The State of the Irish Wolfhound:
Is it Possible to Breed Toward Better
Health and Longevity?
By: Pernille Monberg
Originally appeared in IW World, Winter 2006
The Irish Wolfhound has, over the years, acquired the unflattering and somewhat misleading nickname of "the heartbreak breed." Frequently, Wolfhound breeders or owners will refer to how challenged the Wolfhounds are healthwise, with shorter lifespans than most other breeds of dogs. Consequently, this is the general reputation that the breed has acquired in non-Wolfhound circles as well.
The following is not an attempt to console Irish Wolfhound breeders by claiming that all is well, or that there is reason to be content with the status quo. It is rather an attempt to get the facts straight; to better the understanding of where to focus our attention and energy, if we as breeders want to make noticeable improvements in the health and longevity of the breed.
The American Study
In 1986, breeder Gretchen Bernardi (Berwyck, U.S.) conducted a privately-funded study of longevity and morbidity in the Irish Wolfhound in the United States. The study, conducted under the auspices of the Irish Wolfhound Club of America, covered data of some 582 Irish Wolfhounds which had died within the 20-year period 1966-1986.
Bernardi found that cancer was the overwhelming cause of death in the Irish Wolfhounds in the U.S. within the period covered by the study. Of the various types of cancer found in the Irish Wolfhounds, osteogenic sarcoma and lymphosarcoma were more prevalent than any other form. Of the three major causes of death, cancer accounted for 33.9% of the deaths of the 582 dogs in the study. Cardiovascular disease accounted for 15.1%, and finally gastric dilatation volvulus was the cause of death in 11.7% of the dogs. Bernardi concluded that the mean average lifespan for dogs and bitches came to 6.47 years. At 6.55 years, bitches seemed to live slightly longer than dogs, which averaged 6.0 years.
The Scandinavian Studies
In more recent years, three Scandinavian national clubs conducted surveys to determine the state of health in their Irish Wolfhound populations: the Irish Wolfhound Club of Norway (2000), the Irish Wolfhound Club of Sweden (2004), and the Irish Wolfhound Club of Denmark (2005).
All of these studies were done on relatively small numbers of dogs. As with the American study, all three Scandinavian studies were conducted by sending out questionnaires to the owners of Irish Wolfhounds. The data collected is thus based on the owners' willingness to reply.
The Irish Wolfhound Club of Norway conducted a survey covering cause of death in Irish Wolfhounds between the years 1974-1999. The Norwegian survey resulted in information on 113 Wolfhounds from that period. 5 of the dogs have no reported age at death.
In Norway, it appeared that various forms of cancer were the most common cause of death, followed closely by heart disease as the second most common cause. The Norwegian survey doesn't give an exact number for mean average lifespan of the Wolfhounds, but a calculation from a graph for "age at death" produces slightly lower numbers for Norwegian dogs -- around an average of 5.74 years. In the calculation I have excluded the dogs which died at or under the age of 12 months.
The Swedes managed to get information on 266 dogs from the years 1980-2003. The total number of Irish Wolfhounds registered in Sweden within that period was 3,945, so the information only covered a very small number of their registered Wolfhounds (more specifically 6.7%).
Heart problems were found in various forms in 34.5% of the Swedish dogs, and 26.7% of the dogs were found to have various forms of cancer. Of those, bone cancer was the most prevalent. The mean average lifespan of the Swedish Irish Wolfhounds came to 6.0 years in this survey.
In Denmark, the findings indicated that heart disease was the number one cause of death (25%), whereas cancer came in second at 21%. Bloat occurred in 13% (but wasn't cause of death in two cases). The mean average lifespan of the Danish dogs came to 6.6 years.
The Irish Wolfhound club of Denmark received information on 108 Wolfhounds born between 1980-2005. For comparison, there were 1,751 Danish-born Irish Wolfhound puppies registered in the Danish Kennel Club in the period from 1980-2004.
When we look at the four surveys, conducted independently of each other in four different countries, we can see that the mean average lifespan is somewhere between 5.74 years and 6.6 years. The average of both dogs and bitches in all four surveys together comes out to a mean average lifespan of 6.20 years. Many will read this and deduce that the numbers certainly confirm that the breed is in jeopardy healthwise. But let us compare the numbers for longevity of other dog breeds to get a better idea.
The All-Breed Longevity Study
In 1997, three veterinary researchers from the department of Veterinary Pathobiology at Purdue University, G.J. Patronek, D.J. Waters and L.T. Glickman, published their latest findings in the Journals of Gerontology under the title "Comparative Longevity of Pet Dogs And Humans: Implications For Gerontology Research." Their research project was based on data collected on 23,535 well-cared-for family dogs which had died in American university veterinary clinics in the years 1980-90. The researchers processed the detailed data available on breed, size, body weight and age at death. Included in the material were 5,600 mixed breeds.
Dogs which had died within their first year, or as a result of trauma or poisoning, were not included in the project. Among other things, Patronek, Waters and Glickman wanted to find out the mean average lifespan of the various breeds, and whether there is a correlation between body size and lifespan. What is of particular interest here are their findings of mean average lifespan in various dog breeds as compared to the above findings of the mean average lifespan of Irish Wolfhounds.
Among a number of the popular breeds of dogs, we will quickly learn that the commonly assumed longevity is generally highly overrated (probably more in accordance with the basic wishes of dog lovers, rather than with the numbers in reality). Following are a number of examples from the longevity findings:
Miniature Poodle: 9.3 years
West Highland White Terrier: 8.2 years
Dalmatian: 8.2 years
Schnauzer: 8.2 years
Collie: 7.5 years
German Shorthair: 7.2 years
English Setter: 7.0 years
German Shepherd: 6.8 years
Afghan: 6.7 years
Golden Retriever: 6.6 years
Beagle: 6.6 years
Airedale Terrier: 6.5 years
Siberian Husky: 6.4 years
Bassett Hound: 6.3 years
Irish Wolfhound: 6.20 years (average from all four surveys)
Labrador Retriever: 6.2 years
Boxer: 6.0 years
Doberman Pinscher: 5.9 years
Saint Bernard: 5.8 years
Cocker Spaniel: 5.6 years
Great Dane: 4.6 years
Since 1990, there has been a tendency toward a gradual increase in longevity of a couple of months across the breeds. If we try to find the mean average lifespan of the 20 mentioned breeds, we will come up with an average of 6.78 years.
The smaller the breed - the better the general longevity
What does this tell us about the state of the Irish Wolfhound? The breed is surprisingly close to the mean average lifespan of purebred dogs in general -- only 0.58 years below the general average. According to the findings in the longevity research, the smaller the dog, the longer the lifespan. The mixed breeds did live notably longer than the purebred counterparts in the respective weight classes.
Where does this all leave Wolfhounds and their breeders? According to the Austrian researcher, Dr. Hellmuth Wachtel, all purebred dogs who have been bred within closed registries for a little over 100 years, when Kennel Clubs were established, are more or less in trouble. This is due to their limited gene pools and the practices commonly exercised in the breeding of pedigree dogs.
Wachtel is convinced that line-breeding and inbreeding practices in most pure breeds are more or less heading them toward inbreeding depressions. It is time to think differently if we want to maintain health and vigor. It is my opinion that today's breeders should rethink strategy, and among other things, strive towards lowering inbreeding coefficients in the planned matings. Preferably, combinations should stay down around 6%, and no higher than 12%, calculated from ten generations.
I personally feel that, with a mean average lifespan around 6.2 years, there is plenty of room for improvement -- even if the Irish Wolfhound does not deviate significantly from the average lifespan of the 20 other breeds mentioned above. Why not set our goals at an average of 8.5 years or perhaps more?
Possible Approaches Toward Breeding For Better Longevity
Let us return to the American study, where Bernardi has made the experiment of removing dogs which have died of cancer from a calculation of mean average age at death. Surprisingly, the result was 6.4 years for the remaining dogs. Next, she removed dogs which had died of cardiovascular disease, and the numbers came out at 6.3 years. Then, dogs who had died from gastric torsion were removed, which gave the remaining dogs a mean average age at death of 6.3 years. Finally, after eliminating these three causes of death individually, Bernardi removed them as a group from the collected data, which produced a mean average age at death of 6.1 years.
Bernardi almost apologetically presents the findings as unrealistic, saying, "From a statistical viewpoint, it would be erroneous to draw any real conclusions from this 'trick' data, but the figures would seem to dispel any real hope that we could, by simply eliminating a certain disease or problem, lengthen the life span of this breed. They would further seem to indicate that the problem lies much deeper and is more complex than mere susceptibility to specific illness."
What these calculations might lack in statistical validity, they make up for in guidance toward possible strategies of breeding for increased longevity. As Bernardi points out, there must be deeper-lying and much more complex factors determining the individual hound's potential for longevity.
It is pretty much common knowledge that longevity seems to run in certain human families, geographical regions, or specific ethnic groups. It is thus tempting to conclude that both genetic and environmental factors determine how long an individual may live. If attempting to eliminate the major breed-specific diseases doesn't significantly change the mean average lifespan of the Wolfhounds, should we just accept the status quo? I don't think we necessarily have to. The exciting part of being a breeder is the eternal challenge of striving toward improvement in various forms. Why not include an increase in the mean average lifespan along with better conformation, temperament, and healthier dogs in general?
How Should We Tackle the Breed-Specific Diseases?
I think it is important to realize that our dogs have not come up with heart disease, cancer and bloat in recent years purely as a result of irresponsible breeding. It is likely that heart disease and other problems have been connected with the breed for a very long time.
Australian Wolfhound owner-breeder Amy Andre once sent me the following quote from a letter written by I.W. Everett (Felixstowe) to the editor of Country Life in America, which appeared in the June, 1916 issue: "The Champion O'Leary referred to in your article was considered by his breeder, G. E. Crisp, Esq., of Playford Hall, Ipswich, and by the late Captain Graham, to be the most perfect model of his day. Very strange it was that a large number of O'Leary's progeny died of heart trouble, as he did also."
Many of the problems with which we are challenged in our various breeding programs today are probably old problems which are becoming more visible due to the constant developments in the field of medicine and the ever-improving diagnostic methods.
Even considering Gretchen Bernardi's calculations, with and without the breed-specific diseases, and the possibility of using frozen semen from long-lived sires, I believe that it is still important to try to screen our breeding stock for heart disease, and to avoid breeding to lines which exhibit a high percentage of young deaths due to cancer (or any other single contributing factor).
I am familiar with kennels which have the normal occurrence of heart and other breed-specific diseases, but it is noticeable that their unaffected dogs still exhibit a high degree of longevity. This has once again emphasized the importance of looking at the greater picture, rather than just focusing on a particular problem. Vigor and longevity are the essence of that greater picture.
The "Dead Sire" Approach
With modern methods of reproduction such as the use of frozen semen, we are given a possibility of selectively breeding to long-lived animals. By freezing semen, we are "bending time"; we can select sires that lived 9, 10, 11 or 12 years, regardless of whether they are still fertile -- or alive, for that matter.
We have the added benefit of a detailed knowledge of their health record and of evaluating possible progeny of these sires. As an example, if a dog has not developed a heart condition by the age of 10 or 12 years, then the likelihood of him acquiring a heart condition and possibly passing it on to future progeny is very small.
Selection of long-lived individuals is not quite as easy with bitches as with dogs. We can't wait and see how they fare in life before they are bred. Bitches should be young and fit for the ordeals of a pregnancy and the following period of caring for the pups, to avoid compromising the health of the dam. We can, however, select bitches from the long-lived sires and in general from long-lived families of dogs. The basic strategy would be to try to "pack" as many long-lived dogs as possible into a pedigree; theoretically, this should increase the chances of getting long-lived progeny.
It is extremely important that we freeze semen from all of our young promising Irish Wolfhound males. We have to freeze enough semen so other breeders may have the possibility of accessing the future long-lived and vigorous sires, should the studs in question prove to live longer than the breed average (and preferably 8 years and up).
In the EIWC, the first steps toward establishing a longevity database have been taken. The database will include dogs which have lived 8 or more years. We have made a special column for noting if a particular sire has frozen semen available. The idea behind the database is to make this information readily available, in order to help breeders in their longevity research and to guide the way to the possible use of long-lived sires.
Finally, it should be noted that the approach is not one that guarantees instant success -- it is rather likely to be a lifetime project for breeders, but nevertheless a worthwhile one which may benefit many dogs and their owners in years to come.
As breeders, we owe it to this magnificent breed to cast off the stigmatizing "heartbreak breed" label once and for all. We must set high goals for longevity in our breeding programs and celebrate each step taken in the right direction: toward procrastinating the time of heartbreak, when we finally have to let our beloved dogs go.
Longevity and vigor often run in families. Here is USA CH Fleetwind Sundance, who lived 'til the age of 11 years (both his parents lived to 12 years, the four grandparents lived 8 and 9 years.)
Below, a pedigree exhibiting a high percentage of long-lived dogs, thus indicating a genetic potential for longevity.
age @ death: 11 yrs.
B: 21 Apr 1985
age @ death: 12 yrs. / complicated fracture of hock
age @ death: 9 yrs. / osteosacoma
Duncairn Duthach Na Tuaighe
age @ death ca. 3yrs. 10 mo./ lymphosacoma
age @ death: 10 yrs. / torsion
age @ death: 8 yrs. / osteosacoma
age @ death ca. 3 yrs.
Tura Lura of Glocca Morra
Fleetwind Bonnie Brae Magic
age @ death: just short of 12 yrs.
age @ death: 9 yrs. / osteosacoma
Duncairn Duthach Na Tuaighe
age @ death ca. 3yrs. 10 mo./ lymphosacoma
age @ death: 10 yrs. / torsion
January of Whitehall
age @ death 8 or 9yrs. / killed by burglars
Fitzarran Dudly of Whitehall
age @ death 4yrs. / torsion
Winnie of Whitehall
age @ death 10+ yrs.
Bernardi, Gretchen, 1986. Longevity and morbidity in the Irish Wolfhound in the United States 1966 - 1986, for the Irish Wolfhound Club of America, Inc. & Bernardi, P.O. Box 275, Edwardsville, IL 62025, USA.
Blom, Anna & Thomas Blom, 2004. Hälsotillstand hos varghunden i Sverige, for the Irish Wolfhound Club of Sweden
Danielsen, Ingrid, 2000. Behandling av Dødsårsagsskjema for Irsk Ulvehund innsendt for årene 1974-1999, for the Irish Wolfhound Club of Norway
Everett, I.W., June, 1916. Country Life in America, quoted by Amy Andre (personal correspondence)
Jalving, Jeanette, 2005. Health survey of the Irish Wolfhound in Denmark, for the Irish Wolfhoundclub of Denmark, to be published
Patronek, G.J., D.J. Waters & L.T. Glickman, 1997. Comparative longevity of pet dogs and humans: Implications for gerontology research, Journals of Gerontology Series A: Biological Sciences and Medical Sciences, Vol. 52, Issue 3 B171-B178
Wachtel, Hellmuth, Dr., 1998. What can population genetics do for the Irish Wolfhound? Paper presented at the 1998 E.I.W.C. Congress in Mondorf-les-Bains, Luxembourg