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The myth of springer fitness

One of the big attractions of English springer spaniels as shooting companions is that they are tough dogs, not troubled by many of the hereditary diseases that you find in Labradors.

However, is this concept of health an illusion because so few springers are ever health tested? The recently launched Breed Health Survey for English Springer Spaniels has been designed to come up with the answers. It aims to give an accurate picture of the health and temperament of the breed.

The survey has been designed by the joint health co-ordinators for the UK English springer spaniel breed clubs. It aims to put any problems in context by asking owners to submit reports on both their healthy dogs, as well as those with diagnosed health conditions — and also to report on any dog they have owned that has died since January 2008.

Anyone in the UK who owns a springer can take part in the survey, whether their dog, or dogs, are Kennel Club (KC) registered or not.

Before looking at the survey, I turned to the website of the English Springer Spaniel Club. It declares: “English springer spaniels are not troubled in general by serious health problems, other than some of the usual canine illnesses and infectious diseases that can affect the canine population.”

Do you know the score?

However, a quick check of the breed’s hip scores shows that the five-year breed mean score, under the British Veterinary Association (BVA)/KC scheme, is 12.2, while that for the Labrador is 11.3. Are we springer owners kidding ourselves that our breed is healthier than it really is?

In the case of hip scores, it’s difficult to draw any conclusions. Fewer than 1,000 springers have been scored, compared with almost 80,000 Labradors. It’s also certain that the great majority of those scored springers were showbred, rather than working, dogs. Most advertisements for Labrador stud dogs tell you the animal’s hip scores. I’ve never seen similar figures supplied for a working springer stud.

I asked a veterinary surgeon friend, who has three springers of her own, for her thoughts on the general health of the breed. “We don’t see that many sick springers, but the youngsters are prone to injury due to their exuberant natures, especially if not well trained,” she told me. “Many middle-aged springers have arthritis and muscular pain, but this is often overlooked by gundog owners who think that if the dog still wants to work, it can’t be in pain.

“Elbow arthritis is quite common and I suspect many suffer from subclinical incomplete ossifi cation of the humeral condyle that, in some cases, leads to a fracture of the elbow. It’s the biggest inherited health problem the [springer] faces, but the only one we can’t screen for. We see occasional heart problems but usually in quite old springers.

“Springers are prone to lumpiness in later life, though most of the tumours seem to be benign. Mammary tumours can be seen in older entire females, but whether this is a breed risk or whether we see more in springers (and Labs and cockers) because, as working dogs, they are less likely to be spayed, I couldn’t say.

“For most non-breeding dogs an annual health examination by the vet will suffice, though owners could add a basic blood screen every couple of years from age seven or eight to pick up age-related kidney and liver problems. For breeding dogs I personally think hip scoring and KC/BVA eye testing is the minimum for a breeding bitch, and these plus the three DNA tests for a stud dog, but many would disagree.”

I asked Christine Bridgwater, secretary of the Meon Valley Working Spaniel Club, for her thoughts. Christine is well known as a strong supporter of health testing springers, and she believes in hip scoring and anything else you can check for.

“Knowledge is empowering,” she said. “There is no need to discount a carrier from any breeding programme if the animal is otherwise fit for purpose, be it working or showing. The survey is important, but I found it patronising when it came to the behaviour questions, as all the problems listed are socialising and training failures by the owners.”

A few minutes of your time

If you take part in the survey, don’t be put off by the drawing of what is unmistakably a show-bred springer on the home page. If the survey is to be a success, it’s vital that as many people as possible take part — including owners of both healthy springers and those with health problems. It is a very user-friendly survey, mainly requiring box-ticking. It took me around three minutes to complete for my seven-year-old spaniel, Rowan, who is in good health.

There are around 18 categories of diagnosed health conditions to report, ranging from aural to urologic, with the opportunity to describe individual health problems in more detail. Responses are requested by the end of next month. There’s no indication when the results will be published, but I look forward to commenting on them here in due course.

To take part in the survey, go to