Collie Health Issues – Overview

Collies have fared better than some breeds beset by popularity, but overall, they are not a breed without its health problems. This post contains an overview – we’ll get into more specifics later on. First, a link that any collie owner should know is The Collie Health Foundation. This is a clearinghouse for any and all health information related to collies, funded by the Collie Club of America.

The most prevelant- which is not to say most serious- health problem in collies is a collection of different eye defects which are grouped together under the name Collie Eye Anomaly. While collies are not the only breed affected by CEA (Border Collies, Australian Shepherds, Shelties, and a few other breeds), it is the breed in which the disease is most widespread. The genetics of it are very simple- it is a single recessive gene- and eliminating it is possible, the task is monumental. It’s estimated that 90% of collies either are affected by CEA (two copies of the recessive gene) or carry it (one affected gene, one normal gene.) Normal-eyed, non-carriers are few and far between, and balancing the many factors that already go into responsibly breeding collies (other health issues, temperament, and type) has led many breeders to put CEA further down their priority list. Currently, CEA is diagnosed by examination (performed by a veterinary ophthalmologist between 5 and 7 weeks of age). Dogs with one CEA-clear parent can only be carriers; it is entirely possible to clear a puppy from a clear x clear breeding purely by pedigree.

Hip & Elbow Dysplasia are minor problems in collies compared to many other large breeds. According to the OFA database, almost a third of collies rank as having excellent hips and only 3% rank as having dysplasia of any degree. Because of this, it is not atypical for breeders to have a dog x-rayed by their own vet and not submitted to the OFA database for permanent recording. Elbows are at a similar percentage.

The third testable problem in collies is Multi-drug Sensitivity. This is due to a neurological difference in the brain of collies that causes their body to process these drugs differently in the brain with potentially horrible side effects. A DNA test is now available for this syndrome, but it should be routine (unless an individual dog has been tested and cleared) to NOT use drugs on the contraindicated list on any collie. The most common of these drugs is ivermectin and related products. Ivermectin is commonly used in the treatment and prevention of heartworms, intestinal parasites, and sometimes as a treatment for mange. Like CEA and PRA, careful breeding of both carriers and affected dogs will allow us to slowly eliminate these problems from the genepool, hopefully without any loss of genetic diversity or other important traits.

Last but not least, PRA- Progressive Retinal Atrophy- is a degenerative eye disease that occurs in many breeds of dog. (Everything from American Eskimos and Cardigan Corgis to Springer Spaniels and Siberian Huskies!) Because the onset can be quite late in life, dogs have often been bred before ever showing any clinical signs. As of October 2008, we now have a DNA test for this disease that will allow us to determine dogs who will produce affected or carrier offspring before they develop the disease themselves. Our planned 2010/11 litter is from a 4.5 year old bitch whose extended family, including many seniors, are non-affected.

The two scariest problems (in my experience) in collies are unfortunately ones which no health test exists. The only way to reduce the incidence of these problems is not to breed dogs affected by them, and to some extent, dogs related to them. Unfortunately, since the exact mode of inheritance of these problems is not known, this is not a perfect system.

Collies, like many deep-chested breeds, can be prone to bloat (also called torsion, gastric dilation-volvulus or GDV). This is a life-threatening emergency in which a dog’s stomach fills with air and twists within the dog’s body, decreasing blood flow and causing a variety of devastating secondary effects including cardiac arrythmias, build up of toxins in the stomach lining (which can die off from lack of blood flow) and more. (A good basic guide to bloat is located here at the Dog Owners Guide.) Luckily, the problem is not NEARLY as widespread in collies as it is in some other breeds (such as Great Danes).

The last, and scariest health problem which collies can be prone to is epilepsy. Epilepsy caused the death of my first collie, Wings, and frankly scares me silly. Epilepsy varies from the stereotypical ‘falling and jerking’ of grand mal seizures to very minor muscle twitches accompanied by disorientation (partial seizures) and can be induced by certain drugs or for no apparent reason at all. This latter condition is called idiopathic epilepsy and varies in severity. Many dogs can be successfully managed on anti-seizure medication and have full lives, but should never be used as working dogs or (obviously) bred, and very careful scrutiny should be given to breeding any relative of a dog with epilepsy.

Several other unique health problems exist in collies, including Grey Collie Syndrome (Canine Cyclic Neutropenia, an immune condition which includes dilute pigmentation and a suceptibility to infection; affected dogs typically die as infant puppies; dogs from bloodlines which have produced GCS puppies in the past can be DNA tested to determine their status.) and “Collie nose,” a condition in which lesions develop on the nose and flews of affected dogs.Some problems that are not unique to collies include low thyroid, demodectic mange, and genetic shyness- but luckily all of these are comparatively rare in well-bred collies.

Now that I’ve finished scaring you to death? All three of the collies I currently live with, and most of the collies from my past have been healthy, hearty dogs- including my beloved epi-collie, Wings, who was exceedingly healthy until the day of her death. Careful breeding and stewardship has made it possible for me to live with some incredible dogs bred by others. Conscientious breeding makes a huge difference in the overall health of our animals.