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Health issues in Border Collies

There are several hereditary conditions that are currently understood to affect Border Collies. Whether you purchase a Border Collie from Dreamwork or not, please ensure that your breeder tests for ALL of the following. These conditions are painful, harrowing and veterinary treatment will be expensive. You can also check the Kennel Club website for Health test results.

Trapped Neutrophil Syndrome (TNS)

TNS is a particularly disturbing disease, as usually the effected dog dies by the age of just 4 months. The white blood cells (neutrophils) that fight infection cannot escape from the bone marrow where they are made, effectively meaning that the dog has no immune reaction. This causes problems when the first inoculations are administered, or the puppy is exposed to any kind of infection. It cannot be cured.

TNS was identified relatively recently, although it transpired that the disease had been prevalent in BCs for decades, often misdiagnosed as Fading Puppy Syndrome. It can only be accurately diagnosed by bone marrow biopsy. A DNA test was confirmed in 2007, and all dogs not hereditarily clear should be tested prior to mating.

Ceroid Lipofuscinosis (CL)

CL occurs in many species, including humans, where it is known as Batten’s Disease. There are many breeds of dog that are affected, not just Border Collies.

A sufferer cannot eliminate a natural waste product, lipofuscin, so it starts to build up in the body’s cells, including in the brain. The brain has very little storage room, and so the cells start to be compressed and destroyed. At around 18 months, brain function will start to become compromised and the dog may show balance problems and manic behaviour.
Fortunately, this disease is now very rare in BCs.

Collie Eye Anomaly (CEA)/Choroidal Hypoplasia (CH)

CEA affects a number of breeds, including Rough and Smooth Collie, Border Collie, Shetland Sheepdog, Australian Shepherd, Lancashire Heeler and Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever.

It is caused by the failure of parts of the eye to develop properly, particularly in the choroid, a network of blood vessels that supply the retina. CEA-affected dogs will vary in severity from virtually normal sight, to detached retina, bleeding inside the eye and blindness.

A DNA test was developed in 2005, and all dogs not hereditarily clear should be tested prior to mating. In addition, the litter should be screened at 6 weeks, and a copy of the certificate provided in your puppy pack. Although a litter genetically clear of CEA cannot be affected by it, the eye test also looks for other defects and general eye health.

Congenital Deafness

Figures from the Animal Health Trust indicate that 1 in 25 Border Collies tested suffers from congenital deafness. This still may not sound particularly important, but when you realise that the estimate for the incidence of deafness in the dog population as a whole is about 0.25 %, or 1 in 400 individuals, it begins to look a little more significant.

Even the most experienced Border Collie breeders sometimes do not recognise an affected puppy in the nest, especially one that is unilaterally deaf, and yet there are still people who are reluctant to hearing test, because "we haven't got a problem". However, the only way to know that for sure is to hearing test all breeding stock and progeny.

A unilaterally deaf dog is very difficult to identify as it hears perfectly in the non-affected ear, and so usually behaves normally. It is almost impossible to confirm that a dog is unilaterally deaf without performing an objective test, such as the Brainstem Auditory Evoked Response or BAER test.

The BAER is the electrical response of the brain to auditory stimuli. When sound enters the ear, the auditory pathway generates electrical impulses. These are picked up by recording electrodes, which are positioned on the head, and passed into a computer. A series of clicks are passed into the ear through a headphone, producing a repeatable sequence of peaks and troughs, which are displayed on a screen. The test is usually very quick and non-invasive, and gives an accurate and totally objective hearing assessment. Puppies are tested from 5 weeks of age, and adults can be tested too.

Now that the BAER test is available, no-one need ever find out that their much-beloved but somewhat wayward puppy behaves that way because he is in fact totally deaf, as it is no longer necessary to purchase a puppy whose hearing status is unknown. This is the aim of hearing testing - to ensure that breeders know the hearing status of the pups they are selling and to reduce (or in a perfect world, eliminate) the incidence of deafness in the Border Collie breed. Eventually it is hoped that a blood test will be available to identify carriers of the disorder, but until then, the only way to know with certainty the hearing status of each individual, and go some way towards reducing the percentage of affected dogs, is to evaluate every animal using the BAER test.

Hip Dysplasia

Hip dysplasia is an immensely complex subject. It is essentially deformed and poorly functioning hips. Symptoms include stiffness, reluctance to exercise, abnormal gait and abnormal or limited muscle development. There are normally two aspects to it: the hip joint not forming a deep, snug fit, and the femoral head itself being misshapen, which then causes abnormal wear and tear in the joint.

The joint will continually try to lay down new cartilage to repair the damage, although cartilage growth is slow. The joint will become inflamed, and the dog will suffer a cycle of cartilage damage, joint inflammation and pain. As the condition progresses, the more the joint becomes damaged, the less able it is to resist further damage. This can be further exacerbated by osteoarthritis. Treatment varies from pain management to an operation to replace the hip, which is expensive, and intrusive for the dog.

Genetically, despite the fact that HD is one of the most researched diseases, we still know little about it. We do know that a genetic pre-disposition is not the only factor – environmental influences like nutrition and exercise also have an impact. However, we do not know at this stage how it is inherited, other than it is a polygenic disease (ie, more than one gene contributes to the condition), and we do know that dogs with high hip scores can and do produce low ones, and vice versa.

A hip score -  a number given to a x-ray of the hips by a BVA panel based on a compliance to the “perfect” joint - does two things: firstly, it tells you if your dog has HD (or not!). Secondly, it is a piece of information to help you make your breeding decisions. However, it is very important that you take the information in context, because what it doesn’t do is give you any guarantees about progeny, unlike a DNA test for one of the diseases above.

The general advice is to breed from the lowest scores, preferably below the median, currently 13 for Border Collies. However, it is important with polygenic diseases to look at the breadth of the pedigree – ie, look at hip scores for siblings and other relatives rather than just the parents and their parents. Although breeding is always a genetic lottery, there is evidence to suggest that it would be more sensible to go for a slightly higher scoring dog with fairly consistant scores throughout the relatives, than for a low scoring dog with incidences of random high scores within close relatives. A dog cannot be hip scored before 12 months of age, but is never hip scored again, so there is no evidence to show that the hips degenerate naturally over time, or by how much.

 In order keep you puppy as fit and as healthy as possible, you should feed a high quality diet, appropriate to age and activity level, and limit exercise. A good marker is around 5 minutes exercise per month old, so a six month old pup can go on a 20 minute walk. If you are planning to do physical activities like agility, trials or cani-x with your dog, ensure that there is no impact work (repetitive jumping and landing) until the growth plates are closed at around 12 months.