Breeding in the Age of COVID-19
English Setter fanciers recently heard the news that our 2020 National Specialty, scheduled for September in Virginia, was being canceled. I know that many of you are in the same boat, with nationals, regional specialties, and shows canceled in the coming months. It is a sad time for dog shows – and a difficult time for club boards – as these decisions are announced. Health considerations and finances are making it tough for many clubs to reach any other conclusion, though we wish the best for all of the clubs that are going ahead with their shows.
While the shows might not go on for us right now, one thing that absolutely must continue during the coronavirus outbreak is dog breeding. We can wait for dog shows to resume, probably next year, but losing a year in a breeding program is something that’s harder to recover. Dogs have a short time to reproduce. If you’re waiting to put a championship on your dog and you lose a year because of the coronavirus, you have lost a year in the prime of your dog’s reproductive life.
That doesn’t mean that it’s always easy to breed a dog at the moment. Some breeders and owners do report difficulties in scheduling health tests for their dogs at this time but others have been able to have testing done as usual. It can depend on where you live and each state’s individual restrictions.
Veterinary services have been considered “essential” in most, if not all states. Likewise, the AKC was successful in having other pet services such as pet food and supplies, and pet care and kennels declared “essential” in most places. However, individuals can still experience difficulties when it comes to breeding a dog just because of delays and the sometimes unavoidable effects of the pandemic.
In an informal survey of breeders, several vet techs reported that the veterinary practices where they worked were open and following social distancing recommendations. They were performing all of their usual services. Owners could come and drop off their dogs but they were not allowed to enter the building. A tech or vet would come outside to get the dog. This was true even for a reproductive hospital that was open for all reproduction needs. One vet tech reported that business was slow for reproduction right now. One owner did report that her dog’s appointment for eye testing had been canceled. And another owner stated that her dog would not do well with x-rays if she had to drop him off at the vet’s office and leave him so she was delaying his hip and elbow x-rays.
On the other hand, one breeder in California reported that a friend had just had a dog impregnated through AI with shipped semen and was planning on a C-section so, clearly, some reproductive practices are moving right along.Other breeders reported that they had to wait for OFA to complete DNA tests but this problem should be clearing up. The Orthopedic Foundation for Animals (OFA), which registers health test results for so many breeds, had been experiencing Covid 19-related delays. It now has this message posted on its web site:
"The Missouri State and City of Columbia non-essential business closure orders have been lifted as of May 3rd. Beginning on Monday, May 4th, the OFA returned to normal operations. Your patience while we’ve adjusted our business processes to the challenges of the last few weeks have been greatly appreciated."
Breeders who BAER-test puppies also reported some unusual difficulties. If you’re not familiar with BAER testing, puppies in a litter typically have their hearing tested between 5 weeks and 12 weeks of age (before they go to a new home). The testing involves using tiny electrodes and a special computer to read the puppy’s hearing responses. This is specialized testing and breeders have to take their puppies to testing sites with trained testers to have it done. One breeder reported that she couldn’t get her litter tested at one university but she was able to find another tester. Another breeder reported that she had to wait outside with the puppies while the testing vet made trip after trip to the vehicle to get each puppy to test and bring it back. She wasn’t allowed to go inside the clinic.
Several other breeders who currently have puppies from recent litters said that their only problems have been trying to get the puppies to their new homes. For reasons related to Covid-19, air travel for pets is very limited – or next to impossible – at this time. Many people are unwilling to risk air travel at all for health reasons. If you have puppies or you are thinking of breeding a litter, you will probably need to think about ground transportation for the next few months.
The worst story came from a breeder who had recently moved and had a bitch due to whelp. Because of the pandemic, the breeder had trouble finding a veterinarian well-versed in using ultrasound equipment. The bitch had previously required a C-section but the new veterinarian seemed reluctant to believe she might need one again. When the bitch went into labor and appeared to need a C-section, the breeder had to drop her off at the door to the practice and wait outside. The bitch produced a big, healthy puppy and all turned out well, but if you are a breeder, you know how nerve-wracking this experience had to be.
This is the down side that you might be facing if you decide to breed this year. But there is an upside.
Breeders across the world are reporting a large uptick in puppy sales, as those who shelter in place are realizing that they now have the time and attention for a new puppy.
If you have any doubt about the current demand for dogs and puppies, there has been a steady stream of news stories coming out about empty shelters. Lots of people adopted or fostered dogs from shelters and rescues during the shelter-in-place orders which speaks to the tremendous demand for dogs right now. The supply chain of “meat dogs” and strays from other countries has also, at least temporarily, been cut off due to the pandemic. This means that Americans are getting American dogs.
The American Kennel Club also reported in the April 23 board minutes that they have been experiencing a spike in registrations due to Covid 19, though it could be temporary. Their projection was that litter registrations would be up 14 percent in April and individual dogs registered would be up 19 percent.
AKC reported to delegates this month that April month-to-date Online Dog Reg volume is currently +40% over same period last year; and April month-to-date Online Litter Reg volume is currently +30% over same period last year.
Of course, these numbers may drop as people start to go back to work, though as of right now it’s not at all clear how soon some people may return to work, at least in some states and some professions. Some have also speculated that the shutdown may bring some permanent changes in our economy, with more people working from home.
Whatever the case, we need to ensure the future safety of our dog breeds. A few generations ago, many breeds in Europe and Asia were nearly wiped out because of world wars. Their populations dwindled to a few survivors or virtually disappeared. It has taken decades to revive some breeds and some breeds were, indeed, lost.
While Covid 19 might not be on the same level of disaster as a world war, it has interrupted our way of life, health, employment, income, our ability to travel, and all of the things we normally take for granted. It’s certainly interrupted activities like showing dogs. We can’t allow it to reduce the numbers of our purebred dogs – especially for the breeds that already have low numbers.
If you were planning to breed a litter this year and your finances allow it, this is still a good time to breed. This is especially true if you’re at home more than usual and you have time to raise a litter. Don’t be put off by the cancellation of dog shows. People are still looking for purebred puppies. If you were waiting to finish a dog before breeding, consider breeding your dog now instead. Adapt to the current conditions. Many people are already saying that they regret not breeding their bitch earlier this year.
Dog shows will return and we need to have plenty of young dogs to show when they do. We need to make sure that our breeds are in good shape for next year.