Patricia Gail Burnham
When dog breeders select for the flying trot or Tremendous Reach and Drive (TRAD) they are selecting for weak connective tissue and weak ligaments all over the dog. That has two major health consequences: Hip Dysplasia and Gastric Torsion.
Loose Ligaments and Hip Dysplasia
Let’s talk for a moment about how joints work. Hips, elbows, shoulders and knees are all synovial joints. Synovial joints have capsules that surround the weight bearing surfaces of the bone ends. That capsule holds lubricating synovial fluid. Cartilage covers the weight bearing ends of the bones. It provides the flexible cushion to resist load and shock. When the cartilage is weakened or destroyed and you have bone against bone contact, movement becomes very painful.
The ends of bones at a joint are not supposed to slide around loosely. And in a ball and socket joint like the hip, the ball on the end of the femur is not supposed to slide around in the hip socket. If it is allowed to slide around, the bones of the joint are worn away.
The hip joint is held together by tough but flexible ligaments. The ligaments allow the joint to move, but not to move too far. If the ligaments don’t hold a joint together strongly enough, then the ends of the bones in the joint are allowed to slide against each other and they wear each other down. First the cartilage is destroyed. Eventually the ends of the bones grind against each other until they become malformed and the joint deteriorates into classic hip or elbow dysplasia. Most dogs with dysplasia are not born with malformed hips. They are born with loose ligaments.
You can’t get an OFA certification on a dog less than two years old because that time is needed for the wear on the joint to become visible on X-rays. But you can predict eventual hip dysplasia by measuring early joint laxity. That is what Penn Hip does. Bone ends are not supposed to slide around and wear each other down. Joint laxity allows them to do that. And when we select for the flying trot we are selecting for joint laxity and the weak connective tissue that causes it.
Why Loose Ligaments Lead to Gastric and other Torsions.
In addition to tendons and ligaments there is an even more common type of connective tissue. This is Loose Connective Tissue. It is the most abundant form of connective tissue in the body. Its function is to hold the internal organs in place and attach skin to underlying tissues.
How do loose ligaments lead to gastric and other torsions? When you breed for the flying trot and the weak ligaments that allow it, you can’t just breed for it in the running gear. You are breeding for weak connective tissue everywhere in the dog’s body. But the organs are held in place in the body by loose connective tissue. When you breed for weak connective tissue, and the loose connective tissue is further stretched by years of trying to hold the stomach in place when it is full of food, the time may come when the loose connective tissues can’t do their job of keeping the stomach from turning over. The result is an older dog with a potentially fatal torsion. And not just stomachs torsion. So do enlarged spleens, or a pregnant uterus.
Why do you think that the breeds that are most noted for their flying trot like Afghan Hounds and German Shepherds and Standard Poodles are also known for a high incidence of gastric torsion, even though they aren’t giant breeds? The giant breed’s problem is that they have larger stomachs that are heavier and stretch out their ligaments sooner than the non giant breeds. Think of a heavy pendulum when compared to a light weight one. Ballet dancers do stretching exercises to increase their genetic flexibility. What they are doing is stretching the ligaments that control their joints. Pregnancy, full stomachs, and enlarged spleens stretch the loose connective tissue that is supposed to keep those organs in place.
You need strong connective tissue to keep the organs in place throughout the dog’s life.
When the University of Pennsylvania vet school was soliciting proposals for yet another study on the causes of gastric torsion I sent them a letter that ended with the following proposal that I hoped they would pursue: “Why am I telling this to PennHip? Because you are the only ones in the business of measuring joint laxity. It shouldn’t be hard to do a study that shows the relationship between joint laxity and torsion. All it would take is a post card survey. A grad student could query all the PennHip users prior to the last decade who owned dogs from retriever size up, and ask them if those dogs had torsioned during the rest of their lives. With the data collected, it should be possible to correlate the results and show proof that joint laxity indicates the weak connective tissue that leads to torsion.
Did they follow up? Nope. I suspect that veterinarians don’t like taking suggestions from engineers.
Learning from experience:
I worried about gastric torsion for twenty five years before I ever saw a case. To celebrate my birthday I came home early, fed all the dogs, and went to an Ice show. When I came home I was met by a slightly potbellied Sheena. It was off to the vet for successful torsion surgery. Two years later we finally managed to get Sheena in whelp.
A European breeder asked me why I had bred a bitch that had torsioned. I didn’t know how to answer him so I filed away the question until I could come up with an answer. That took a few years. In the end the answer was ignorance. I had not known that her torsion indicated excessively stretchy connective tissue and that it is hereditary. Of her ten puppies, six torsioned and were operated on successfully, three were operated on to prevent torsion. (belting the stomach before torsion happens is about half the cost and has half the recovery time of torsion surgery. The recovery is more like a spay than major abdominal surgery. Belting doesn’t entirely prevent torsion because the stomach can twist in the other direction but 95% of torsions are rotated in one direction so by taking care of that direction you have prevented 95% of future torsions.)
There was once a Greyhound breeder who bred for TRAD. She came to Greyhounds from Afghan Hounds. She used to urge her puppy buyers to have their dogs operated on to prevent torsion as young adults. I would like to suggest that it is a better idea to eliminate torsion by breeding strong connective tissue than by breeding for weak connective tissue and having to do surgery on the dogs to prevent torsion.
Only one of Sheena’s ten puppies never torsioned without being prophylactically operated on. Fortunately that one (Molly) was the only puppy in the litter that was ever bred. Now we are four generations down from her and there have been no more torsion cases. If breeding for TRAD can mean breeding for torsion, you can also breed away from it. By the way, since torsions tend to occur as a dog ages most bitches will have already had their puppies by the time they torsion. That makes it hard to use torsion as an indication that they shouldn’t be bred. But stud dogs that torsion are often bred afterward. They shouldn’t be.
When she was young there was an indication that Sheena would have torsion problems later: She had Tremendous Reach and Drive and her sister Star had even more. When I was taking them both to handling classes as youngsters, whenever I traded Sheena for Star the teacher would complement her movement. Star had even more reach and drive than Sheena did. So she had even looser ligaments. Did Star torsion? Nope. But she failed her X-rays for hip dysplasia. The loosely held head of the femur had ground down her hip socket. I am probably the only Greyhound person who actually sent a failing hip X-ray to the OFA to prove that Greyhounds can have hip dysplasia. Star and Sheena’s basic problem was the same, weak connective tissue. But in Star it produced dysplasia while in Sheena it produced torsion in her and the next generation.
About this time I lost my fondness for Tremendous Reach and Drive. Dysplasia and torsion are too high a price for it. Instead, now when I see Sheena’s great grandkids, 80 or Love or Wings rolling back and forth on the grass with enthusiasm after they have eaten breakfast I remember Dr. Barrett who blanched when I rolled Sheena over gently on an exam table. You shouldn’t have to be that careful. The current generation has stronger connective tissue than Sheena did. Hopefully it will be strong enough to keep their internal organs in place throughout their lives. Even if they roll vigorously on their backs.
Their grandmother Taupe, (Molly’s daughter, Sheena’s granddaughter) used to do vertical leaps while fully pregnant. I wondered what the puppies thought was happening while they are bring bounced, but when I described her leaps to a vet, she cringed at the possibility of uterine torsion. It didn’t happen. Taupe had Molly’s strong connective tissue. Taupe was also a fast runner which is an indicator of good connective tissue. And she trotted smoothly and effortlessly, not with tremendous reach and drive.
Torsion and dysplasia are too high a price to pay for a flashy trot that has no function other than to catch the eye of a judge who doesn’t know that over reaching and overextension, and breaking the trot out of being a two beat gait, indicates faulty movement. It shouldn’t be rewarded. As long as judges put up dogs with Tremendous Reach and Drive, breeders will breed for it and the incidence of bloat and dysplasia will continue to increase. And vet departments will continue to solicit funds for yet more studies on the causes of torsion. While the main cause of torsion is judges who put up dogs with TRAD which causes breeders to breed for dogs with TRAD.
TRAD IS BAD.
So if TRAD is bad, what should a judge look for? Dogs with strong connective tissue move effortlessly at a true two beat trot. They do not overreach. They don’t have a back foot on the ground when the diagonal front paw is still up in the air. The body of a good moving dog does not lurch up and down with each stride. It moves smoothly forward in a level line while the feet propel it easily forward. And a good moving dog is sound on the down and back. Its elbows don’t wobble and its hocks don’t wobble either. How hard would it be to put up sound dogs who move effortlessly? One writer that I liked said that he could teach an eight year old how to recognize down and back soundness. I agree. So why aren’t we rewarding soundness instead of TRAD? Soundness has no down side. It doesn’t cause any physical problems. It doesn’t cause the dog pain or threaten its life the way TRAD does. For very serious reasons, movement should be sound and effortless, and without TRAD.