How Short is Too Short for Giant Breed Lifespans?

Patty Khuly, DVM
May 02, 2011
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Have you ever wanted — I mean, really longed for — a dog of a large-ish or giant breed? If so, you've probably been besieged by the inevitable pangs of trepidation. After all, everyone knows they live only so long.

It’s one thing to lose a short-lived family member; that's hard enough. It’s another to know that your beloved companion will almost certainly expire before the decade is out … and quite possibly before half that time has passed.

Yet plenty of dog owners go there. Every few years they bravely go where the rest of us fear to tread: into the land of the shortest-lived big breeds, braving bloat, bone cancer and blown joints for the pleasure of a few good years of uncommon companionship.

But is it fair?

The question was asked last week at the Purebred Paradox Conference, a meeting of a hundred or so diverse-minded dog advocates, hosted by the HSUS in Washington D.C. (Before you start throwing dollar signs into your comments below, please wait at least until tomorrow’s post on the subject before going there.)

The question was asked by the only veterinary student in attendance, a wispy earnest young man who appealed with pathos to the panel: "How far should we go? If these dogs' (and here he was specifically referring to the cancer-riddled Bernese mountain dog) longevity graphs plummet so precipitously after the age of four, how can we justify breeding them? Is that not every bit as much a welfare issue as any high-profile husbandry concern?"

It was hard to disagree after having just taken in a lecture probing the genetic underpinnings of early death in giant breeds. The lecture had effectively demanded that we no longer accept short lifespans as a matter of course.

Breeding away from diseases that result in untimely deaths should be an integral part of the management of these breeds. Yet the prevalence of these diseases is so high and the gene pool so restricted that for many giant breeds, such as for our beloved Berners, getting to "reasonable" may no longer be possible — not without outsourcing DNA, something Berner breeders don't seem to be willing to do.

Not to pick on Berner breeders — because when it comes right down to it, many giant breed dogs have the same issues, if to a lesser degree. But the point stands. How short is too short? At what point do we demand more from either veterinary medicine or breeding to bring longer lifespans to our biggest breeds?

Dr. Patty Khuly

Pic of the day: Monster Dog by me'nthedogs