Dr. Pallós, Andrea:

The generic health and typical diseases of Hungarian Vizsla breeds

The popularity of dog shows is on the increase these days, as they give an opportunity to people involved in this sport to meat their fellow hobbyists and recreate. A demand increasing in parallel is that a dog should not only reap laurels with its beauty, but participate in human sports and training, a companion in activities that promote fitness and a healthy lifestyle. Thus, there is a growing demand for dog breeds that do not only look good, but are endowed with health and longevity, so that one’s pet and companion need not be taken to the vet except for annual control and mandatory vaccination.

Hungarian breeds – at least our gundogs, namely the shorthaired and wirehaired Hungarian Vizsla and the Transylvanian Hound – are lucky in this respect. Due to their origins as working dogs, they had not been selected primarily for looks, so they have retained their original positive characteristics in both structure and internal qualities.

However, these advantages are easy to lose unless properly managed. To facilitate this, we have decided to survey the actual situation rather than depending on hearsay. To this end, we have composed special questionnaires for owners and veterinarians.

The returned questionnaires show that the average lifespan of a Hungarian Vizsla is 11 to 13 years, which is a rather long time relative to other dog breeds. This is an indication that the breed may be considered healthy in general.

According to the experience of veterinarians, the most common causes of death are: tumours and heart deficiency. (I should note here that the proportion of Hungarian Vizslas treated with heart problems at the University of Veterinary Medicine, Budapest, does not reflect this, at a mere 3% of all cases of internal medicine. We may assume that most dogs do not make it to the specialist vet, since such symptoms occurred only in old age. However, tumorous diseases comprised 17% of internal medicine cases, which is the average proportion for the canine species.)

Given that the sheets returned from various geographical zones of the country were concordant in this respect, these data may be regarded as typical of the breed. Sadly, the wide gamut of tumours is partly a consequence of lifestyle and the environment.

We included in the questionnaire several specific questions about diseases we were concerned with. First of these was the range of allergies, which also afflict wide masses of the human population. Unfortunately the Hungarian Vizsla occupies a high rank in this respect. Most common are skin problems (especially cutaneous inflammations due to food or contact allergy), while allergies to medicines (vaccines), plants and insect bites occur with a significantly smaller frequency. Another very common dermatological problem is demodicosis (a mite infestation of the hair follicles). Both these types of disease are rooted in the incorrect functioning of the immune system; however, while the former (i.e. allergy) involves an exaggerated reaction by the system, in the latter case its defensive capacity is insufficient. The latter also frequently functions as an indirect cause of death. It is important to note that the operation of the immune system is determined to a great extent by hereditary factors, so animals thus afflicted will transmit their tendency to their offspring. Further disorders originating in allergies or a malfunction of the immune system are myositis eosinophylica and cervical-cranial atrophy, which, albeit insignificant in frequency, do sometimes occur.

A breed-typical problem of the Hungarian Vizsla is the inflammation of the external auditory meatus, which generally afflicts dogs with hanging ears and whose likelihood is increased by the utilisation of Vizslas in hunting (where water or grass awns may penetrate the auditory meatus).

The next group of questions investigated eye problems. As a practising vet, I myself have encountered blind adult Vizslas. The cause of blindness varies, and unfortunately – as also known from data pertaining to other breeds – in some cases it is hereditary. Thankfully, the number of affected individuals is very low. Because of the momentousness of this problem, this year an ophthalmologist colleague of mine joined me in an extensive screening of Hungarian Vizslas. The diseases studied were the glaucoma, inherited retinopathies such as PRA and CEA, and cataracts. The latter have physiological grounds in aged dogs, but may be hereditary or due to inflammations in young ones. The survey revealed the presence of cases of glaucoma and cataract, but few in number.

Eye diseases are highly significant. No matter how much a dog excels in work or how beautiful he is, losing sight renders him unsuitable for work and greatly impairs his quality of life in general. Passing this trait on can endanger the breed as a whole. Unfortunately, these diseases generally manifest visible symptoms only from 5 to 6 years of age onward; however, preliminary indications and symptoms may be discovered from the age of 2. Since dogs are used for breeding from the age of 2, they can generate numerous offspring between 2 and 6 years of age, most of whom may carry the tendency if the parent was also a carrier. As yet, the situation of the Vizsla in this respect is far from tragic; however, in some breeds eye diseases afflict 30-40% of the stock. I feel it is of prime importance to prevent this in the case of the Vizsla. To this end, we have launched an ophthalmologic screening programme (free this year) at premises offered by Dr. Katalin Szakhmári. We recommend owners to submit their dogs to screening annually in the future, to help the Vizsla keep its present standing, which is rather good compared to other gundogs.

Next, we inquired about heart diseases. Developmental disorders of the heart were very rare, while old-age heart deficiencies were somewhat more common. This frequency corresponds to those generally found in similar breeds, yet it must not be forgotten. 

As regards reproductive biology, the breed may be regarded healthy, with problems occurring at the level typical of the species.

Considering that iodine deficiency is typical in our country, we have also launched a study of thyroid functioning, which is known to cause problems e.g. in Pointer breeds.

Records of hip joint dysplasia kept by the FDB (Independent Dysplasia Committee) show that some 25% of the studied specimens are in the „normal /excellent/” to „almost-normal /good/” range and a further 50-60% in the „mild /fair/” category; the FCI declares such individuals to be suitable for breeding. The remaining roughly 20% comprise „moderate” and „severe” cases. However, it must be kept in mind that some of the specimens in the moderate to severe range do not reach the official judgement, as the veterinarians taking the X-rays screen them out. Nevertheless, a mere 2% of surgical operations performed at the Hungarian National University of Veterinary Medicine involved the hip joint. This implies that the number of specimens with severe clinical symptoms is low. This is relatively promising; however, it gives some food for thought that for example in the records of the OFA the proportion of „excellent” (i.e. normal) individuals is higher (15.6%) while those with actual dysplasia are much fewer (7.3%), which is in all likelihood a result of screening and selection over generations.

Both records and our experience show that epilepsy is present in the breed, with the occasional individual having epileptic seizures. Since the aetiology of this disease is not completely clear and because the actual fit is frequently a consequence of some other problem (e.g. metabolic disorder or injury), it is difficult to evaluate the data and determine the extent of affliction in the breed. However, this does in no way decrease the necessity of culling specimens exhibiting epileptic seizures from the breeding pool and of paying special attention to the parents and siblings of such specimens. It is of key importance to transcend the fear and aversion generally associated with this disease in human civilisation: it must not be considered a shameful thing but rather it ought to be discussed, sharing information about its occurrences. This should be the first step toward surveying the actual situation as well as toward overcoming the disease.

Finally, we asked about the occurrence of behavioural problems. The Hungarian Vizsla never had a basic watchdog-nature or a tendency to attack humans; the breed standard also forbid all unreasonable aggression. Unfortunately, in recent times cases of attacks on humans have occurred, as well as excessive timidity and fear that lead to biting. Such problems arising from an unstable nervous system ought to be given more weight in selective breeding, as the number of dogs living in a social and urban environment will continue to grow in the future.

It is evident from the above description that the breed still retains the advantages attained through centuries of selection, and specimens are sufficiently healthy. However, it is also apparent that certain disorders (e.g. hip joint dysplasia) and unwanted traits (e.g. behavioural problems due to an unstable nervous system) occur at an undesirable frequency. Thus the task of breeders shall be to retain the traits that confer advantages as compared to other breeds. However, we must be unbiased in assessing our dogs and must not shy from culling our breeding stocks, so that the popularity and esteem of the breed may increase throughout the world.