The Kennel Club / British Small Animal Veterinary Association Scientific Committee Purebred Dog Health Survey

Review that first appeared in the 2006 BMDC of GB handbook

A Bernese summary by Steve Green (Club Health Co-Ordinator)

Many members will remember being sent a form via the club from the Kennel Club asking for details of your Bernese. Details on 629 Bernese living dogs were returned and along with the overall results for all breeds the results were recently returned to the club and are summarised below. I do not give the full lists or comment on every item as, (in due course as I write), the full results will be available via the KC website ( I will just report the main areas in each category and a few items that I feel are significant.

Firstly the report deals with the response rate which was 30.1% for our breed and we represented 2.63% of the 13,741 total of forms returned.

The first main section deals with mortality and reports that 394 BMD deaths were reported out of 15,881 altogether. The overall average age at death reported was 11 yrs and 3 months whereas the Bernese figure was 8 years. The oldest age reported for Bernese was 15 yrs and 2 months and the youngest a heartbreaking 5 months. Looking at the histogram of ages of death the highest figure, i.e. most reported in that age group, is almost 10 years of age.

The causes of death chart shows cancer as being the most common cause of death at 45.7% the average age being around 7.5 yrs. The most common category was not specified by the owners but of those that were, lymphoma and non specific but affecting the liver were top of the list. These figures are a little worse than the 1998 BMD health survey (40% and 8.1 years) but are not a million miles away and can perhaps be partly explained by the different methods used for the two surveys.

The all breed survey produced a figure of 27% for cancer deaths with an average age of just under 13 years. We clearly have a long way to go in this area.

The next most common cause given at 6.1% was Musculoskeletal including arthritis, hip dysplasia, cruciate ligament problems. The average age of this category was around 8 yrs suggesting that it mostly consisted of older dogs which is more understandable although we’d of course like it to be older.

Also at 6.1% of death causes was old age with an average of about 11½ years for Bernese whereas the overall survey produced a figure of 17.8% with and average of around 15½yrs. The different categories for our breed then tail off through such as cardiac (average age 9yrs) and neurological (average age around 8½yrs), both at 5.1%, kidney problems at 4.1%, gastrointestinal, including bloat, at 4.6% and getting down to, in 11th place, Behaviour.

With 10 incidents making 2.5% of the cases, with aggression at the top of the detailed reason list in this category, behaviour is without a doubt the most worrying category in the whole survey. Some would say it reflects the amount of breeding being done nowadays without due regard to temperament and some might say it reflects the lack of care being taken in placing dogs into suitable homes who can bring up dogs properly. Both reflect primarily on breeders and if allowed to escalate this will reflect on the whole breed as sooner or later it is likely there will be a high profile case, such as a child seriously injured making the national press, and we will all be in the spotlight.

For all breeds this category is in 15th place with only 1.3% of cases, that means virtually twice as high a percentage of Bernese put to sleep through aggression as in the general dog population. From these figures the unavoidable conclusion is that the survey demonstrates that we have a below average temperament and this does not sit easy with me and I hope not with many others. I hope people who care, which should be everyone, will heed this warning sign and do what they can to make sure this gets no worse and starts to improve. O.K. the numbers are small and not yet drastic and yes, statistics can be deceiving but the figures are there as a warning shot.

Temperament has to be at the top of everyone’s list in breeding factors as nothing will destroy our breed’s popularity faster than a bad reputation in this area. Whilst it is the most serious problem we could possibly have, temperament can also be the easiest to gloss over or find excuses for……until something really serious happens involving our breed. Personally I suspect that the problem is the usual one of owners lacking the will or ability to control or condition their dogs properly but breeders have to take some responsibility in these cases.

Getting back to the overall causes of death, there are a total of 23 categories altogether and it is not practical to go through them all here.

Moving on, the data given and list of conditions reported by living dogs is more difficult to summarise. Out of 629 dogs the average age was 4 years with a minimum of 2 months and a maximum of 12yrs 8 months. 54% of these dogs reported healthy and 46% had at least one reported health condition and one dog reported 9 conditions.

(N.B. the percentage figures below are as a % of the dogs reporting conditions)

Musculoskeletal summarises the most common conditions reported with 31.5%. This is bad news with the average age of first diagnosis being just under 2½ years. Cruciate Ligament rupture, Elbow and shoulder problems head the detail list with arthritis and OCD conditions amongst the offenders, unfortunately no real surprises here for most of us.

This category is in 2nd place in the all breeds list at 12.9% where the details include much the same with the inclusion of patella luxation which, touching every piece of wood I can find, I don’t think I have come across in Bernese.

The difference in percentage figures between us and all breeds does demonstrate that we have a vulnerability in this area when compared to all breeds although it is partly explained by the fact that all breeds have a higher incidence of a wider spread of conditions which dilutes the percentages.

Next in the list at 13.9% (71 cases) are reproductive problems. When you consider that many dogs in the survey will not be considered for breeding this is a worrying figure as usually you don’t find out you have a problem until you try. The breakdown lists Pyometra, false pregnancy, uterine inertia, and infertility as the main reported issues. Most breeders will be aware of, or will have experienced some problems in this area over the years and this area being highlighted will come as no surprise to many breed people.

This category came top of the all breeds list at 14.4% which in some ways shows us we are not alone and there may be non breed specific factors at play here.

The next most common area reported is Dermatologic with 9.4% of dogs reporting skin problems. Again this will come as no surprise to many people who will have experienced of this type of problem with their Bernese. This was also 3rd in the all breeds list with 10.5% suggesting that Bernese are certainly no worse than any other breed in this area.

Areas where our breed figures differ noticeably from the all breeds common conditions reported list include:-

Aural (ears) which is 6th (4.3%) in our list and 11th (2.29%) in the all breeds, the exact structure of ears will have a bearing here and those breeds with closed ears will always be more prone than those with open ears.

Cardiac which is 16th in our list with 1% and 7th in the all breeds with 5.2%

Dental which is 18th (0.4%) in our list and 14th (2.7%) overall. These are two areas where we are significantly better off than the “average dog”.

Moving down through the 23 categories the numbers tail off to the categories with only a single case.


There is always a certain amount of care required when looking at statistics like these, What exactly was the wording of the question? How exactly was the data compiled? Therefore, what exactly does it mean? are obvious queries. The Bernese breed section throws up few surprises for most people as serious breed people will be aware of the issues emerging. The most interesting thing in this survey for me is the fact that it allows direct comparison with figures for all breeds derived in exactly the same way at the same time. This means that whatever foibles there may be with the system used to collect the data also apply to the other relative data so, although care is still needed, comparisons are more meaningful.

In breed only surveys we focus on the problems arising and don’t see any good news, here we can discover that whilst we do have problems, (mostly in areas we already knew about), there is also some good news. There are some problem areas which afflict other breeds which we either do not encounter or see very little of.

This helps us to keep things in perspective, yes we have specific difficult areas but so do most breeds and we should at least be grateful for some of the things that are not big problems in our breed.

The behaviour issue discussed earlier could turn into a worry for us and we must make sure that is not allowed to develop. We should all do what we can to be aware of and address our problems, and here I would ask people to please return their health survey forms. However, we should also carry on enjoying all the good things about our breed.

Reprinted from BMDC of GB handbook 2006