Breeding for Health and Longevity

by Pernille Monberg

It appears that today's dog owners are placing increasing importance on health, quality of life, and longevity in their dogs. I have noticed a significant change in the demands and general attitude of dog owners over the last 30 years or so. The developments in veterinary medicine, the field of genetics, increased understanding of diseases, and better diagnostic methods have all opened up possibilities of progressively improved treatment of our dogs. It has become commonplace to spend considerable sums of money on family dogs in every aspect from accessories to food to veterinary care. In return there are expectations of having the dog live as long as possible, perhaps because of substantial emotional as well as pecuniary investments.

Sadly, there is no magic formula for a breeder to follow with a built in guarantee of breeding long-lived and healthy dogs. However, this does not mean that one can't pursue the aim through various measures which might very possibly bring you closer to the goal. One has to bear in mind that, in any form of animal husbandry, we are dealing with living beings. Each of them with their unique genetic makeup, which cannot give us any absolute predictions on what their futures hold.

This means that the the sum of an individual's reproductive qualities can for the largest part only be evaluated retrospectively -- usually when the dog is either dead or too old to reproduce.

The Stag Hunt
Death of a Stag
Etching based on original painting by H. Ansdell H.A., created between 1900 and 1949.

How important was longevity of dogs in the past?

It is very possible that throughout the history of the Irish Wolfhound, breeders and owners were not as concerned with longevity as we are today. The hounds were working dogs, used for hunting big game. This was a high-risk occupation, most likely with many casualties among the hunting dogs, but it was also an occupation suited only for the young and the fit. It is most likely that the hunting hounds had very brief careers. Surely, many breeders and owners would not keep the old retired dogs that were costly to feed. Look at our modern day hunters, who hunt only for sport and not for a living. Among them it is commonplace to shoot their old dogs, when they can no longer manage to keep up on the hunt.

Why do we want longevity in our dogs of today?

The demand for longevity is closely connected with keeping dogs as companions. They have gained status as family members, who have an almost equal right to medical treatment and special care whenever needed. We want our four-legged family members to live as long as possible, because we enjoy their company to a degree where we just can't get enough of it. With the ever-evolving field of veterinary medicine and increased possibilities of healing or managing a vast number of diseases, we frequently make use of the possibilities to prolong their lives. As our knowledge of various hereditary diseases increases, we place greater demands on the breeders to do their job carefully and wisely, which is an advantage for the future dogs and their owners. Being a breeder today is not a task for the faint of heart. Not only are we held accountable for factors which are supposed to be within our control, but also the unpredictable and less-controllable aspects of nature. However, this should not necessarily be perceived as a downside. It could be a wonderful incentive for a constant pursuit of knowledge.

What are realistic expectations?

It is generally agreed upon that the potential lifespan -- the ability to live long lives -- is to a greater extent a question of genetics. Environmental factors such as proper nutrition, medical care and proper living quarters are other determining factors in how well and how long the individual may live.

For comparison, we know that longevity runs in some human families while not in others. In order to find out what we can expect when we set the goals for achieving the optimal lifespan for the dogs we breed, we might take a look at the wild cousins of our domesticated dogs. How old can a wolf get? Not much is written on the matter, but according to the well-known wolf researcher, David Mech, the oldest recorded wolves in captivity were around the age of ten years old. These animals were clearly aged at that point, he says. We know that small dogs seem to live longer than dogs of the larger breeds. The oldest recorded Irish Wolfhound lived to the age of 16 years, 6 months. This was Anthony Killykeen-Doyle's "Killykeen Kildevin", listed in Elizabeth C. Murphy's longevity report, done for the Irish Wolfhound club of Ireland. It must be stated that this one dog was an extreme example, and not anything we should expect of the next puppy we bring home. Nevertheless, there are sufficient numbers of Irish Wolfhounds who do manage to live to the ages of 9-12 years. Bearing this in mind, we can realistically aim at breeding dogs which live at least to those ripe ages.

What measures could increase the mean average lifespan of Wolfhounds?

Careful selection of healthy breeding stock is of the outmost importance. Although we have to try to avoid specific problems, for example heart disease, it is necessary to look at the dog in its entirety. Avoid breeding animals with obvious immune issues manifested through frequently occurring infections. A strong immune system is without a doubt one of the keys to a good long life.

I have researched numerous pedigrees for information on health and longevity. For me a pedigree is meaningless unless I also have notes on the individual dogs' health and lifespans. Making such annotated pedigrees can be an eye-opening experience; suddenly patterns will emerge showing how certain families/lines of dogs seem to live longer than others. The approach is to systematically seek out hounds of such long-lived lines, and add as many of them to the breeding-programme as possible. One has to be willing to compromise to some degree concerning conformation, if being faced with such a choice.

Preparations for the future.

The practice of freezing and storing canine semen is relatively new. Fertilization with frozen semen in dogs was done in small studies the 1960s and 1970s, generally with poor conception rate and a need for large insemination volumes for successful conceptions. Not until the early 80s had the methods been perfected enough for a more systematic and successful approach to this facet of canine reproduction. In fact, a couple of Irish Wolfhounds were instrumental to the perfecting of freezing, diluting and thawing techniques in one semen storage facility.

Many breeders have regretted not having frozen semen from an aging, wonderfully healthy but now infertile sire. He may truly have shown his qualities by the age of ten or twelve, but the majority of dogs of large breeds will invariably be well beyond their reproductive stage as early as the age of 7-8 years. If one is to collect semen from a dog, this is best done between the ages of 2 1/2 to 5 1/2 years. In the years thereafter, the large breed dog has entered his senior stage in life, and his sperm quality is usually declining at least to the point where it is no longer good enough to freeze. It may occasionally still be of a quality which can produce puppies from natural mating, however this is nothing which should be taken for granted.

Imagine the following scenario: You have a very promising young male, who is well-bred, wonderful temperament, true to type, perhaps a successful lure courser and show dog. He has already produced a couple of quality litters. What more can one ask for? Two things: That he remains healthy, happy and physically active and that he will live to a good ripe age. This is the best time to store semen from him.

There is a right and a wrong motivation for saving semen from your sires. The wrong is driven by sentiment, i.e. you love your dog so much that you want to save what can be saved from him. Your love for him does not necessarily make him a valuable sire. The most difficult part of dog breeding is to be able to differentiate between your emotional bond with the dogs and good rational thinking in the breeding programme. The right reason for saving semen from an animal is with the assumption that the dog can become a valuable contributor to the breed. Should he suffer an early death from one of the breed specific problems, then the rationally thinking breeder will discard the semen, whereas the sentimental breeder will hang on to it, since this is all there is left of a beloved dog.

The dead sire approach

Anytime someone takes on the task of making changes and/or improvements in the animals they breed, they are usually looking at many years of systematic selective breeding. With cooperation among breeders, it is often possible to cut years off of the time needed to obtain the goals.

When freezing semen from our young sires, we actually have an obligation to ensure that enough semen is stored to share with other breeders in the future.

In the eternal search for long-lived bloodlines, I have come across wise breeders who have frozen semen from their sires as early as back in the 1980s. It is incredibly valuable for us to have been able to access the fruits of their labour. Thanks to the generosity of these breeders, we have been allowed to purchase frozen semen from 3 different sires, who all lived healthy active lives until their respective ages of 10 years, 11 years and 12 years.

Oakwoods Kalahari, 10 years 3 months, with his kill
Oakwoods Kalahari, 10 years 3 months, with his kill

The first criteria for the selection of these sires has been that they should have lived a minimum of 9+ years, and not have had heart problems even in their final years. We looked for dogs who had aged well, and who had pedigrees containing many long-lived ancestors and relatives. We emphasized that dogs had had active quality lives, pretty much until the end. An anecdotal example: One of the sires chased and caught a rabbit, which he proudly paraded around the property just a few days before he was put to sleep. One of the other sires, the 12 year old, had exhibited his exuberance with the arrival of a favourite person by doing pirouettes in the parking lot as her car was approaching. Unfortunately, he fractured his hock in the process, and had to be put to sleep because of it.

Hopefully, with time, we will see more and more breeders making use of this option of "bending time" a little, by bringing the well documented past into the present in order to produce good, healthy and long-lived dogs in the future.