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As a natural breed that has not been significantly altered by breeders, the Finnish Spitz remains one of the healthiest breeds in the canine population. At the same time, it originally evolved from a small gene pool in Finland and that remains one of the main issues with the breed today. If the gene pool in Europe is small, the size of the gene pool in North America is much smaller. The well-being of the breed in North America faces two significant challenges.
First, because of the small gene pool the liklihood of genetic diseases has risen. With increased inbreeding and linebreeding due to a small gene pool more and more genes can expect to become homozygous rather than maintaining their genetically heterozygous characteristic. This increases the odds that dogs beyond the statistical norm will be affected and/or produce carriers of any defective genes. The challenge for breeders is maintaining a phenotype that fits the breed standard while diversifying the gene pool when there is little diversity available in North America.
The second major challenge is collecting documented, medical data on Finnish Spitz with the health issues that the breed is facing. In light of the fact that the vast majority of breeders--which in and of itself is a small number--only breed a couple of litters a year, either increasing the gene pool through imports and/or obtaining medical data on affected puppies and dogs requires funds far above the income from pups. In the absence of those funds, the necessary medical data simply does not exist. As we grow the FSHN we hope to help with funding of this type of testing. The most important aspects of this testing include identifying the specific issues affecting the breed as well as identifying the dogs that are carriers for each specific disease. This information allows breeders to make an effort to breed around the diseases with the eventual goal of eliminating them from the Finnish Spitz breeding population.
Despite these issues, breeders are well aware of certain issues in the breed and have worked to eliminate them.
Finland has struggled for many years in dealing with the problem of epilepsy in the Finnish Spitz. In the absence of a genetic marker for this disorder, the Finnish Spitz Club in Finland developed an epilepsy pedigree with a probability indicator of which lines were most likely to carry the defective gene and attempted to eliminate the breeding of these dogs. As a result, the gene pool in Finland was dramatically reduced four years ago. Dogs imported in recent years are far less likely to carry the defective gene(s) for epilepsy than those imported before that time. Because our original gene pool was imported this is a disease that has affected a number of our Finnish Spitz. On the good news front, an extensive research project between the University of Minnesota School of Veterinary Medicine and the University of MO-Columbia vet school is making progress in seeking to identify a genetic marker for epilepsy. A number of blood samples from Finnish Spitz were submitted over the years and there is cautious optimism that a genetic marker for this disease will be found in the near future. We are supporting the work of Dr. Hannes Lohi at the University of Helsinki who specifically is attempting to find a genetic marker in the Finnish Spitz. Dr. Lohi has access to the samples submitted to the U of MO project but if you have a Finnish Spitz that is affected by seizures please go to our Current Projects page to see how you can help. Finding a genetic marker in our breed would allows us to quickly eliminate this disease from our breeding population.
The second major health issue found in Finland is structural and involves the kneecap. Referred to as luxating patellas, the knee cap slips off or dislocates in dogs with this issue thereby causing damage to the surrounding tendons and ligaments. While this condition can be corrected, surgery is expensive and involves a lengthy recovery. This condition was severe enough in Finland that the Finnish Spitz parent club in Finland requested the Finnish Kennel Club to require obligatory health screening of breeding Finnish Spitz through its health program ("PEVISA") in 1994. Of course, our dogs rarely see the type of exercise that the hunting dogs in Finland experience so unless the condition is quite severe symptoms may not show up in our dogs for many years. Testing for this condition simply requires examination and palpitation of the kneecap by a veterinarian.
Breeeders in North America have encountered a number of heart problems. Pulminary stenosis in two different valves in the heart have been documented as well as a hole in the wall separating the chambers of the heart. Where the stenosis is severe it can be corrected through the insertion of balloon in the affected valve but again this is an expensive procedure. A good veterinarian should be able to ascertain that a cardiac issue exists before the pups leave the breeder through a routine examination of the pups. These conditions will produce a heart murmur that can be detected at a very early age. In dogs that are only mildly affected limiting their exercise may be sufficient.
Achalasia is a disorder of the esophagus where the esophagus does not relax to allow emptying of the food in to the stomach. In most instances, a dog with this condition will vomit his food to empty the esophagus although in mild cases the symptoms may not be as noticeable. The best prevention is a careful watch of pups at the time of weaning for any difficulties in digesting solid food. While there is no documentation of this condition in the breed in Finland it is thought to cross nearly all lines here in North America.
The following conditions found in Finnish Spitz do not appear to distinguish between any lines.
Cleft palate (a hole in the roof of the mouth) is another genetic disorder that seems to cross most lines in North America. This disease is somewhat self-controlling in that puppies with this disorder will not survive more than a few days because they cannot nurse properly. At the same time, it is believed to be a combination of recessive genes that create this condition (i.e., the parents are not symptomatic but produce pups with the condition) so it is important to attempt to identify carriers and seek to limit the spread of the defective gene.
Hip dysplasia is one of the most difficult issues because of the number of causes. While there is a clear genetic component, and ongoing research to find a DNA marker across the breeds, it can also be caused by environmental factors. In order to address the genetic component, many breeders have x-rays performed on the hips of their breeding dogs before breeding them. At the same time, the hip structure is composed of a number of genes that makes it difficult to determine how the genes may line up from each parent. As a result, two parents with good hips may produce a pup with hip dysplasia. Documented evidence exists in other breeds, however, that the structure of hips in a breed can be improved through careful breeding.
Over the years anecdotal stories of problems with the liver, diabetes and cancer have circulated. It appears that most of the Nordic breeds have a predisposition to diabetes if they become overweight. For this reason, it is important to keep your Finnish Spitz on the lean side throughout his or her life. Similarly, a number of reports of various types of cancer have surfaced over the years. No one type seems to be dominant and this may well be due to environmental factors.
The stories of liver issues are more troublesome as they have been ongoing. Liver issues, however, are very difficult to diagnose in a live dog so without necropsies on dogs that have died of liver issues it is difficult to determine whether this is significant genetic issue in the breed. Finally, with a small gene pool autoimmune issues are bound to surface. Fortunately, to date there have been few reports of any significant autoimmune diseases.
We are fortunate to love a breed that is natural and quite healthy compared to most purebred dogs. At the same time, breeders struggle with maintaining a healthy gene pool given the small gene pool in North America. And we are hampered by the lack of documented medical evidence. Further, we are unable to simply eradicate possible carriers from the gene pool which would have the effect of a greater reduction in the gene pool. Each breeder has attempted to address health issues in the breed through a variety of methods including close breedings to determine which dogs may carry certain defective genes; testing of breeding dogs and affected puppies and necropsies on deceased dogs; and expansion of the gene pool through imports. Any of these measures are expensive, however, and require that breeders fund their breeding program far above and beyond the income they receive from selling pups. If you have a Finnish Spitz as a loving companion rather than as a breeder, you can help by sending any health-related information you have on your dog back to the breeder and/or to us, financially supporting our efforts to improve the health of the breed, and having necropsies performed on any of your dogs that die unexpectedly or from unknown causes. With further information, we can be more successful in our efforts to identify possible carriers for certain defects and breed around them with an improved gene pool down the road. With a focused eye on the health of the breed, we can leave these beautiful dogs in improved health for future generations.