By Ulrika Olsson
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.
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:
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:
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.
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.