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.


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.