The following article by Katariina Mäki 2021 offers in-depth information on development of the Finnish Spitz Breeding Strategy.
The article is presented in 3 parts.
Part I. Tackling the main health conditions
Part II. Success story regarding epilepsy
Part III. Increasing and maintaining genetic diversity
Breed-specific breeding strategies to achieve positive outcomes - the Finnish Spitz as an example
Tackling the main health conditions
Katariina Mäki 2021
Pedigree dogs have often been in the headlines in recent years when talking about hereditary diseases in dogs. There are a number of inherited defects and diseases that affect breeding. Some of these may be very common in certain breeds. It can be difficult for breeders to find suitable breeding dogs, especially when, in addition to health, other characteristics, such as behavior, working traits, and appearance, must also be considered in breeding.
So where to start? How to tackle the health problems and bring some positive news for a change?
I will use the Finnish Spitz as an example. As a Finn, I am especially proud of the way in which the health of our national dog breed has been improved. The Finnish Spitz is a model for success in terms of execution of a breed-specific breeding strategy.
Finnish Spitz – one of the healthiest dog breeds in the world
Finnish Spitz dogs can be expected to live to > 11 to 15 years of age. In a Swedish insurance company Agria’s database, Finnish Spitz have low death rates in most categories and a higher age at death compared to other insured dogs. The breed has a relative risk for death of 0.59 - in other words, they were 1.7 times less likely to die in the period compared to all breeds.
Typical for a hunting dog is that the cause of death for many dogs is accidents, which decreases the statistical average lifespan – but is not disease-related. These accidents include the disappearance of the dog, as well as traffic accidents. In the Agria data, the relative risk of being hit by car/train/vehicle was 1.5 and a median age at death for this cause 5 years compared to 3 years of age for all breeds. Similar trends can be seen also in the statistics of the Finnish Kennel Club’s breeding database.
Morbidity of the Finnish Spitz in 2011-2016 was only half compared to all breeds (Agria statistics, Figure 1). The most common reason for vet care in Swedish Finnish Spitz dogs was snake/insect bite.
Breeding of the Finnish Spitz started already in the 1800s
Goal-oriented breeding of the Finnish Spitz started officially in 1892, when the first breed standard of a “Finnish barking bird dog” was written. The breeding goal was to develop a skillful dog, who barks at birds perched in trees, and who at the same time is also a beautiful yard dog. Today the dogs are used to hunt forest game birds, but also to some extent serve as an elk-hunting dog and to hunt small game and retrieve birds shot into the water.
The most important breeding goals, along with overall good health, are to retain the breed's current bird-barking characteristics without forgetting its potential as a versatile hunting dog. The Finnish Spitz is a designated hunting dog, so its mental make-up and other properties must be up to this task.
Breed-specific breeding strategies
The breeding of the Finnish Spitz is guided by a breed-specific breeding strategy. The Nordic countries use breed-specific breeding strategies to map the situation of the breed and to provide breeders with instructions and tools, which, in the long run, help the whole breed and thus also the individual breeder.
Health screening tests as well as other important breed management considerations are outlined in the breed-specific breeding strategies. The strategy is based on evidence and information gathered from a range of sources. Hence, the breeding plan is tailored to the conditions of the individual breed and consider all aspects relevant in the breeding goal for that breed, i.e., physical and mental health, working traits, as well as population structure and genetic variation. The documents contain the history of the breeds, a description of the present situation, and goals and strategies for the future. The idea is that the document should constitute an overall plan for the breed and act as a guideline to breeders.
Breed associations and their subordinate clubs are similarly responsible for steering the breeding in their respective breeds as well as for their breed's breeding strategy. See the latest breeding strategies of the Finnish Spitz in the Finnish Kennel Club’s breeding database (JTO (Breeding Strategy) and the Swedish Kennel Club’s site - link at the bottom of the page - (Rasspecifik Avelsstrategi (RAS) ).
Breed-specific breeding strategy for health
Hereditary diseases of the Finnish Spitz population are handled mainly by examining the risks underlying the mating combinations and taking them into breeding decisions. As well, maintaining the genetic diversity of the breed, for example by reducing the level of inbreeding of the combinations, is a priority (read more in Part III. Increasing and maintaining genetic diversity). The principles are given in the breed-specific breeding strategy; templates, tools, and advice are provided by the Finnish Kennel Club to assist breed clubs.
The breeding strategy of the Finnish Spitz provides information about the inherited problems in the breed and guides breeding decisions. Rules and recommendations are given in the strategy. The rules dictate the health preconditions for breeding dogs, to get the litters registered by the Finnish Kennel Club. This is the so called PEVISA program, PEVISA translating to program for breeding against inherited diseases and defects. Recommendations, on the other hand, do not affect litter registration, but are a premise for the Breed Association to guide mating and breeding decisions for individual dogs and the breed as a whole.
Males are recommended by the Breed Association, if they meet the minimum requirements for health, working traits and appearance. These include:
PEVISA inspections with acceptable results (see below)
the Epi Index (epilepsy, see Part II. Success story regarding epilepsy) below 1.8, and the combination being such that the Index of the becoming litter is below 1.0
at least level 2 result from an open class of a breed-specific working trial
a quality rating of at least level ‘good’ (typical for breed) at a dog show.
Females have the same health criteria, and it is recommended that they have a working trial and a show result as well. Most important is however, that as many healthy females as possible are used for breeding, as the Breed Association is working on increasing the number of breeding animals and thus the size of the gene pool. The same applies of course to males. Noticeable is, that at most 50 offspring can be registered for an individual dog in this breed – to ensure that popular sires are not decreasing the size of the gene pool. Dog owners may ask the Breed Association for four-generation pedigree health information when considering breeding.
PEVISA includes veterinary examinations for patella luxation and eye diseases
Finnish Spitz has had a PEVISA program since 1994. Current PEVISA includes mandatory veterinary examinations for patella luxation and eye diseases. One litter can be registered without these examinations, although the Breed Association recommends that the examinations have been done already before the first mating.
In the light of the patella luxation statistics the situation in Finland is good. However, the proportions of examined dogs are quite small. In addition, the Breed Association has been informed of cases in which a young dog has been euthanized or has had to undergo surgery before the age of examination (12 months) because of strong symptoms. The Association is gathering info on dogs which have been treated because of knee problems.
grades 0 (normal) and I (almost normal) for patella luxation are allowed for a breeding dog. If one parent of a litter has grade I, the other one should have grade 0.
Recommendations given in the breed-specific breeding strategy:
an individual with grade I luxation and having a particularly high number of dogs with patella luxation in the 4-generation pedigree, is not recommended for breeding.
an individual having offspring with patella luxation in two or more litters is no longer recommended for breeding.
The breeding strategy of the breed states that attention should also be paid to the angulations and structure of the hind legs. “Susceptibility [for knee problems] increases with a build, in which the long bones of the hind leg are convoluted respective to each other, the trochlear groove is shallow, and the entire knee angle is too open. The structure of the hind leg is a hereditary trait, which can be influenced through breeding.” The Breed Association has given instructions to Finnish show judges, for these traits to be taken into account in show evaluations. This kind of issues are discussed in judges’ negotiation days organized by breed associations.
hereditary cataract, progressive retinal atrophy (PRA), or grades 2-6 of persistent hyperplastic tunica vasculosa lentis/persistent hyperplastic primary vitreous (PHTVL/PHPV) are not allowed for a breeding dog. If one parent of a litter has grade 1 PHTVL/PHPV, the other one has to be free of the disease.
Reducing problems in reproduction
Problems have occurred in whelping as well as in females getting pregnant. Litters have been relatively small.
Currently, litter size is increasing slowly, at the same pace with a decreasing average inbreeding coefficient. Inbreeding may have been the reason for the reproduction problems in the breed. Another reason is probably the relatively high age of the females used for breeding.
The breed-specific breeding strategy instructs that
dogs to be bred on should be able to mate naturally.
females, which resist mating, or sires that are repeatedly reluctant to mate even though the timing is confirmed to be correct, must not be used for mating if even a switch in partners fails to produce the desired end result. Nor should artificial insemination be used in such cases.
females that cannot give birth normally should not be used for breeding.
Handling the problem of missing teeth
All Nordic breed associations of the Finnish Spitz are gathering info on tooth problems in individual dogs. In the Finnish breed-specific breeding strategy it is recommended to use dogs with only mild teeth problems for breeding and to combine them with a partner, which has a full set of teeth.
If a dog with missing premolars (P1, P2, P3 or P4) is used for breeding, the partner must be full-toothed.
A dog lacking more than one incisor, molars or canines should not be used for breeding.
The Finnish breed-specific breeding strategy gives also other strong recommendations. A breeding dog should not be/have
sick or vicious
a clear sound phobia
diabetic or produce diabetic offspring – nor should two such lines be combined, both of which are known to have diabetic dogs
aged under two years.
A maximum of two litters is recommended for males under 4 years of age. After that, a maximum of two litters / year is recommended.
So – what does it take to really improve the health and well-being of your breed? For Finns and Nordics, it is primarily the love for the breed which has been the driving force for a successful breeding program. Besides love, you need also hard work and committed people to work with you. You need to:
gather information about the health issues in the breed – both about common and, as a precaution, also about new, still rare conditions.
decide which are the most important (and hereditary) ones and
make a breeding strategy around them
gather information on which dogs are affected and how severely – here openness of dog owners and breeders plays a crucial role. One must realize that nobody is alone, and the issue is nobody’s fault – only doing nothing about it would be everyone’s fault.
use the help of genetic/breeding experts if needed, to make recommendations for which dogs to use for breeding
monitor the improvement – if no improvement exists, find out the reasons and change the strategy if necessary.
In any case, you need collaboration between all stakeholders as well as sharing of resources and health information. Ideally, collaboration exists across regions, clubs and countries. We in the International Partnership For Dogs are here to help you with that.
Agria, Swedish insurance statistics for dog breeds (on DogWellNet.com).
DogWellNet 2021. Get a GRIHP! on Finnish Spitz – Globally Relevant Integrated Health Profile (GRIHP) for the Finnish Spitz.
Finnish Breed Association: Suomen Pystykorvajärjestö – Finska Spetsklubben.
Finnish Kennel Club breeding database - Finnish Spitz.