Dog Control and Welfare
Written evidence submitted by the Royal Veterinary College’s VetCompass Project
Improved disorder prevalence data are needed to effectively combat dog welfare issues related to conformation and genetic health. The Bateson Report recommended the creation of a computer-based system for the collection of ano nymised diagnoses from veterinary surgeries and suggested the Royal Veterinary College’s (RVC) VetCompass project as being best-placed to fulfil this need. An RVC PhD study supported by the RSPCA is running from 2010-2013 that aims to develop the VetCompass project as a comprehensive primary veterinary practice data resource for robust studies of canine breed-related effects on a range of important disorders. These results will fill many existing data gaps relating to disorder prevalence and breed predisposition as well as to any health implications from purebred/crossbred status. The interpretation of these studies will guide strategies to reform dog breeding practice and improve dog welfare.
Scope of this response
1. The overall EFRAcom Inquiry plans to consider two distinct issues: a) effective dog control and measures to tackle irresponsible dog ownership and b) ensuring good dog welfare and specifically the response to the recommendations from Professor Bateson’s Independent Inquiry into Dog Breeding ( ). We feel that it is very important to ensure separate discussions take place for each of these topics as they are not directly related and will likely require divergent reforms.
2. This submission of evidence covers a major recommendation of the Bateson Report, namely the creation of a computer-based system for the collection of ano nymised diagnoses from veterinary surgeries and the specific recommendation that the Royal Veterinary College’s VetCompass project was the best-placed resource to fulfil this need.
3. The Bateson report stated that accurate, robust and UK-relevant disorder prevalence and incidence data are essential, both to underpin and guide the development of strategies to breed away from specific disorders and to provide the evidence on which decisions about future regulation can be based. However, the report concluded that robust well-controlled prevalence studies of specific disorders in specific breeds was largely lacking. Indeed, a more recent study showed that that just 244/19,800 (1%) of 396 disorders identified in the top 50 dog breeds had prevalence information available. Moreover, even within this 1%, many of the prevalence estimates that were available were of low relevance to the UK situation for various reasons; they were based on non-UK populations, were not current, were based on biased populations (e.g. those subjected to screening by breeders before assessment for disease) or small sample sizes ( ).
4. The Bateson Report recommended that a means of collecting data from a broad spectrum of veterinary surgeries, referral practices, university veterinary hospitals and other major clinical centres is highly desirable and would enable scientists and other interested parties to assess what disorders are presented by particular pure or cross-bred dogs and at what ages.
5. The conclusion of the Bateson report was that primary veterinary surgeries in the UK already hold critical information relating to the health of the UK dog population and high priority should be given to the creation of a computer-based system for the collection of anonymised diagnoses from veterinary surgeries in order to provide statistically valid prevalence data for each breed. The report specifically recommended building upon the VetCompass Animal Surveillance System work that had already started by the Royal Veterinary College (RVC) at that time. The report identified that priority should initially be given to collecting data with respect to the conditions creating the greatest welfare challenges in terms of pain, impact on quality of life, capacity for correction, and early age of onset and should relate both to the incidence of inherited disease and to the incidence of veterinary procedures necessary to correct faults due to selection for extreme morphologies (e.g. Caesarean sections, corrections for entropion, soft palate resections, etc).
6. This submission of evidence aims to describe the progress that has been made on developing the RVC VetCompass project and the contribution that the project can make towards improving the welfare of the UK dog population. Information on the VetCompass project can be found at http://www.rvc.ac.uk/VetCOMPASS.
7. It has been recognised for many years that there are many problems associated with pedigree dog breeding, for example limited gene pools and breed standards that encourage poor health ( ). Prior to the August 2008 BBC airing of the Pedigree Dogs Exposed program ( ) and the consequent Bateson report, the RVC had already commenced work to develop a primary veterinary practice data collection project, the VetCompass Animal Surveillance project (formerly called VEctAR), to gather vital evidence to inform on breed-related dog health. In 2007, McGreevy envisioned that a project such as VetCompass would monitor certain fields in veterinary practice management databases and collate these data centrally to enumerate breed-related disorders and the age at which they most commonly present to veterinarians. Such information would be disseminated at no charge to key stakeholders, including veterinarians, breeders and potential puppy purchasers and would illustrate the need for control programs aimed at the most prevalent disorders. Breed disorder predispositions related to body conformation or inheritance could indicate the need for revision of breed standards or opening of studbooks to permit the introduction of genes from other breeds ( ).
8. The RVC VetCompass project works with veterinary practice management systems (PMSs) to encourage the use of a standardised lexicon of veterinary terms, the VeNom Codes ( ), to standardise clinical recording processes and facilitate analysis. Clinical data queries allow upload of de-identified clinical fields from PMSs to a master dataset retained securely at the RVC. Clinical data fields shared include encoded client and patient ID numbers, dates of birth and consult, species, breed, sex, neuter status, colour, insured status, microchip number, partial postcode, clinical notes and treatment. Data collection and storage are compliant with relevant UK data protection laws. The aims of VetCompass are supported by the RCVS.
9. A RVC VetCompass pilot phase (January 2007-Decemeber 2009) trialled, refined and validated data collection, storage and analysis. Clinical data relating to over 6,000 dogs were shared with three veterinary practices and over 98% of dogs and cats had breed and sex data recorded. The research utility of the database was shown by a peer-reviewed publication ( ).
10. In response to the BBC Pedigree Dogs Exposed program and the three subsequent reports ( ; ; ), a three-year PhD study supported by the RSPCA has commenced at the RVC (October 2010-Septemeber 2013) to develop online surveillance of inherited and acquired disorders in dogs and cats. This study fulfils the Bateson Report recommendation and has extended the VetCompass project, offering participation to all UK primary veterinary practices and is supported by a wide range of veterinary, welfare and Canine organisations (SPVS, RSPCA, UFAW, APGAW, The Kennel Club, Dogs Trust).
11. The PhD study prioritises disorders where current data gaps are thought to affect dog welfare. A range of individual analyses will fill these data gaps with output formatted to be as useful as possible to both educate stakeholders as well as to scientifically inform and facilitate sensible breeding practice reforms. Further, the results of this research will be submitted for peer-review publication in scientific literature, ensuring the conduct and results of the research are of the highest quality. Disorder studies will focus on two main questions: namely, are health values different between purebred and crossbred dogs and which breeds are predisposed. A particular strength of the VetCompass database is that primary veterinary practices record useful data on other variables that may be associated with both breed and disorders values and act as important confounders. It is vital to adjust for these to prevent misinterpretation of the results. Examples of confounders measured and included in analyses by VetCompass studies include age, sex, neuter status, insured status, month and year of birth, coat colour, geographic location, shared ownership, veterinary surgery attended and treatment effects.
12. The response from the practicing arm of the veterinary profession has been very positive. To date (June 2012), over 200 practices are participating with VetCompass and data covering over 125,000 dogs have been shared. The secure VetCompass database developed at the RVC currently holds data relating to over 880,000 canine episodes of care. The project has received statements of support form a wide range of organisations including the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons (RCVS), RSPCA, Universities Federation for Animal Welfare (UFAW), the Associate Parliamentary group for Animal Welfare (APGAW), The Kennel Club, Dogs Trust and Society for Practicing Veterinary Surgeons (SPVS).
13. Although still in the phase of data collection, the PhD study is already resulting in useful information relating to UK dog demographics (breed breakdowns, levels of insurance, neutering, microchipping) that are freely available on the VetCompass website ( ). An interim canine longevity study poster has been published showing median longevity for common UK breeds and included almost 5,000 dogs.
14. In parallel with the PhD study, the developing VetCompass database has also been used to support MSc Veterinary Epidemiology studies investigating canine epilepsy, canine chronic kidney disease and canine diabetes mellitus. The VetCompass project aims to be entirely collaborative and is already beginning work with several other research centres, combining resources to better elucidate canine health matters. A 6-month project funded by The Kennel Club is investigating disorders affecting the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel breed and is collaborating with the Animal Health Trust.
15. Although the PhD study itself covers a set three-year term, the VetCompass project will run indefinitely, with extension of clinical data both numerically (increasing veterinary practice participation) and temporally (extending life period data stored on individual animals). Several future PhD studies are planned to continue to develop and mine this invaluable data source. Over time, this will allow disorder prevalence information to be supplemented with prevalence trends over time and thus to investigate the effectiveness of implemented reforms.