The following article by Katariina Mäki 2021 offers in-depth information on development of the Finnish Spitz Breeding Strategy.
The article is presented in 3 parts.
Part I. Tackling the main health conditions
Part II. Success story regarding epilepsy
Part III. Increasing and maintaining genetic diversity
Breed-specific breeding strategies to achieve positive outcomes - the Finnish Spitz as an example
Success story regarding epilepsy
Katariina Mäki 2021
So – Finnish Spitz is one of the healthiest dog breeds (Part I., Tackling the main health conditions). But that hasn’t always been the case.
15 years ago, the breed was a typical ‘epilepsy breed’, which was always taken as an example, when talking about breed-specific disease burdens. Now the situation is quite different, and the breed has less epilepsy than all dogs on average.
How did that happen?
Besides Finns, we can thank all the Nordic breed associations, breeders, and owners for their commitment to the joint breeding strategy, led by the Finnish Breed Association, Suomen Pystykorvajärjestö – Finska Spetsklubben. There is longstanding cooperation and sharing of resources and health information for breeds between kennel and breed associations that are members of the Nordic Kennel Union.
Breeding against epilepsy
The history of breeding against epilepsy in the Finnish Spitz is long. The most important Finnish milestones are:
In 1996, the pedigrees of the breeding database maintained by the Finnish Breed Association began to be annotated with dogs classified as epileptic and/or having an epileptic close relative.
In 1998, the Finnish Breed Association developed a method for calculating so-called Epi Index, which takes into account the epileptic dogs from the pedigree as well as other close relatives. The Epi Index is an estimate of the dog’s epilepsy risk.
In 2002, the Board of the Breed Association set limit values for the Epi Index of breeding combinations and puppy referral litters, and it was decided to notify the dog owners of the dog's Epi Index by their request.
In 2004, both the owners of male and female dogs received the dogs’ Epi Indices as part of the breeding counseling information.
In 2011, the general meeting of the Breed Association decided on publicity of Epi Indices and the information of individual epileptic dogs. Epilepsy of a dog is recorded in an open database where Epi Indices are included in the pedigrees, together with notations explaining which relatives account for the Index. You can access the database here.
Breed associations in Finland, Sweden, and Norway collaborate in reporting epilepsy cases and by this, contribute to the estimation of the Epi Indices in the breed. Epi Index is calculated from a five-generation pedigree, taking into account the genetic relationships between the dog and its epileptic ancestors. Letters represent epileptic dogs in the pedigree and the probability of genes in common between the epileptic ancestor and the dog (genetic relationships between the dogs):
I = the dog itself (relationship 1.0)
J, S, and V = offspring, full-sib and parent (relationship 0.5)
P = half-sib or grandparent (relationship 0.25).
According to the breeding strategy of the Finnish Spitz, it is not allowed to use in breeding epileptic dogs, their progeny, their full-sibs, or a dog that has produced an epileptic offspring. If the Epi Index of a dog is 1.8 or larger, the dog is not recommended for breeding. If the epi-index is 1.5 or larger (but under 1.8), the dog should be mated only to a dog whose Index is below 1.0.
The Epi Index has been an effective tool in breeding: strong improvement started in 2001, when the breeding advisors of the Breed Association started to use the Indices.
The breed’s average Epi Indices have decreased, and the frequency of epilepsy has fallen down from the early 2000s' 5–6 % to current 2–4 affected dogs per 600–700 dogs born and registered yearly.
The Swedish Agria data for 2006-2011 and 2011-2016 show that compared to all breeds, Finnish Spitz has a smaller risk for epilepsy.
Now epilepsy is no more a priority in the breeding program of the Finnish Spitz. It is under surveillance but doesn’t need as much attention as before. This is a good example of successful breeding against a hereditary problem:
Identify the problem
Gather information about it (ongoing survey on which dogs are affected)
Set recommendations/restrictions for breeding
Follow the recommendations for a few canine generations
Monitor the situation (number of affected dogs / lineages)
Clap yourself and the fellow breed people on the shoulder for managing to remove the problem from the agenda
Continue to keep an eye on the problem also in the future.
The Finnish Spitz - no longer a typical ‘epilepsy breed’. Well done Finns and other Nordics!
Agria, Swedish insurance statistics for dog breeds (on DogWellNet.com).
DogWellNet 2021. Get a GRIHP! on Finnish Spitz – Globally Relevant Integrated Health Profile (GRIHP) for the Finnish Spitz.
Finnish Breed Association: Suomen Pystykorvajärjestö – Finska Spetsklubben.
EPI-terveystietokanta (EPI Health Database)
Finnish Kennel Club breeding database - Finnish Spitz.