Subject: Conners Story.doc

Hemivertebrae                                        Camino Books  Vicky Collins

Much is written about Bulldog health issues in the UK ,usually about breathing and skin problems, cherry eye, interdigital cysts ,monorchidism.As a breeder if your lines don’t suffer from these traits one is aware but thankful they don’t occur in your own breeding ,they seem  of little  interest, I think  that to experience exactly what these issues mean to the owner and the animal ,one has to live with and care for a sufferer  on a  day to day basis, observing first hand  how the bulldog copes with pain,  irritation and the implications of the health  troubles.
This is Conner ‘s story  born August 4th 2000 and left us 23rd February 2001 ,to explain my concerns and to illustrate what hemivertebrae  is , this little red and white  bulldogs brief life  story is told here .
In late September  2000 some friends of mine asked if I could care for their  litter of three, eight week old puppies whilst they went abroad  for 3 weeks ,it turned out to be a turning point in my interest in bulldogs health  issues .
Conner  came here with his siblings ,he was the same size as them and the only sign he showed of being different  was, he wobbled a little when  he walked showing a weakness in his left back leg.He was short ,stocky, had a healthy looking coat and at first I suspected nothing untoward ,he ate well but was bullied alittle by his litter mates ……….He became  slowly worse,lethargic and more unstable on his legs,he spent a lot of time sitting down, when his owners came to  pick him up they noticed a real decline in him .They rushed him to an old breeder here in the Midlands [UK] who had never seen a puppy behave in this way, they decided it could be have been  vaccine damage as they had had him injected  early because of having to mix with my dogs and meet different ‘bugs’ in a different area /kennel.They took him home but their vets could offer no explaination.
Later that month I went to a seminar being held by a puppy vaccination drug  company  and asked if this could be possible  but  was told that this was highly unlikely  as potentially dangerous drugs likely to cause any problems were  unlicensed  for use in this country.
In November I visited the United States of America for the  Bulldog Nationals  and asked questions of the breeders and exhibitors I met  and the condition of hemivertebrae was explained to me .It is a congenital malformation of the vertebrae,looks like a 'butterfly ',when the  right and left halves forming fail to fuse ,causing the two halves to grow unevenly producing the wedge shape which can bend the spinal canal ,this can cause serious consequences to the dog according to where the fusion is . causing pain  and loss of movement and control of various body functions .The actual vertebrae in the curly tail[coccygeal] are 'hemi'  it is found in bracephelic breeds, pugs particularly.
I suspected that  this was  the problem was with Conner,on my return I researched it on the www. discussed it at length  with very knowledgeable breeders, with Conners owner/breeders . Their  own  vet had now decided  it could be either neurological damage or muscle weakness, Conner  was started on low dose of Steroids just two  a week and he seemed to stabilise.
Once again my friends asked me to mind the pups over Christmas ,  two   weeks turned into five.He came with his litter mates again who had grown well and looked promising for the show ring  , we gave him a lot of love as  he was visibly smaller than the other two. Whilst here he developed a cherry eye so I took him to my own Veterinary Surgeon who assured me he did not think he was actually  in any pain ,but he agreed  the problems he was displaying were  typical of  problems that he had read about related to hemivertebrae.
I felt helpless and didn’t know what to do with him when someone told me about another vet in the Redditch  who  had seen this condition before, As soon as he saw him my worst fears were confirmed. He was convinced he had  hemivertebrae problem  but also severe hip displacia,no knee joint  on one leg,he  was dwarfed, had a hernia , and only one testicle.  I had noticed as he was growing he had  developed a strange look to his face, his eyes seemed too much on the sides of his head,he had a heavy extremely short thick neck, overdeveloped to help carry his weight and take the strain of his back end, in a way he looked like a Downs Syndrome version of a dog if that was possible .
This vet was confident he could help him in the future  by giving him a small op to repair his knee’s slipping patella ,  if he returned in a few months for surgery but he  had no idea  how severely he would become disabled as he matured , as this depends on where the fused vertebrae are in the spine .X rays would have to be done to confirm this [ I  was reluctant to put him under anaesthetic at this point as  he did not belong to me .]
Returning after their Christmas break  the owners admitted  they didn’t know what to do with him either , they came and collected the healthy pups and left Conner with me , my son  James expressed a wish to home him and to pay for his treatment, promising to  give him a pampered life, as James  had grown up with bulldogs ,we all thought this was the best answer for Conner we suspected his life expectancy was poor but he was such a feisty cute little fellow  we hoped he could enjoy family life for a  few years .Plans were made to collect Conner on my sons next visit .
In the meantime I discovered there were other pups like him around, word spread  and  people phoned  me and told me their experiences of this condition.The vet in Redditch told me he  had seen twelve pups in various stages with this condition ,some chronic some just mildly affected ,in just 12 months,this was  NOT  a one off…… I discovered a litter mate of Conners mother was put down at 9 months with paralyasis and was unable to control bladder  and bowel function .I realised  that this is an inherited   congentital condition and started to wonder the future of his litter mates ..
I decided to show Conner to as many breeders as possible ,he became much travelled, we went north to Cumbria  where we met a lady who has looked after several of these affected  pups in the past.  I was shocked to see the one she had there ‘Terry’, he appeared  far worse than Conner  ,he was flat on the floor and moved like a seal, he was dwarfed too, but he was well looked after   and had been x rayed and examined by the best Vets at the University Veterinary Hospital, he had never been up on his legs, so knew no different , [he has since been put to sleep as his quality of life deteriorated ] I took Conner everywhere with me  the idea being  the more people made aware of the condition the better for the breed.
I conversed with the Genetics expert from the Animal Health Trust  at the  UK Kennel Club Dr Jeff Sampson,  he told me there is no test for finding this condition a single  gene has not been defined, and as bulldogs are not the only ones affected with this condition ,  his opinion was  that striving for very short backs in the breeding programmes could  cause  bulldogs to develop problems with this condition . I have since learnt that  the tail is more the problem as I explain later .
In February my  son James came to collect Conner, he   and his family loved him and he settled in well,after a few days later James  phoned  me worried about him ,  he seemed depressed ,he seemed to be struggling to get up on his front legs ,he took him to the vet  who diagnosed a ruptured disc in his shoulder blade area,.pain relief was given and x rays were planned for the next day.
We were totally unprepared for the result, the condition of his spine was so bad, the vet said he had never seen anything like it, the malformations making it amazing he had ‘ever  got up at all’ , his hips had no sockets and the thick neck was calcifying as he struggled to keep his  weight forward ,eventually it would  make  it impossible for him to move his head to eat.
There was no hope for any quality of life as his discs would rupture one by one under the stress  as he grew and he would be in severe pain each time, so with support of the vet , a heartbreaking decision had to be   made, it was decided  to let him go .Poor James owned him for just 12  days when  he held him for the last time and said goodbye ……….it hurt us all very much and I pledged to James I would continue to find out about hemivertebrae .

It  had a profound effect on  all  of us that knew Conner and I began to research and collect information about the condition I discovered that its in a lot of spines in other breeds , cattle and in humans even  but it depends on where the little ‘butterfly’ wedge or fusing is situated  as to the severity of the  outcome .Old English sheep dogs have it , bullbreeds more  commonly especially ones with screw /curled tails .
I have  found that in some lines it is  rife, and  in that case line breeding is a sure fire way of it occurring .
I have no problem with a breeder who has found  this unfortunate condition occurring, as no one plans to create this but once identified  I am disgusted  if  those  matings    are  repeated  just because the majority  of the litter  is visibly ok and maybe a winner in the show ring  has been created ………if breeders are to move away from this condition and from all  other hereditary defects more honest information must be exchanged, without castigating people and their reputations ,putting the dog first and the people who purchase a puppy  who have a right to expect that pet to have a fair quality of life and a reasonable life expectancy. Many pet people told me how their much loved pet suddenly became paralysed  overnight at between 4 to 10 months after showing no symptoms at all ,various degrees of lasting disability occur. Some of these puppies  suffer from incontinence and the people don’t understand the dog has no control over this ,Imagine the situation and life  of a poor pup whose new  owners are convinced he’s just dirty and lazy.

Having read extensively lots of experts opinion’ s and many  veterinary papers where this is mentioned I am of the opinion that all bulldogs have a tendancy to this malformation ,because  it is part of the genetic make up of our breed ,we have bred into our dogs certain  characteristics over the years ,to achieve that the look we want it  is described as ‘chondrodystrophic’,  this  has  created this condition  ,it is linked with screw tails , too short backs , no neck , brachycephallic  skull shape, and dwarfism ,we created by selective breeding how the dog looks today  .I think we now have to recognise the problem does exist, breeders and judges  to take into account that   a dog with a very inverted  high tailset  could be  highly suspect as to what the unseen vertebrae are doing in the rest of the spine. If the  fusion[hemivertebrae]  is particulary if it is in the thoratic[ shoulderblade] area  vertebrae numbers 8  through to 11  of the spine , hemivertebrae here can cause pressure which     can cause paralysis and incontinence if its elsewhere it may not have any effect whatsoever   and it varies very much from dog to dog   as to how disabilitating it is .
For the future of the breed  we must  not double up on this condition ,once sufferers are identified, any opportunity to x ray the spine must be taken prior to breeding,if the dog needs an anesthetic for any condition whilst under  its good idea to have an xray of the spine  done  and at best  if all stud dogs were tested one would have a good idea where  hemivertebrae is placed   on each dogs spine ,I am not saying that they can’t be bred from,at a guess this would detrimentaly  narrow the gene pool ,searching for a dog with no  hemivertebrae  and the good points would be lost in the process , just care must be taken to put together a mating where both parents don’t  have a  hemivertebrae in the same area . Monitoring the offspring from your line as they mature will give you a clear picture as to  whether you  are producing affected  dogs in your breeding programme .Its a common mistake thinking that dogs with  faults must  not be bred but in actual  fact you breed away from  a problem  mating to dogs uneffected to eventually radicate  it .
If you would like to read more about the condition  there is a fine article by Jan Grebe, avalible on the www.   I hope that Conners Story will  make everyone aware of what can happen,what it means to live with it , and how  to  try to avoid this problem .