General Health – A Brief Recent History

After a pre war start which died out during the war, the current population of Bernese in Britain started in 1969 with the first of the modern imports. The popularity of the breed (understandably of course) rapidly grew to a fairly consistent level of around 700 registrations per year at the Kennel Club for a while although it has fallen away to around 500 in recent years.

Whilst Bernese suffered a little from “standard” concerns such as entropian these were not thought to be an excessive problem and Bernese were not viewed as an unhealthy breed.

When the Hip Dysplasia scoring scheme was relaunched into its current form in the early 1980s the Bernese breed embraced this willingly and ever since have consistently been top or around the top of the breeds with the highest percentage of scored dogs. Whilst you hear of it occasionally, and certainly not wishing to appear complacent about it most serious owners people would not say Hip Dysplasia is a massive problem clinically in the Bernese. Breeders use the scheme for guidance and HD is at least under control and hip scores gradually improved over the years. The correlation between high hip scores and clinical problems for the dog is another debate I do not have space to go into here except to say some people do mix them up sometimes. A high scoring dog can have a long, active and healthy life and vice versa however there is absolutely no sense in deliberately encouraging poor hips by totally ignoring scores but we have to remember we are aiming to breed all round healthy, typey Bernese and not just a pair of hips. Consider hips but don’t make them, or anything else, the absolute priority. Hips are important as something that we can strongly influence with our breeding choices but should be kept in proportion.

In the late seventies and early eighties a relatively new condition was beginning to make itself known in the form of Osteo Chondrosis Dessicans (OCD) and associated conditions. Although from our breed position we personally felt especially vulnerable to this, when our first Bernese succumbed in 1984 we obtained information from the Golden Retriever world where it was already known. Generally though it was seen as a disease of the larger breeds. Interestingly it almost always affected the shoulder in those days and elbow problems were not heard of. In the mid eighties a large OCD survey was undertaken by the GB club (well done Marie Steele) and over 800 dogs reported (if memory serves me right). This identified a familial link to cases but stopped short of a straight forward genetic inheritance. In short, the cause of OCD appeared polygenic but this included an hereditary factor. Some experts strongly disagreed with this view and specialist veterinary advice on all aspects of this problem was for a while confusing to say the least.

Many seminars were held by different breeds reporting the latest on this condition and by the late eighties it had changed, in Bernese at least, to be much more often affecting the elbow joints which tended to be a more serious condition and not as successful when operated on. Now Bernese were seen as one of, if not the, leading breeds to be afflicted and our Breed Council, with the late Phil Worrow as one of the main organisers, were instrumental in developing the elbow scoring system exclusively for our breed in conjunction with the Royal Veterinary College. This BMD scheme ran from around 1993 for around 5 years several years when suddenly it was stopped without any warning or consultation and replaced by the KC/BVA ED scheme for all breeds which, after a few modifications, we still have today.

In a similar way to the Hip scoring scheme most responsible breeders do use the scheme for guidance and again, whilst not wanting to sound complacent or dismissive of the dogs that do develop these problems, this is not a massively widespread clinical problem in the breed at this time. Part of the lessening impact is the improvement in treatment and “keyhole” surgery techniques but these should not lead to any lessening of the importance of scoring and following the scoring. Whilst some of the surgery may not be quite as invasive as it previously was, it is still unpleasant and stressful for any dog, especially the youngsters who are most commonly affected. Sometimes the condition is mild and can be sorted with good management of exercise but sometimes it requires serious and expensive surgery, months of pain and discomfort for the puppy, not to mention distress for the owner and the family watching this suffering. The modern generation of Bernese have mostly been produced with breeders having the elbow scheme to assist them in working to minimise problems and most do take balanced consideration of the scoring. In my experience it is unusual in any incidence of ED to not be able to see an unsecured or a high scoring dog in the pedigree that has to be suspected of involvement at the very least.

My personal opinion, formed from information given at numerous seminars and my breed experience, is that diet and management were two big factors in the rapid growth in cases of  the earlier shoulder problems. For example our vet told us that we should give our first puppy as much calcium supplement as we liked because “you couldn’t over feed calcium”. Subsequent research proved this to definitely not be the case and too much calcium played havoc with the growth plates in larger breeds. Science, and it’s agents the vets, do not always absolutely know best however well meaning they are and it sometimes takes a while for the official line to catch up with frontline experience.

However, as the disease migrated to our breed’s elbows and its severity was even more distressing, such was the fear of this condition people were advised, often by their vets as well, to severely restrict their puppy’s activity and play, until they were “skeletally mature”. Looking back in the opinion of many this too was not the best advice. Developing bones and the tissues that joints need the stresses caused by exercise to develop correctly. However, this is not generally the case nowadays and whilst most breeders urge some sensible precaution with growing dogs recommended restriction is nothing like as severe as was typically the case 20-25 years ago. At the time everyone, vets included, thought they were doing the right thing but with hindsight, the wisest of all teachers, we were all shown to be wrong.

In the mid eighties a condition Hypomyelinogenisis (Trembler) was first observed in Bernese in the UK only. This was quickly identified, by Dr Willis, as being caused by a recessive gene and several prominent carriers were identified. Most of these were immediately withdrawn from breeding programmes, involving cost and heartache for their owners, and the few remaining dogs who people felt still had some benefit to offer the breed in other ways were used with diligence avoiding other suspected carriers. As a consequence of this responsible action Trembler was effectively quickly dealt with by the breed and within a few short years you just didn’t hear of it anymore. With hindsight you could say in some ways this was our finest hour as a responsible breed. A problem arose, it was identified and many breeders took action although it impacted on them, to eliminate it swiftly.

We hear occasional stories of the “standard” dog complaints, such as entropian, but generally speaking “well known straightforward hereditary based” problems such as eye and heart problems found in some breeds are not undue issues for our Bernese Mountain Dog.

There was an extensive survey of British Bernese undertaken by myself on behalf of the Bernese Breed Council in 1998 the results of which can be found elsewhere on this web site. The Kennel Club also carried out a large survey of all pedigree dogs in 2004 and the results of that for all breeds and Bernese Mountain Dogs can also be found on this site. (via links at end of article)

I hope the reader will forgive me if I have been perhaps just a little dismissive and sketchy in the above because I want to get on to the main thrust of this article.

In many informed people’s eyes the number one general health problem for our breed would be lack of longevity and the biggest factor in this would be early deaths from cancer and the biggest cancer type condition would be Systemic Histiocytosis, SH, otherwise known as Histiocytic Sarcoma, HS, or the older term Malignant Histiocytosis MH. Most people refer to it as ‘Histio’ though.

There are lots of surveys and information from all over the world to generally substantiate this and it is not the purpose of this article to repeat them. If, as several surveys have suggested, and our own ongoing Death Survey, falls in line with others around the world, the amount of Bernese that succumb to various cancers is around two thirds of all reported deaths  and typically about 25% of Bernese fall due to ‘Histio’ this can only underline what a problem this is for the breed.  The huge efforts to fight ‘Histio’ on several fronts in some countries gives good hope for the future and the general progress being made against cancers in lots of areas also gives cause for optimism but these specialist people need and deserve our help.

Overall, despite what you might read about our breed many many people do have dogs that live a decent length healthy life and never have to think too much about any of “our” clinical problems. Some have a completely different experience but the key thing is that most of these people do stay with our marvellous breed so we must be doing something right and it must be worth persevering to tackle our issues.

However good or bad the true situation is, with help it can only be improved so if you are, or one day become, the owner of a Bernese please make that little bit of effort to contribute to any breed health initiatives you can. As a minimum it is a good idea for people to enter their dog’s details on the BMD breed database Bernergarde and then update with any health issues as time goes on. The more dogs are listed here the better for the breed in the long term. Details can be found via the Bernergarde section in this web site