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My Idiopathic Pup
Pondering one Border Collie's genetics
Cowboy hit the idiopathic jackpot.

This post is really a spontaneous one. I’ve thought about this for many years, and I’ve had discussions with many a dog person on the topic of breeding. I am not a breeder and I have great empathy for those that truly advocate for their breed and those who attempt to maintain vigor and health in their breeding practices.

I am prompted to write today because of a scary episode that happened a few days ago with Cowboy, my five-and-a-half-year-old Border Collie. I was outside playing ball with him—doing our usual go outs and recalls. In the middle of one of the recalls, Cowboy started to arc in a circle, as if he were chasing a bee. Alas, no bees running around Wisconsin at the end of November.

Within seconds, he was down on the ground in the midst of a grand-mal seizure. I stayed by him, and watched him for 15 to 30 seconds that seemed like forever. When it was over, he was a little weak in his hind end and I rushed him to the emergency vet. By the time we arrived, Cowboy was his usual self and we did the customary “rule out” blood work and neurological exam. Everything came out normal, and it is likely that Cowboy may have a diagnosis of “idiopathic” epilepsy.

Time will tell how and if this progresses, but it made me think about the word “idopathic.” As a nurse I know that idiopathic refers to an unknown or indefinable cause. Well, it seems that my Cowboy, has hit the jackpot in the idiopathic category. He is definitely another heart dog—beautiful in appearance and sound in temperament. But Cowboy came to me with an interesting genetic package: He was cryptorchid, developed osteochondritis dessicans in his shoulder, had an unusual idiopathic swallowing problem as a pup, and now may have idiopathic epilepsy.

What is known about the Border Collie and their genetics is that in the past ten to twenty years as their popularity has dramatically risen, the vigor of the Border Collie’s genetics has been seriously compromised. It is not unusual to hear from a working stock dog breeder, “If you have a dog that works, don’t worry about the genetics.”

Well, my response to that, albeit sarcastic, is a similar word, but a different meaning.


And sorrow.

This problem, often called “kennel blindness,” occurs all over the sporting world of dogs and the Border Collie is likely one of the last breeds to be affected by impulsive and unwise breeding programs. This stems from the concept of line breeding, that in order to produce outstanding traits, breed within the lineage of your successful dogs and accept the risks of outing recessive genes that carry pathology with them. After all, the breeder can choose to keep a few dogs that look promising, cull others, or place them in pet homes.

Cowboy will be fine. He is in a loving and safe home. He has people who will accommodate him and pay for potential medical needs. I worry about the future of this breed as well as others. I wonder what truly motivates such shortsighted and cavalier breeding practices. I hope that breeders will start to be a little introspective and honest and share their information about their bloodlines. Too many hide the history or make statements like “my dog got kicked in the head by a cow and then developed epilepsy.”

Anyone with experience and dedication to a specific breed can identify the weaknesses that circulate through each breed. The ER vet told me that there is a line of Labrador Retrievers that suffer from exercise-induced seizures. Those who know Flat-Coated Retrievers know about the challenges of lymphoma in the breed. And so it goes.

This is nothing new of course, but really worth thinking about and discussing. It’s actually quite extraordinary how quickly we can influence genetics. Think Belyaev and his foxes. The great concern is, that once we’ve opened Pandora’s box of pathologic genes, how then, do we clean up the mess?

Well, thanks for listening. I’m wise enough to know there are no easy answers. But, I do hope that those who breed and love their breeds will start responding to these challenging questions.

Often times, things just aren’t so idiopathic.

Judy Illes lives in rural Wisconsin. When she and her Border Collie, Cowboy, are not out enjoying the great outdoors, she blogs about her life with dogs and those that she trained in her in-home program, Thinking Dog, llc. Illes also worked at Call of the Wild School for Dogs in Chicago and received her training from some smart urban dogs.
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