BERNERS - HEALTH & LONGEVITY
If you’ve been searching the internet for a Bernese Mountain Dog puppy, I can guarantee you have come across breeders claiming that they breed for “health and longevity.” Many will say, “We don’t show, we just want to produce healthy family pets.” Maybe you've come across the claim that "imports are healthier."
So – just how does a good breeder demonstrate that they are breeding for “health and longevity” of the dogs, and not just the “health” of their bank account? How does a breeder demonstrate that they are doing everything possible to produce healthy, long-lived pets – in a breed that has many genetic health problems (hip dysplasia, elbow dysplasia, cataracts and other eye disease, heart disease such as subaortic stenosis, Degenerative Myelopathy, von Willebrands Disease, and many cancers that often occur in young and middle-aged dogs – histio, lymphoma, osteosarcoma, hemangiosarcoma, mast cell tumors, etc.).
Don’t just fall for the sales pitch!!
For starters, both BMD parents should be entered in the online Berner-Garde database, and they should have health clearances listed for hips, elbows, eyes, cardiac, von Willebrands Disease (vWD), and Degenerate Myelopathy (DM). If either litter parent has offspring older than 2 years, you should be able to see some of these clearances for the offspring – the more, the better. If either parent has offspring older than 12 months, ideally you will be able to see that some of these offspring have had OFA “prelims” on hips and elbows, as well as other eye and cardiac clearances. (If you need help using Berner-Garde, check out this page.) There are few things that make me sadder for our breed, than a breeder who does not enter their litters in Berner-Garde - it is so easy to do, and there is no financial cost involved. I am so proud of my puppies, that I am usually in a hurry to enter them!
The Orthopedic Foundation for Animals (OFA) also promotes health screening and the open sharing of results via the Canine Health Information Center (CHIC). The parent club for each participating breed, determines the requirements for the breed. The Bernese Mountain Dog requirements are determined by the BMDCA. (For more details on CHIC, check out this page.) As a breeder who is very determined to breed healthy puppies, I think it is important to set a good example by striving to get CHIC numbers on all of my personal dogs, whether or not they are used for breeding. It's important to be aware that a CHIC number is not about "normalcy" - a CHIC number does not mean that the dog cleared all the tests, it means that the breeder did all of the recommended tests and shared those results openly in the OFA database.
A Bernese Mountain Dog breeder who is truly dedicated to health and longevity will show that they are dedicated to full litter data in Berner-Garde – health screening on ALL of the puppies in the litter, as well as age of death (AOD) and cause of death (COD) being entered when the time comes. How can a breeder make any claims on the health of the puppies they have sold, without tracking them for their entire lives? The vast majority of puppies will be healthy at 8 weeks – but what about at 1 year? 5 years? Are they still alive at age 10? If a breeder does keep in touch with their puppies and they have in fact lived long, healthy lives, wouldn’t it be reasonable to expect the breeder would share this data in Berner-Garde? I think so, and that is what I do.
There is a new genetic test available for Bernese Mountain Dogs - the Histiocytic Sarcoma Pre-Test which is performed by ANATGENE in France, and available via OptiGen in the USA - click here for details. It is not a standard genetic test in that it does not identify whether a dog is Clear, Carrier, of Affected with Histiocytic Sarcoma (the inherited cancer that is very common in BMD but very rare in other breeds). Instead, this test provides an estimated risk that a dog will develop malignant histiosarcoma: A means that dog has 4 times less risk, B is neutral, and C means that dog is 4 times more likely to develop histiosarcoma. As of Summer 2017, this test has not been performed on any of the Tanzanite dogs. I am not convinced that it is any more predictive, than the pedigree research that I do. At this time, there are only 100 dogs entered in Berner-Garde with Histio Pre-Test results (34 A, 52 B, and 14 C). Of these 100 dogs, 24 are located in the USA (8 A, 12 B, and 4 C). Two of the American dogs who came back as "C" lived to be almost 11 years old and died from cancers that were not histiosarcoma - so even though they were 4 times more likely to die of histiosarcoma they both beat those odds. The test is currently priced at $130 - the sample is sent to Optigen, who then sends it to Antagene in France. I will probably participate in the future, primarily to assist with the ongoing research. I would not interpret a test result of "A" as guaranteeing a long-lived dog, nor would I consider a "C" to be cause for alarm.
I do not consider it "reputable" when a breeder has a website that doesn't list the registered names of their breeding dogs, so that puppy owners can do their own research on pedigrees and health clearances. I do not consider it "transparent" when a breeder doesn't enter all litters in Berner-Garde. Please ask the breeder for this information if it is not openly provided on the website. This is not too much to ask of breeders who are asking $1800 and up for their puppies!!
Longevity is very difficult to predict in this breed! Most of us who have been breeding for a long time and track our litters, have seen cases where 2 short-lived parents produced a litter of long-lived pups, and vice versa. So we totally understand that sometimes there is no rhyme or reason to longevity – however, this is no excuse for not doing pedigree research! Below is a screenshot of one of my "longevity pedigrees" - the full names of the dogs are truncated, but the point is to note the colors. I hope to see more shades of green and blue, than shades of red/orange and yellow. This is just a starting point - although cause of death is included when known, for my first pass I'm just looking at overall longevity. The next step is to look closely at causes of death - for example, some of the red/orange might be due to infectious disease or accident. Also I note the frequency of certain conditions, such as Malignant Histiosarcoma, Lymphoma, and bloat. Also I admit, I don't like seeing white - which means I couldn't find any data on age of death in the public databases. This is just my own personal method so I can see at a glance if a pedigree contains short-lived dogs, average-lived dogs, or long-lived dogs. I developed this exact method on my own, but most good breeders have their own ways of researching pedigrees.
Keep in mind that our breeding dogs are most fertile in their younger years – we can’t wait to breed them until they reach double digits. So, pedigree research is critical – this involves knowing age and cause of death of ancestors in the straight line pedigree, as well as other ancestors such as aunts and uncles. Few breeders who import dogs from other countries, have this in depth knowledge of the pedigrees; this information is more likely to be available for American-bred dogs. So when breeders promote the health of imported dogs, buyer beware. Ask for documented proof of the longevity behind imported dogs.
For the average pet breeder, there is no excuse for breeding a DM Carrier to a DM Carrier, which results in a 25% chance of producing a DM At Risk puppy. This type of breeding should ONLY be done by responsible, knowledgeable AKC preservation breeders – the breeders who are concerned about the puppies but are also concerned about the future of the breed. These breeders show their dogs, are active in their regional club and the BMDCA, and generally have produced long lines of AKC champions. There ARE valid reasons for breeding a DM Carrier to another DM Carrier, but convenience is not one of them!
All Bernese Mountain Dog breeders HOPE for health and longevity in their puppies. But the best breeders ACT to improve the odds! They use Berner-Garde – both by entering health data, and by utilizing the database for pedigree research. They use health-tested parents, and also strive for full litter health testing. They keep in touch with every puppy for its entire life, and enter age and cause of death in Berner-Garde – so this information will be available to future pedigree researchers for years to come. So, when the breeder trying to sell you a BMD puppy, mentions “health and longevity” don’t be afraid to ask them if they are just hoping for that, or if they are taking steps to improve the odds.