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New Research on Canine Lifespan

By Amy Fernandez

For some strange reason, dogs are constantly popping up in the news these days.  In one sense, I would say that this media interest is long overdue. But like I said before, the best place to start making amends is by getting the facts straight.

The latest big buzz I’m referring to is the front-page New York Times story on Groundhog Day (which seems somehow appropriate). A recent British study published in Scientific Reports purports to offer new information on canine longevity.  Admittedly, lifespan is a perpetual obsession of every owner.  The minute we acquire a new dog and that romance begins, that nagging thought is there.  This is gonna end someday.

Naturally, we do everything possible to mitigate that eventuality–more on that later. More crucially, most prospective owners are also keenly aware that particular breed’s typical lifespan. Thirty seconds on google will reveal that well-established number for any breed. So, that was my first Groundhog Day question when this story came out. Okay, we have heard this before.  That initial reaction was reinforced a few hours later when the article ascended to top trends. Since then, it has been cloned by almost every major news outlet, which really feels like Groundhog Day!

The study is based on a British database, and in the big context of dog reality, it ranks as a minuscule sampling of data. The numbers were extrapolated from a combination of British veterinary records, breed registries, pet insurance companies and other sources not specified in the story. But it is fair to conclude that rescue organizations were those contributors because the study’s data manager works for a British dog welfare company. The results tracked 584,734 dogs representing 155 breeds. The article emphasized that “average lifespan varied quite spectacularly among breeds”. Once again, tell us something we don’t know. In spite of the variable sourcing of information in this study, the results generally align with (actual) documented evidence.  From that perspective, it is hard to see the ultimate breakthrough news of this heralded study.

It is often said that raw data can be a hotbed of distortion. There’s tons of research analyzing those dangers such as preconceived biases and subjective conclusions.  In that context, the biggest piece of news that came out of this study barely got a mention.  In contrast to most canine health studies, mixed breed dogs were included in the tabulation. That alone is a significant issue that rarely receives much analytical scrutiny in these days of Doodle celebrity.  At this point, the verified data on canine health and lifespan has come from a range of purebred organizations and registries. Purebreds are, by definition, well-documented from birth to death.

That’s precisely why purebreds have been such a goldmine for genetic researchers. Obtaining data is straightforward and–because it is coming from serious, dedicated breeders–wonky variables are minimized.  Typical lifespan is an easy calculation when that kind of information is available.

For decades, the general public has been bombarded with the idea that mixed breeding is analogous to a longer, healthier life.  It’s easy to make such claims in the absence of actual facts.  That embedded belief has, of course, become the bedrock Doodle sales pitch.  Unfortunately, this data set seems to contradict that beloved notion.  Normally, that would be considered the broader insight revealed by the research.  In an academic sense, successful analysis should provide a greater understanding of the issue at hand.  In this case, canine lifespan.  So, burying that significant finding seems like a red flag. But, there’s more.

As we know, AR has been furiously campaigning to ban brachycephalic breeds. This nihilistic mission long ago graduated from social messaging to actual political lobbying. And it is having a dangerous impact.  Reinforcing that biased claim appears to be the actual agenda of this research. As the study’s sponsors explained, the goal was to “identify populations at risk of early death”, which kind of distorts the context and intent of a strict analysis of raw data.

Also, it has been long-established that miniature breeds generally live longer than giant breeds. That fact comes via several branches of science unrelated to purebred dogs.  It is no surprise that the numbers collected in this survey reaffirmed that fact. So this was not a revelatory bit of news gleaned from the survey. Even so, they pinned the data to their predetermined agenda by contrasting the typical lifespan of Miniature Dachshunds and Bullmastiffs, which seems like a classic case of apples vs. oranges.

The Times did seek feedback from an actual scientist who was not affiliated with the project. Dr. Virginia Ruple, a veterinary epidemiologist at Virginia Tech, conceded the value of drawing data from a broad swath of sources. The Times quoted Dr. Ruple stating she was glad to see results that challenged conventional wisdom that mixed-breed dogs are always healthier than their purebred counterparts. She also acknowledged the big elephant in this canine longevity study saying, “I think it is a more complex question than that” adding that plenty of purebreds are pretty healthy.

The study didn’t address any possible contributors to health and lifespan, but there is a very clear line running through the concept of dog care. The rise of purebred culture in the nineteenth century introduced this innovation to the general public.  Prior to the popularity of dog shows, the idea of washing or brushing a dog didn’t even register with people.  The value of a good diet was also introduced this way. The concept of training was also a major innovation that came through dog shows. And don’t underestimate how critically that factor figures into any dog’s lifespan.  Possibly the biggest game changer was the discovery and manufacture of reliable vaccines. All that came via the purebred community. They recognized the need, funded the research and then promoted these innovations to all dog owners. They had a vested interest in ensuring the best care across the board and dogs began to live longer.

Basic training, conditioning and health care are standard practice for genuine breeders. Those are just some of the factors that revise the numbers for longevity. However, well-bred purebreds account for a small fraction of the overall dog population.  In that respect, this Dogs Trust survey is more likely to capture a snapshot of a particular breed’s overall health.  But isn’t that part of the challenge when trying to draw conclusions from this study? Valid results hinge on a method to control for variables. And when it comes to the dog biz, the variables are incalculable.

Thanks to decades of relentless messaging from the purebred community, the general public has come around to the crucial value of selecting the right breed. A bit of research will reveal the ideal breed to meet a particular lifestyle and personal expectations. However, that is only half of the dog shopping challenge. The source of that dog is equally important, and that’s where this study introduced a host of variables but no way to control for the issues attached to them. Haphazard breeding and sloppy animal husbandry certainly contributes to a dog’s lifespan–regardless of breed or morphology.

For example, it was inevitable that very popular breeds would be more heavily represented in every source contributing to the study.  It also goes without saying that exploitative breeding is inseparable from extreme popularity. Exactly how many of the French Bulldogs noted in that study came from commercial breeders?  Did they conduct any routine health testing of breeding stock?  Moreover, did the study include any method to confirm claims of purebred ancestry aside from an owner’s self-reported definition? Back when I did a lot of Chihuahua rescue anything weighing less than 20 pounds was labeled as such.

Once this was published in Scientific Reports, Google responded instantly.  Overnight, the click headlines were revised to the likes of Dogs that Live Longest by a Nose, Short nose, Short Life and other equally distorted headlines.  Misinformation, disinformation, it’s everywhere.  But as the X-Files said, “The truth is out there.”


Short URL: http://caninechronicle.com/?p=284023

Posted by on Apr 1 2024. Filed under Current Articles, Featured. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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  • April 2024