When I was pregnant with my first child, people asked if I wanted a girl or a boy. I kept saying “a healthy child”. I didn’t care about the sex; I cared about the health.
When I decided to get a poodle puppy, way back in the fall of 2002, I looked long and hard for a situation where the puppies were well-socialized. I wanted a puppy that played well with other dogs and loved people. It never occurred to me to worry about the health of my puppy. Like most fifty-ish people, I was raised with a healthy happy dog and assumed they came that way. (Like many children of that era, though, I was shocked to discover that breeders of the time culled their litters, culling being a euphemism for killing some of the puppies, presumably the ones with obvious genetic defects. Now, I wonder if that culling is what led in part to the current crisis of genetic health in purebred dogs; covering up evidence of recessive genes did not diminish their frequency in the population of purebred dogs.)
In any case, when I acquired Elly in February of 2004–Moonstones Elinor (2003-2012)–I didn’t research the breeder or the breed or any of the health issues associated with poodles (the link is to the Poodle Club of America’s Health Issues page on their website). And I paid the price for that negligence for the almost nine years Elly was with me. She had several health problems common in poodles. She had hip dysplasia, which required both oral pain medication (Rimadyl or Metacam) and regular shots (Adequan). She had inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) which required expensive diagnosis (sedation and endoscopy) and then a special diet for the rest of her life. She had food allergies (more dietary restrictions). She had a hemangiosarcoma (a common and often fatal cancer in dogs) removed at age 4, which required more anesthesia and relatively minor surgery (it was in the skin, thankfully). She had benign tumors removed from her eyelids at age 8. More anesthesia and more minor surgery. In the end, I don’t know exactly what killed her, but her platelet count was less than 10,000 and treatment for that failed. She may have had immune-mediated thrombocytopenia. It might have been something else entirely. The platelet count of a dog should be around 200,000 to 500,000.
Over the years, her treatment cost me at least $10,000 in excess veterinary bills and medications; her special diet ran about $50/month over the cost of more ordinary kibble.
When I decided to get a second poodle, I knew that all that mattered to me was that I find a healthy poodle. I love standard poodles. They have a wicked sense of humor; they don’t shed; they’re just the right size; they’re affectionate.
I was lucky enough to meet Vikki Kauffman, a breeder who is as obsessed with poodle health as I am. She taught me how to read pedigrees; she explained to me about the uses of the Poodle Health Registry. She talked to me about the genetics of the most common diseases of poodles. Both of my present poodles–Alchmys Magic Star Dancer (Dancer) and Alchmys Absolut Pleasure (Rush)–were bred by Vikki.
Let me use Rush’s pedigree as an example. I’ve gone to the Poodle Pedigree database (located here), searched for the breeder’s kennel name (Alchmys) and then selected Rush’s formal name from the list of possibilities. If you’re looking at a particular puppy, you can look at the parent’s pedigrees. If you’re looking at a particular breeder, you should look at as many of the pedigrees as you can.
Looking at Rush’s pedigree, you can see his dam (mother)–Alchmys Magic Tin Nick-L Blues–and his sire (father)–Domtotem Yakutsky Almaz. Nickel is Vikki’s breeding; you can tell this from the fact that her name begins with the Alchmys kennel name. Rush’s dad, Stoli (his nickname, because Stoli is a white poodle from Russia), was bred by a Russian kennel Domtotem. You can look back through Stoli’s parentage and see multiple poodles from Russia, Finland, Norway, and even the United States.
A CH before the dog’s name means that the dog earned a Championship; in turn, that means that the dog won over other dogs in multiple dog shows multiple times. Each win earns points; the number of points depends on the number of dogs defeated. Titles after the name (RN, AXP, CD, etc.) are related to particular kinds of dog competition. I like to look for an obedience title like CD, CDX, or UD. It’s very challenging to get an obedience title, and to me it means that the dog is highly trainable and very focused on pleasing its person.
Looking at the pedigree some more, you can scroll down to the bottom and click on the five-generation hip pedigree. In a perfect world, both parents and their parents (and more) will have Good or Excellent hips). Personally, having had a dog with hip dysplasia, I would run screaming from any breeding where any ancestors of the dog had AFFECTED in the pedigree. But I do know some lovely healthy dogs where that’s the case, so… perhaps I’d only take the dog to the vet for x-rays very early on. Perhaps the day I picked up the puppy. Before I fell in love.
Now, let’s move on to a dog that I really don’t want to see in the pedigree of any dog I’m looking at, even if it’s ten or more generations back: Poodle Health Registry database. Now, I need to caution that many many dogs with genetic diseases are not listed in the PHR. Only the owner can list a dog, and the disease has to be confirmed by a vet and the vet has to sign off on the listing form. It’s not easy to get a dog listed. If you see a dog with a genetic disease listed, you can be sure that dog has the disease. If you see a dog with no diseases listed… well, that dog might or might not be healthy.
You may have to register to see the information there, but it’s worth it, and besides that, it’s free. If you’re serious about getting a standard poodle puppy, you need access to the PHR database. Here’s Wycliffe Herald’s PHR pedigree. Notice that the first thing it says is “parent of bloat, epilepsy”. Now click on “descendants” and you’ll notice that Herald was bred a lot. He sure had a lot of puppies. And you can, with a lot of back-and-forthing, track some genetic diseases through those puppies. One of his puppies had a puppy who had a puppy: my Moonstones Elinor. Go look at her PHR pedigree. You’ll see immediately that her mom’s hips are only FAIR. And if you look back through the pedigree, you’ll see a fair number of dogs with FAIR or AFFECTED or MILD HD (hip dysplasia). You’ll see bloat, epilepsy, IBD, Addison’s and more.
And here, for contrast, is Rush’s PHR pedigree.
Now, moving on to finding a healthy poodle puppy.
Talk to the breeder. Ask why she chose to breed the two particular dogs that she did. Was she breeding for health? For size? For looks? For personality? Go check the pedigrees and the testing for yourself. You can go to the website of the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals (OFA) and check the results directly without waiting for the breeder to make you copies. If the breeder is reluctant to tell you the OFA numbers of the parents, it’s time to run screaming in the other direction. Really. No really great breeder would fail to test their dogs.
Take a look, for example, at the OFA results for Rush’s mom, Nickel: Vikki did a lot of expensive testing before she bred Nickel to Stoli.
It’s not easy being a breeder. Being a good breeder is expensive; there’s a lot of testing involved. Breeders need to love the breed, their dogs, the process–and be willing to give it all up at any time if there turns out to be a genetic problem with one of their dogs. It’s not for the faint of heart.