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NEW YORK, Feb 12 (Reuters) - Cathy West fell for Chewy the minute she saw him. A friend had bought the pedigreed Yorkshire Terrier days earlier from a local breeder but entrusted the puppy to West when she had difficulty caring for him.
Within a day, West, who lives in Orange County, California, realized something was wrong. Chewy wouldn't eat. Then he had a violent seizure.
It turned out the dog had a litany of health problems, the worst a congenital liver defect that lead to more side effects and a final seizure. After a year of coping, West with no choice but to put Chewy down. "It just broke my heart."
West says the blame lies largely with his breeder. She learned later that purebred Yorkies are at high risk of being born with the same liver anomaly.
This week all dog fanciers were focused on the parade of purebreds at the 138th annual Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, held at Madison Square Garden in New York. What was less obvious than the telltale spots on Dalmatians and snub noses on bulldogs were the distinctive ailments that can go along with each pedigree.
Even costly purebred dogs can often be at greater risk for certain hereditary diseases than mixed breeds. In addition to liver abnormalities, Yorkshire Terriers are at a higher risk for eye problems and collapsing tracheas. Basset Hounds can suffer blood disorders; pugs, a fatal brain disease; Dalmatians are subject to deafness and urinary stones.
But buying a purebred doesn't have to mean assuming more health risks. Savvy dog owners who understand possible causes of defects and learn how to navigate the world of breeders can do a lot to ensure their pets are healthy.
Start by finding the right breeder, experts say, and don't buy from a pet store. Because so many health problems faced by purebreds are hereditary, much of the risk can be eliminated simply by making sure that a dog's parents have good temperaments, healthy physiques and are disease-free. Pet stores rarely screen puppies or their parents for health problems, and their stock is more likely to be inbred, compounding genetic issues, these experts say.
Instead, go through the American Kennel Club and its breed-based subsidiaries to find recommended breeders. National and local pedigree clubs will list ethical breeders in good standing.
"Your breeder should be able to show you copies of tests they've done on the puppy and the parents," says Merrilee D'Antonio, a Samoyed expert who will show her purebred at Westminster next week.
You can do your own homework, too. Among the best resources for prospective purebred owners is the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals (www.offa.org) and the Canine Health Information Center (www.caninehealthinfo.org/). Their websites include a list of genetic tests that should be done on each dog breed, as well as a database of tests that have been performed on American Kennel Club-registered dogs.
A search of a dog's parents can show whether they've had a history of common problems like hip dysplasia or congenital cardiac disease.
Many purebreds are big financial investments. So in addition to health tests, breeders should also offer comprehensive agreements to those adopting their puppies.
"A good breeder will take a dog back for any reason," says Caroline Coile, the author of Barron's Encyclopedia of Dog Breeds. Many will also offer to compensate for unforeseen health problems in their dogs. "They should always be there for you, in any situation," Coile says.
D'Antonio emphasizes that when it comes to a dog's health, "a good breeder forms a lifetime relationship." They should want to know about any health issues that arise and, in turn, should keep owners updated if they learn of any problems in their dogs' parents.
Nancy Aaron, of Morrow Bay, California, is a former breeder of Scottish Terriers. When she found out that several of the dogs she had bred had bladder cancer, a problem common to Scotties for which there is no genetic test, she immediately notified those who had adopted her puppies. She says she is coaching several through their dogs' illnesses and makes sure to keep in touch so owners know what symptoms to look for.
Cathy West, Chewy's owner, has since adopted four more purebreds, including two King Charles Spaniels and another Yorkie, all adopted from breeders West researched carefully. For her Wirehaired Pointing Griffon, Coco, West went to a "passionate, responsible" breeder, and said the experience was revelatory after her ordeal with Chewy.
The breeder made sure West knew about the parents' histories and offered her guarantees that his dogs were free of certain genetic problems. When she felt an odd growth on Coco's pelvis, the breeder pointed her to a veterinarian and stayed in touch to make sure the dog was all right.
"He had an enormous amount of integrity, and I was very grateful," West says. Coco was healthy. She says all the credit belongs to her breeder. (Follow us @ReutersMoney or here Editing by Lauren Young and Prudence Crowther)