Common Congenital Problems in Dogs The parts of the dog’s body most frequently affected by birth defects are: The central nervous system (CNS). For example, the German shepherd, collie, beagle, miniature poodle, and keeshond can inherit epilepsy. Other CNS issues include paralysis of the front and back legs (Irish setter), a failure of muscle coordination (fox terrier), idiocy (German shorthaired pointer and English setter), and abnormal swelling of the brain (Chihuahua, cocker spaniel, and English bulldog).

Common Congenital Problems in Dogs and Cats

•The eyes. Congenital eye abnormalities, including cataracts, glaucoma, and blindness, are found in most of the common breeds.

•The muscles. Hernias are a typical muscular problem. The basset hound, basenji, cairn terrier, Pekinese, and Lhasa apso are at high risk for inguinal hernias (the gut protrudes into the groin). Umbilical hernias (gut protrudes through the navel) are most common in the cocker spaniel, bull terrier, collie, basenji, Airedale terrier, Pekinese, pointer, and Weimaraner.

If you are interested in a particular breed, check out what is known about these tendencies first. Then you will know what to keep a lookout for.

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Common Congenital Problems in Cats

While there are fewer studies of birth defects in cats, the most common affect the nervous system: the brain, spinal cord, and skeletal tissues (true of us and all domestic animals). In alphabetical order, these are common feline congenital issues.

•Brachycephalic head (Peke face): Marked by an unusually short and wide head, a deformity of long-haired Persians and newer strains of Burmese. Cats from these lines produce lethal birth defects involving the eyes, nasal tissue, and jaws, with an increased incidence of cleft palate in nearly 1 out of 4 kittens.

•Brain and skull problems: An undersize cerebellum, for example, can cause poor coordination, tremors, excess tension in the limbs, and slow reflexes. Siamese cats can inherit hydrocephalus (swelling of the brain). In some cats, the roof of the skull does not close, causing abnormal brain expansion. In others the brain degenerates even before birth (usually fatal). If a young animal has trouble moving or is uncoordinated, this could be why.

•Cancer of the ear: Most common in white cats due to repeated sunburn of their ears, leading to ear cancer later in life. If your cat will spend much time outdoors, consider a different color. Tabbies are a good choice and are closest to feline ancestors.

•Cardiovascular defects: Particularly narrowing of the aorta, the heart’s main artery, or nonclosure of the aortic duct. Both can cause heart murmurs.

•Cleft palate: Hereditary in some Siamese, but also thought to be due to various drugs ingested during pregnancy. Causes milk to come out of the nose when nursing or drinking from a dish.

•Cryptorchidism: A condition in which only one testicle comes down into the scrotum. Not necessarily a problem, but makes neutering difficult.

•Deafness: Many blue-eyed white cats are deaf from birth and often have poor resistance to disease, reduced fertility, and impaired night vision.

•Eye and eyelid defects: Some Persians, Angoras, and domestic shorthairs are missing the outer half of one or both upper eyelids. Other cats have an albino or a multicolored iris (sometimes associated with deafness on that side, sensitivity to light, eye incoordination), degeneration of the retina (particularly Siamese and Persians); strabismus (an inward rotation of one eye when the other is fixed on an object, common in Siamese); or nystagmus (involuntary movements of the eye).

•Hair abnormalities: Some cats are born with (or even bred for) hairlessness or curly, short, plush hair, such as the “Rex” mutant, which has missing or abnormal guard hairs.

•Hairballs: Throwing up hairballs is common and chronic in longhairs, though not unusual for any cat, as they swallow hair while grooming. But with longhairs, it can become a more tangled ball that gets stuck.

•Kidney missing: More often in males, usually on the right side. Might not be a problem or noticeable, as usually the other kidney compensates and is larger.

•Limb defects: Kittens sometimes show missing or extra toes or legs at birth.
•Mammary gland abnormalities: These affect milk ducts and you are not likely to notice anything unless your female gives birth and then has difficulty with lactation.

•Spina bifida: The vertebrae fail to close normally around the spinal cord, leading to motor and sensory problems in areas fed by affected nerves, most common in the Manx, associated with the gene for taillessness. Symptoms include a hopping gait and incontinence.

•Tail defects: A missing tail is typical of the Manx but rare in others. Associated defects include spina bifida (above), a kinked tail, hindquarter deformities, and an abnormally small anus.

•Umbilical hernias: A common defect causing fat or part of the intestine to protrude through the navel. Can be surgically corrected, also treated homeopathically. Hernias of the diaphragm are also frequent, and more difficult to fix.

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Preventing Congenital Problems

To reduce animal suffering and the spread of these problems, avoid selecting—and especially avoid breeding:

•Animals with obvious birth defects or behavior difficulties.

•Those whose close relatives have congenital defects or inheritable behavioral or physical troubles. Try to check on the medical histories of both parents and research what percentage of related offspring have had defects. It should be less than 5 percent.

•Animals with any chronic health issues, as their overall systems are under par for developing healthy offspring.

•Inbred animals, particularly breeds that are currently popular in your area, which are likely weakened by intensive inbreeding.
Even if you have some healthy animals you would like to breed, it’s not good to mate parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, and grandparents, which tends to “fix” latent defects into their offspring. “Kissin’ cousins” are about as close as it gets in most human cultures, and even that is frowned upon for good reason.