Are Purebred Dogs Sicker than Mutts?

westminster dog show

This week was the week New York City went to the dogs; the annual Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show was in Madison Square Garden on Monday and Tuesday and there were activities all over the city related to man’s best friend. The Animal Medical Center veterinarians were at the Show triaging dogs unlucky enough to get sick during the second longest running sporting event in the United States.

I always love to visit the rows and rows of cossetted purebred dogs in the benching area of the show. But all those purebred dogs made my veterinary mind drift to lists of diseases prevalent in certain breeds: Addison’s disease in Nova Scotia duck tolling retrievers, renal dysplasia in Shih Tzu dogs, or cardiomyopathy in the Doberman pinscher, to name a few. I can also assure you all three of these diseases are not exclusive to purebred dogs and can be diagnosed in any dog.

Is Hybrid Vigor a Myth or “Dog”-Ma?
The list of diseases associated with purebred dogs is long, but does that mean purebred dogs are less healthy than the basic Heinz 57 model? Probably not. One way to assess health is to look at cause of death. In a study of over 70,000 dogs from North America where the cause of death was known, the number one cause in most breeds was cancer, but the number one cause in mixed breed dogs was also cancer! The fact that cancer is so common in our canine companions reflects the high-quality medical care available to dogs in the United States and Canada. Well cared for dogs don’t die of distemper or parvovirus, they get vaccinated. Dog owners use heartworm preventative and flea/tick medications to prevent parasitic and tick-borne illnesses. Few people let their dogs off leash unattended, protecting them against trauma from automobile accidents. Good health care allows dogs to live to a ripe old age where they are at risk for developing cancer.

Common Diseases Occur Commonly
A recent study of Border Terrier health from England looked at common disorders in this healthy, hearty breed. When seen by a primary care veterinarian, dental disease, ear infections and obesity topped the list of diagnoses in this group of British Border Terriers. Compare that to a widely published list of pet insurance claims and you see the same disease in a large population of insured American dogs, where ear infections and tooth abscess are included in the top ten list. Seems that no matter where you look, dogs all seem to have similar problems.

Lifestyle and Disease
Lifestyle may play as much a role, if not more, than breed does when it comes to health. The study of 70,000 dogs reported infectious disease as the most common cause of death in Treeing Walker Coonhounds. These dogs are commonly used as hunting dogs and their outdoorsy lifestyle may predispose them to infections. The bold Jack Russell Terrier most commonly fell victim to trauma, perhaps due to daredevil personality. Age plays a role in cause of death as well. Young dogs were more likely to die from traumatic causes, but rarely cancer.

The best way to have a healthy dog, purebred or mutt, is to keep him at an ideal body weight, feed a good quality food, make sure he has plenty of exercise and at a minimum, an annual veterinary visit. Hats off to all the Westminster competitors, all of us at AMC think you are all top dogs.

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