Health Topics

Hip and Elbow Scoring in Bernese

Hip and Elbow scoring are covered on the same page of this web site as, whilst the measuring and scoring systems have some differences, the principles that apply to their application are the same. There is more general information available on the official web sites of the Kennel Club and the BVA, links to which can be found below.

The Basics

To get straight to the basic rationale, like many breeds Bernese have an identified potential problem with Hip Dysplasia (HD) and Elbow Dysplasia (ED). Elbows in particular were a problem for our breed and we were the pioneers of the UK elbow scoring scheme before it was adapted and rolled out to all of dogdom.

Although not a simple autosomal recessive gene mode of inheritance both of these conditions are known to have a causative hereditary element to their occurrence so by assessing potential parents prior to breeding the better specimens can be selected and the frequency and severity of HD and ED can be reduced and minimised if not, some far off distant day in the future, eliminated. This involves X-raying all breeding stock and assessing the results under a consistent scheme in order to select the better ones for breeding.

Widely Accepted

For all responsible breeders Hip and Elbow scoring has become extremely routine in the UK, and most other ‘developed’ countries. The UK Hip scoring scheme has been around in it’s current form since the early eighties and the Elbow scoring scheme was introduced in the late nineties although it took a few years for it to settle into it’s exact current format. The vast majority of dogs have their elbows X rayed for scoring at the same time as their hips which has the obvious advantage of only requiring one anaesthetic to be administered.

The long time established schemes mean it is not unreasonable nowadays to expect all potential puppies to have hip and elbow scored parents and grand-parents and if the parents of any prospective puppy are not scored then you really should ask why and almost certainly walk away. A few dogs may not have UK hip or elbow scores but will have been scored overseas and thus not show on the British system and these can be acceptable.

UK Hip Scoring in Brief

Put simply hips are split into 9 categories which are assessed by a specialist panel at the BVA (British Veterinary Association) from a single X ray of the dog’s hips taken after the age of 12 months. Some of these categories relate to the formation of both the femoral head and the pelvic socket including the presence of the early signs of arthritis caused by stress to the bone, and other categories are concerned with the correctness of the fit of this ball and socket joint. Each of the categories is scored for each hip and the scores added up. Each of the categories is scored 0 to 6 except one which is 0 to 5 so the maximum score per hip is 53 and the absolute highest score possible is 53 right and 53 left giving a total of 106. As the scores reflect negative features and the amount they deviate from a perfect healthy hip the highest scores indicate the worst hips, so a 53:53= 106 would be the absolute worst case scenario. For many years after the introduction of this scheme our breed average score was fairly settled at about 15 or 16, but in more recent years due to the positive effects of people scoring and taking heed of the scores plus the stated breed average being amended to reflect the last five years rolling average rather than the overall average of 35 years of scoring, the number has dropped to around 11-12. (See article below for summary of scores from 2011-2016)

On the continent under the general FCI system hips are usually graded A, B, C, D or E with A being the best score. In some countries the lower grades are strictly barred from being used at stud or may have conditions applied to what grades can be paired together.

Myth buster

Yes it is true that a few of the categories have a slightly subjective element to them. Some rely on clinical accurate measurements of angles and can be said to be objective but others depend on a degree of interpretation by the assessor. However, this does not mean that it is not worth contributing because your score can vary depending on who assesses it and because the categories are broken down into small sections the scope for variance is minimised. The really good scores tend to be less variable and the higher scores are the likeliest to vary but by only a few points. This is likely to make a virtually irrelevant difference in score between a hip being a total of for example a 23 or a 25 than any variation of any real significance. A hip which should score in this area is not going to score a 10 or a 40 instead depending on a good or bad day.

UK Elbow Scoring in Brief

The elbow scoring in the UK system is very similar to that used in many other places in the world. Elbows are X-rayed and then graded for the amount of pre-arthritis bone growth that can be seen. Even in young dogs this growth can assess the potential issues the dog will face later in life. Just like FCI system UK elbows are graded between 0 to 3 with each grading as follows.

0 = Normal

1 = Mild ED

2 = Moderate ED or a primary lesion

3 = Severe ED

The leaflet linked at the bottom of this article explains the scheme’s process in more detail.

EBVs

In more recent years the KC have developed EBVs, Estimated Breeding Values, for Hips and Elbows for our breed. These are seen as a much more practical guide than individual scores of parents and are the process most recommended to breeders nowadays. EBVs give a risk estimate for the hips or elbows for any particular dog and this differs from the individual score because it also takes into account the influence of scored relatives of that dog. Parents and closer relatives will be given more influence than more distant ones but overall an appropriate rating can be given for every dog.

For example a ‘0’ elbow scored dog with ‘0’ scored parents and siblings and other relatives would have a better EBV for elbows than a ‘0’ scored dog with ‘1’ and ‘2’ scored parents and many other less than 0 scoring relatives. Similarly a bitch with a ‘2’ score may have a good EBV rating due to this score being against the general scores in her pedigree and she will certainly have a better EBV than another bitch who is also ‘2’ scoring herself but has other similar scores in her lines.

Using this system means breeders may be able to make a justified decision to use a dog with a less than perfect score itself but a much better EBV and therefore elbow outlook than the individual score would suggest. Of course, if using such a dog then a mate should be chosen with a much better EBV.

EBVs very much support traditional practise of breeders overlooking a single bad score because they know there are good scores behind it. A good individual score in parents is not any guarantee of good scores in offspring as anomalies in scores can occur but EBVs in some ways should be more reliable. For example, in the past most people would rather use the one (not too) bad scoring stud dog with good scoring siblings, parents, grand parents, great grandparents etc than use the one good scoring dog from a whole line of poor scores. This is exactly the scenario EBVs should illustrate.

The system is still only as good as the information it draws it’s analysis from so it is important that all Bernese continue to be hip and elbow scored. A rating of the confidence of the EBV assessment is given and this relates directly to the number of scored relatives. IF there are significant relatives who are unscored this will adversely affect the confidence rating.

For the purposes of EBVs the breed average EBV is always set to ‘0’ and dogs are shown as positive (in the green) or negative (in the red) compared to this. The EBV of all Bernese can be viewed on the Kennel Club web site.

For more explanation see the Kennel Club web site via the links below.

HD & ED General Points

As already stated both HD and ED are polygenic diseases which means they do not have a simple straightforward cause and consequently it is impossible to exactly proportion “blame” when they do occur and cause pain, limited mobility and possibly consequent premature death to a dog. However, a definite component is hereditary disposition and the only way to reduce both the initial incidence of these diseases and the severity of their symptoms is by incorporating this in sensible breeding choices. This is where the parental scores and more relevantly the EBVs come in to give breeders an idea of the likelihood any particular dog will pass on HD or ED to its offspring.

However, it is not always as simple of using low scored dogs and ignoring all other factors. In an ideal world we would all be able to always use dogs with lower scores than our own and certainly always less than breed average but in reality we are breeding complete Bernese Mountain Dogs, not just hips or just elbows, and usually a degree of compromise in certain areas is required and this is where experience and knowledge come in and it can all become a matter of degree. Only dogs which score 0:0 hips could be said to ‘HD free’ and there are very few of those around, on average only 1 per year is scored 0:0 in the UK, so balances have to be found.

The perfect dog does not exist, (except in the eye of it’s owner!) and breeding is all about making judgements and then, taking responsibility for them. A good hip and elbow score is not a reason in itself for deciding to breed with a dog or bitch, qualities in many other areas, not the least being temperament, must be in place as well.

Some countries have enforced very strict standards on allowing breeding above certain scores and in the past these countries have compromised other desirable breed features because breeding decisions have not been allowed to be taken in a balanced way. In essence breeders have been forced to breed good hips rather than aim for good Bernese Mountain Dogs but still taking account of hips. In the UK the vast majority of BMD breeding over the last few decades has voluntarily taken hip scoring into account and our breed average has improved and it is rare to hear of any clinical problems due to hips. However, there still seems to be a small number of irresponsible breeders taking no account of hips and elbows or not even scoring at all and the hard work done over the last 20 – 35 years is under threat. Contrary to what you may read elsewhere, most of these breeders and their dogs are not known to the ‘show world’ or any breed clubs.

Hips and Elbows for the Prospective Puppy Buyer

As a new buyer of a Bernese please do not make it easy for these people to sell their puppies and, along with other things, ask any breeder about hip and elbow scores. Make it clear before you visit to view a litter that you do not intend to commit to buy a puppy on this visit but will go away and think about it. Get the names of the parents of your puppies and look up their scores and EBVs on the KC web site. Responsible breeders should welcome this kind of approach because people who make the effort to research their puppy will more likely also make the effort to be good owners.

If you are turned down for a puppy viewing visit because you ask too many questions then you will probably be better off not going anyway. Even if not straight away, there will always be another puppy somewhere else, don’t feel pressured to jump in and buy. It is better to take a little longer to find the right puppy than to find out later you have made a mistake. A suffering puppy, crying in pain and struggling to move about will upset your whole family and cost you a lot of expense at the vet, possibly over it’s entire lifetime. Visit the puppies and ask about parents and grand parents and if hip and elbow scores are not forthcoming, then come away and check them out for yourself and if you are not entirely happy then take advice from someone independent before committing yourself. Less responsible breeders will be vague or non committal when you ask about these things or dismiss your question with a “oh yes, everything is fine” type comment. Treatment for hip and elbow conditions can be expensive and perpetual and most insurances will not cover lifetime conditions.

You can find out the hip and elbow scores or EBVs of any KC/BVA scored dog via the Kennel Club web site links below. When you enter the dog’s name you are interested in be very careful to make sure you spell it exactly correctly as the entry system is not at all intuitive.

Summary

Like many breeds hips and elbows are important considerations for our breed but should not be raised in importance to the exclusion of all other factors. So, as a potential purchaser do your homework before you make any commitment but remember hips and elbows are just two factors to bear in mind and just because they are easily quantifiable into easily understood numeric forms doesn’t mean they are the most important factor above all else.

Likewise, if you become a breeder of Bernese please make hips and elbows an important part of your thinking but don’t get completely obsessive about them, they are important factors to take into consideration but alongside lots of others.

Steve Green

BMD Breed Health CoOrdinator

Further Links and Documents