Rhea Hurley bikejoring with her dogs

In Conversation with Dogs NZ Canine Health and Welfare Officer, Rhea Hurley


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Dog breeds without health problems is an increasingly popular topic of conversation because there’s so much talk about breeds that do have them. Notably, it’s poor breeding practices such as a lack of dog health screening rather than the breeds themselves that are at issue. Aware of this, Dogs NZ appointed veterinarian and accredited behaviour veterinarian, Rhea Hurley as full-time Canine Health and Welfare Officer in May 2022.

As proud partners, PD and Dogs NZ share a passion for understanding pets’ physical, mental and emotional wellbeing through a health lens. We talk to Rhea about healthy breeding, health schemes and more. Find out what she has to say.

Rhea Hurley bikejoring with her dogs

All about Rhea Hurley from Dogs NZ

When she’s not at government roundtable discussions about new dog laws or at the Dogs NZ office, Rhea Hurley can be found bikejoring with her six Huskies. For those not familiar with bikejoring, it’s a dog sport rooted in mushing. Instead of being pulled by your dog or pack of dogs while on a sled, you’re on your bike.

Not only is Rhea a spokesperson for Dogs NZ but she’s also a renowned vet. Sometimes these two powers combine to inform the NZ community about pet safety. For example, when a six-month-old Beagle named Echo died from exposure to toxic algae in the Hutt River, Rhea cared for Echo in her final moments and the got vocal about it to educate others.

She’s also one of only a handful of people in New Zealand with a veterinary qualification in animal behaviour.

“Behaviour applies at all levels of understanding dogs (and animals in general). Often in medical situations, the only way we know something’s going on is because of behavioural changes.”

– Rhea Hurley, Dogs NZ Canine Health and Welfare

Rhea explains that understanding animal behaviour is a bit like being a dog counsellor or psychologist. “It gives us the opportunity to practice ‘cooperative care’ during veterinary care. This means cats and dogs can participate in their own healthcare. They can say ‘no’ or consent to their veterinary treatment.

I’ve always liked the training aspect of animal interaction. I was involved in dog sports even during my university years with my first dog. This led to me wanting to know how to understand and communicate with dogs better. Animal behaviour is amazing because it helps people understand and better bond with their pets.”

Michelle from PD and Rhea from Dogs New Zealand co-hosting the PD stand at the Pet Expo
Rhea Hurley (left) joins PD Insurance COO, Michelle Le Long at the Auckland Pet Expo

Safeguarding dog breeds against health problems

As pet enthusiasts learn more about genetic health conditions in dogs, dog breeds without health problems is becoming a popular Google search. However, health problems can occur with purebred, pedigreed, hybrid dog breeds and mixed breed dogs.

Whatever the combination, or not, health screening dogs can help prevent issues being passed on.

“One of the biggest health issues dogs face is un-health tested litters. There’s a lot of thought that should go into having a litter of puppies, to avoid heritable illness passing on.”

– Rhea Hurley

Rhea explains that “health screening for dogs is important to having puppies. This includes health testing the parents and considering both mum and dad dogs’ temperament.” Let’s look at how Dogs NZ is approaching this in greater detail.

A litter of pedigreed puppies from dog breeds without health problems thanks to health screening on parent dogs

Dogs NZ health screening for breed specific health problems

Currently, Dogs NZ is working on health screening for dogs across multiple schemes. These include the Respiratory Function Grading scheme, Breed Litter Registration Limitations and Judges Breed Observation Scheme.

Each of these fulfils a specific health function from a different pet industry vantage point. For example, the Respiratory Function Grading Scheme is a veterinary initiative and the Judges Breed Observation Scheme is a judges initiative. Together these different pet professionals are sharpening the focus on canine health and wellbeing.

Find out more about each of these health schemes.

Respiratory Functional Grading

Healthy breeding that avoids extreme conformity and disease is invaluable to canine health and welfare. Brachycephaly is currently at crisis levels and receiving attention from WSAVA and many animal organisations.

Rhea says “These brachycephalic breeds have been bred for exaggerated faces. They look super cute but, by doing that, we’ve pushed all of their same airway tissue into a smaller space.”

“Respiratory functional grading (RFG) is currently only scientifically validated in Pugs, Bulldogs and French Bulldogs. This is a perfect way we can start breeding the right dogs and potentially save these breeds. Currently, Cambridge University is working on adding more breeds to this grading scheme.”

– Rhea Hurley

“It’s an easy, straightforward test that vets can do. It gives a good idea as to whether these dogs are clinically affected by airway disease and need surgery. If they’re not, it makes them perfect dogs to breed. This is how we can reduce the frequency of this condition in New Zealand. It’s really exciting and has the potential to do so much good.

Dr. Jane Ladlow, the person who created the test, found that you can’t tell just by looking at these dogs whether they’re going to be affected with airway disease or not. This is why the RFG is essential health screening to select breeding candidates.”

Creating dog breeds without health problems through health testing will help this Pug dog's breed have fewer instances of brachycephalic obstructive airways syndrome

Judges Breed Observation Scheme

Dog shows play a key role in bringing together experts and breeders within the canine community. Dogs with the most fitting breed traits can fetch impressive awards and are sought after for breeding prized puppies. That’s why judges are taking a health lens on breed standards too.

“After every show judges anonymously record any concerns about the health of the welfare of the dogs in the show. For example, if they see dogs aren’t walking very well, are noisy breathers or there are instances of skin disease, etc. then they alert us. In addition to Dogs NZ recording the data, judges aren’t placing those dogs.”

– Rhea Hurley

While this affects dogs in the show world predominantly, many of the people involved are breeders. It increases awareness in both breeders and judges of conditions we’re worried about.

If you’re in conformation as a breeder then you’ll want a dog that’s titled when you breed. If judges are choosing healthy dogs then people will want to enter healthy dogs that win awards. They’ll be more concerned about having healthy dogs for shows and for breeding. So there’s a flow on effect that will filter down to the puppies.

It’s a process of fighting the aesthetics vs health and taking them both into consideration. We want dogs that are fit to be dogs. We need dogs that can walk, play, breathe, eat, live and do all the things dogs ought to be able to.”

Breed Litter Registration Limitations

Rhea says “The Breed Litter Registration Limitations is a compulsory minimum set of dog health tests. Certain breeds of dogs have specific health tests they have to do before they can be registered.

For example, German Shepherds have to have their hips and elbows tested (hip dysplasia in dogs) and a DNA test for degenerative myelopathy. Labradors have hips, elbows, eyes, and three DNA tests. For Pugs it’s brachycephalic obstructive airways syndrome (BOAS).

It varies a little bit between breeds. These are the absolute minimum health screening requirement for parent dogs before breeders are allowed to register the puppies.”

two German Shepherds that have had health screening for hip dysplasia to ensure they are a healthy breeding pair stare up into the mist

Dogs NZ pet insurance

Following the announcement of the PD and Dogs NZ partnership, the next big milestone has been co-launching Dogs NZ pet insurance.

“It’s exciting,” says Rhea, “I think it could make a difference to the uptake of insurance. Puppies are going home with a policy already instead of new owners having to be taught by the vet or finding out online. They’re thinking about it straight away. They might not choose to keep it, but at least it’s in their minds from minute one and it’s great that we can do this for puppy owners.

Breeder benefits

“I think it gives breeders a bit of peace of mind. Many have a real hard time rehoming their puppies because they’ve been with them for eight weeks and are attached to the little guys. Sending puppies off to new owners with Dogs NZ pet insurance that covers them for a decent amount of time afterwards gives that extra relief. It means those dogs are in safe hands.”

Puppy owner benefits

“From an owner’s point of view that takes the pressure off those first few weeks. You don’t have to think about it for a little while so you can just enjoy settling your dog in.

Some new owners will be getting insurance that otherwise wouldn’t have. Having free starter insurance opens their eyes to this safeguard. It gives them an opportunity to learn more and that will hopefully see us having more insured animals.

This is especially valuable because people don’t always know how expensive owning a puppy will turn out to be. And by expensive I don’t mean unreasonable. It’s simply that things are costly these days.

Owning a dog has many costs new pet owners may not be aware of. Puppies coming home with insurance helps people think about some of those possible expenses from day one.”

A breeder produces dog breeds without health problems thanks to health screening parent dogs prior to mating

Pet insurance mitigating pressure on our vet industry

Another benefit of pet insurance generally is the reduction of pressures on the veterinary industry. Vets face high pressures of long working hours supporting sick or injured animals along with managing owner expectations.

Unlike human health, there is no subsidisation of animal health care. Unfortunately, vets are often blamed for overcharging when in reality they’re simply covering costs and paying basic salaries.

Rhea says, “New Zealand has a lot of free healthcare so I don’t think people see the price they pay for medical care. For example, a particular type of surgery for a dog may cost roughly $900 whereas the same human surgery costs about $16,000. But the government or your health insurance pays that. So we never see the full extent of human health care bills like we do for our dogs and cats.

“When all you want is your dog or cat to be okay and someone puts a price on that it can seem quite callous. This puts a lot of stress on the relationship between owners and vets.”

– Rhea Hurley

People become vets because they love animals and once in the profession they care about the owners too. But unfortunately, a lot of people genuinely think they’re being taken advantage of when they get high vet bills.

Ideally vets and owners need to act as a team in supporting sick animals but that money puts a wedge between them and it’s sad. I think pet insurance could remove this disconnect and take out that wedge.”

This is another reason more vets are recommending pet insurance.

A German Shepherd puppy looks out from a grassy hill

Dogs NZ promoting pedigreed dog breeds without health problems

As Canine Health and Welfare Officer, Rhea says she’s focused on “improving our health and welfare standards overall, continuing to learn more and when we learn more, do better.

I hope to get the respiratory functional grading running across the country so that we’re testing all dogs, not just pedigree dogs. That includes all French Bulldogs, Bulldogs and Pugs and crosses of these to reduce brachycephaly. BOAS is a big issue and if we can even dent it a little bit that would be amazing.

“One of the greatest things I hope to achieve as Dogs NZ Canine Health and Welfare Officer is to improve peoples’ outlook on pedigree dogs. There’s a common misunderstanding that pedigree dogs aren’t as healthy as crossbred dogs because of perceived hybrid vigour.

– Rhea Hurley

However, health screening pedigree dogs means they can potentially be the healthiest dogs. Even more so than health tested cross-breed dogs. Because with pedigreed dogs you’re putting two dogs of the same conformation and temperament together so you know what you’re getting.

I’d like vets and owners to be aware that having a pedigree dog gives you a lot more peace of mind. It can potentially provide for fewer health and temperament issues. In other words, you can have a lot more design over the type of dog relationship you want with a pedigree dog. Whereas you don’t always know what you’re getting with a cross bread or mixed breed. I’d like to promote pedigree dogs among non pedigree dog fans.

In terms of Dogs NZ developments, I’m excited about us having more dog sports. I’m hoping we can get to the point where we are the go-to place for getting a healthy, well-adjusted dog. We will continue to improve and up our standards in support of this.”

a puppy tilts its head sideways to look at its owner

Dogs NZ in support of all Kiwi dogs

“I hope one day dog registration for all dogs will be possible. This would allow Dogs NZ to support breeders that don’t have the education and knowledge by giving them a minimum standard to produce dog breeds with fewer health problems. It would also help us get backyard breeding under control.

I’d like to change things so that breeders of all stripes look to Dogs NZ for breeding support. It’s easy to get in over one’s head breeding informally because you don’t have any support. For example, someone’s dog has a lovely temperament and they’d like it to have a litter. Or they feel it would be lovely for the kids to see the miracle of life.

That’s not necessarily wrong but one needs help and support. Ideally this is where you come to Dogs NZ for supportive advice. They could find out about health screening for dogs, what health tests to do, how to find an appropriate partner and more.

This avoids a level of indiscriminate breeding with, for example, another dog just because it’s nearby. Having a litter of puppies isn’t easy. It’s like having a full-time job. A lot of puppies end up unwanted and abandoned. We have way too many overburdened animal rescues and that’s really sad. All dogs should have homes.”

PD and Dogs NZ safeguarding dog breeds from health problems

In closing, Rhea says, “Potentially one of the most exciting aspects of the PD and Dogs NZ collaboration is disease surveillance. There’s so little knowledge on what diseases dogs and cats are getting in New Zealand.

Working together, PD and Dogs NZ can explore what’s affecting them. We can look at whether that’s happening in trends or it’s happening in lines of dogs. There’s the potential for us to uncover what’s happening with animal diseases and potentially stop them by doing so.”

PD and Dogs New Zealand are working hand in hand to bring greater health to more Kiwi dogs and cats. Our breeder partner program enables breeders to introduces puppies to their new homes with the safety of free cover.

Connect with PD if you would like to join our partner rewards pet care programme. Help uncover the benefits of pet insurance for your customers and earn rewards for your business or organisation. Click here to join. 

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