How to go on in breeding Catahoulas or a bit knowledge of genetics is necessary
When I imported my first catahoula in 1998, I had no intention to breed them. My idea was to have a guardian dog, a male, who would be the most typical and the best representative of the breed. I had no idea that this breed would overcome all the other breeds that I have ever had.
Cat's Cradle Car is my first and the oldest catahoula that associates all that good and bad what Americans did with this breed. He is the direct offspring of the best known ancestors, i.e. Aden's and Wolf River's. Well known sire, that affected considerably the breeding, King's Pretty Boy, is present in Car's pedigree several times from both parents. Thus, Car is really the most typical representative of the breed, as he is a result of inbreeding. Unfortunately, this fact could be also the reason for some his unhappy traits, e.g. a tendency to loose quickly his weight under stress most probably due to his higher mental lability. Fortunately, my first imported dam, So Slought's Kathy, does not suffer from those problems. Therefore breeding her with Car resulted in the offsprings more even-minded and less affected. From this point of view, the import of my third patchwork male, Crawdad's Toledo, was very fortunate. He arrived in 2001 after two years looking for a suitable dog. This was extremely good choice, as his sire, Crawdad's Bayou Nine was awarded by ACA as the best catahoula in 2003. Toledo's import was a great success not only for his selfconfidence and steady character but also for his perfect conformation and working ability. Fortunately, he is passing all to his offsprings.
Before the first import, my only condition was that the male should be the most typical representative of the breed. However, catahoula leopard dog should be according to most people leopard colored, i.e. blue or red merle. Nevertheless, my first catahoula Car is black. He arrived instead of a blue merle dog that was tested as unilateraly deaf in Canada. From my today view, it was a great luck, although at that time I had been rather disappointed. Kathy is yellow brindle and she is selfconfident and good tempered bitch. I know today that she carries a merle gene contrary to Car. Both dogs were tested negative for deafness and the first European catahoula breeding programme was luckily established with them.
Their breeding was very successful and the first generation of their offsprings show no undesirable traits, deafness or health problems as far as I know. Sometimes more labile dogs appeared, which was the trait that they took after Car, but Kathy's qualities probably helped to diminish it. Breeding Kathy and Toledo, who both carry the merle gene, was also successful and brought the offsprings of excellent confirmation and characters. Nevertheless, as a result of combination of two merle carriers, one puppy had a white head and another larger white areas on its coat out of 19 puppies. My second imported dam, Peggy, has nonconflicting personality, she is patchwork colored and she carries the merle gene, too. Out of ten puppies born from breeding her with Toledo, two had larger white areas and white head, fortunately, they were not deaf. Concerning their characters, most of them are selfconfident and steady as well as their parents.
I can clearly demonstrate basic factors that influence catahoula breeding on my own stud dogs, their offsprings, and the knowledge of their good and bad traits. Among others, the occurrence of a merle gene and inbreeding are the most important. Both of them affect the breeding here and also in America, but not only in catahoula breeding. So called merle or M gene is carried also by other breeds such as Border Collie, Australian Shepard, Koollie and some others and genetic rules for their breeding are valid for all of them
Dog coat colors are determined by several genes. In some breeds, one of them is M gene (merle) that is an incomplete dominant or a gene with intermediate expression and it belongs to dilution genes. Instead of diluting the whole coat it causes a patchy dilution of basic colour. The dog is either a merle (then he can pass it to offsprings) or is not a merle (then he cannot pass it to offsprings). There are no exceptions to this law of genetics at least for now until further reasearch is conducted. It is sometimes difficult to recognized, if a dog carries the merle gene, particularly in red or sable merle colored. The merling is clearly visible at birth, but may fade to little more than mottling of the ear tips as an adult. Then whether a dog is merle, its offsprings can only prove it. Cryptic or phantom merles are dogs that carry the merle gene but they look like tri, bi or self colored.. These dogs have some small area of merling somewhere, usually a tiny patch of merle pattern on their ears, tail or top of head. Eye colors can also help to distinguish it. Thus, if a dog have blue eyes or brown and blue segments in the eye, then that dog carries a merle gene.
There is important to know how the merle gene is carried and what this means for breeding. Solid (or self colored) dog has no merle gene and it is m/m (homozygous recessive). Patchwork or merle colored dog carries M gene and it is M/m (heterozygous). Breeding two solid colored dogs gives again only solid colored m/m. Breeding M/m and m/m gives combinations such as M/m and m/m. When breeding two M/m, then more combinations arise such as M/m, m/m or M/M. This means that pups could have merle color, solid or double merle, which gives excessive white color. Double merle has much more white than is normal for the breed and those dogs may have hearing loss, vision problems, and possible infertility. Hearing loss is bound to white color in catahoulas and could be unilateral or total for both ears. It is not clear, what is the main reason, nevertheless, it seems that this can happen due to a lack of pigment in hairs which is somehow neccessary for a hearing nerve development. The nerve dies out within ca four weeks after birth. This causes irreversible hearing loss of one or both ears. This danger arises when breeding two merle colored dogs. When two M/M are bred together, then offsprings will be only M/M, i.e. excessive white, and above mentioned becomes even more acute. However, breeding M/M and m/m gives all pups as M/m. Phantomic or cryptic merle is possible to prove only on their offsprings when a litter is counting at least of eight pups.
From my point of view, above mentioned facts are important for taking a decision which dog should be bred together and when it is better to avoid it. American kennels suffer from neglecting those rules as a comercial side is probably more important for them. To sell merle or patchwork colored pups is much easier, solid are given away, and more white can be also sold in case that hearing loss is not proved. This was valid particularly when I had been looking for my first dog. There were almost no solid dogs available at that time. However, present situation seems to be a bit different. One of the main dog organizations and catahoula registries, UKC, has recently introduced important changes in the breed standard for catahoulas, which were directed towards an exclusion of excessive white dogs from breeding. Other organizations such as ACA or NALC have not changed their rules, however, there are breeder who call for changes in breeding practice. They realized that their beloved breed is endangered by common ignorance of basic genetic rules and therefore they try to clarify some misconceptions about genetics and help to understand basic concepts to the average breeder.
The situation in the Czech Republic is not very different. All later imports are merle dogs, the most wanted are merle colored pups, solid colored dogs are not evaluated as well as merle or patched in dog shows and they are sold for less. Excessive white dogs appeared and also some deaf. This tendency could affect negatively quality of our catahoulas in long term perspective. The deaf leopard could be terrible problem for a new owner for its behavior particularly for noneducated ones that are not able to keep basic rules for leading it. Each breeder has to take his own decision if a deaf dog leaves his kennel and thus he will be responsible for future troubles. Several our breeders have already experienced for them very painful euthanasy of six weeks old puppy, where deafness was proved. For this reason it is better to prevent it, i.e. to avoid breeding where this possibility is very high.
Another factor affecting (at this moment rather negatively) catahoula breeding is inbreeding.
General definition of inbreeding says that it is such a combination of animals that are (even more) related to one another than the average of population is. This is a rather vague definition, nevertheless, it includes a common idea of inbreeding, i.e. very close relatives such breeding together dother and father, etc., but also linebreeding, where more distant relatives are used for breeding. Practically, it means that within a three generation pedigree you can find the same dogs on sides of both parents. Linebreeding is very often used in America not only for catahoula breeding but also for other breeds. We can only speculate whether the main reason for it is to keep their own line of dogs with some typical traits (e.g. working ability) or if any role plays also great distances among breeders or only the ignorance or unknowledge of basic genetic rules. It seems that a combination of all those factors associated with an essential freedom to take their own decisions affects it. Nevertheless, there is some tendency to change this practice or at least to open a discussion about those issues. You can find it on websites of more enlighted breeders who call for changes in common practice and for more open exchange of information concerning faults of breeding dogs which were previously tabu, but now negatively affect their beloved breed.
If you intend to import a new dog to bring a new blood to our breeding programme here and you demand a top confirmation, good character and health tested animal, than you will find almost for sure Aden?s or Wolf River?s linie in its pedigree (at least from one parent?s side) and probably also King?s Pretty Boy. Now it could be in the forth or the fifth generation back. This is the fact that we have to face it. All my imported dogs have it so and this is valid also for all other catahoulas imported to the Czech Republic. Nevertheless, it is not as bad as it is in majority of American kennels. You would not realized it from a common three generation pedigree of your puppy. Unfortunately, there are also breeders here who imported dogs, products of inbreeding, and go on with inbreeding here, even when their dogs exhibit already undesirable traits of this breeding practice.
Inbreeding yes or no, that is the question which is actual in every breeding. It can be very useful tool, if animals of exceptional qualities are used for keeping their valuable traits, but in long-term perspective and repeated many times inbreeding (or linebreeding) can result in inbreeding depression, i.e. less healthy dog population. Generally, this is accompanied with a loss of vitality, lowering intelligence, weak growth, decreased fertility, less caring bitches for their pups, disturbances in behavior and temperament, etc. Thus, close inbreeding causes higher risks of illnesses associated with having too much similarity among genes such as immune genes, which lowers animal resistance and finally it means suffering and early death for many animals. Fortunatelly, we have not gone so far yet in catahoula breeding, however, some undesirable traits have been already observed and further enforcing those traits by proceeding inbreeding should endanger us. This is probably also the reason why scare voices among American breeders call for more serious and knowledgeable breeding based on knowledge of basic genetic rules with the aim to avoid and exclude faults that accumulated from various reasons in the breed and endanger their beloved catahoulas.
Our practice here, particularly in those fashion breeds such as Labrador Retriever, Bernease Mountain Dog, Rhodesian Ridgback, German Shepard etc. tends to ignore faults and to show a potential customer only that what he wants to hear or see. Such irresponsible breeder do not care that they are just selling animals that would bring life-time problems to their new owners. Therefore I consider a good knowledge and information about problems and health risks concerning each particular breed as an essential matter for a responsible breeder.
Seven years ago, when I started with catahoulas, my position was more difficult than those who have got my pups or started later. I had to find my own way including mistakes and errors that I have done. The results of my breeding confirm that above mentioned genetic rules work and there is no way how to avoid it. Moreover, this means for responsible breeders that they have to take into consideration risks which are involved in breeding two certain dogs together. Thus, it is necessary to know that not only a combination of two merle gene carriers, but also a combination of dogs with bad, unsteady characters (e.g. too aggressive or fearful) could end in considerable problems for new owner of your pups. Above mentioned Car and Kathy give a good example how to diminish some undesirable traits by a right choice of parents. Now, the situation is much easier for those who seek some information about catahoulas and who are able to listen to experience that have been so difficult to obtain.
I wish you success in knowledgeable breeding your dogs.
Ing. Gerhard Stein and RNDr. Helena Synková, PhD. (authors)
Translated by RNDr. Helena Synková, PhD.
Czech version was published in the journal Svět psů 10/2005.