The Kennel Club’s breed health survey forewarns breeders of potential future problems, says David Tomlinson

I’ve no doubt that all of us, when we take on a new puppy, hope that it is going to enjoy a long and healthy life, with nothing more than routine visits to the vet. Sadly, that’s not always the case, but by buying strong, healthy pedigree puppies from health-tested parents the chances of this happening are much greater. It’s also a good idea to do as much research about the health of your chosen breed before you buy, as at least you will have a good idea of what to expect in the years ahead.

The Kennel Club recently released a summary report, together with breed- specific reports, from its 2014 Pedigree Breed Health Survey. It makes fascinating reading. According to the Club, the survey was the largest of its kind, “reaching out to 385,000 owners of Kennel Club-registered dogs, from 215 Kennel Club-recognised dog breeds”. Though it may have reached out to 385,000 owners, the actual response wasn’t quite as impressive. Replies were received from owners of 191 breeds, and these represented 43,207 living dogs plus a further 5,684 that had recently died.

English springers are one of our healthiest breeds with an average life expectancy of eleven years

English springers are one of our healthiest breeds with an average life expectancy of eleven years

Discouraging news

Encouragingly, “over 65 per cent of live dogs were reported to have been unaffected by any disease conditions. Where disease conditions were reported, the most common conditions affecting live dogs were lipoma, skin cysts, hypersensitivity (allergic), skin disorders, arthritis and otitis externa (ear infection).

The most frequently reported causes of death were old age, unspecified cancer, unknown conditions, heart failure and kidney failure.” Perhaps the most telling statistic was to be found in the bottom line: the average lifespan of these pedigree dogs was just 10 years.

This doesn’t seem very long, but most of our gundog breeds beat this figure by a small margin, for the average is dragged down by the short-lived giant breeds, such as the Irish wolfhound (average 6.5 years), and those that are generally not fit for function, such as the bulldog (a shocking average of six years).

However, the overall news isn’t encouraging, as nearly all the breeds are showing shorter average lives than those given in the Kennel Club’s last survey in 2004. However, the Club does point out that the latest survey was rather different from its predecessor, so the results aren’t directly comparable.

The survey revealed that the most common cause of death in cocker spaniels was cancer

The survey revealed that the most common cause of death in cocker spaniels was cancer

Pedigree dog health problems

For each breed there is a short health analysis. As owner of two (unregistered) English springer spaniels, I turned to this first. Unlike the 2004 report, this one is more reader friendly, and it’s easy to find the most relevant statistics. A total of 224 springer deaths/euthanasia were reported, and the most common cause of death was simply old age. A worrying nine dogs were put down due to aggression, while cancer was responsible for 18 deaths, or just over eight per cent. The median age at death was 11 years, down from 12 in the 2004 survey. Obesity is a common concern with both dogs and people: 86 springers were judged to be overweight.

I turned next to the report for the Labrador. As one would expect with our most popular breed, the response was good, with forms received from 6,963 living dogs, plus 731 that had died. Again, old age was the most common cause of death, but cancer and cardiac arrest feature highly, with the most commonly reported disease being lipoma. The median age at death was 11 years, the same as for the springer. No fewer than 572 dogs were reported to be somewhat overweight, and 11 were found to be very overweight.

Eleven is the median age of death for our gundogs, as this is also the figure given for the cocker spaniel. Here old age wasn’t cited as the most common cause of death, but cancer, with lipoma again the most commonly reported disease condition. The figures were based on reports from 3,733 living dogs and 268 that had died.

Breaking the 11-year average is the flatcoated retriever, with a median age at death of 10. I found this figure encouraging, as most of the working flatcoats I’ve known have died much younger. If you know anything about flatcoats you won’t be surprised to learn that cancer is by far the most common cause of death, though the survey found that 55.54 per cent of the dogs in the survey (677 living) were disease free.

Insufficient numbers of Clumber and Sussex spaniels were covered by the survey for firm conclusions to be made about the health of these breeds

Insufficient numbers of Clumber and Sussex spaniels were covered by the survey for firm conclusions to be made about the health of these breeds

Go carefully

Figures for our other gundog breeds also make intriguing reading, though because far fewer dogs were included in the survey the results should be interpreted with care. For example, the 28 live Sussex spaniels represented just 0.06 per cent of the dogs in the survey. No average age for death is given though the range of longevity was from three to 12 years, while the most common cause of death was mammary tumour. For Clumbers the most commonly reported disease was entropion, while for Hungarian vizslas it was unspecified cancer and hepatic liver tumour.

Such health surveys are important, as they allow vets to focus on the commonest diseases, and breeders to be aware of the major problems affecting their dogs. What would be interesting would be a similar survey of non-pedigree dogs, ranging from sprockers and springadors to what used to be termed Heinz 57 varieties.

I suspect such a survey would show that an impressive pedigree is no guarantee of good health or longevity.

Average life expectancy (years) of pedigree breeds

English Springer Spaniel – 11

Labrador – 11

Cocker Spaniel – 11

Flatcoat Retriever – 10

Irish Wolfhound – 6.5

Bulldog – 6

Pedigree dog health