Why are dog breeders turning to AI?

Alan Black's puppies, born from a bitch conceived using AI. The puppies themselves aren't born by AI. Image copyright Alan Black
Image caption Alan Black's puppies were born from a bitch conceived using AI

Pedigree dog breeders are turning in increasing numbers to artificial insemination. But what is driving the trade in dog semen - and what effect does it have on the animals?

Alan Black is a breeder of boxer dogs from Coupar Angus. Two and a half years ago, he was faced with a problem.

"The boxer breed, like most breeds in Britain nowadays, are suffering from a diminished gene pool," he says.

"Over the years there have been quite a lot of problems that have come into the breed."

Flask from the past

He asked the advice of a geneticist, Dr Bruce Cattanach, who gave Mr Black two options: breed naturally using unknown dogs from the European market; "or I could use something from the past - which he had in his flask".

Dr Cattanach thinks he was one of the first people in the UK to try the technique. In the 70s, he collected some semen from a champion dog, and froze it.

Image copyright Sandaharr Boerboels
Image caption Stag was the first Boerboel born in Scotland, by AI

Mr Black used the semen on one of his dogs. It had been frozen for more than 30 years.

"The girl that did the insemination said she'd never seen anything as old in her life," he says.

But it worked - two pups were born. Mr Black still has 16 straws of semen left.

He says: "I'm quite happy to store that for as long as it needs to be."

Mr Black comes from an agricultural background, where artificial insemination (AI) is common, especially for dairy cows and pigs, so the idea wasn't as alien to him as it might be to most.

Image copyright Sandaharr Boerboels

For him, there are other advantages.

He says: "Obviously your dog has only got a five-year breeding life.

"If you were to store some of this stuff away it's quite a good fallback position to have."

Cancelled Crufts

The problem of diminished gene pools is one that has been troubling breeders for years. In 2008, a documentary broadcast by the BBC revealed the health problems suffered by some pedigree dogs after years of inbreeding.

Pedigree Dogs Exposed showed King Charles Spaniels with brains too big for their skulls and epileptic Boxer dogs. It claimed the problems were caused by elite breeders prizing looks over health.

The Kennel Club - which operates the national register for pedigree dogs in the UK - came under significant criticism.

Image copyright Picasa

The programme led to Crufts, the Kennel Club's international dog show, losing sponsors, including Dogs Trust and the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. The BBC dropped Crufts from its schedules.

The programme didn't just criticise breed standards. It also highlighted the dangers of small gene pools.

The six years since have seen a rise in the number of dogs conceived by AI - a process in which semen is extracted from the male dog and inseminated into a bitch separately.

For many breeders, the practice is about expanding the gene pool and creating healthier dogs.

But critics have argued that that bypassing natural mating methods could create animals that can't breed by themselves - and that AI makes it even easier for one dog to father many pups, which is itself a genetic risk.

Steady rise

Figures from the Kennel Club show approximately 1,153 puppies have been born through AI in the past 17 years.

In 1998, there was just one AI puppy - compared to 82 in 2008. The figures peaked last year, with 216 registered AI puppies. The rise is small, but steady.

For breeders, the practice can be fruitful - though not without significant effort and expense on their part.They can sell the semen of their best dogs on to willing buyers.

Prices range from that of a normal "stud dog" fee - between £500 and £1,000 - to higher sums for a healthy dog with a carefully-honed bloodline.

Certain savvy breeders advertise the semen of their prize dogs on their websites - price on request.

Enviable collection

Sandra Brownlie, a Lanark-based breeder of Boerboel dogs, owns an "enviable collection of frozen semen", according to her website, which she started collecting as she was also concerned about the small gene pool of Boerboels in the UK.

She describes the technique as "widespread" - but only among serious breeders.

Image copyright Sandaharr Boerboels
Image caption Sandra Brownlie and her husband Harry with AI expert Nico Fernhout

The proof is in the practice: it involves time, money and organisation.

The first time Sandra Brownlie used AI, 10 years ago, they organised the collection of healthy semen from a dog in Europe on a Friday evening.

The next day, they flew a vet into Edinburgh from the Netherlands to artificially inseminate their own dog for the first time.

Sandra Brownlie does not sell semen from her dogs - instead she sends it across the world to trusted breeders who want to enhance their own bloodline with the one that Sandra has been developing for 10 years.

'Less traumatic'

As well as expanding the gene pool there is another, more simple, reason why the popularity of AI has grown: convenience.

According to one Scotland-based vet with extensive experience in semen freezing and AI: "Trying to organise time off work with kids and dogs to get a mating done from John O'Groats to Lands' End is very difficult - whereas sending a pot of chilled semen is easier for people."

The advantages of dogs not having to travel hundreds of miles to get mated are twofold, she says: less hassle for the owner and less trauma for the dog.

"A pot of semen travelling and dying doesn't really matter, whereas a dog dying on an aeroplane, dogs being moved from country to country as studs, puppies being sent abroad, there's high stress in that."

Some bitches simply won't allow a male dog to mate with them - but they will tolerate AI.

"It stops people holding bitches down to be mated by a dog, which I think is very offensive, and has gone on for decades. AI is less traumatic for everybody".

This vet - who would prefer to remain unnamed - is seeing a wider variety of people turn to the procedure.

Even some ordinary pet owners, who have not yet found a suitable bitch for their favourite dog, will freeze the semen for when they find the perfect partner.

"Everybody does it. It goes across the board," the vet says.

Simple procedure

Sue Finnett runs UK Clone, one of few canine reproduction and artificial insemination centres in the UK, with her husband, a fellow vet and dog breeder.

Image copyright Sandaharr Boerboels

She explains that collecting the semen from the stud dog is simple.

"You manually stimulate the dog until he ejaculates, and collect the semen. Breeders can do it but need to be gentle and confident."

UK Clone then provides kits so the semen can be sent abroad.

Non-surgical insemination is not a difficult procedure - but timing is crucial, and only specialised vets will do it.

Semen is inserted through the cervix into the uterus by using an endoscope - allowing the vet to see the cervix and insert a catheter. This is known as transcervical insemination, and can be done while a dog is standing up.

The success rate, according to Sue Finnett, is improving all the time - and she estimates it's now over 50%.

Surgical insemination is much rarer, and requires the bitch to be anaesthetised.

It's a much more invasive procedure, and The Kennel Club, The Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons and the British Veterinary Association agree that it should only be carried out when the net benefit to the dog outweighs the disadvantages.

Survival of the fittest

Jemima Harrison, producer of the Pedigree Dogs Exposed programme, is critical to the practice - unless it is used for genetic diversity.

On her blog, she points out that some breeders use the practice to mate dogs such a bulldogs whose physical shape prevents them from breeding naturally.

She says the practice "circumvents natural sexual behaviour patterns" that ensure survival of the fittest.

She argues that bitches often choose or refuse to mate with certain dogs for a genetic reason - reasons which may elude the "co-efficient of inbreeding", used by humans to give a statistical measure of relatedness between two animals.

Furthermore, AI means that many bitches can be inseminated from a single ejaculation.

If a widely used stud dog has a health problem that only manifests later in life, it could produce hundreds of puppies by AI before the problem emerges.

"But on the whole," says Sue Finnett of UK Clone, "the people who are doing this do tend to have a deep knowledge of their breed so they spend a lot of time researching where they're going to get the semen from."

The Kennel Club have relaxed some of their rules concerning AI over the past few years. But some still exist.

"The main reason behind the rules in the first place is that we want to be sure that animals continue to be able to mate naturally," says Kennel Club secretary Caroline Kisko.

There are also restrictions in place to avoid AI being used for dogs with genetic or health issues.

According to Ms Kisko, the procedure is the preserve of "good" breeders. "Some sort of fly-by-night who's breeding the odd litter is never going to bother with AI. It costs too much money."

In the US, it's a different story - AI is much more widely used, due to the geographical distances involved in breeding one dog with another from a different state.

Dr Cattanach - the geneticist who first tried AI in the 70s - describes some of the justifications for its usage in the States as bizarre.

"I don't see any problems with the technique but I worry a lot that it is likely to be used for the wrong reasons," he says.

In one area, however, everyone seems to be in agreement: as long as care is exercised, and the technique is not just a sticking plaster for dogs which can't mate naturally, AI is justified when its purpose is to widen the gene pool.

It seems that when it comes to artificial insemination, Jemima Harrison and the Kennel Club might finally have come to an agreement.