The Ethics of CEA

CEA is not a taboo topic in the collie world, which is something I’m very thankful for. Most show breeders test puppies (it’s required by the CCA code of ethics, but not all show breeders are members) and many non-show breeders do as well. When given the choice between two identical dogs, one of who is CEA clear, everyone WILL take the clear. The gene is a simple recessive, easy enough to eliminate, in theory. The problem is, there just aren’t enough clears. Estimates vary from 78-85% of the breed is affected (two copies of the defective gene), with most of the remainder being carriers (one copy of the defective gene) and only a tiny number being clear, non carriers (two copies of the dominant GOOD gene- these dogs are frequently refered to as NENC- normal eyed non carrier).  Between other health problems that breeders want to avoid (bloat and epilepsy are the big scary ones) and sheer considerations of trying to find a dog that compliments your bitch (and is other-wies compatible- like Aussies, we have merles and double-merle breedings are verboten), it’s very easy to go with the flow and LIVE with CEA. The vast majority of them are mildly affected with a condition that is non-progressive, non-painful, and just plain doesn’t matter much- it’s an oddity and not ‘normal’ but doesn’t impair the dog. A significant number are even what’s called ‘go-normal’- any defects they have are so small that they are basically indetectable after the puppy begins to really start growing around 8 weeks. Before the DNA test- and still, by breeders who don’t understand genetics (which is another rant in and of itself), these go-normals were not always detected as puppies.  This lead to speculation that CEA was a dominant trait, since seemingly clear dogs were being bred and coming up with affected puppies, and some people believed it wasn’t genetic at all. (Which is and always has been nonsense.)  Everyone reasonable has removed dogs with the more severe grades (colobouma, detached retinas) from their breeding programs, and that seems to have reduced the incidence of severely effected puppies slowly over time. Unfortunately, since it is unusual for collie breeders to make actual CERF certificates public and there is no central database, my reference for this is just oral tradition- what I’ve been told by other collie people. I’m not entirely sure it’s accurate, and it may just be people’s perception (and a way to live with the reality that you WILL produce affected puppies.)

Some breeders have focused on eyes as such a paramount goal that they neglect other traits. Type can’t replace health or temperament. But for me, at least some of the appeal of collies is their beauty. I don’t care for collies who resemble tall shelties (not that shelties aren’t cute, but to me, collies are beautiful, not just cute- and collies have an elegance and a regal air that I don’t see in shelties.) or sighthoundy, over-fine smooths. And some of the prominent breeders who advertise most heavily for normal eyes have linebred heavily on a few famous dogs with well-documented temperament problems- primarily fearfulness. To me, this is a much bigger sin than a dog with a mild vision impairment. A fearful collie with no drive is not a collie I want to bring into this world. A dog isn’t their eyes, any more than they are their hips, their titles, their performance record, or their ability to work. The vast majority of collies will have one job- that of being a best friend. Poor temperament disqualifies them from that MUCH before any health problem does. But nothing is more heartbreaking than a dog who dies young – and this is one of the reasons that people continue to put CEA lower in their priorities- it is almost never progressive or fatal. (Dogs with the most severe grade of CEA, detached retinas, are at some risk of internal hemorrhage if they recieve a blow to the head, and it’s apparently greater than that of dogs with normal eyes. Other than this grade of CEA though, CEA isn’t fatal or linked to a shorter life.)  One of the most difficult aspects of breeding is balancing all these traits and keeping them in balance for generation after generation.

My goal is to breed for the best eyes I can manage in dogs that fit my vision of correct temperament and breed type. This means breeding affected dogs only to non-affected dogs (ideally non-carriers, but those are so few and far between that this is a difficult task), regardless of the difficulty.  Only when I’ve achieved a normal-eyed, non-carrier bitch (which is unlikely to happen for at least 4-6 more years) can I be less selective about CEA status in stud dogs. This means selecting for normal-eyed puppies from the resultant litters before any other criteria, but with the knowledge that a normal-eyed bitch, even a carrier, can be used with a wider variety of stud dogs and that improvement is a process, not just a goal.

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