A backcross project has successfully reduced congenital conditions in dalmatians, says David Tomlinson, but once again the purists are complaining
One ground-breaking project has nearly eliminated dalmatian health problems, though breeders are refusing to accept the outcrossed dogs. Surely health should be more important than breed purity, asks David Tomlinson.
But dalmatians are not alone. Genetic diseases are the product of decades of selective breeding and you would be hard pressed to find a breed without problems. Read gundog hereditary diseases for our advice. And the dalmatian is a utility dog like the hugely popular French bulldog. Read dogs with breathing difficulties to find out why you should think twice before buying a fashionable, flat-faced dog.
DALMATIAN HEALTH PROBLEMS
This column, you may note, is called Sporting dog, to reflect the gundogs and terriers that largely feature here. However, watching a dalmatian trotting behind a two-horse phaeton at a coaching Concours d’Elegance reminded me that though the Kennel Club may classify the breed as utility, lumping it with the couch potatoes of the canine world such as the French bulldog, the dalmatian is one of the most sporty of dogs.
The long history of the dalmatian is complicated and though there are rumours of Indian ancestry most people believe that the breed evolved in Croatia, hence its name. It’s certainly old: there’s a splendid, 17th-century painting of Francesco di Cosimo II de’ Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany, accompanied by a heavily spotted dalmatian. By the late 18th century, these distinctive, spotty animals were well know in Britain and Thomas Bewick featured one in his book, A General History of Quadrupeds (1790), calling it the dalmatian or coach dog.
The breed’s development took place here, where it became established as the carriage dog, trotting obediently behind the back axle where it added a touch of class and elegance. They also fended off fetlock-nipping attacks from cur dogs that might run out and chase the passing carriage. In the stables, the dalmatians would live with the horses, again protecting them and the carriages from theft. Even today, dalmatians still display a natural affinity with horses.
Dalmatians reached America in the early 19th century and soon gained a reputation as firedogs, frequently employed to run alongside the fire-fighter’s horse-drawn waggon. Fire-fighters took pride in their waggons and dalmatians provided a much-admired complement to the groomed horses, polished leathers and brasses and gleaming paintwork of the rig. Dalmatians remain popular in the USA as a fire-house mascot.
As a coach dog the dalmatian had to have great endurance, which explains its physique. It is a dog that was bred to run all day, hence its long legs and deep chest. Its proportions are similar to those of an English foxhound: its body is the same length from ground to withers as it is from chest to haunch.
THE PROBLEMS WITH THE SPOTTED COAT
Though the spotted coat might please the human eye, it comes with a number of genetic disadvantages, one of which is congenital deafness. A significant number of puppies are born deaf or partially deaf, a problem common to many albino or piebald animals. According to the Kennel Club, “not enough is known about congenital deafness to be able to offer any firm breeding advice. However, scientists at the Animal Health Trust have suggested that it may be possible to reduce the risk by only breeding from bilaterally normal hearing parents.” Owners are encouraged to have their dogs BAER (Brainstem Auditory Evoked Response) tested.
Sadly, deafness is not the dalmatian’s only genetic problem. Equally serious is hyperuricosuria, a condition in which the dog’s liver has difficulty in breaking down uric acid, leading to kidney and bladder stones. This is an inherited condition and one that all pure-bred dalmatians can suffer from, though it particularly affects older males. In a ground-breaking attempt to solve the problem, the Dalmatian-Pointer Backcross Project was started in 1973 by Dr Robert Schaible, a medical geneticist then at the University of Indiana. He used a champion English pointer sire on a pure-bred dalmatian bitch in a bid to eliminate the faulty gene. Just one of the offspring of the original litter was bred to another dalmatian.
Today, 18 or 19 generations on, the LUA (low uric acid) dogs descended from the pointer are visually indistinguishable from a pure dalmatian and the high uric acid gene has been eliminated (though not other faults, such as congenital deafness, but selective breeding can largely eliminate this). However, one major problem soon emerged: show enthusiasts in the USA refused to accept dogs from the Backcross Project.
There was equal resistance on this side of the Atlantic. When the Kennel Club allowed dalmatian enthusiast Julie Evans to exhibit a backcross bitch called Fiona at Crufts in 2011, the two British dalmatian clubs condemned the Club’s decision, calling it arrogant and unacceptable. Breed purity, it seems, is more important to many people than the health of their dogs. Despite this, Evans’s Tyrodal kennel remains dedicated to breeding what she calls “the total dog… show quality, healthy genetics and with sound temperament”.
Today, there are LUA dalmatians in the UK and Europe, all descendants of the Backcross Project, though sadly the majority of dalmatian breeders still put breed purity before health. The project remains a classic example of how carefully considered outcrossing can be hugely beneficial to a breed. However, it is also a sad reminder of the resistance pedigree-dog enthusiasts display to any animal they consider to be a mongrel. Surely sound health should be every breeder’s number-one priority?