Health Programmes: What is it all about?

Most breeders work, more or less actively, to improve the health of the cats they breed. Far from all however know what a health programme is and how it should be designed in order to give the best possible results. Although studies have been done by geneticists on the subject of how health programmes should be designed in order to give the best effect, this information has unfortunately not reached the international breeder community all that well, and many breeders still base their health work on guesses and their own assumptions about what should work to reduce the frequency of diseases.

This article will inform a bit about what a health programme is, how it should be designed, and why.

What a health programme is and what it is not

A health programme is an organised way for breeders to work together to improve the genetic health of the breed they are working with.

Common misinterpretations:

  • A health programme is not just testing your own cats yourself and inform your kitten buyers.
  • A health programme is not a research project for scientists to solve the problems of the breeders.

A health programme often includes both testing of each individual cat and some research by geneticists or veterinarians. The focus is however to actively improve the health of the cats - not just to learn things about a disease or a defect. The result in the end should be reduced disease frequencies as shown by certified facts - not a scientific report (that might be a by-product though) or an assumption that the cats are probably healthier now.

Why work together?

In order to have a long term breeding programme on your own, you will need to keep an absolute minimum of something like 35 males and 100 females for breeding in every generation, or else your cats will get problems from long term inbreeding. Needless to say that that many cats are far too much for one breeder alone! This means that we need to work together, more or less closely. For your breeding programme you are depending on what other breeders do with their breeding, since sooner or later we all will have to buy cats or matings from other breeders, who in turn bought cats or matings from yet other breeders, etc. Like it or not, we are in this together!

Unfortunately the strong focus on shows and show wins in the cat fancy does not encourage cooperation, but it rather encourages the opposite - competition between the breeders of the same breed. This is a problem that we need to work against, for the benefit of the cats we all love. We need to focus less on shows but focus more on the actual cat, the companion animal, the furry family member.

When to start a health programme?

It is important not to start health programmes for small problems but only for major problems in the breed. For instance, if the defect is something that doesn't hurt the cats in any way, then making a health programme for it might be a bit 'overkill'. Or if only a few cats turn out to have a genetic - albeit a serious - disease, then it might still be better to deal with the problem in the few affected cats and their relatives, rather than to involve every cat in the breed in a big health programme. Otherwise the breeders might lose focus on the more severe and/or common health issues of the breed.

How to design a health programme?

Some Swedish geneticists, partly working for the Swedish Kennel Club and partly working for the University of Agriculture, have worked for decades with health programmes for dogs. In the process they have studied different health programmes in other countries as well. In the end they have learnt quite a bit about what ingredients in a health programme gives good results and which ingredients do not work or even ruin the results. Here are some of the results of their studies and experience:

  • Information.
    Sometimes, when people are eager to act for the benefit of the health of the cats, they quickly want to set up strict rules on what the breeders have to do. Experience has shown that this is not the best way to improve the health of our cats! Instead a good health programme should be based on information and education. Sure it takes more time and effort than just setting up rules, but that is the best way to get results.
  • Secured identity.
    The health programme should include secured identity of the participating cats, i.e. the cats should have a microchip or a tattoo, and this should be checked and noted by the veterinarian on the test form. The most obvious reason for this is to prevent cheating. Cheating does unfortunately occur even though not common. It does however not take many cheating breeders for the whole health programme to be questioned by the breeders. How do we know who cheats and who doesn't? Can we trust this result? And that result? In the end no one has confidence in the health programme. For this reason, the identity of the cats must be secured in a health programme.
  • Open registries.
    The results registered in the health programme should be open for everyone to see. This is something that quite a few breeders have a problem with, unfortunately, but it is important.

    Many breeders think it is enough if they inform 'those who need to know', meaning the owners of close relatives of an affected cat. That sounds reasonable, but fact is that many more breeders than those who have the close relatives will benefit from knowing about both good and bad results. You would like to know not only if the parents, grandparents, and direct offspring have good or bad results, but you would also want to know if uncles and aunts are fine, if nephews and nieces are fine, if the grandsire's sister is fine, etc. Not that one single result of a fairly distant relative will make a major difference, but many such pieces put together will give you a far more complete picture of the risks and benefits to your cat.

    It would be very time-consuming to track down the health information of all these more or less distantly related cats. You would also have to rely on each such owner to tell you the truth. Most will, but maybe not all? And if that is the case, how do you know who is telling you the truth and who is not? Some breeders might even be upset with you for asking, which might scare you away from asking again.

    Geneticists have concluded that this is one of the main reasons that the registry of the health programmes need to be open in order to be successful.

    Breeders are often afraid that an open registry will increase the evil gossip about their and other breeders' cats. This however usually doesn't happen. On the contrary, when the hard facts are out there for everyone to see, gossiping about it will not be interesting anymore.

Registering both good and bad results

The registry of a health programme should include both the bad results and the good results. Commonly, in public listings of test results, only good results are given. People might think that this is what we need to know, those who are not okay are just being neutered by the owner, and then we won't need to know as we can't do anything about it anyway.

But this is not entirely correct. We do need to know.

We need to know in order to better evaluate the risks of the relatives of the affected cat. The result and the situation of a cat is not always clear cut 'good' or 'bad'. There are borderline results, and there are cats who themselves have a good result, but with several affected relatives it might still be risky, depending on the nature of the disease in question. If, for instance, we are talking about a progressive disease, that doesn't show at birth, the first signs of the disease might show only when the cat is older. Or if it is a recessive disease, the cat might be fine, but it might still pass the disease on to its offspring. In order to get the full picture of the risks of a cat, we need to know also the bad results of relatives.

Another reason why we need to get both good and bad results is that we need to be able to calculate the frequency of affected cats. We need to know the frequency of affected cats for two reasons:

  • In order to know if our health programme gives the desired result.

    It isn't always the case, even if we think that it should. If we can't follow up on the frequencies, we might spend lots and lots on testing and selecting, and we gain nothing from it! Those money then surely could have been better spent in other ways!

    If however we follow up on the frequencies, and we see that we don't get the effect we thought we would get, then we could analyse why it doesn't work, adjust the health programme, and see if it works after those adjustments.
  • In order to know how hard we can select without damaging the genepool.

    To take an extreme example, if 5% in a breed is affected of a disease and 2% are borderline cases, then you might choose not to breed from the borderline cats. On the other hand, if 50% are affected and 20% are borderline cases, then you will definitely have to consider breeding from the borderline cats!

    Sure breeding from the borderline cats will increase the risk of getting affected offspring compared to if you only breed from cats who test normal, but if you select to hard and thereby damage the genepool you actually take much bigger risks than that. This is sometimes hard for breeders to accept. The risks of breeding with borderline cats, or other high risk cats, are very obvious, while the risks of genepool damages are more diffuse. Will it really damage the genepool? What will happen then? Will it really be so bad? However, the fact that the genepool issue is more diffuse does not mean that the risk is less real. There are examples of too ambitious health programmes which indeed quickly reduced the disease it was focusing on, but due to the loss of genetic variation in the genepool they got several other, worse problems in the breed instead! Not good!

    So the risk of too tough selection is very real, and it must be taken very seriously! We should not take more than about 30% of the cats out of our breeding programmes in one generation for only one particular genetic disease. And then of course we need to know how many percent of the cats have the disease!

    In order to get correct, or at least reasonably correct, information about the frequency of affected cats, we also need to look into a way to get the test results of the cats sent in directly by the veterinarians who perform the tests. If we rely on the breeders themselves to send in the test results we usually get in many more of the good results than of the bad ones. It is more fun to share good news than to share bad news! Also, when a breeder gets unexpectedly a bad result, he/she might be so shocked and sad that he/she simply forgets to send in a copy of the result to the health programme registry.

Similar assessments regardless of which veterinarian you consult

For many types of health tests a certain amount of subjective assessment from the veterinarian is required. This means that one veterinarian might judge the findings harder than an other veterinarian would do. If these differences are major, it will be a problem for the health programme.

One potential way to reduce these differences is if the same veterinarian can evaluate all the tests. If the veterinarian is travelling around to perform the tests maybe he/she can make all the tests for the health programme? Or if a radiograph is taken, maybe it could be sent to one and the same veterinarian for an evaluation for the health programme?

If it is not reasonable to have the same veterinarian evaluate all the tests, we will instead have to try to make as precise guidelines as possible within the group of participating veterinarians. This way, with the cooperation of all the veterinarians, the differences could also be reduced. We should however not expect this to be solved within a week or two! It is a long term work. We need to give it some time and not expect 100% equal assessments at once.

Being supportive

Finally, when working with a health programme, everything will work more smoothly - and it will also be nicer - if we try to be supportive to each other. An unlucky colleague who gets some bad results, in spite of doing the same work as everyone else for the benefit of the health of the breed, is not to be blamed for it! Instead he/she should have your support. Even if there are some breeders out there who are not supportive towards you, you could stay supportive towards your breeder colleagues. Maybe with time you, and others like you, can change the overall attitude in the cat fancy and make breeders more prone to cooperate again? We have to start somewhere to make this come true. And the best place to start is, as always, with yourself.