HEALTH DISORDERS IN STAFFORDSHIRE BULL TERRIERS
By Margo Milde, SBTCA Health Chair
(Updated March 15, 2013)
The Staffordshire Bull Terrier (or, “Staffords” as we informally call them), is a remarkably healthy and resilient breed of dog. However, all Stafford owners and breeders must be aware of common Stafford afflictions in order to better care for this most wonderful breed! This article is a brief summary of medical conditions occasionally found in Staffords. I have prepared a separate bibliography entitled “Genetic-based Health Resources for Owners and Breeders of Staffordshire Bull Terriers” for further information on most of the topics described in this summary, as well as several additional topics related to Stafford health concerns and general canine genetics. This article is for general information purposes only, and cannot take the place of an actual consultation or visit with your dog’s veterinarian.
Staffords only rarely act ill or injured. However, because of their stoic nature, we know that Staffords only rarely choose to show pain. Therefore, any Stafford owner must immediately attend to their dog when it acts abnormally or otherwise in distress, since a Stafford displaying discomfort is an ill or injured Stafford indeed.
Because of their bold, fearless, and irrepressible nature, Staffords are all too often injured. Jumping off balconies, being hit by cars, and run-ins with wild critters occur all too frequently with Staffords. Due to their heavy muscular structure, Staffords are prone to drowning since many cannot swim well or even stay afloat. While a proper Stafford will rarely, if ever, initiate a dispute with another canine, if the other dog decides to pick on your Stafford, you can be almost certain that your Stafford will take up the challenge; severe injuries can result to both dogs if you don’t quickly step in and remove your Stafford from the scene. Many Staffords have a high prey drive, and unless very well trained, are inclined to chase wildlife, cats, and other small animals at any opportunity when they are not confined by a leash or fence. These escapades may take them far away from the safety of their home, or into the path of heavy traffic. Most Staffords go through a long puppyhood of relentless chewing; their taste for chewing objects knows no safe bounds, and may include common household objects dangerous to gnaw on such as electric cords. For all of these reasons, always leash your dog when you are not in a secure fenced-in area, and always provide your Stafford with a safe place in your home, such as a crate or secure dog run, when you are not directly watching him, especially when he is still a puppy or adolescent. Basic obedience training will help to guarantee your Stafford will come when called and walk nicely on a leash, further ensuring his safety and a long and happy life with you.
Staffords can be escape artists, and many have been known to tunnel under or climb over fences, or even – yes – barrel right through the less secure confinements. If you can’t supervise your Stafford’s every moment in your fenced yard, make certain your fencing is “escape proof”. Unfortunately, being occasionally misidentified as American Pit Bull Terriers, Staffords have been stolen from yards; make certain your gate is securely locked when you are not directly supervising your Stafford in your yard. Because of their high pain tolerance, underground “invisible” electric fencing is often a poor choice for a Stafford; such fencing also makes them even more prone to theft.
Staffords are generally not heat tolerant. NEVER keep your Stafford out in the direct sun on a warm day for more than a few minutes, and, on hot summer days, try to limit your Stafford’s most boisterous activities, even in the shade, to the cool of the evening hours. Because of the structure of their head and airways, Staffords can overheat very, very easily, with only a few minutes of brisk exercise on a warm day. The risk of overheating is especially severe on days of high humidity. Dark-coated Staffords are even more prone to hyperthermia (overheating) than the predominantly white-coated Staffords. If you don’t have air conditioning, the liberal use of electric fans will help to keep your Stafford comfortable indoors on those hot summer days. If your Stafford is kept in a kennel, the kennels should be situated in a breezy, shady area during the summer. Of course, you should always provide your dog with plenty of fresh water, but this is especially critical during the warmer months. While any dog can dangerously overheat in a parked car on a warm day, Staffords are particularly at risk. In addition, because of their short coats, Staffords do not tolerate cold temperatures, and are never to be kept as an outside dog or in an unheated kennel in areas where winter temperatures can get chilly. Older Staffords can be especially sensitive to cold. A warm, soft, cozy indoor bed at night is a pleasure which no older Stafford should be denied!
Almost all states and municipalities have laws and ordinances regarding rabies vaccinations. Make certain you know and obey these vaccination laws with your Stafford! All Staffords should be vaccinated for common and serious canine illnesses, including parvovirus and distemper, and your Stafford’s fecal specimens should be checked by your vet for parasites at least yearly. Dog vaccination protocols are a current hotly debated issue, and are beyond the scope of this brief summary. However, one authoritative place to start is by reading the American Animal Hospital Association 2011 Canine Vaccination Guidelines.
This website gives a great deal of information which will serve as a sound basis for your future investigation of this fast-changing subject, and allow you, in partnership with your veterinarian, to make the best vaccination decisions for your dog.
Following is a brief listing of illnesses which are known to occur in the Staffordshire Bull Terrier. This listing is not meant to be completely inclusive, and is provided for general information purposes only.
Atopic Dermatitis (Skin Allergy)
Certain Staffords are prone to various skin allergies, causing them to bite, scratch, and lick their itchy places continually until the source of the problem is corrected by the owner or their vet. An afflicted dog may lose huge patches of hair or develop large “lick sores” in the process. Secondary infections may then occur in the raw, exposed skin. A “flea bite allergy” often plays a considerable role in this condition; aggressive “flea control” measures (both on the dog and in the premises where the dog resides) throughout the year will often by itself ameliorate this condition in milder cases. Contact allergies to pollens, dusts, molds, and other environmental allergens may be to blame. (One indoor allergen responsible for much atopic dermatitis in dogs, the feces of the ubiquitous house dust mite, is a major allergen for humans, as well.) Less frequently, food intolerances may play a role, and the dog must be relegated by the veterinarian to a strict dietary protocol. For milder cases, some dog owners and vets have seen improvement using fish oil supplements; the omega-3 fatty acids contained in fish oils act as a natural anti-inflammatory and help to relieve the itching. Severe cases of atopic dermatitis can be difficult to manage, and the advice and help of a veterinarian are needed to bring the afflicted dog relief. Often treatment to control the itching (such as antihistamines or even prednisone), identification and removal of the source of the allergen from the dog’s environment, and treatment of the secondary skin infections are all necessary in order to control the condition in especially severe cases. While no studies have been done specifically on Staffords, research with dogs in general show this condition to have, at least in part, a genetic mode of transmission.
Demodectic Mange (Demodicosis)
Demodicosis is a skin condition caused by the tiny mite Demodex canis. Nearly all dogs carry this tiny skin parasite, but most adult dogs’ immune systems are able to keep the mite in check, and no symptoms are observed. (Even most humans carry this mite in limited numbers in their skin!) Frequently in puppyhood and adolescence (4 months to 18 months of age is most typical), puppies of many breeds (including Staffords) may develop a few quarter-sized bald patches on their face and chest; these usually resolve in time without treatment. Unfortunately, certain dogs are not so lucky; the condition becomes generalized and wide-spread over the entire body. In these cases, veterinarians must be consulted for treatment, and the problem is often not easy to permanently resolve. Previously, only rather toxic dips, usually containing the compound amitraz, would be used to control the mites in dogs with generalized demodicosis. More recently, the heartworm preventive ivermectin has been successfully used to treat demodicosis; however, it is not yet approved by the FDA for this purpose, although it is licensed for use as a heartworm preventive in the dog. Ivermectin is highly toxic to many individuals of herding breeds, but most Staffords appear to tolerate it well. Certain lines of Staffords appear to be particularly prone to generalized demodicosis. Whether or not a Stafford with generalized demodicosis should be used in a breeding program is a controversial subject at the moment, however, the tendency towards the condition is thought be many to be an inherited one.
The term elbow dysplasia is used to describe a degenerative disorder of the elbow joint caused by improper development of a portion of a particular bone in this joint (anconeal process of the ulna). Young dogs that have this condition often exhibit pain when jumping or turning quickly, or may show variable foreleg lameness. It is thought to be hereditary in nature, and tends to run in canine families. However, exogenous causes, such as over-feeing a puppy into too-rapid growth, may be partially to blame as well, especially if a genetic tendency is present. Injury to the joint might also be a cause. Depending upon the age of the dog, the actual cause, and the severity of the symptoms, treatment can include modalities ranging from anti-inflammatories medications up to surgery. According to the latest OFA statistics (2012), with 217 Staffords having been evaluated using elbow x-rays, 16.6% of these Staffords have elbow dysplasia, while 82.9% are rated as having normal elbows.
Hereditary (Juvenile) Cataract
Hereditary Cataract is a hereditary condition that causes an opacity or cloudiness to develop in the lens of a dog’s eyes at a relatively early age. Although the eyes are normal at birth, bilateral cataracts form usually by several months of age. This condition often progresses rapidly, leading to total blindness by three years of age. Surgery (canine lens extraction using phacoemulsification) can be used to restore sight to the affected dog; however, it has only a 75% long term success rate in restoring useful vision. Hereditary cataract is now known to be transmitted by means of an autosomal recessive mode of inheritance. A simple DNA test, using a small sample of the dog’s blood, is now available which will identify carriers, clears, and affecteds for this condition in the Staffordshire Bull Terrier. A dog who is a carrier has one copy of the mutated gene, but does not itself show signs of the disease. The affected dog has both mutated copies of the gene and develops cataracts, while the clear dog has two normal genes. A carrier, if bred to another carrier, will produce on average one affected puppy, two carriers, and one clear puppy for every four puppies produced. By using the new DNA test, breeders can test their breeding stock, and, based upon this test, breed appropriately to prevent affected puppies from being produced. With limited testing in the U.S. approximately 8% of all U.S. Staffords tested for Hereditary Cataract have been shown to be carriers when this test was first widely introduced in 2007.
Hip Dysplasia is a crippling condition in which laxness in the hip joint causes premature breakdown of the cartilage lining, leading to arthritis. The tendency to hip dysplasia can be passed on from one generation to the next; researchers believe that it is a polygenic-based disorder, having more than one causative gene. Symptoms may include difficulty jumping or using stairs; unusual stiffness after exercise; and a peculiar “bunny-hopping” gait. While there is a strong hereditary component to this affliction, many believe environmental factors, such as overfeeding leading to too-rapid growth in puppies, can cause the condition to progress much more rapidly if a genetic tendency is already present. Often, the effects of mild hip dysplasia are not seen until the dog is middle-age or older, and can be managed by weight control and anti-inflammatory medications. Occasionally, however, puppies and young dogs can show symptoms of hip dysplasia which are rapidly progressive and crippling; special surgical techniques have been developed for these dogs to help them lead a more normal and pain-free life. According to the latest OFA statistics (2012), with 577 Staffords having been evaluated using hip x-rays, 17.2% are rated abnormal (dysplastic), and 80.4% have both hips graded normal. Since this is at least partially a hereditary condition, careful breeding will reduce its incidence in a breed over time. If both parents have normal hips, there is a lessened possibility for one or more puppies in a litter to be later rated dysplastic.
L-2-Hydroxyglutaric Aciduria (L-2-HGA)
L-2-HGA is a metabolic condition of Staffordshire Bull Terriers in which affected dogs lack an enzyme to properly break down a metabolic byproduct, an organic acid, L-2-hydroxyglutaric acid. This compound then builds up in the cerebrospinal fluid and plasma of the affected dogs, causing the symptoms of this illness. Central nervous system symptoms include lack of coordination, tremors, personality disorders, poor learning abilities, and seizures. These affected dogs usually excrete high levels of the compound in their urine, hence the term “aciduria”. Unfortunately, treatment is entirely symptomatic; there is no cure. Affected dogs often must be euthanized at an early age, and even the more mildly affected will never behave like a “normal dog.” L-2-HGA is now known to be transmitted by means of an autosomal recessive mode of inheritance. A simple DNA test, using a small sample of the dog’s blood, is now available which will identify carriers, clears, and affecteds for this condition in the Staffordshire Bull Terrier. A dog who is a carrier has one copy of the mutated gene, but does not itself show signs of the disease. The affected dog has both mutated copies of the gene and develops L-2-HGA, while the clear dog has two normal genes. A carrier, if bred to another carrier, will produce on average one affected puppy, two carriers, and one clear puppy for every four puppies produced. However, by using the new DNA test, breeders can test their breeding stock, and, based upon this test, breed appropriately to prevent affected puppies from being produced. It is critical that all breeders use this new DNA test to screen their breeding stock for this mutation, since it is estimated (late 2006) that upwards of 15% of the Staffords in the U.S. are carriers.
Patellar Luxation is a condition in which the patella, or kneecap, of the dog’s stifle joint frequently luxates or “pops” out of place. Depending upon the severity, symptoms can be intermittent and mild throughout the dog’s life, with the only evidence of the condition an occasional funny “kick” of the dog’s hind leg, or it may eventually lead to severe, permanent degenerative changes in the joint including arthritis. Infrequently, onset may appear to be sudden, leaving the dog unable to stand on the affected hindleg(s). Patellar luxation is believed to be hereditary, as well, although the exact mode of transmission is uncertain. According to the latest OFA statistics (2012), with 72 Staffords having been evaluated radiographically (using x-rays), 100% were evaluated as “normal.” However, these statistics are considered misleading, not only because of the small sample size evaluated, but also because patellar luxation is known for certain to occasionally be found in this breed.
Persistent Hyperplastic Primary Vitreous (PHPV)
Persistent Hyperplastic Primary Vitreous (PHPV) is an inherited eye condition found in Staffords as well as other breeds. In PHPV, embryonic blood vessels in the eye persist abnormally after birth, usually on the posterior lens capsule, interfering with the dog’s vision. A posterior cortical cataract may sometimes form, as well. PHPB is congenital, and not acquired nor progressive. Therefore, it can be detected on any eye exam performed at any age starting at six weeks or later, and it will not worsen from that point. While many cases are relatively mild, some can be quite severe and interfere materially with the dog’s vision. Mode of inheritance is unknown at this time, although some believe that it is autosomal dominant with incomplete penetrance. Surgery is available but it is not always entirely successful and can be very expensive. It is advised to limit the breeding of adult Staffords with this condition, so that it does not become a serious problem in the breed. However, if it is found to have incomplete penetrance genetically, it would still be possible for a dog to transmit the PHPV mutation without itself showing symptoms. The Animal Health Trust in England is currently working to develop a genetic test for this condition.
Posterior Polar Subcapsular Cataracts (PPSC)
Posterior Polar Subcapsular Cataracts (PPSC) involves the formation of a generally small cataract which does not typically produce total blindness in the dog. It occurs in Staffords, as well as a number of other breeds. Onset may be juvenile, or in adulthood. PPSC is thought to be hereditary, although the mode of transmission is still unknown. It is not related to Hereditary Cataracts. While PPSC can be readily detected on a standard eye exam, unfortunately the eye exam cannot determine whether or not the “clear” dog will develop this condition. Here also, surgery is a possibility but is not always successful, and can be very expensive. It is advisable to limit breeding of dogs known to have PPSC to ensure that this condition will not become a problem in the breed. Unfortunately, if onset is not until adulthood, it is possible that a breeder may still use such a dog in their program before the cataract develops and is observed. For this reason, eye exams are recommended annually for every Stafford in a breeding program. There is no genetic testing available for this condition at this time.
Staffords are, overall, much healthier than many other breeds, and their joie de vivre makes them a real pleasure to own. Knowledge about the health conditions occasionally found in the breed, combined with your veterinarian’s skill and knowledge, will help to ensure your Stafford a long, happy, and active life in your company.