Are Mixed Breeds Healthier Than Purebreds?

Picture of a Goldendoodle
The Goldendoodle is a Poodle Mix that brings two great breeds together but is it likely to be healthier than its parents?

Introduction

What’s your reason for choosing a poodle mix?

Is it those irresistible teddy-bear looks or a deeper reason to do with good health? Indeed, one benefit of owning a hybrid dog is that they’re said to have fewer health problems than pedigree dogs. But are mixed breeds healthier than purebreds? Let’s take a balanced look.

Bite-Sized Dog Genetics

If geneticists had a motto it would be: “Diversity is good”. Unfortunately, this is at odds with how a dog breed is created.

Let’s imagine you wanted to create a new purebred dog whose main characteristics were blue fur and square ears. To increase the chances of getting blue, square-eared pups you would breed together parent dogs with those traits.

However, since blue, square-eared dogs are unusual, you don’t have a lot of potential parents to choose from. This means they’re likely to be related, even if somewhat distantly. This is what the Coefficient of Interbreeding (COI) measures, as a safety net to avoid inter-related matings that are a bad idea.

Why Does COI Matter?

Long story short, breed brother and sister together (a bad idea) and their COI is 25%. The ideal score is zero, which means the dogs are not related and is great for genetic diversity.

The higher the COI then the more likely both parents share genetic coding for certain traits. OK, so this is good news for blue fur and square ears, but very bad news if the coding is for hip dysplasia, progressive retinal atrophy, or heart disease.

Perhaps now is a good time to point out purebred poodles are a relatively healthy group anyway. For example, the Standard poodle has an excellent COI of 2.3%, with the miniature and toy poodles a respectable 4%. In layman’s terms, this means poodles have a diverse gene pool and it’s not difficult to find unrelated parent dogs to be bred together for healthy pups.

But what has this to do with poodle mixes?

Doodle puppies with mother

Are Poodle Mixes Healthier Than Purebred Dogs?

Yes. Kind of….

Ever since genetic science was established, scientists have talked about hybrid vigor. This dictates that when two unrelated individuals reproduce (say two different breeds, such as poodle and Labrador) they have greater genetic diversity. The latter is a big advantage when avoiding the chance of an inheritable disease showing up in the next generation.

The bite-size message is “Diversity is good” including in dog breeds.

So why the hesitation in saying hybrid dogs are a good thing?

Because, with designer dogs there’s a chance of genes for common problems popping up in both breeds…double trouble.

Double Trouble

Some health conditions are extremely common. Let’s take luxating patellas (wobbly kneecaps) as an example. Poodles are prone to luxating patellas, but unfortunately so are plenty of other breeds, such as the:

  • Yorkshire Terrier
  • Jack Russell Terrier
  • Bichon Frise
  • Chihauha
  • Labrador Retriever
  • Staffordshire Bull Terrier

So a bad masterplan is to breed a poodle with a bichon frise to reduce the risk of pups inheriting wobbly kneecaps. This is an example of ‘double trouble’ where the pups could inherit genes from both sides of the canine family tree.

Take a deeper look at how genes are passed down and you realize it’s possible for pups to inherit the best or worst genes from both parent breeds. So whilst in a litter of hybrid dogs, a high percentage will be strong and healthy, the probability is a small percentage will not.

The best way to get the odds going in favor of a healthy hybrid pup is to vet (pardon the pun) the parents and use a breeder who screens both purebred parents for genetic problems.

Choosing A Healthy Hybrid Dog

The wise prospective pet parent takes the same amount of care vetting the breeder of a hybrid that they would when buying a purebred dog.

Dog receiving a vaccination shot

Think of it this way:

When the parent is screened and cleared of hereditary disease, this makes healthy pups more likely. Whereas an unscreened parent is an unknown quantity and could pass poor genes on to the next generation. Then if two dogs (regardless of breed) with potential problems are mated together, some of their pups may inherit the worst of both doggie parents and be sickly.

Finding A Healthy Poodle Mix Pup

How many shots and when depends largely on where you live. For example, UK puppies usually have two shots, whereas US puppies have three or even four. Why the difference?

Do your homework.

Find out what the parent breeds’ Achilles heel are. Most pedigree dog breeds carry an increased risk of genetic disease; here are just a few examples:

  • Cavalier King Charles Spaniels: Heart disease and syringomyelia (brain disease)
  • Poodles: Diabetes, heart valve disease, retinal atrophy (blindness)
  • Labradors: Hip dysplasia, allergic skin disease
  • Cocker spaniels: Anal sac cancer
  • Maltese terriers: Luxating patella
  • Havanese: Portosystemic shunts (liver disease)
  • Schnauzers: Pancreatitis

Not all of these problems can be screened for, but do your research and look for breeders that go the extra mile to ensure genetically healthy breeding stock. [The Canine Health Information Center is a great place to start investigating breed related problems.]

For example, taking the poodle side of the family, let’s consider a toy poodle.

Toy poodles carry an increased risk of:

  • Progressive retinal atrophy (PRA)
  • Legge-Perthe’s disease (a condition which causes the hip to disintegrate)
  • Luxating patella

Of these, there are screening tests for PRA, so look for a parent that has been tested and cleared.

However, there are no official screening programs for Legge-Perthe’s or luxating patellas. But these conditions often show up in young dogs, so question the breeder closely about any lameness problems in the line.

Then investigate the problems linked to the other breed, and pay special attention to overlapping problems.

You can also consider checking out that pairings COI. Once you’ve decided on the breeder, put the parent dogs’ pedigree details into a COI calculator, such as that curated by the UK Kennel Club or the US equivalent. If the COI of is high, look for another pairing because the dogs are distantly related and breeding is not a great idea.

Sadly, the science of prediction falls apart if the parent dog is a family pet and not pedigree registered. Because there’s no traceable family tree it’s not possible to identify family links. So although the dog scores a perfect 0% COI, this is an unsafe reading and not to be trusted. Unfortunately, the genetic health of those pups is down to chance…

And Finally

So are hybrid dogs healthier than purebreds?

In truth, the answer is yes and no. But you can get the probability going in your favor by:

  • Researching both purebred dog breeds and avoid those that share a health problem (such as luxating patellas or hip dysplasia)
  • Seeking a highly committed breeder who ensures her purebred parent dog is genetically sound.

So yes, poodle mixes have more diverse genes and stand an excellent chance of being strong and healthy, but there are no guarantees because genetics is a tricky business.

Sources:

Mixed Mutts and Designer DogsVetstreet
Inbreeding: Using COIs. Kennel Club UK
Canine Health Information Center
Breed Average COI. Kennel Club UK
Genetic Welfare of Companion Animals. University Federation for Animal Welfare

Author: Dr Pippa Elliott BVMS MRCVS

Author: Dr Pippa Elliott BVMS MRCVS

Dr. Pippa graduated as a veterinarian from Glasgow University in 1987. Since then she has worked in companion animal practice and has a special interest in internal medicine. Pippa is housekeeping staff to a naughty puggle, three cats, and a bearded dragon.

Author: Dr Pippa Elliott BVMS MRCVS

Dr. Pippa graduated as a veterinarian from Glasgow University in 1987. Since then she has worked in companion animal practice and has a special interest in internal medicine. Pippa is housekeeping staff to a naughty puggle, three cats, and a bearded dragon.