In general, the Black Russian Terrier is a healthy, robust dog. Like many large breed dogs, they are prone to hip and elbow dysplasia. Like all dogs, they can have other health problems as well. Black Russian Breeders and the Black Russian Terrier Club of America (BRTCA) have been working with historians, researchers, and veterinarians for more than 30 years to help understand conditions and diseases in the Black Russian Terrier.
It is essential to ask questions about each dog or puppy you are considering for your family. Don’t be alarmed by the amount of information you get. This breed is not “worse” than another breed or even a rescued mixed-breed. Because of the research and breeder cooperation, we know more about health in this breed. Knowledge is a great tool that can help a buyer choose the right addition to their family. Remember, there is no perfect dog. Every dog will have some health concerns in its lifetime. Even the best breeders and best pairings may produce some puppies that have issues. Breeders make the best selections possible for sire and dam based on known risks. Genetics plays a part, as does the environment. Everyone’s goal is to produce a happy, healthy dog that possesses the best Black Russian Terrier traits and characteristics.
The AKC Parent Club, the Black Russian Terrier Club of America (www.brtca.org) is the guardian of the breed in the United States with regard to health and the conformation breed standard. The BRTCA recommends the testing of mating pairs before breeding. Those test results may be made public on a website: The Orthopedic Foundation for Animals (www.ofa.org). Health tests recommended by the BRTCA (https://www.ofa.org/recommended-tests?breed=BRU&var= ) are:
- Hip Dysplasia Screening by Radiographs (X-Rays) after 24 Months of Age;
- Elbow Dysplasia Screening by Radiographs (X-Rays) after 24 Months of Age;
- Cardiac Evaluation after 12 Months of Age (Puppies should already Be Screened by Auscultation Before They Go to their New Homes);
- Companion Eye Certification (CARE) by an Ophthalmologist;
- DNA Testing for Juvenile Laryngeal Paralysis & Polyneuropathy;
- DNA Testing for Color, including K Locus (Dominant Lack) and A Locus (Agouti).
A CHIC number (Canine Health Information Center https://www.caninehealthinfo.org/) is assigned to each dog whose test results are made public in the OFA database. You may hear breeders talking about CHIC numbers because they are proud that they’ve completed all of the Parent Club recommended tests. Look closely at the wording: They COMPLETED the tests; this does not mean the dog PASSED all of the health screenings. For this reason, it is essential to look at the OFA database yourself—take no one’s word for it. Even if you see official “OFA Certificates,” please look for yourself. If you need help navigating the OFA database, ask for it. There is no substitute for doing this.
In addition to the aforementioned tests, there are other tests and screenings that breeders may complete. Additional information is always useful. Screenings that you may see are:
- Hyperuricosuria or HUU (DNA test);
- Degenerative Myelopathy or DM (DNA test);
- Thyroid (Bloodwork);
- Patella/Shoulder (Physical Exam and/or X-Ray);
- Penn-Hip (Specialized X-Ray);
- Progressive Retinal Atrophy or PRA (DNA Test).
There are many peer-reviewed journal articles on canine health. Some are accessible online. The majority of articles and resources will not be breed-specific. These are still great articles and resources. Hip dysplasia in the Black Russian Terrier is no different than in a Golden Retriever. Look for reputable sources when researching health conditions. Some useful links are included here:
Here is some anecdotal information about conditions and diseases in Black Russian Terriers. Much of this is based solely on my experience or discussion with other breeders or veterinarians, and is not to be relied upon as scientific fact unless so referenced.
According to the OFA database (https://www.ofa.org/diseases/breed-statistics), more than 41% of animals tested have ABNORMAL hips. This means that more than 41% of BRTs whose x-rays were sent to OFA did not pass their hip screening for dysplasia. Many more dogs have x-ray screenings but did not have OFA evaluations. This means that the statistic for failing hips could be higher than 41%. It is also important to note that a passing hip grade on a two-year-old dog does not mean the dog will be free from joint degeneration over time. This is a large breed dog with large bones and a lot of weight. Joints may deteriorate over time for any dog, even those with “OFA Excellent” hips.
According to the OFA database, more than 26% of animals tested have ABNORMAL elbows. This means that more than 26% of BRTs whose x-rays were graded by OFA did not pass elbow screening. Many more dogs have elbow x-rays done, but they are not sent to OFA for grading. This means that the statistic for failing elbows could be higher than 26%. On another note, because nearly 60% of the weight of the dog is carried upfront, the elbows take a lot of wear and tear. Some abnormal elbows will require surgical repair, while others do not. Elbow injuries are common in the breed, especially in young dogs, and like hips, elbow joints will wear over time and degrade so that a dog with normal elbows at two years old may not have normal elbows at age four or later.
According to the OFA database, 100% of BRTs have passed their cardiac exams. This does not mean there are no heart problems in the breed. Many BRT puppies have a slight heart murmur that they grow out of before they are four months old. A veterinarian performing an auscultation (listening to the cardiac system with a stethoscope) should be able to discern the difference between a puppy murmur and a more significant sound. OFA maintains a Basic Cardiac Database and an Advanced Cardiac Database. Advanced Cardiac is performed by a boarded veterinary cardiologist and requires an echocardiogram. Guidelines for OFA Cardiac changed in October 2020. Results are recorded in a two-tiered clearance, one for congenital disease (permanent), and one for adult onset disease (valid for one year). More breeders are taking advantage of Advanced Cardiac, but there are limitations related to cost and access to a boarded veterinary cardiologist. Heart disease does occur in this breed. There are documented cases of SAS (Subvalvular Aortic Stenosis) and cardiomyopathy. Again, not many dogs who have known disease will be entered into the databased, thus the breed statistic for 100% PASSING cardiac exams may be inaccurate.
According to the OFA database, only 2.6% of the breed has abnormal eye results. This is a problematic area of testing. Exams are performed by board-certified veterinary ophthalmologists. This is not a “vision” test but rather a screening for genetic disease related to the eye. There are several eye conditions noted upon examination. Some of these conditions (entropion and distichiasis for example) may be discovered during an exam, but are not considered inherited or breed-specific conditions. Those dogs may receive a “passing” grade on their eye exam with the “breeder option noted.” The decision to note the “breeder option” is not left to the breeder or OFA. The American College of Veterinary Ophthalmologists has a Genetics Committee that is responsible for determining the eligibility of the condition noted with consideration to the breed of the dog. Eye exams are good for one year only. It is helpful for breeders to continue to test their breeding dogs when they are young and again when they are older.
Juvenile Laryngeal Paralysis & Polyneuropathy
Juvenile Laryngeal Paralysis & Polyneuropathy (JLPP) is also referred to as Polyneuropathy with Ocular Abnormalities and Neuronal Vacuolation (POANV). They are one in the same. This syndrome is tested through a DNA sample of the dog. Both the sire and the dam should have this testing completed BEFORE the mating occurs. The JLPP gene is a simple recessive gene. Without a lesson in genetics, the important information is the result for the puppy. It is OK if the puppy is a carrier (meaning the puppy has one copy of the gene). A puppy with two copies of the gene for JLPP will die. To date, 100% of all puppies with two copies of the JLPP gene have died. It is fatal. Always ask for copies of the JLPP test result for the sire and dam, as well as for the puppy, if possible. Never purchase a puppy without this information, not from any breeder in any country in the world. (The test is globally accessible.) If you want more information about the disease, I provided a link in a paragraph above. The BRTCA was instrumental in raising money for researchers at the University of Missouri School of Veterinary Medicine to map the gene and develop a test for the disease. Through 2020, 735 dogs were tested for JLPP; findings indicate that nearly 25% are carriers for the disease.
Hyperuricosuria (HUU) is inherited as a simple autosomal recessive gene. Dogs with two copies of this gene are predisposed to form stones in their bladder or, sometimes, kidney. While this condition is not considered “fatal,” there are several dogs that have died when medical intervention was not initiated quickly enough. Statistics on this condition are poor. “Carrier” or “Clear” dogs are not affected by the condition. “Affected” dogs may not develop stones, but they may have elevated levels of uric acid in the urine and require a special diet. Many breeders choose not to produce “affected” puppies. Always ask for the genetic testing results on both parents and the puppy. This test has been globally available for many years.
In recent years, genetic color testing for the K Locus (dominant black gene) and the A Locus (agouti) gene have been a requirement by the BRTCA for completing CHIC testing. While these two genes may not have a direct tie to a health condition, they may still be important to preserving the integrity of the breed. After consulting with geneticists, researchers, and world-renowned experts in the Black Russian Terrier, it was determined that the only acceptable color for this breed shall be black. There are “throw-back” colors that are sometimes produced. Because of the number of dog breeds involved with the creation of Black Russians, genetic color combinations can be complicated. Breeding may produce a puppy that is sable, black and tan, saddle patterned, cloudy/silver, red, or even wheat-colored. Some puppies are born black and then change color as they mature. These things do happen, and even the best breeders can produce a non-black puppy. Color testing will help breeders produce puppies that most closely resemble the standard, which is a black dog. Non-black dogs may be registered (they are still purebred), and they may compete in companion sports. Non-black dogs may not compete in the AKC conformation show ring. Non-black coloring is a disqualification.
Some breeders will also have a patella exam. There is no known correlation in this breed between patella exams and stifle ligament tears, which do occur in dogs. Thyroid is another test sometimes completed. A passing thyroid test is no guarantee that the dog will not have thyroid problems as an older adult. Dentition is a confusing “test.” It is not a test at all, but rather an exam. A veterinarian counts the dog’s teeth and notes any missing teeth. Full dentition (42 teeth) is required for Black Russian Terriers. Per the AKC breed standard, one missing tooth is considered a serious fault; however, two missing teeth is considered a disqualification. The tentition exam does not refer to a scissors bite. Any bite other than a scissors bite is a disqualification in Black Russians. Pregressive Retinal Atrophy (PRA) is a condition in dogs that can cause vision impairment in low lighting or at night. Only recently have DNA tests identified this marker in Black Russian Terriers. Presently, there is no study on PRA in the breed. All that we know about PRA comes from general studies on dogs and a few specific breeds. There are numerous other DNA tests and other screenings that may be done. These tests may have no significant role in the breed at all.
Other Problems in the Breed
Ear infections, hot spots, environmental allergies, and food allergies are all problems in Black Russian Terriers, just as they are with other breeds. Not all of these conditions are related to the breeding pair or the breeder. Allergies and sensitivities can develop as a result of numerous environmental conditions. Ear infections and hot spots may be environmental or may be related to grooming and/or housekeeping. Ask about these problems in the breeding pair so you have an idea of what you may expect in a puppy.
The Black Russian Terrier, A Picture of Health
Thank you for taking the time to learn more about the beloved Black Russian Terrier. Remember, I am not a veterinarian. Always consult a licensed veterinarian for all medical information. There is a lot to learn, but being informed is essential. You’ll hear the phrase, “Do your homework,” repeated many times during your search for your next puppy. It’s good advice. Learn to look up and verify information, so you are not relying on anyone else to make an informed decision.