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Molly the 15 year old Great Dane


Whenever the subject of longevity comes up, the most common responses are:

  • Feed them raw
  • Don’t vaccinate
  • Pollution
  • Chemicals / preservatives / additives
  • Regular worming
  • Crappy dog food
  • Modern way of life
  • Living in cities
  • Stress
  • Antibiotics/ medication
  • Chlorinated water
  • Passive smoking
  • All of the above (causes cancer)
  • Other that I’m forgetting right now

Well, that worries me, I have to confess. I’m not sure it’s really helpful. I think it’s leaning towards laziness and excuses for poor choices, in fact. After all, we breed them. We are making the executive decisions. And I don’t mean, more health-testing and DNA-testing to exclude more dogs from the gene pool. That certainly doesn’t work. We should be breeding from more individuals, not fewer; we should be throwing fewer precious genes away, not more.

If more and more dogs develop ‘special needs’, that’s really counter-productive. In breeding animals the goal should be less is more; less disabled and more resistant to illness, that is. There are so many dogs in the world, and ‘perfect’ homes are limited; so all these ‘special needs’ and conditions are not really helping dogs find the best homes or be rehomed if the need arises. Better to prevent that cure. Then again, the pet industry profits from sick / special needs / disabled dogs just like the health industry profits from sick humans. And the sad thing is, we’re actually, actively and willingly, enabling this…

Although I’m not disputing that some or even all of the above reasons may play a part in reducing pure-bred dogs’ lifespan (because I don’t have valid studies to back-up a blanket  dismissal); what worries me is the frequency of such reasons put forward for all breeds and especially breeds where longevity is an issue, and where we see average lifespan going down instead of increasing; so I do wonder.

I wonder why, if some or all of the above are the main reasons our dogs die younger, why doesn’t that also apply to us?

We do eat more fast / junk food; we are able to afford much more alcohol and harmful substances; we are more urbanized and less exercised, we drive more and walk less; we are more exposed to increased air and water pollution (which also goes into the sea and the soil and therefore the crops and the fish and the meat we consume); we eat products from intense factory farming that are poisoned with growth hormones and toxins; we consume more meat and dairy than is good for us; we live in far more stressful environments, we commute more and we do stressful jobs; we use a lot more drugs and vaccines, antibiotics and medication. Cities are very bad for our health too and our mental health is suffering.

Yet humans live longer and our lifespans are increasing; so why is the life expectancy of our dogs decreasing? Are we more ‘hardy’ than pedigree dogs? Why is that? What’s the single factor that differentiates between human and pure-bred dog (or other animal) populations’ genetic health? Can we really blame all the canine cancers on passive smoking and city pollution? And why some do get cancers and heart disease, wobblers etc while others don’t?

It’s almost like some dog folk would rather blame everything else – every environmental and external factor possible, often without scientific evidence to back it up, rather than causes from within; internal, genetic, inherited factors. Why are breeders so reluctant to admit the same facts that every parent accepts about the health of their children, that every human being takes as a given regarding our own genetic health?

Less frequently do you hear about the dogs’ compromised immune system as a major cause of reduced longevity – and when you do, it’s usually to blame, again, the autoimmune breakdown on external factors: bad diet, vaccines etc. Same about their digestive system. Same about allergies. Blamed on bad commercial diets. Many dogs have sensitive stomachs though, from the day they’re born – and their parents before them – why ?

The elephant in the room is not willingly mentioned. I mean, it’s very, very reluctantly that dog show folk come around to actually say it. And talk not using the line-breeding euphemism, but what it is: inbreeding, and what it does. Because it does terrible things. And if it was such a good idea, eugenics, we would be practicing it ourselves, wouldn’t we?

Why is there such a strong social taboo in human societies about incest? Irrespective of where you think this taboo came from (God, if you happen to be religious, or from evolutionary mechanisms, if you are not) the fact is that Nature does not favor inbreeding; there must be a reason for that. There must be a reason nature favors genetic diversity and mechanisms evolved to ensure it. And we know there is a very good reason.

Yet in dogs, cancer is blamed on the environment. Bloat is ‘one of those things’ (well, it actually tuns out, it isn’t). And so on and so forth. “You can’t select against everything” – and while that’s very true, maybe there’s other ways you can make sure those horrid sneaky recessives don’t double-up, isn’t there? Yep, there is. It’s what we’ve been doing, for ourselves, since Adam (just a manner of speech), and we didn’t need geneticists to tell us. And we all know by now that it’s the same with dogs – their genes behave the same way (that’s why research into their health and disease is so useful for finding out facts about our genetic health); we don’t live way back then, in the Dark Ages, in the good old naive days, when genetic science didn’t exist; so less conspiracy theories and blaming the external factors; large size is blamed for short lifespan. Yet large animals are not necessarily shorter-lived than small ones in the wild. Size is not the real issue. Weight is.

We don’t hear it often admitted that selection pressure for dogs to grow faster and faster, and be bigger and bigger, and heavier and heavier, and more and more angulated, might actually have something to do with them dying younger and younger. And developing chronic and debilitating and eventually fatal syndromes and skeletal / spinal problems and arthritis, issues that cripple and kill them. Way too young.

Yes there is good reason to believe that fast growth and increased weight are directly linked to loss of life span. And joint problems are one major cause of premature death.

What we accept becomes the norm. If we accept that big dogs can’t possibly live more than 8 – 10 years, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. If we accept that they are to be old at 6, that’s how we shape their world. Their lives. And their early deaths.

Yet there’s plenty of evidence that Great Danes and Irish Wolfhounds can live to be 20, or 18, or 16, 15, 14 years old. And other ‘giant’ breeds also. That’s about half the age reached by the world’s oldest dog, that died recently. I can live with that, considering the size difference. I would be deliriously happy with Danes that lived to be 12, on average. But not 6. And sadly that’s where we are at the moment. Six to seven years of age, average lifespan. For a dog, dammit! Which is pathetic. Which is a huge failure on our part. As we supposedly love them. And breeding is supposed to be about improving them.

Breeding for dogs that look mature and have reached adult size at 10 or 12 months in giant breeds, is not OK. It’s wrong. And it’s not worth it. Just for ambition and bragging and convenience and record-breaking, for getting their championships early and breeding them young. Which in itself, doesn’t promote longevity – does it ?

It’s quite the opposite of what we should be doing if we valued their lives. If we valued our time together more.

I realize that many people today are city-born and raised. I’m city-born and raised too. Yet in my upbringing I was lucky to have spent a lot of time staying with family in the country and traveling in rural areas and getting to know a different way of life, helping with sheep and crops and hunting and fishing. Maybe some city folk have never been near farms, livestock, farm dogs. Or village dogs. Maybe some young people today don’t have a clue where potatoes come from and that they don’t grow on trees.

I’ve seen many farm dogs and village dogs and herding dogs, hunting dogs and livestock protection dogs. And I know how harsh their lives were and still are in many parts of the world. Even here, in the civilized West. In Europe, no less.

They were/are fed crap. They were/are fed very little. In many instances their subsistence was/is only bread and milk – as they were never, ever given meat, especially raw; herdsmen (erroneously?) thinking that giving them meat could turn them savage and that they would then kill sheep. Right or wrong, that’s how these dogs lived. If they got sick, tough – they either got better or died. If they harmed a child, or a lamb, or hens, they were shot – if they were lucky; some country folk wouldn’t even waste bullets on such dogs. These dogs didn’t have comfortable beds. They lived outdoors in all weather. They had to earn their right to reproduce. They had to earn their living because conditions were harsh and the people were poor and thrifty. These dogs worked all day, every day. They had to catch the prey to be fed; or they had to fight off predators and lick their wounds and keep up and cope. And still managed to reach a ripe old age. Why ?

I’ve said it recently – here – any nutritionist saying that dogs can’t possibly survive on such diet, is most welcome to solve the riddle. Because live they did and live they do, to this day and age, when their meager feeding regime has been replaced by the cheapest commercial complete kibble available on the market. Garbage, that is. Dog food that no caring owner or breeder would ever dream of giving to their pets. Yet they still manage to outlive pedigree dogs, well-bred and well-reared and perfectly fed with pristine barf diets and kept happy and supremely looked after and with regular veterinary care. Why ?

Maybe their genes were/are better, or better selected; maybe their illnesses were purged; maybe they came from a long line of dogs that were capable of digesting oats and corn and rye bread and ewes’ milk and eat very little and work hard and live long, thank you very much. Maybe they were “good-doers”. Maybe their fitness levels were way better and they were not carrying an ounce of fat. Maybe they were not bred to be too big for their type or too heavy for their type, or too fast-growing, but just right; maybe they are not so well-angulated, and not so ooohhed and ahhhed for being rolly-polly ‘chunky’ as puppies, and not reared on linoleum and smooth whelping boxes – so they don’t get hip dysplasia and they don’t break down with arthritis as much. Maybe they were not ‘linebred’. Maybe they didn’t carry X amount of lines going back to the same famous ancestor that had a stunning head but dropped dead at three from something that was never disclosed.

Maybe, even, just maybe their immune system was toughened up by natural selection to withstand more. Maybe those with sensitive tummies weren’t bred from no matter how good-looking they were. Maybe they were selected by performance to be almost indestructible. Aren’t we supposed to admire that? Aren’t we supposed to try and imitate that? Isn’t that what selection for improvement stands for? What else does “breeding better dogs” mean?

I meant to write something about this for a while. I recently read the views of a couple of Great Dane owners online; which prompted me to think that what they’ve actually come to terms with and accepted as normal, to me, sounded outrageous, even obscene; I guess their way of thinking was informed by the breeders they bought their dogs from – and that makes it even more pathetic as an attitude to have when keeping and breeding dogs; as breeding, of course, apart from being a personal choice, is also a service to other people; the breeder shapes their expectations and impressions; he or she is their educator; the one who sets up standards and influences the prevailing ethos within a breed and social group and the general public. What this couple said in a public interview with a lifestyle webzine was that, in their opinion, “it’s better for Great Danes to live just seven or eight years with a good quality of life, instead of living longer with health issues”. They didn’t find it strange or unusual that their beloved pets’ life expectancy is so short, as “this is the limit for these animals” in their words. “Other life-forms have a lifespan of a mere 24 hours”, they said. That profound.

I found it shocking, sad and absurd. This is a young couple that seemingly love their dogs. And it didn’t cross their minds, in fact they sounded conditioned to believe that it’s inconceivable for Great Danes to live longer and be healthy. They bought their dogs from two well-known Italian kennels of hypertype Great Danes. And the most astonishing fact is that both these well educated, worldly people, are biology teachers… I guess they’d be well and truly shocked -maybe even feel cheated- if they ever found out that there are Great Danes out there who live almost twice as long. I presume that the breeders of these dogs are duly clever not to raise their puppy buyers’ expectations about the life expectancy of their dogs too much…

Perhaps then you can think a little more next time the subject of longevity comes up and you read the inevitable list of external causes that are killing our dogs younger and younger; and ask yourself: are we honestly doing all we can to maintain or even increase our dogs’ lifespan? Are we using the oldest, healthiest sires, are we making the most of frozen semen technology ? are we breeding healthy, athletic, sound, fit for purpose dogs ? And how are we evaluating their fitness for purpose? Is the show ring a good enough test of vitality? are the conformation judges selected, trained and given enough incentives to function responsibly and efficiently ? are they monitored well? can this simulation ever replace performance testing ? can we devise breed-appropriate aptitude tests to improve athleticism ? can we learn more from livestock breeding methods like Estimated Breeding Values ?

Or are we perhaps feeding our puppies too much, selecting the sires and dams that were ‘made up’ in record time and are dripping with substance and size and bone and suffer from allergies and upset tummies if they even catch a whiff of corn or starch from the next county or not fed the absolutely top quality hypoallergenic diet we think is best for them? Can we really blame the environment for our dogs having small litters and high puppy mortality or being sterile? Can we really blame external factors for their sensitivity to anesthetics? Is it really good practice that a high percentage of litters is conceived artificially and so we are reproducing sires and dams without actually knowing or testing if they are keen and capable of mating naturally or not? Is it good practice to breed from only one or two ‘show quality’ puppies from each litter and throw the remainder of the genes carried by the others to the rubbish heap? Is it really clever to not look beyond our own noses when searching for stud dogs, in case we “lose type” ?

Are we really doing our best for our dogs? Or are we instead creating populations that are too small, too weak, too fragile and too sensitive and too short-lived, too sickly, too deformed, too nervous, too disabled and too inbred to survive unless they are constantly connected to a life-support system of intensive special care ?

No I am not advocating to feed your dog crap. I am not actually advocating to not vaccinate them, to not protect them from endoparasites, to not take good care of them.

But I do wonder why dogs that were not so well looked after lived to be 15 and 16 and 18 years of age. Why their digestive systems were more capable of digesting the starch and the corn and the grain and the gluten we are excluding from our pedigree dogs’ diets nowadays. They didn’t have fully ‘red’ pedigrees with famous champion names in them – but they had something far more precious. They lived twice as long, external factors withstanding or not. And they were hardy, healthy, able-bodied and with the temperament to match. “Ready to go anywhere and do anything” as good dogs are. I guess I’m advocating the uncommon value of good old common sense in animal husbandry.

So next time a discussion on longevity comes up, maybe this question can be sowed in the back of some fertile brains, like a seed that might grow and produce some food for thought; and instead of joining in the blaming of the high-power energy stations and the chemtrails and passive smoking and mobile phones and cosmic rays and everything else under the sun, some might actually choose to give the issue a bit more teasing. And put forward some realistic causes and start some valid discussions, about the way we breed dogs.

We need to ask the question, sincerely: are we really, truly and seriously doing what we can so that our dogs live longer, i.e., as long as the species is (or was) biologically able?

Do their lives actually matter to us? Or just their looks?