issues, and to put a stop to breeding for fashion and not health, among others.

There were many initiatives launched all at once, and one of the initiatives didn't catch the public eye, but was that greatly needed first step on the way, to sharpen the control on puppy mills and dog trafficking, we are all longing for. The rules for registration and licensing were extended, to all individuals or businesses that either breed or trade with puppies commercially. Meaning, size doesn't matter anymore, and all who are commercially active around pets, need to be registered, acquire a license, and will receive veterinary control visits. And they include traffickers, or fronts thereof.

This process launched in August and is still unfolding, and along the way, surprise, surprise, we can already see more puppy mills are surfacing in Denmark - some even closed down on the spot. And also for the first time ever, it is on public record, and we can see how many dogs are actually kept inside the mills.

The registrations and inspections are expected to be finished at the end of this year, and all the experiences will be evaluated, to determine what next steps should be made, including possible new legislation.

It is a first step, and like me you will probably also think why it always has to go slow, but it does give me a good feeling an army of inspectors is driving through the country at this very moment, and are knocking on all those doors.

Change might be just around the corner, if, and only if, it will actually lead to new legislation and proper enforcement. At least the intention seems to be there now, with the proper authorities, to start acting.


Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Sleeping Apart Together

The day after Tilde's arrival, we bought her a nice dog bed, an upgraded deluxe version of the one, Kenzo was already using for years. She was quite fond of it, and already on the same day, she claimed it as her own.

But sometimes, one bed, isn't enough. And at bedtime, she rushed ahead to pick her spot for the night. "Which dog bed do I, the princess, like to sleep in today?". Kenzo followed, and patiently waited for Tilde to make her choice, after which he trotted towards the remaining empty spot. Just before he could step in, a growling Tilde was rushing over to occupy it for him.

Kenzo remained calm despite the commotion, and started to move towards the other dog bed now left empty by Tilde, "You want that one? Alright, then I take the left-over", only to be stopped by a growling Tilde once more, who could just make a clumsy landing in the other dog bed, before Kenzo could reach it.

He did think it over for a moment, "So I guesss you need both then, well, alright". He has lived with a resource-guarder like Viva, and you'll need a lot more than a quarrel over a dog bed, to get Kenzo in a state of panic.

He laid down in the hallway, with both dog beds in sight, although looking the other way, as if he was not interested in either of them any more. It didn't take long, before restless Tilde left her dog bed, toddled down the hallway, to have a little sip at her water bowl.

As soon as Tilde was out of reach, Kenzo quickly laid down in his own dog bed. When Tilde returned from her water refreshment, she stopped in her tracks at the door opening. Kenzo, with his head up, looked right at her, "So... what are you going to do about it?".

Nothing, Tilde decided, and she laid down in her own bed again, and released a big sigh, while looking at Kenzo. After that, there were no more battles over dog beds.


Monday, October 13, 2014

Hovawart Meme's

Those meme's quickly get addictive. If you missed them on our Facebook wall, here they are. Feel free to copy and share away - click on them to get full-size, then download.

If you made any yourself, I am happy to see them!


Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Hovawart TV: She Loves Me, She Loves Me Not

Bard - the Herd-Wart - is brave enough to explore the mysteries of cat body language.

She does love you, Bard. It is a cat thing.

Watch more Hovawart TV.


Saturday, October 4, 2014

That Day To Day Stuff

"It's benign", the vet said over the phone, and the longest exhale in my life could start making its way to freedom. In fact, I had to call her back the next day to recite the whole report she gave me, as I couldn't remember a lot more of what she said, other than those three words.

Nine days of waiting, pondering, worrying, pacing, and some more worrying, it all came to an end in one exhale. Live from day to day, they teach us. Dogs that is. And didn't Kenzo gave me yet another lesson in that department when we returned from his surgery, when he tried to make a high-five. I am a lousy student of dog life-lessons.

Honestly, the last nine days went by in a blur. I found the strength, after long conversations with Viva reminding me about our sunsets, to accept whatever was coming, and live from day to day after that, if it was bad. And if it was good, I would finally live from day to day too, we agreed.

Of course, for my readers I am willing to make a tiny exception, and look slightly forward, so Viva, close your ears.

With the tumors from Kenzo's paw removed, we finally solved the riddle why he had such a relapse in his recovery from his shoulder injury. The news, it is definitely not a re-injury of his shoulder, is almost just as good the tumor they found to be benign.

The vet had a confession to make too. Usually it is me that is second guessing, and I promise you I can be a real pain in the but for any vet. But when we had everything checked, his fungus infection cleared, as well as the infection in his paw, I insisted he still wasn't walking properly.

She actually didn't agree, but she knew I know Kenzo best, the way he walks and if he is doing that pain-free in particular, and we agreed there was no other option to have surgery and go in and look. The day I brought Kenzo in for his surgery and left, she took Kenzo in alone for one final examination, just to ensure if she hadn't missed anything, and to double-check if she could still get a pain response from his paw. "I was second guessing you", she smiled, and we were both laughing out loud.

Kenzo's recovery is still under way. When the wound from the operation has healed - it takes a little longer than usual as it is a difficult place between his paws - we can slowly expose him to some walks again. Certainly not overdo it. Just getting used again to use his leg and paw pain-free, have him checked with his therapy vet for any tensed muscles and such, and then ...

Then we, well, enjoy the day by day stuff again. I promise. The future is bright. Wait a minute ... oops, now I did it again. But I am trying.


Monday, September 29, 2014


"Tilde? ... Tilde!!", I shouted, to no avail.

Ah yes, you might have noticed, a lot of my recent posts seem to start with exactly that shout, although eye-witnesses claim I use the F word.

Before you read on, I want to reassure you, no person or animal got hurt, other than yours truly's confidence in having any control whatsoever over Tilde, was dented once more.

Tilde was running towards a flock of sheep that were grazing on top of a dike. We kept good distance to the dike while passing by - more than twice the length of a football field - and we were playing fetch with Tilde's favorite ball. When suddenly she stood absolutely still, gave me one last gaze - as if she was making up her mind - and off she went. Again.

I laughed out loud. Confident, because I knew the area was fenced in, and after "Chickenshit", I wouldn't make the same mistake twice. Until I saw her make a jump that high, I thought to be physically impossible. Luckily Tilde didn't make it over the fence, but it ensured my panic level to be restored to it's appropriate level in a heart-beat. All the commotion me and Tilde were by now making started to worry the sheep that had been calm so far, and soon they were on the move. Not very long after a genuine sheep stampede was unfolding, with sheep running further and further along the dike.

The sight of what must have been dozens of sheep running even aroused Tilde more, and she excitedly followed them, jumping the fence, frolicking, and worse, I couldn't keep up with Tilde and the sheep, slowly but surely they were moving out of sight. First one mile further, at the end of my breath, I finally found Tilde, standing in front of the fence, at a corner where the dike stopped. She was alone, the sheep most have gone behind it out of sight. I was so relieved, during my run, the headlines with "sheep killer on the loose" were already flashing through my mind.

After the incident, we avoided the area as much as possible, until today, as in the last weekend of September, the sheep are moved to their winter home. It is a great place to walk your dog, and one of Kenzo's favorite places. Behind the dike, there is a valley with a canal where they can swim, and lot of hills to play and run - and it is all fenced in. With the sheep gone, we went in with Tilde, but she hadn't forgot the sheep, and also their scent was of course still there.

I think she searched every corner of the area, investigated each sheep dropping she encountered, and looked for sheep from the top of hills. She even found some sheep fur, what looked like a a spot where some clipping was done, and she studied it intensely.

With every one of Tilde's senses on serious overtime, I never brought home a more tired dog, after such a short walk.


Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Looking After Me

We lay down in the grass and cuddle. I am glad you are back. I take a deep breath and pick up the phone, to break the news with people abroad, who expect us to come and visit.

God damnit Kenzo.

It should have been a thorn they found, maybe even a copper wire, whatever, embedded in your foot. Like they found with Viva before you.

The news I bring is not good. And the talk on the phone is going on while I caress you with one hand. You've been through a lot today, and glad to be home again, where you are safest. You are sound asleep again, in no time.

When I am finally off the phone, I only have an empty glaze left. Ten days we have to wait for the verdict, benign or malignant. Benign or malignant. Benign or malignant. Now we wait. Ten days we wait. Dear Lord. Please. Not Kenzo. Disheartened, I wonder, how many have wished that, before me?

You wake up, and move your still drugged body after the operation backwards, and make an attempt for a high five with your operated paw. Always looking after me, you are. It is not fair. Let it be my turn now.


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