Health & Genetics Survey

United States Health and Genetics Survey– 1999


Stephen J. Schellenberg, Ph.D.
Margie L. Tomsic, Ph.D.

In Fall 1999, members of the Health and Genetics Committee of the United States Kerry Blue Terrier Club developed and distributed an eight-page health and genetics survey to fanciers of the breed to summarize and identify the health risks and concerns of owners and breeders. Two hundred thirty persons responded to the survey.  Over 98% of the respondents were from North America. Forty percent identified themselves as breeders. Forty percent had been in the breed for over 15 years; 31% had participated for 5 years or less.  Ten percent had owned 11 or more Kerries since 1960, while 45% had owned only one or two dogs within that same time period.
A total of ninety-three respondents reported some breeding activity during the period, accounting for 558 litters and approximately 2,825 live puppies (an average of five puppies per litter).  They also reported nearly a quarter of breedings to be unsuccessful and slightly less than ten percent of puppies being stillborn.  There has been a distinct increase in the use of artificial insemination in the breed, but only with fresh semen.  Most breeders favor some form of linebreeding and a majority radiograph hips of breeding stock.  On the other hand, the majority do not screen elbows and breeders are about equally split on whether or not to screen eyes.

Most respondents prefer to give puppies three or four sets of immunizations during the first sixteen weeks.  They also favor annual boosters for adult dogs, with the exception of rabies immunizations, where there is almost an even split between a one-year and a three-year cycle.  Only a few respondents immunize their own dogs, preferring the services of a veterinarian.  The majority also administer heartworm preventive to their dogs.

From 1960 to 1989, the top three health concerns among Kerry owners were cancer, PNA and skin disease.  By 1990, these concerns had changed to cancer, skin disease and autoimmune disorders.  The highest reported reason for death in any given period was cancer, followed by kidney/liver failure and old age.  In contrast, the highest observed increase in cause of death was autoimmune disorders.

The highest consistently reported health problem, across all years, was with skin conditions. Particular problems were found with sebaceous cysts, spiculosis, warts, skin tumors and hot spots.  Health conditions cited as among the remaining top ten problems were digestive disorders (esp. colitis), cancer (esp. mammary glands, hair follicle tumors), temperment (esp. aggressiveness towards other dogs, submissive urination), eyes (esp. conjunctivitis), mouth and teeth (esp. missing teeth, gingivitis), reproduction (esp. false pregnancies, mastitis, vaginitis), kidney (esp. incontinence, oxalate stones, prostate infection, chronic renal failure), musculoskeletal (esp. arthritis) and ears (esp. chronic ear infections).

This survey provides a baseline for future health studies in the breed.  It also points to some further research to refine the current findings.  These possibilities are detailed in the full report which follows.

USKBTC H&G Survey  – 1999


The Survey
Beginning in October of 1999, the United States Kerry Blue Terrier Club surveyed the lovers of the breed regarding health and genetics issues that they had encountered.  The survey instrument was an eight-page document that was distributed in person or by mail to all club members. The club’s Canadian partner sent copies to all its members and included a postage-paid return envelope, a stratagem that resulted in very healthy response from Canadian fanciers.  The survey was also posted on the United States club’s web site for response by non-members.  To ensure the anonymity of replies, all responses were sent to the Office of Measurement Services at the University of Minnesota and were separated from their envelopes before being compiled.

The survey began with a series of questions about the respondent’s background in the breed.  This included the number of years in the breed, number of Kerry Blue Terriers owned, and types of involvement in dog activities.  The respondents were asked to identify age and cause of death of any deceased dogs, and to indicate what they considered to be the most prevalent diseases or genetic disorders in the breed, both recently and over a more extended time period.  Breeders were then asked a series of questions about their breeding experiences and practices and all respondents were asked some questions about vaccination practices.  The final six pages of the survey asked respondents to identify health problems that their dogs had encountered from an extensive list.  The responses were separated into the periods of 1960-89 and 1990-present.

This survey used three separate approaches to identify health issues in the Kerry Blue Terrier.  Each approach gives us important information and a comparison of the three approaches can be very informative.  Age and cause of death indicates the most serious ailments and their frequency.  Owners’ perceptions of health issues show us the awareness of the fancy to health issues and the seriousness breeders and owners ascribe to them.  The actual incidence of specific ailments is a reality check of the other two analyses, as well as an indicator of issues that may not yet have been recognized.  It also tells us the incidence of many non-lethal, but still serious, health issues.

Some Interpretive Cautions
This survey relies on the reports of a self-selected sample of Kerry Blue Terrier owners.  Through the act of responding to this survey, respondents demonstrated both an interest in large issues of health in the breed, and an interest in national activities in the breed.  Therefore, responses may not completely represent all Kerry Blue Terrier owners and breeders.

This survey was retrospective in that it asked persons to recall their experiences from the past.  Results are therefore subject to the distortions of human memory.  This should be borne in mind particularly when comparing the two periods: 1960-89 and 1990-present.

A final caution also applies to comparisons across time.  Many of the respondents have been involved in the breed for ten years or less.  Their responses include no experiences prior to 1989.  Because we are asking for recollections of that period ten years later, their counterparts who were in the breed for a short time prior to 1989 are not included in the survey.  The perceptions of those new to the breed can be different from those of long-time fanciers.  This can be quite informative, but can also be misleading if we interpret it as a change in the breed, rather than as a change in our sample.

Characteristics of the Respondents
A total of 228 persons responded to the survey.  Most were from North America, with a few responses from Europe (including the British Isles), South America and Australia/New Zealand.  They reported the following number of years in the breed:

Years in Breed Number of Responses
1 to 5 69
2 to 10 39
11 to 15 29
over 15 93

The total number of dogs owned since 1960 was distributed as follows:

Number of Dogs
Number of Responses
1 to 2 102
3 to 5 56
6 to 10 45
11 to 20 16
over 20 (maximum 94) 7

Respondents reported the following range of activities in the breed:

Number of Responses
Conformation 138
Breeder 94
Obedience 78
Handler 55
Rescue 32
Agility 27

Other activities mentioned included herding, scent hurdling, flyball and therapy dogs.

Breeding Experience and Practices
A total of ninety-three respondents reported some breeding activity since 1960.  Table 1 summarizes their reported data for the last ten years compared to earlier periods.  The average litter size has remained essentially constant at approximately five, with the largest litter in each time period being thirteen.  Similarly the percentage of stillborn pups (less than 10%) and the percentage of unsuccessful breedings (about 25%) are unchanged from one time period to the next.  Breeders report a noticeable increase in the use of artificial insemination, but only using fresh semen.  There has been virtually no use of frozen semen in the breed, according to our respondents.

A majority of the breeders (78 of 94) indicated that they radiograph hips of breeding stock either always or sometimes.  The favored method is OFA, although a few indicated that they preferred the PennHip approach for younger animals.  On the other hand, the majority do not screen elbows (79 of 97 answered “never”).  Breeders are more evenly split regarding the screening of eyes, where roughly equal groups answered “always”, “sometimes” and “never”.

Table 1. Summary of Breeding Practices and Litter Sizes

Number of breeders reporting 53 83 95
Total litters produced 267 295 562
Total number of live pups 1343 1505 2848
Average pups/litter 5.03 5.10 5.07
Largest litter 13 13 13
Smallest litter 1 1 1
Percentage of stillborn pups 9.7% 9.9% 9.6%
Number of unsuccessful breedings 82 100 182
1 as a percentage of all breedings 23.5% 25.3% 24.5%
Number of natural breedings reported 229 182 411

Number of artificial inseminations

2 using fresh semen 46 111 157
3 using frozen semen 0 1 1

Immunization practices
Over eighty percent of breeders in this sample give either three or four sets of shots to puppies in the first four months.  A similar percentage favor annual boosters for adult dogs.  An exception is the rabies booster, where over half favor a two or three year cycle.  Very few administer immunizations to their own dogs, preferring the services of a veterinarian in over three-quarters of cases.

Perceived Health Issues in the Breed
The question, “Please list what you consider to be the three MOST prevalent diseases or genetic disorders . . .” was answered by eighty-three respondents for the period 1960-89 and by 139 respondents for the period 1990-present.  The most common responses are shown in Tables 2 and 3, together with the percent of respondents who indicated the condition as one of their three choices.

Table 2. Principal Health Concerns Reported for the Period 1960-89

Health Condition
Percent of Respondents
Cancer 69%
PNA 37%
Skin Conditions* 28%
Hip Dysplasia 17%
Autoimmune Disorders 13%
Thyroid Problems 9%
Eye Problems* 8%

A total of thirteen other conditions were mentioned three times or fewer.

Table 3. Principal Health Concerns Reported for the Period 1990-present

Health Condition
Percent of Respondents
Cancer 51%
Skin Conditions* 42%
Autoimmune Disorders 27%
PNA 24%
Hip Dysplasia 16%
Eye Problems* 10%
Von Willebrand’s Disease 7%
Thyroid Problems 6%

A total of nineteen other conditions were mentioned three times or fewer.

*Skin conditions include cysts, spiculosis, warts and non-malignant tumors.  Eye problems include cataracts, dry eyes and “messy eyes.”

Note: The comparison of the two tables above gives a good example of one of the “interpretive cautions” mentioned at the beginning of this report.  The  responses for the period “1990-present” include several by first-time Kerry owners.  Experienced Kerry lovers have become inured to skin conditions, which are not threatening to the dog’s health.  To a new owner, however, cysts and spicules are a real annoyance.  On the other hand, new owners probably have not had the same experience of cancer in their dogs.  Therefore, the percentage reporting a concern about cancer may be artificially low.

Reasons and Ages of Death in Kerry Blue Terriers

The survey asked owners to list the year, age at death, and primary cause of death for as many as six dogs.  For this analysis, the year of birth was calculated from age and year of death and primary causes of death were recoded into several broad categories.  A total of 364 dogs were reported, representing animals born from 1950 to 1999.  Of these, 353 were reported with sufficient data to be included in the analysis.  The average date of birth was 1982 and the average age of death was 9.4 years.

In order to make comparisons across time, the group was split at the average age of birth, giving two roughly equal samples of those born up to 1982 and those born in 1983 and later. Tables 4 and 5 report the top five reasons for Kerry Blue Terrier deaths and the ages in which these deaths occurred for those born between 1950-82 and 1983-99.  The primary reason for death in both groups was some form of cancer, followed by kidney/liver disorders and old age.  The prevalence of cancer also appears in the other major analyses of this report.

The average listed age of death for dogs born from 1950-82 was 10.6 years compared to 8.3 years for those born from 1983 to 1999.  This decline in the age of death may be a real concern, as it seems to indicate an increase in health issues in the breed.  However, it may simply be an artifact of the way in which the data were collected.  Our memory of dogs born prior to 1982 is likely to be strongest for those that lived to a ripe old age.  Furthermore, single-dog owners who lost young Kerries twenty years ago may no longer be in the breed and therefore not in our sample.  Finally, many of the dogs born since 1983 who will live for twelve or fifteen years are still with us and thus are not in this sample either.

Table 4. Top Five Reported Reasons For Death In Kerry Blue Terriers
by Category and Year of Birth

Reason for Death
Born 1950-82
Born 1983-99
Cancer 44% 44%
Kidney/Liver 10% 11%
Old Age 12% 10%
Accidents 9% 9%
Blood/Autoimmune 3% 9%

Table 5.  Reported Ages of Death For Kerry Blue Terriers by Category and Year of Birth

Born 1950 -82

Born 1983-99

Age of Death
1 year or less 4 3% 16 8%
2 to 5 years 8 5% 36 19%
6 to 10 years 57 36% 76 39%
11 to 14 years 73 46% 61 32%
15 Years or more 18 11% 4 2%
Sample 160 dogs 193 dogs
Average years lived 10.6 years 8.4 years

Health Conditions Observed by Owners and Breeders

The final portion of the survey asked owners to indicate which health conditions they had experienced in their dogs, again broken down into the periods 1960-89 and 1990 to the present.  A total of 94 persons responded for experiences during the 1960-89 period, with 204 persons responding for the most recent period. Tables 6 through 9 present the principal results of this part of the survey.  In these tables, the figures quoted are the percentages of those who responded to this section of the survey, not the percentages of dogs involved.

The highest consistently reported health problem, across all years, was skin disorders, reported by over three-quarters of the respondents.  Particular problems were found with sebaceous cysts, spiculosis, warts, skin tumors and hot spots.  The remainder of the top ten problem areas were: digestive disorders, cancer, temperament, eyes, mouth and teeth, reproduction, kidney, musculoskeletal and ears.  Specific issues within each of these areas are indicated in the tables below.  Again, we caution the reader not to draw strong conclusions from comparisons across the two time periods.

Table 6. Top Ten Reported Incidences of Health Conditions by Category and Year

Skin 77% 82%
Digestive System 47% 51%
Cancer 50% 45%
Temperament 40% 42%
Ophthalmology 40% 40%
Mouth and Teeth 45% 38%
Reproduction 49% 37%
Kidney/Renal 23% 21%
Musculoskeletal 28% 19%
Ear 18% 18%

Table 7. Specific Conditions Reported Within the Top Five Areas With 10% or More Reporting At Any Time by Category and Year

1990 -present
1. Skin
  • Sebacious cysts
61% 63%
  • Spiculosis
26% 33%
  • Warts
21% 16%
  • Hot Spots
17% 17%
2. Digestive System
  • Colitis
14% 11%
(Miscellaneous: coprophagia, flatulence, giardia, chronic nonspecific gastritis, heorragic gastroenteritis
3. Cancer
  • Mammary cancer
22% 13%
  • Hair folilicle tumor
13% 11%
  • Lymphosarcoma
10% 5%
  • Malignant melanoma
10% 4%
(Miscellaneous: basal cell tumor, squamous cell carcinoma
4. Temperament
  • Aggressiveness(Many noted that this was towards other dogs, not jumans.)
31% 26%
  • Submissive urinating
7% 12%
Miscellaneous: fearfulness, shyness)
5. Ophthalmology
  • Conjunctivitis
21% 21%
  • Keratoconjunctivitis
9% 12%
  • Cataracts
16% 11%

Table 8. Other Conditions Reported Within the Top Ten Areas With 10% or More Reporting at Any Time by Category and Year

6. Mouth and Teeth
  • Missing Teeth
22% 21%
  • Gingivitis
11% 10%
7. Reproduction
  • False pregnancy
23% 15%
  • Mastitis
14% 8%
  • Vaginitis
10% 6%
  • Umbilic hernia
17% 6%
  • Pyometria
16% 3%
8. Kidney
(Miscellaneous: incontinence, oxalate stones, prostrate infection, chronic renal failure.)
9. Musculoskeletal
  • Arthritis
17% 13%
10. Ear
  • Chronic ear infections
15% 15%

Table 9. Other Reported Incidences of Health Conditions by Category and Year

Hematology/Blood 12% 15%
  • Autoimmune Hemolytic Anemia
10% 11%
Cardiovascular 11% 17%
Endocrine 15% 13%
  • Hypothyroidism
11% 10%
Liver 11% 8%
Neurology 25% 13%
  • Seizures, tremors
15% 10%
  • PNA
4% 2%
Respirtory 7% 5%
Infectious Diseases 2% 4%
Toxicity 2% 4%

Discussion and Implications for Further Research

This survey has shown the Kerry Blue Terrier to be a healthy breed with very few debilitating ailments.  It also has shown a few areas of concern that should be monitored by serious breeders over the next few years.

The data in this report represent the experiences of breeders and owners through the years.  Another valuable perspective could be provided by veterinarians who have extensive experience in the breed.  Veteran breeders could probably provide a list of twenty or so such veterinarians from a variety of geographic areas.  A shorter survey focused on the main concerns identified by the current survey could provide useful information to breeders.  A potentially valuable question that could be added to the survey would be, “What peculiarities of this breed should most veterinarians recognize?”

The data in this report provide valuable information for prospective owners of Kerry Blue Terriers.  The breed club could provide a service for breeders and prospective owners by developing a simple brochure outlining common health issues in the breed and the likelihood of their occurrence.  This could alleviate anxiety as common problems, such as sebaceous cysts, appear.  It could also result in quicker diagnosis and treatment in the case of a more serious ailment such as an autoimmune episode.  A more detailed summary for veterinarians could also help to assure appropriate care for the breed, especially if it were informed by a survey of veterinarians as suggested earlier.

Among this sample, skin disorders and cancer are clearly among the top health issues for Kerry Blue Terrier breeders and owners.  Other problems include colitis, chronic infections of the eyes and ears, arthritis, aggressiveness towards other animals, missing teeth, gingivitis, incontinence and other kidney disorders.  Fortunately, though many of these conditions may be particularly annoying to the average pet owner, few conditions, except for cancer and kidney disease, are fatal. However, data suggest that autoimmune disorders may be a rising area for concern.  Incidence of such disorders should therefore be monitored.

Cancer is a common cause of death in all breeds of dogs.  Therefore, the finding regarding cancer in Kerry Blue Terriers is not likely a breed-specific issue.  However, we need only to look at our fellow Irish breed, the Irish Wolfhound, to see that some cancers can be breed-specific.  A review of the literature in canine epidemiology could show whether the specific types of cancer reported in this survey are common in other breeds as well.  If not, there may be cause for concern.

In order to determine the continuing health of the breed, a survey similar to the current one should be repeated periodically, perhaps every five to ten years.  This would avoid the problems of comparing memory of past events to the present.  It would give a current snapshot that could be compared to the 1990-present sections of this report.

Last Updated: 03/09/2003, 1:48 pm