John Woestendiek is a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist, editor of the website Ohmidog! and author of Dog, Inc.: How a Collection of Visionaries, Rebels, Eccentrics and Their Pets Launched the Commercial Dog Cloning Industry.
Wellness: Healthy Living
Searching for the ideal vet
March 27 2014
We don’t ask for much.
For starters, we want you to have the brains of Einstein, the compassion of Mother Teresa and the patience of Job.
In terms of medical skills, we’d like you to possess the sleuthing abilities of television’s Dr. House, the empathy of Dr. Dolittle and the bedside manner of Marcus Welby, MD (but not be so ancient that you remember that kindly TV doctor).
While we appreciate old-school wisdom, charm and values, we don’t want our dog’s doctor to be behind the times. Instead, he—or far more likely these days, she—should be a fairly recent graduate of a respected veterinary school, possess a search-engine-like ability to stay on top of all the latest medical developments and technology, and constantly be attending seminars, preferably without ever leaving the office.
As for those offices, we’d like them to have the accessibility of a ’round-the-clock convenience mart, the cleanliness of an operating room, the aroma of a gentle spring rain and the affordability of a dollar store. In your waiting room, we’d prefer not to wait.
We appreciate communication skills (including the all-important ability to close one’s mouth and listen). We want you to explain things clearly and simply, and lay out options—all while taking your time, with our dog and with us, so we don’t feel like we’re being rushed through an assembly line.
We want you to have confidence, but not such an excessive amount that you don’t seek input from others. We want you to admit when an educated guess is an educated guess, and refrain from predicting the unpredictable. Don’t give our dog needless and expensive tests, or vaccinate them unnecessarily. Don’t encourage us to prolong their lives at all costs. Don’t look at us with dollar signs in your eyes, even though we are the source of your income.
We want to be comfortable in your presence, and our dogs to be, too. We want to like you, and trust you. You should like us too, and be absolutely bonkers about our dog. You should be genuinely thrilled—don’t even try to fake it—every time you see him or her.
Validate, if you would, our parking, our dogs and us.
Remember our dog’s name, and ours, and be there for us through all the ups and downs, all the joy and heartache, right up to the end, maybe most importantly at the end.
At that time, we want you to treat our dogs, and us, as we’d hope you have all along the way: honestly, compassionately, straightforwardly and with dignity.
On second thought, we ask for a lot.
Our strong emotional attachments to our dogs lead us to have some pretty high standards—and go to some pretty great lengths—when it comes to choosing a veterinarian. For most of us, the nearest one won’t do. A competent one isn’t enough. We want the vet of our dreams.
As a nation, we’ve grown more dog crazy, and more dog savvy; on the road to becoming better-informed dog owners, we’ve also become more demanding ones.
Given all those factors, it’s understandable that we have such great expectations of veterinarians. But those high hopes are also an indication of continuing public faith in the profession. Part of the reason we’re willing to invest time and research in seeking Dr. Right is that we’re pretty sure he or she is out there—findable, accessible and maybe even affordable.
The day may come, if it hasn’t already, when our high regard for veterinarians—our view of them as altruistic sorts, on our side and not solely after money—starts to fade, just as it has over the years for lawyers, politicians and (though less drastically) doctors.
Medical care for our dogs is becoming more like the human system, which many might argue is no model at all, what with its exorbitant costs, its overly comfy relationship with pharmaceutical companies and all the corporate ordered protocols aimed at getting the most money out of ailing humans in the least time.
As with the human system, veterinary offices are becoming increasingly corporate. That tends to lead to more rushed and impersonal treatment; longer waits; shorter visits; and doctors who are prone (or ordered from above) to sell you and your dog on every imaginable diagnostic test, vaccination, medication, surgery or treatment.
At the same time, we and our dogs are hanging around the planet longer in part due to all those new drugs, tests and procedures. The longer life is prolonged, the more tough decisions we face, weighing questions about the promise of technology, risks and side effects, the quality of life, when to try to buy more time, when enough is enough, and how to afford it all.
Managing our dog’s health care seems well on the way to becoming as tortuous and frustrating a struggle as managing our own.
Many of the procedures and services once available only to human patients —once seen as unimaginable or frivolous when applied to canines (except to test on them first to make sure they’d be okay for us)—are now routinely offered for dogs. They are referred to specialists. They go to psychiatrists. They undergo chemotherapy. They receive bone-marrow transplants, and dialysis, and “bionic” prostheses.
Many of these carry price tags so frightening that increasingly, we’re turning to health insurance for our dogs. We fear that, just as with our own health, it would only take one medical disaster for our dog to bankrupt us.
Obamacare for dogs? It may be laughable now, but will it still be in 50 years? Truth be told, some old-school veterinarians have long been practicing a version of it (unofficially and without the aid of insurance companies or websites), charging clients, of all things, what they can afford.
With independent veterinary practices dwindling and facing more pressures, such kind-hearted vets are becoming harder to find, and are finding it harder to be kind-hearted. Veterinary care is becoming colder, more complex and more expensive, a big business that, if it’s not careful, may soon come across as looking that way—as being much more concerned with its bottom line than all those creatures great and small.
Between our high expectations and veterinary medicine’s changing realities, a shift in our generally favorable view of veterinarians wouldn’t be all that surprising. On the other hand, they help animals, and we love them—nearly unconditionally—for that. Maybe that’s enough to keep vets from falling out of our good graces and joining the ranks of other once-beloved professions.
In any case, a new era has clearly dawned for veterinary medicine, one that includes corporately owned mega-practices, pricey technology, life-prolonging treatments and its own almost-as-perplexing version of health insurance. It’s enough to make some pine, at least a little, for the days of James Herriott, the semi-fictional country vet who, though he never attempted anything as cutting-edge as stem cell therapy, could always be counted on to be gentle, to be considerate, and to be there.
For now, based on some nonscientific opinion gathering by The Bark, most dog owners still seem to think that while not all vets are perfect, the perfect vet is out there. We think we know what makes him or her perfect. And, based on comments solicited from readers, most of us still manage, eventually, to find him or her.
“Why is my vet perfect? He is knowledgeable and experienced … unfailingly gentle and kind with animals and courteous to their owners,” wrote a reader named Frances. “He always explains everything in detail and is never, ever patronizing or dismissive of anxieties … [He] always comes across as someone whose priority is the welfare of the animals in his care, not profits or kudos. If I had to choose just one criterion upon which to base a choice of vet, it would be trust—trust in their expertise, their advice and their ability to care for my animals.”
When The Bark asked readers to describe their ideal veterinarian, they responded in large numbers, and quite passionately. They seemed, nearly unanimously, to appreciate a vet who hears them out, realizing the value of their observations and opinions about their companion animals. Most veterinary clients would rather feel part of a team, as opposed to following the dictates of a vet who comes across as one not to be questioned.
Based on the comments (read them all at thebark.com/finding-dr-right), dog owners place a priority on reasonable rates, as well as accessibility and flexibility. Readers also seemed to appreciate the veterinarian who offers weekend hours and is willing to stay open late, or go the extra mile … or 15 … or 20.
A reader named Robin said she chose a veterinarian who exhibited superior listening skills and a high degree of dedication to her job. Because Robin’s pup, Ali, suffers seizures and gets stressed out by office visits, Robin made an appointment with a mobile vet. Despite some dauntingly inclement weather, Dr. Joan showed up.
“So there she was, on my birthday, when we had a surprise snow storm overnight, and the snow was approaching hip height,” Robin said. “And she backed her trailer up our driveway for a NAIL TRIM …”
While accessibility, technical know how and communication skills were among the qualities readers listed as most important in a veterinarian, compassion may rank even higher. Dog owners want a veterinarian with heart. They put a premium on empathy, and perhaps rightly so, given that a vet’s patients can’t talk. Dog owners get some reassurance when they see vets connect with their dogs in a non-verbal way.
A reader named Jen said the vet of her dreams has a good reputation for his surgical skills, and his office has low staff turnover, another good sign, she says. But “first and foremost” is “his genuine affection, care and liking for the animals he works with. He gets down on the floor and hugs them if they are comfortable with that, lets them lick his face and talks to them before any examinations or procedures …
“My most recent favorite Dr. Todd tale was when I took my dog, Inca, in for a checkup. The day before, she and my other dog, Domino, had discovered an old slug trap in the strawberries filled with sour beer and rotten slugs. Unbeknownst to us they (delightedly, I’m certain) rolled in it … When I warned Todd not to hug Inca this time and told him what she had done, and that we hadn’t been successful in getting the stink off her, he got down on the floor, hugged her, looked into her eyes and said, ‘Good dog, Inca!’ In other words, ‘way to act like a dog.’”
We don’t expect to feel the love when we go to our own doctor; we do at the vet’s office.
Why? In part, it’s because we’re jaundiced by our own medical experiences, conditioned to not expect the surest, swiftest, most compassionate and fairly priced service. Most of us wouldn’t dream of asking our family doctor to meet us after hours at the office, much less grant us a same-day appointment, make a house call, cut us a break on the price of treatment or let us run a tab. We don’t require our pediatricians to “ooh” and “ahh” over our human babies, or to pat them on the head or toss them a treat. But a vet who treats our dog aloofly may be on the way to becoming our former vet.
Rightly or wrongly, we tend to see veterinarians as a warm-hearted bunch —people who got into their field not for the money, but because of their deep and abiding love for animals. We’re not so sure that a love for humans is what motivates most doctors.
Maybe that’s one reason veterinarians in the past decade have generally shown up above doctors in polls ranking professions for honesty and ethical standards. Dr. Nancy Kay, recently retired from veterinary practice, and author of the books Speaking for Spot and Your Dog’s Best Health: A Dozen Reasonable Things to Expect from Your Vet, is among those who sense that a shift is under way in the public’s perception of veterinarians.
“Maybe we’re still held in higher regard than medical doctors, but not by very much,” she says. “It used to be veterinarians were revered and given the benefit of the doubt.” Now, she says, it’s more common to hear criticism from people who feel vets are “not embracing enough of a holistic approach” and are “out for the money.”
Kay also says that, in some cases, the criticism is merited.
The average vet school student graduates with $150,000 worth of debt, according to Kay. They go into a job earning maybe $50,000 a year. Meanwhile, clients are turning elsewhere for some of the products and services that traditionally brought in profits for veterinary practices—to low- or no-cost clinics for spaying, neutering and rabies vaccinations, or to Wal-Mart and online discount stores for prescriptions.
Add in the high cost of keeping up with technology, and conditions get even riper for questionable behavior, such as a vet recommending a procedure or test that might not be necessary.
Kay says vaccinations are a good example of that.
The American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) revamped its list of recommended vaccinations, and the intervals at which they should be administered, 11 years ago. But, Kay notes, some vets still routinely over vaccinate based on the old recommendations. Many a client, after receiving a cute reminder postcard in the mail, still brings his or her dog in annually for distemper and parvovirus vaccinations, even though the AAHA now recommends those vaccinations be given at three-year intervals.
The AAHA also now recommends that vaccinations for parainf luenza virus, bordetella and leptospirosis be administered only after looking at an individual dog’s risk of exposure. But some vets—either not up on the changes or not wanting to pass up potential profits—tend to take a more blanket approach to vaccines.
“Some vets either don’t know better or they want the money,” Kay says. “They over-vaccinate to subsidize their other services, disregarding the potential risks to the animals, and people are catching on to that.”
As they do, suspicion can spread and public faith can erode, just as it can in any occupation. A few bad apples, uninformed apples, careless apples or greedy apples, can—especially in the Internet age—taint how the public sees the whole barrel.
So how do you find Dr. Right— that vet who’s the perfect combination of compassion and clear-headedness; one who, when it comes to finding answers, isn’t wholly holistic or wholly high-tech; one who exhibits not simply heart, and not simply brains, but that much-desired combination of the two?
Two things to keep in mind: First, one pet owner’s Dr. Right may not be every pet owner’s Dr. Right. Second, you might have to go through a few Dr. Not-Quite-Rights along the way.
Let your own head, and your own heart, be your guide.
Do some research. Get input from friends. Get input from strangers. Pick the brains of your fellow dog-park denizens. Ask people not just if they like their vet, but why they like their vet. Volunteer at your local humane society, and see whom they trust and turn to. Check into complaints filed with state veterinary boards or Better Business Bureaus. Go online and read customer reviews, but take them, like everything else on the Internet, with a grain of salt. Visit and interview vets. Chat up the support staff. Bring a notepad. Ask vets where they got their training. Do they have a dog? Do they do any pro bono work, such as helping homeless dogs in the community? Are they, when it comes to technology, up on the latest or living in the past? See if you feel a connection, and—as perhaps you might do with a potential suitor—let your dog give them a sniff and offer an opinion.
Some vets might be smooth talkers who say all the right things but fail to make a connection with your dog. Other vets might have a near-magical ability to empathize with your dog, but no people skills at all.
One paradox of veterinary medicine is that many of those who go into it do so because they prefer dealing with animals to dealing with people. They find out pretty quickly—year one in most veterinary schools—that it’s not going to work that way. While they examine animals, they have to communicate with humans—often, anguished, demanding or sobbing ones.
“What all vets have in common is we love animals, but the majority of our time is spent dealing with their humans,” says Kay, who spent 32 years in private practice. Some veterinarians are better at that than others.
As with medical doctors, veterinarians generally adopt one of two styles of communication. In the paternalistic model, the doctor is clearly in charge, does most of the talking and, generally, keeps some emotional distance. Under what’s called the relationship-centered model, the vet looks at the bigger picture— the dog and the dog owner, and the bond between them. Clients are encouraged to share facts, express opinions and help decide on a course of action.
What leads a vet to become one or the other is probably a mix of factors, including personality type, sociability and the training they received in school. Some might assume that, under a paternalistic style (with the doctor taking the reins) clients can be shuttled in and out more quickly and efficiently. Kay says studies have shown that’s not the case.
Readers who shared their thoughts on what makes for the ideal veterinarian seemed to prefer the relationship centered style, even if they didn’t call it by name. They want a vet who comes across as warm, and a vet who listens. “No vet can possibly know as much about my dogs as I do, from living with and observing them closely day by day,” said a reader named Lynda. “That’s okay—I don’t expect the vet to know that—but I do expect the vet to listen to me and take my observations and instincts into account in the diagnosis.”
That, she added, “requires a third characteristic—not too heavy on the ego, please. I don’t want a vet who tries to play God or take over my primary responsibility for my dog’s well-being. I want someone who doesn’t feel threatened by my input.”
“A good vet is a professional who outright would let a dog lick her, a cat be her hissy self [and] a pet parent speak about their furry four-legged child before coming up with conclusions,” said a reader named Carmen. “A vet should love what she is there for, the pets …”
Several commenters said the ideal vet doesn’t let rules or protocol trump compassion, and isn’t so wrapped up in cutting-edge technology that he or she gives no credence to more natural treatments.
“I appreciate a vet who is willing to work with me and consider both clinical and alternative healing, which includes holistic and palliative care in certain circumstances,” said a reader named Marilyn. “I believe my companion animals, much as humans, want to be with their loved ones and not in a hospital cage during their final days/ hours. I think vets are, at times, too wedded to vet-school protocols to the exclusion of the human-animal bond. Pity.”
A reader named Susan in Tucson said she’d never forget how her veterinarian let her lay on the floor with her dog Luka as he received IV fluids in a last ditch effort to save his life.
“Her heart is so big that she knew if I could do this myself, it would mean the world to my big mama’s boy, and it would mean everything to me. He was very ill with chronic kidney disease, which [had been] diagnosed the day before, though [he was] only six years old. The next day, I had to make the hardest decision ever, and I’d not have been able to do it without her. I spent another couple of hours in a private room, talking quietly to Luka, my Malamute, and then we did have to let him go.”
Several commenters said they seek veterinarians who feel a connection with the dogs they treat, the humans they encounter and the community they’re in. A vet who volunteers his or her services to help less fortunate dogs is seen as one who likely has the compassion and dedication they’re looking for.
“Two things stand out for me,” wrote Tom. “I want a vet (and have one, thankfully) who knows about all the shiny new diagnostic tests s/he can perform, and who doesn’t recommend them just because they exist … Second, I want my vet to be active in animal welfare. Frankly, I think the veterinary community at large has been strangely, sadly absent from the humane movement— at least in any organized way. At best, that’s a huge lost opportunity to improve the conditions of the companion animals whose brethren they treat, and to end unnecessary shelter euthanasia.”
A reader named Nina echoed those opinions: “I look for someone who defines what they do as a service rather than strictly a business. They show compassion and respect for all animals and their families. The vet volunteers his or her services at an affordable clinic; they board and protect pets of abused women while [the women] are looking for a new, safe home; they get involved in community fundraisers … This way of seeing and operating in the world informs everything they do— from hiring staff who are knowledgeable, kind and efficient to encouraging their clients to make informed decisions about issues such as vaccinations and other treatments.
“One of the vets I frequented for almost 20 years I am leaving because they are changing their paradigm from service to business,” she added. “The front desk is no longer attended by caring staff, and making money seems to be the major concern. Needless to say, they are losing clients, including me.”
Call a medical doctor when you’re seriously ailing and, with some luck, you’ll get an appointment—say, three weeks from Thursday. Call a vet about your seriously ailing dog and you’re likely to hear “bring ’em right in.”
Visit that medical doctor—arrive 30 minutes before your appointment, please—and the receptionist may or may not issue a friendly greeting, and may or may not make eye contact before handing you multiple forms to be filled out while you wait, 45 minutes or so, before being shown into an exam room, where you wait some more.
Visit that vet and you and your dog will more likely be greeted with some excitement, get a pat on the head, maybe get a treat, and have but a brief wait to see not just an assistant, but the actual doctor—all of which sometimes happens, unlike with human medical care, even before the question is asked: “How are we going to be paying for this?”
In some ways, at least from a consumer perspective, human medical care could benefit by becoming more like traditional veterinary care.
From all indications, though, the opposite is happening.
With large corporations running a growing percentage of veterinary practices, with those practices becoming larger, with treatments becoming more sophisticated and expensive, with pet insurance creating more hoops to jump through, with everybody running to keep up with technology, there seems less time for niceties, or empathy.
The way things are heading, one often doesn’t get to choose a veterinarian these days as much as a veterinary practice. You might find the veterinarian of your dreams, but then actually get an appointment with the one who’s available. As pet health insurance slowly catches on, you might find the practice of your dreams, only to learn it doesn’t honor the particular brand of pet insurance you’ve purchased.
And, as veterinary practices become more like big businesses, that quality time you spend with your vet might dwindle—maybe at that vet’s choice, maybe due to corporate orders.
“It’s not the profession I went into 25 years ago,” says Nick Trout, a staff surgeon at Angell Animal Medical Center in Boston and a contributing columnist for The Bark.
Traditionally, Trout says, vets have been seen as “having an animal’s best interest at heart rather than being out to make money.” Given that their patients can’t talk, vets spend more time examining them, “as opposed to the seven minutes you seem to have with an MD who’s watching the clock and having to crank through on the cases.” Vets, generally, have been seen as more accessible, patient and understanding than the average medical doctor.
Trout, who has authored three nonfiction books, has also written two novels. In the first of those, The Patron Saint of Lost Dogs, the main character, Cyrus Mills, a veterinary pathologist whose career has kept him in the laboratory, takes over his father’s small town veterinary practice and, through connecting with dogs and people, finds his life changed for the better. In its sequel, Dog Gone, Back Soon, slated for release this spring, Mills copes with pressures stemming from what Trout calls the “corporatization” of veterinary care.
While the book is fiction, the trend is real, and global.
For example, Trout says, “Small mom-and-pop practices no longer exist in Sweden; they’ve all been bought out by corporations” that operate under a “colder, more clinical” business model. “What worries me is that takes away that one-on-one, that ability to put in more time with an individual … When you’re accountable to a bigger business model, you’re not going to get away with that.”
Technology is playing a big role, too. Keeping up with it can require large investments—the kind that small, independent veterinarians are hardpressed to make.
“Pet owners demand higher technology,” Trout says. “The days of a single general-practice vet being the only one you’re going to need are getting lost. We as humans demand specialization, and pet owners are not different … We kind of want it both ways. We want the James Herriott style, but we want the state-of-the-art technology.”
With veterinary schools packed and graduates competing for jobs, Trout says, many will find that, to get a job, they’ll need to put a lid on their idealism and toe the corporate line: “You will work for us in the way we work— you will do this test, this test and this test,” Trout says.
He doesn’t think this bodes well for the profession.
“We’re losing that personalized touch, that one-on-one, that sort of relationship you get between a dog and a vet and an owner—that sort of love triangle that goes on through the animal’s lifetime.”
To many of us, the search for the veterinarian of our dreams involves a lot of the same considerations as our search for a mate: it’s largely, but not entirely, a matter of the heart.
We want someone we can trust.
We seek kindness, sensitivity and compassion. We avoid those with angry streaks, those who are unpredictable or who might just be after our money.
We value honesty, dependability and dedication, and we like someone who, while keeping up with the times, still has some good old-fashioned values.
We prefer them to be, if not tail-waggingly happy, at least pleased to see us come through the door.
We want a good communicator, who knows how to listen and isn’t distant or aloof—someone who, when he’s there, is actually there and when he’s not, is only a text or phone call away.
And once we have found them, we tend to never let them go—at least, not until we have to move to a new town and start all over again.
We don’t require our vet to like long walks on the beach at sunset, but we do appreciate one who will be there when needed—not to lecture, dictate or nag, but to be supportive and help us solve the problems that come up in life.
And, it goes without saying, they must love dogs.
Dog's Life: Humane
Colleges are welcoming second chance dogs.
September 24 2013
From a dog’s point of view, there may be no better place to spend some time than a college campus. Think about it: the grassy expanses, the flying Frisbees, the attentive humans and all the other opportunities that dogs, like students, have to bond, grow, absorb knowledge, find their passion or just lie in the shade.
It can just as easily be argued that there’s nothing better for college campuses, and more fitting with their mission, than dogs. Dogs can pave the way to healthy social connections. They can help calm frazzled nerves during final exams. They can serve as friends during bouts of homesickness. They tend to make an institutional setting a warmer, friendlier, more family-like place. And on top of all that, there are the volumes they can teach.
They require no salary. They don’t insist on tenure. Yet, without a degree, or even a pedigree, they can help us learn—maybe not computer science 101, but some fairly important things, like compassion and responsibility.
Why then—given the benefi ts to all involved—haven’t more doors opened to dogs at America’s universities? Blame the usual suspects: allergies, barking, poop, fear of lawsuits, fear in general and that rigid, play-it-safe thinking for which bureaucracies are famous.
Despite all the “Top 10 Pet-Friendly Campuses” lists you can find online— some of which include schools that permit little more than fish tanks in the dorm room—it appears that many institutes of higher learning still have a lot to learn when it comes to dogs.
The handful of schools that do let dogs live with students in dormitories commonly impose weight limits (something even the meanest of sororities have moved beyond), failing to realize that size in dogs, like size in people, has no bearing on either aggression or destructive tendencies. Most have breed restrictions, which are based not on academic research, but on insurance company guidelines. And for every school that does, conditionally, permit dogs in dormitories, you can find 100 more that don’t, though some are more intent on enforcing it than others.
In truth, the doors haven’t opened that widely for canines in college, despite dogs being exemplars of that most important attribute of all when it comes to learning: curiosity. Of those schools that are catching on to the magic of dogs, one—sorry, no Top 10 list here —leads the way, a private college in Missouri that not only permits students to have canine roommates (be they Chihuahuas or Great Danes), but pays them to do so.
Stephens College, in Columbia, Mo., provides $3,000 scholarships to students who agree to foster rescued dogs and cats. Between that program, the school’s 175 designated pet-friendly dorm rooms and free on-campus doggie day care, the small liberal arts school could easily make a case for being the nation’s dog-friendliest.
But that’s not the point. The point is that the influx of dogs, especially those for whom students are providing foster care in dormitories—assisting a canine’s transition to a new life while undergoing one of their own—has served not to just make the dogs better dogs and the students better humans, but the school, it could be argued, a better place. And therein may lie—or is it lay?— a lesson.
In the mid-1990s, a staff member at Stephens College suggested to the school president that students be allowed to bring their dogs with them when they came to school. The response, as she recalls, was, “Absolutely not! What are you thinking?”
A few years later, a new college president arrived on campus. Her name was Wendy Libby and, because the house she’d bought wasn’t ready, she lived that first summer in a school dormitory with her black Lab, Abby.
“Abby started the whole ball rolling,” said Deb Duren, who, sensing a change in the climate, made her suggestion again. This time it met with approval, and, in 2003, seven students brought pets on campus. Today, about two of every 10 students at the women’s college lives with a pet.
Duren, now vice president for student services and athletic director at the college, was no stranger to dogs, or to rescue work. In addition to being a volunteer herself, both of her daughters were involved in helping establish Second Chance, the rescue organization in Columbia through which the foster program is run. Both regularly brought foster animals home. Though her children are grown, Duren still has two rescues at home, a 14-year-old Chihuahua named Pixie, and a 12-year-old mutt named Hewy, after the Hewlett-Packard box he was found in.
Duren said that once the campus opened up to dogs, the foster program seemed a natural progression. “There were a lot of students who would have liked to have a pet but couldn’t bring one from home for lots of reasons,” she said. “They were willing to do foster work in the name of helping a new pet find a forever home, but also for the comfort and enjoyment of having a pet.”
With the school funding other forms of “community engagement” scholarships, adding the foster program wasn’t too big a hurdle.
Last school year, the foster program kicked off. The school set aside 10 double rooms in its dormitories for those taking part. Students in the program get a double room for the price of a single, and aren’t assigned roommates— at least, not human ones. They’re also spared the school’s pet deposit and have $3,000 lopped off their tuition.
In exchange, they agree to serve as foster parents for the full school year— to care for the pet, take it to adoption events and, once a dog or cat they’re caring for is adopted, to take in another one from Second Chance.
Second Chance, which has been rescuing dogs and cats for nearly three decades, gets about 70 percent of its animals from local “kill” shelters; about 30 percent come directly, as either strays or surrendered dogs. More than half have medical issues or traumatic pasts. Students in the program receive mandatory training on how to care for dogs, and Second Chance covers the costs of food, veterinary visits, collars, leashes, toys and medications.
“Students can devote the time,” said Valerie Chaffin, executive director of Columbia Second Chance. “They don’t have the pull on their time—the family or full-time job. Even a full-time college student is only in class a few hours a day. The animals [leave] them in great shape, and that’s kind of a plus for us.” In addition to the free dog day care center on campus, which is located in a dorm basement, students who are fostering pets can usually find someone to help out, often as easily as knocking on the next door.
Of the 10 students in the foster program last school year, only one pulled out, and that was because she left school. At the end of the last school year, nine students were on foster-pet scholarships, and five more Stephens students were serving as fosters without the scholarship program as an incentive. Between returning sophomores and new freshmen, college officials expect up to twice as many students will receive the scholarship in the coming school year.
The program was established primarily with freshmen in mind. Freshmen, according to Duren, tend to more smoothly make the transition to college, and do better academically, when they have a pet.
They also do better when they don’t have a job, and the scholarship helps some avoid that. With the school’s $25,000-plus tuition, the scholarship can help students who might be on the border financially. “It can make the difference between getting to come here and not getting to come here,” Duren said.
“The school really put its money where its mouth is,” said Second Chance director Chaffin. “They saw that the benefits of the program outweigh any other issues. They didn’t get bogged down like other universities with potential liability issues, whether [the dogs] will tear up furniture or pee on everything, and all those other things that are so small compared to the benefits that Stephens is obviously enjoying.”
You can take your cat to MIT. You can bring your snake to Eckerd College in South Florida, provided he’s less than six feet long and non-venomous. At Lees-McRae College in North Carolina, students can share their dorm rooms with fish, hamsters, gerbils, guinea pigs, birds, ferrets, cats and dogs, or at least dogs under 40 pounds.
Academia—though it hasn’t totally gotten there yet—is moving towards dog-friendliness, and for mostly sound reasons: students with pets tend to be good students.
“We recognize that students who are pet owners are generally responsible and caring individuals,” Barry M. Buxton, president of Lees-McRae, a Presbyterian college in North Carolina, said two years ago when the university designated its first pet-friendly rooms in Bentley Hall. “We want to encourage pet adoption and awareness that all creatures are sacred.” On top of that, it’s an effective marketing and recruitment tool, allowing a school to distinguish itself from the pack and portray itself as warm and welcoming—homelike, even.
“It’s definitely one of the upsides of being here,” said Cheyenne Smith, who will be a sophomore at Stephens this year. She planned on bringing her cat with her from Arizona when she started school last year, but she and her family decided that Stella Luna was too old to go along, and needed to stay near her vet.
Instead, Smith had a stream of foster cats, one after another, last year. That tended to keep her somewhat anchored to her room. “When I get a new one, I don’t like to leave them alone for a long time,” she explained. As a result, she said, she probably spent more time studying.
The college’s dog-friendly reputation was also seen as a plus by Briannica Ponder, a freshman last year who planned to bring one of her family’s two Miniature Schnauzers to school with her. After signing up for the foster program during an orientation, she opted not to.
“My mom is pretty attached to them and I didn’t want to separate her from them. Once I knew I was going to be fostering, I wanted to be able to give all of my love and attention to one dog.”
She had four roommates last year, starting with Phantom, a standard Poodle who stationed himself in her bed and didn’t want to get out; she had to train him to walk on a leash. Then came Lucille, a Basset Hound–German Shepherd mix who found a forever home after Ponder took her to an adoption event at Petco. After that, she took in a Beagle mix named Droplet.
In the entire school year, she was dogless only one week, said Ponder, who had some experience in rescue work before college, volunteering with her mother in St. Louis at Angel Acres.
As the school year came to a close, Ponder, 18, was serving as caretaker for Happy, a Miniature Schnauzer, just like the ones she left at home.
“All we have to do is give them some love and help them get adopted,” said Ponder, a theater major.
On top of all else she gets out of it, she said, “It’s a really good stress reliever. It’s really nice to be able to come back to your dorm and know someone is waiting for you and is happy to see you. It’s kind of like having a piece of home.”
“It changes how you view things,” she added. “When we have cast dinners, I may go for an hour, but I don’t stay that long. I want to see my dog more than I want to be out partying and stuff.”
She doesn’t see the additional responsibility as putting a crimp on her social life. To the contrary, she probably meets even more people because of the dogs. On campus, in addition to all the dog walkers, it’s not unusual to see cats being walked on leashes. There’s even a student who walks her miniature pig.
“With such a large number of pets here, it’s also a gateway to make friends,” Ponder said. “I don’t understand why more colleges don’t do it.”
Turning dog friendly may be more achievable at a small school, and operating and subsidizing a foster program may not be something every college wants to tackle, but at Stephens, where Duren has worked since 1984, the benefits have been huge, and the problems mostly minuscule.
“For us, it’s just a good fit in a lot of ways,” she said. “But it takes an administrative team that understands how animals can create a sense of community and is willing to take risks.”
Large universities are more like ocean liners; they can’t always react on the spur of the moment, or easily change course. “We’re a kayak,” she said, “so we can move more quickly and there’s not as much red tape to cut through.”
It also takes rules—there’s a whole book of them—and students who break them can receive demerits, for anything from unattended barking dogs to poop not picked up. A few times, when there have been violations of the latter, the administration called impromptu poop parties in which all students pitch in to clean up.
There are breed restrictions at Stephens. Students aren’t allowed to keep Pit Bulls, Rottweilers, German Shepherds, Chows or Akitas, or any mixes thereof. On the plus side, the school has done away with its size restriction, which only allowed dogs under 40 pounds. When left alone in a dorm room, dogs are required to be in crates or pens. Students also have the option of dropping off their dogs at the free dog day care facility.
Cognizant that not every student (or faculty member) is going to be a dog lover, the school also has pet-free dorms, and it doesn’t allow dogs and cats in classrooms or common areas, like lounges.
“There are people with allergies and students and faculty who aren’t that excited about pets,” Duren said. “We’ve all learned to coexist and be tolerant of others’ needs.”
Two dormitories have been designated as pet friendly: Searcy Hall, which is also known as Pet Central, and Prunty Hall, which houses the dog day care center. Of the school’s incoming students, about one of every four indicate they want to be in a pet-friendly residence hall.
The Second Chance dogs being fostered at Stephens visit other campuses, too, including nearby University of Missouri, one of an increasing number of schools across the country that are inviting pets on campus at final exam time to provide students with some stress relief. Students spend a few minutes petting and playing with dogs to ease tension, and the dogs gain from the encounters as well, getting some socialization, and sometimes getting adopted.
The Stephens foster dogs are sometimes involved in extracurricular activities as well. At least, that was the case with two near-feral Chihuahuas rescued by Second Chance. They both ended up being fostered by a student in the theater program.
When the school’s production of the play Legally Blonde opened near the end of last school year, one of the Chihuahuas played the role of Bruiser and the second served as understudy. Before each show, the audience was told that both dogs, and many others, were available for adoption.
“They did really well,” said Ponder, who was assigned to make sure the dogs didn’t run offstage. Once the play completed its run, the two Chihuahuas—star and understudy —were adopted.
News: Guest Posts
What makes a good vet?
September 7 2013
We want to know about the veterinarian of your dreams – whether you’ve found him or her, or not.
For an article in an upcoming issue of The Bark on how we choose a veterinarian, we’d like to know what – in your eyes -- are the most important factors.
If you’ve found the perfect vet, just what is it that makes him or her perfect? If you’re still seeking that person, just what exactly is it you’re looking for.?
As our dogs become more and more like family members, the choice of vet is a decision humans probably take more seriously than they did 50 years ago. Time was one’s choice of veterinarian was based in large part on proximity.
We’re guessing that has changed. Now we seek opinions from friends, question fellow denizens of the dog park, turn to online reviews, and perhaps even make some in-office visits, all in our quest for the perfect vet.
But what makes the perfect vet?
Is it where he or she went to school? Is it a friendly staff, reasonable rates? Is it how quickly you can make an appointment or how long you spend in the waiting room? Is it bedside manner, empathy, or compassion? Is it how clearly that vet can communicate? Whether they honor your pet insurance? Is it how the vet connects with you, how the vet connects with your dog, or both?
We want to know what is (or was) the single most important factor in your choice of veterinarian, and how you found the one (if you have) that you can’t imagine ever leaving.
Tell us about the veterinarian of your dreams by leaving a comment, preferably with your name attached, on The Bark’s blog, or on ohmidog!
Wellness: Healthy Living
When it comes to remedying diseases and disorders, dogs and people are in it together
April 5 2013
Call it a movement, a philosophy, a revelation or a revolution.
Call it “one medicine,” “one health” or “zoobiquity.”
Call it something new, or—given that the “aha” moment on which the concept is based came in the 19th century—call it something old that’s been remembered and repackaged amidst the growing awareness that solving the mysteries of animal diseases and disorders, from injured spinal cords to cancer, can lead to possibly curing our own.
Over at least the past five years, there has been a rekindled recognition of the species-spanning nature of diseases, and of the value of species-spanning research. About 75 percent of recently emerging infectious diseases that affect humans have their origins in animals, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
On a theoretical level, the concept of “zoobiquity,” a term coined in the 2012 book of the same name, suggests that, no matter our species, we’re all in this together, subject to most of the same infirmities, capable of passing a lot of them back and forth, and more likely to find cures and treatments if we look at the big picture—at the earth and all its creatures —as opposed to focusing solely on humans.
On a practical level, species-spanning thinking—referred to by various monikers—has led in recent years to veterinary schools reinventing themselves; to a heightened spirit of cooperation between doctors and veterinarians; to new sources of funding for research; and to the realization that, when it comes to diseases shared by humans and animals, the latter may provide a quicker and less expensive route to a cure for all.
Where do dogs fit in? Right at the top. No other animal—if not physiologically, at least in terms of sharing our genetic markers and our home environment—is as close to us.
That’s why Texas A&M veterinarians and University of California, San Francisco, medical researchers have teamed up to study spinal problems in Dachshunds and other dwarf breeds and to test a new drug that blocks secondary infections. The research, which is funded by the Department of Defense, has potential application to battlefield injuries
That’s why, in New York, veterinarians with the Animal Medical Center have joined forces with physicians and researchers at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center to set up trials in which electrical impulses are used to treat tumors of the urinary tract in canines, with an eye toward possible human application.
That’s why the Mayo Clinic has partnered with two veterinary schools, a medical school and a private corporation to study the effectiveness of a device aimed at predicting and controlling epileptic seizures in both dogs and humans. While traditionally, research into canine epilepsy has been funded primarily by the American Kennel Club’s Canine Health Foundation and breed clubs, the Mayo Clinic collaboration received a $7.5 million grant from the National Institutes of Health.
That’s why Tobi, a paralyzed Golden Retriever, is getting stem-cell treatments that may help him walk again as part of a clinical trial headed by Dr. Natasha Olby, veterinarian and neurologist at North Carolina State University’s (NCSU) College of Veterinary Medicine. The trial will involve as many as 30 dogs over three years.
And that’s why Peggy, a Chihuahua from Albuquerque who was born with three legs, is being outfitted with a “bionic” paw at NCSU. Implanting the prosthetic device, which will have electrodes that connect to her nerves, will allow her to run and scratch, and could add to the growing use of comparable technology in humans.
Similarities between dogs and humans, especially when it comes to genes, are also the basis for Dr. Matthew Breen’s research into the most common cancer in dogs, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, at NCSU’s College of Veterinary Medicine. Breen and fellow researchers have, with help from the canine genome map, developed a test that can accurately predict how long a dog treated with chemotherapy will remain in remission. In collaboration with the Mayo Clinic and others, they’re in the process of converting the canine test to a human one.
“If that happens, it will be big news,” says Breen, a geneticist and professor of genomics. Breen lost his first dog to cancer when he was 12 and, as an adult, played a role in the mapping of the canine genome—a game-changing achievement that helped place dogs front and center when it comes to health research.
“It’s likely that we will learn more about cancer by looking at what happens in our dogs over the next five to 10 years than we will in the next 20 to 30 of looking solely at cancer in people,” he predicts.
But the key, he emphasizes, is looking at both at the same time.
“If we consider dogs as dogs, we’ll be able to do so much. If we consider people as people, we’ll do so much. But if we consider them both as mammals, and look at what’s common between them, we will find some intriguing answers.”
The possibilities extend well beyond non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and well beyond cancer. Dogs, long our antidote for loneliness, may hold the most promise of all animals when it comes to solving medical mysteries and curing what ails us.
“The answer to some of nature’s puzzles about genetics and disease,” Breen says, “has been walking right beside us for the last few hundred years.”
In reality, we’ve been turning to dogs for thousands of years, sometimes quite cruelly, to try to solve our human ills: from the time of Aristotle, who conducted experiments on live animals, and the era of Galen, whose second-century experiments earned him the title “the father of vivisection,” to the period of Pavlov, whose 19th-century experiments included severing the esophagi of living dogs to better study their digestion and, as a sideline, bottling and selling their gastric juices to the public as a cure for dyspepsia.
Many of the medical treatments we now take for granted were either discovered through the use of dogs or tried on dogs first.
In England during the 1600s, the first administration of medication intravenously was accomplished in a dog, via tubes and a pouch made of an animal bladder. In the 1920s, experiments on dogs led to Frederick Banting’s discovery of insulin. Banting and fellow researcher Charles Best surgically stopped the flow of nourishment to a dog’s pancreas and, after it degenerated, removed it, sliced it up, froze the pieces then ground them up. They named the extract “isletin.” When it was injected into another dog in which they’d induced diabetes, the dog’s blood glucose level dropped.
In the 1960s—long before they were ever slipped into clogged human arteries—stents were inserted into those of dogs. When a ballooning version was developed in the 1980s, it too was first tested on dogs.
Currently, as humans wait to take full advantage of its purported promise, stem-cell therapy is becoming more common—though expensive, at around $2,500 per treatment—in treating dogs with arthritis, hip dysplasia and spinal-cord injuries. Removing, treating and reinjecting stem cells (and even differentiated cells) have led to some miraculous recoveries.
Dogs may have access to novel cures and treatments yet to be made widely available to humans, but there’s a trade-off. They are still, in a way, being used as guinea pigs. The difference is—compared to Pavlov’s day, compared to some of the unsavory experimentation on dogs that still goes on—they’re not healthy dogs, or dogs in whom diseases have been induced. Most often, they’re patients, sick dogs who have run out of alternatives and whose owners have enrolled them in clinical trials in hopes of, if not curing their own pet, furthering research that might help other dogs.
The canine cancer samples from around the country that end up in Breen’s lab come from willing donors, or at least willing owners, many of whom see contributing to such research as a way their dogs can leave a lasting mark.
“By providing that data point, it’s almost a legacy for their own dog,” Breen says. “Every dog we recruit, we ask the owner for a picture to put on our wall of honor. We have hundreds and hundreds of pictures of dogs. It helps ground people in the lab, and makes them realize what they’re dealing with is not just a piece of tissue but somebody’s beloved companion that needs to be treated with the same kind of respect.”
Under microscopes, Breen studies chromosomal changes within cancer cells, changes that have been shown to duplicate those that occur in humans. “If we look at what overlaps, it’s those shared genes that highlight the major drivers in the cancer process,” he says.
The aberration of particular chromosomes allows Breen to identify which therapies will offer maximum survival chances. In lymphoma cases, up to 90 percent of dogs respond to chemotherapy and go into remission, but only about half live longer than nine months. By looking at the genetic differences between the dogs who survive for short times and those who survive longer, Breen’s team has developed a test that determines how long a dog will stay in remission; this test will, it is hoped, eventually be available for use with humans.
Experts estimate that one in four dogs will develop cancer in their lifetime. About 50 percent of those over age 10 will die from it. The types, incidence and outcomes aren’t always identical to those in humans, but even in those differences, other clues and opportunities may be found.
Bone cancer, or osteosarcoma, for example, affects a whopping 60,000 dogs a year. In humans, there are only about 900 cases a year and, as a result, its research has never received the kind of funding awarded to work being done on more widespread cancers.
By looking at the disease itself, as opposed to its effect on a singular species, some less high-profile diseases (in humans) can get more attention, and progress can be made more quickly, Breen says.
“We ignore whether it’s in dogs or people, focus on the cancer and get to the biology faster.”
Down the road, such research might keep someone else from hearing those five fateful words Breen remembers hearing as a child, when his own Border Collie cross was stricken with cancer: “There’s nothing we can do.”
Rudolph Virchow, though he wasn’t credited for it in his lifetime, is considered the father of “one medicine.” The 19th-century pathologist coined the term “zoonosis” and created the field of comparative pathology.
“Between animal and human medicine there is no dividing line—nor should there be,” he said. “The object is different but the experience obtained constitutes the basis of all medicine.”
Two centuries later, a variety of factors breathed new life into his old idea. Recently identified zoonotic diseases, like swine and avian flus and West Nile virus, became major public health concerns. At the same time, dissatisfaction was mounting with research studies involving mice, primarily because their findings often weren’t transferable to humans. There was a growing recognition that all animals, both wild and domestic, serve—like the canaries once used in British mines—as sentries for environmental hazards.
Dogs, while at the forefront of much modern research, also played a large role in reviving the species-spanning way of thinking. On top of the tremendous diagnostic and research value it held for dogs, the successful completion of the canine genome map in 2005 showed how similar dog genes are to our own. It also reinforced how much more quickly canine health research can progress. Mapping the sequence of the canine genome cost about $50 million and took one year, while mapping the humane genome cost more than $3 billion over 15 years.
It was one year after that benchmark, in 2006, that the American Medical Association and the American Veterinary Medical Association issued a joint declaration encouraging more partnerships and information sharing between the two branches of medicine.
For far too long, doctors of human medicine and doctors of veterinary medicine—and researchers in the two fields—operated on separate planes. By coming together and sharing their findings, proponents of one medicine held, new opportunities could be realized and new cures, possibly, found.
To those involved with treating and researching animal diseases, the increased respect from those in the world of human medical research is palpable. Dr. Jorge A. Piedrahita, geneticist and professor in the Department of Molecular Biomedical Sciences at NCSU’s College of Veterinary Medicine, remembers a time when overtures from the veterinary medical community to the human one would result in “blank stares, as if they were thinking, What would we want with you?”
“The human medicine field in the past has looked at us [veterinary schools] as technicians,” he says. “They came to us if they needed a pig or a dog, but they never saw us as partners. Now we sit with them really as equals.”
Piedrahita serves as director of the Center for Comparative Medicine and Translational Research, which was created seven years ago. Based at NCSU, one of the first vet schools in the country to fully jump on the one-medicine bandwagon, the center includes 116 researchers at five colleges. The thinking behind the center, he says, is “if we help one species, we’re helping all of them.”
Since then, Piedrahita says, the road between veterinary practitioners and doctors has become much more of a two-way street. “There have been an amazing number of new interactions, and we’re still a very young center. It’s really becoming almost like a partnership.”
Doctors and vets are not the only two cultures the movement has brought closer together, he notes. It has also led to “increased sharing between clinicians, or those working with patients, and researchers, who are confined to labs.” The result, he says, is faster and more efficient research, capable of reaching solutions sooner.
Breen’s cancer research is one example of that. Another is a project Piedrahita is involved with in conjunction with Wake Forest University’s Center for Regenerative Medicine, which is seeking a solution to urinary incontinence.
While it’s a significant issue for women, especially elderly ones, one might not think that dogs—generally a less-prone-to-embarrassment species—would rank it too high, even the spayed ones, in which it is most common. Piedrahita is quick to correct that thinking.
“It’s a very big deal,” he says. “It’s the reason many of them end up in shelters, or being returned to shelters. For the dog, it may not be that big of a deal, but for the owner, it is.”
Throw in its human applications, and it becomes even bigger.
Using cells from the patient—for now, canine patients—the treatment involves reinjecting cells, usually taken from a leg muscle, into the urethral sphincter itself, where they regenerate and build new muscle. The project has received funding from the American Kennel Club’s Canine Health Foundation, and clinical trials involving as many as 40 dogs were expected to begin in January.
Of all the microscopic matters detected in a typical veterinary research lab, irony is not usually among them. But here’s one that has surfaced.
Among purebreds, breeding for certain traits, and to get a certain look—most often accomplished by using dogs who are closely related—has led to recessive disorders, more than those found in any other animal except humans.
It’s believed to be why Boxers are prone to mast-cell cancer and brain tumors, Scottish Terriers to bladder cancer, and Bernese Mountain Dogs to histiocytic sarcoma. It’s why one in five Golden Retrievers is diagnosed with hemangiosarcoma.
But the limited genetic diversity that has led to cancer-causing mutations in many purebreds is also what has led to dogs becoming such a valuable tool in studying disease. Breen compares it to tuning in a radio station. With the dog genome, there’s none of the noise and static from competing frequencies—just a clear signal.
Pointing fingers is useless, Breen says. “I don’t blame anybody.” But he’s among the first to admit that limiting the gene pool has made purebred dogs “a very powerful tool for simplifying genetics.”
With their “less noisy” genetic make-up, purebred dogs offer a speedier research route. It takes thousands of human patients with cancer to identify risk factors, he notes, but the same can be accomplished with as few as 100 canine patients.
In the book Zoobiquity: What Animals Can Teach Us about Health and the Science of Healing, Barbara Natterson-Horowitz, a cardiologist who consults with the Los Angeles Zoo, delves into the many sicknesses we share with animals. (Editor’s note: For a review of Zoobiquity, see the October 2012 issue of Bark.)
Co-authored by Kathryn Bowers, the book points out that not only humans get breast cancer, but kangaroos, beluga whales, wallabies and sea lions—to name a few—do as well. Rhinos get skin cancer; gorillas get depressed; horses suffer from erectile dysfunction; and sexually transmitted diseases plague the non-human world as well, from syphilis in rabbits to chlamydia in koalas.
By looking at the big picture, we’re likely to further our understanding of species-spanning diseases, of the planet and of the environmental factors that contribute to ill health. Two annual conferences on zoobiquity have urged medical practitioners to do just that.
In terms of the latter, dogs, once again, serve as prime examples and perfect models. They sleep in our beds, share our food, lie on our flame-retardant-treated couches and frolic on our insecticide-treated lawns. When we go for a walk, it’s usually with them at our sides or pulling us along behind them.
They may soon lead the way in science as well, as rodents take a back seat when it comes to research examining the role environmental factors, such as secondhand smoke and household chemicals, play in causing disease. While much of it was going on years before the AMA-AVMA declaration was announced or the term “zoobiquity” was coined, research involving dogs (and cats) is increasingly looking at the link between pollutants and cancer.
On top of the fact that the canine genome is 80 to 90 percent similar to that of the human, dogs are constantly at our sides, making them perfect candidates for studying not just cures but also, causes.
Since dogs are such accessible and efficient, not to mention friendly, models, the question arises (or at least ought to): should one health/one medicine/zoobiquity—and more particularly, the view of dogs and other animals as sources of solution to our own diseases—raise animal welfare concerns?
Despite their all-inclusive, holistic and harmonious sounding names, none of the calls for a species-spanning approach to medicine state that all animals are our equals, or that their value parallels that of humans. Only that they get many of the same diseases we do.
As cures come closer and as dogs are increasingly seen as the road to such cures, could our zeal lead to what animal-welfare advocates might see as reckless driving?
The book Zoobiquity points out that in virtually all of the examples it uses, animals involved in the research were already sick. When, on ABC’s “Nightline,” Natterson-Horowitz was asked if the concept could lead to testing on healthy animals—if the Hippocratic Oath of “do no harm” should apply, for instance, to hippos—she replied, “I can’t give you a simple answer, because it’s a very complicated, nuanced question.”
Breen, for his part, doesn’t hesitate. “We don’t induce cancers in dogs. The key issue about cancers, and many genetic diseases in our dogs, is that these are all spontaneous conditions … All the dogs in our study are part of a family, sharing their homes and their lives. The path to discovery involving cancer and our dogs is one we walk along side-by-side with the owners.
“We have access to state-of-the-art technologies to ask key questions, but these are worthless without the willingness of the dog-owning community to collaborate by submitting cancer specimens from their dogs. By building a strong relationship with pet owners, and realizing that their pets are like family members, like a child … it actually means the chances of ever inducing disease are less. I just can’t see it happening; it wouldn’t happen in my lab, let’s put it that way.”
Breen’s bigger fear, when comes to biomedical research, “is that all this will raise people’s hopes too high and too soon.”
That applies to the owners of afflicted pets as well as those who are afflicted themselves, or have human loved ones suffering from a disease. We’re eager to find cures. Dogs, being such perfect models for study, provide what may be one of the quickest routes to them. While a resurgence in the use of otherwise healthy dogs in intrusive experiments isn’t likely, the future (which seems to be getting here faster and faster) isn’t crystal clear.
This much is, however: fairly early in their domestication—and in what was perhaps one key component leading to it—dogs exhibited their ability to stand sentry, to serve humans by warding off dangerous, life-threatening intruders.
In a way, thousands of years later, they’re doing it again.
Culture: Stories & Lit
Can a quiz help you find true love?
October 23 2012
Go ahead, if you must. Go ahead and let a computer choose your travel route, your spouse, a custom-bundled insurance package or the right wine to have with dinner.
But don’t let a computer choose your dog. Please.
It’s become the way of the world to let apps, databases and websites — whether they were created by geniuses or boobs — make our decisions for us, or at least play a major role. Dogs shouldn’t be ordered via a computer and, in my view, they shouldn’t be chosen based exclusively on what an algorithm decides is “the best breed for you.” Unlike a Dalmatian, the factors involved aren’t black and white, and generalizations can be dangerous. Dependable and all knowing as it is, your computer device of choice can mess things up, sometimes even without your help.
I admit that I’m biased: I favor mutts over purebreds. I think that, as often as possible, people should get a dog who needs a home (and there are millions) as opposed to one a breeder brings into the world to make some money. And, when it comes to computers, I think that, convenient as they are, they’re making us overly dependent. We tend to let them take over work that should be done by our brains and, sometimes, by our hearts.
Given all this — and my belief that a dog should be chosen primarily by the heart, with a limited assist from the brain — you can see why I might have a problem with “breed selectors.” These little quizzes, in which your answers to a series of questions lead to a selection of breeds that “best fit your lifestyle” have popped up all over the Internet — not just on dog blogs, but on the websites of major magazines (like Good Housekeeping) and television networks (like Animal Planet). Many companies that make dog food, dog toys and dog supplies also feature them on their websites.
They all, it seems, want you to have the breed that is “best” for you, which is very thoughtful of them. But there’s another dimmer, and more cynical, view of breed selectors: Mine.
Breed selectors are based on stereotypes. They reinforce purebred snobbism. They make tough decisions too easy, too distant and too instant. And they are time-eaters, which perhaps is their real purpose: to keep you on those websites a little longer. Answer five questions, click. Answer five more, click. Just a few more questions … click… and your answers get churned in with the existing data they’ve assembled, which may or may not be accurate. In a matter of seconds, or even nanoseconds, you discover what a database has decided is your breed of choice. What could be easier?
I took five such tests, offered by five different websites. Thanks to “breed selectors,” I now know that the dog for me is a Doberman Pinscher … or a Mastiff … or a Bichon Frise … or a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel … or a Whippet … or a Bernese Mountain Dog … or an Akita.
I’m not really looking for a dog. I’m fortunate to have one, adopted from a shelter in Baltimore, who’s four dogs in one: a mix (or so repeated DNA testing has shown) of Rottweiler, Akita, Chow Chow and Pit Bull. All four are breeds of ill repute, mostly undeserved. All are sometimes said, generally by people who don’t know much, to be unpredictable, or nippers, or aggressive, or stone-cold killers.
To be honest, had I been selecting a dog by breed, I likely wouldn’t have sought out one of those four. But I wasn’t looking for a dog at all. Instead, I accidentally fell in love while visiting an animal shelter for another purpose. I ended up with the world’s most perfect, loving, friendly, sensitive dog — gentle enough to serve as a therapy dog, as lazy as I am and proof that either those breed stereotypes are way off base or that mixing breeds, if not the answer to world peace, can have some highly positive outcomes.
Why I fell in love with him is another question, one I don’t think computers can answer, and maybe I can’t either. Likely it had to do with the place I was in at the time; the hope I saw in his eyes; and a personality that seemed something like mine, only better. He was quiet, stoic, patient, curious and a fast learner. He’s seven now, and as much as he would probably like some company — ideally, it seems, a cat — my current living conditions aren’t right for a second pet.
So, while I had no business using “breed selectors,” I decided, given their prevalence and my curiosity, to check them out. I started off at Dogtime.com, which turned out to be the best of the bunch. As with the other breed-selecting machines, I listed my genuine preferences — big dogs, smart dogs, friendly dogs — and made it clear that companionship was my priority and protection wasn’t an issue, and that I’d prefer a dog with a moderate energy level — something just slightly above couch potato.
The Dogtime selector has many disclaimers, and rightfully so. Also, unlike the rest I tried out, it makes a point of at least suggesting a mutt. “In searching for the right dog, we encourage you to look beyond a breed to consider the dog himself,” the website says. “Personality is the most important indicator of what it will be like to live with a dog, and a mutt has it in spades.” I proceeded to answer the five pages of questions they threw at me. My results came in this order: Anatolian Shepherd, Doberman Pinscher, German Pinscher, Mastiff and Neapolitan Mastiff.
Though I had expressly stated that “protection” was neither a concern nor a need, most of those breeds are noted for their guarding abilities and intimidating looks. This would turn out to be a common thread; all the breed selectors seemed to assume that if you are looking for a large dog, you need or want a bodyguard when, in reality, some of us just prefer big, goofy lugs who step on our feet and get in the way.
After the Dogtime test, I stumbled over to Good Housekeeping’s website and took its quiz — just two pages. I expressed all the same wants and priorities: a large dog, highly sociable, intelligent, moderately active, and content to be couch potato at night. Its advice? A Bichon Frise: “A cuddly lapdog like the Bichon Frise is your perfect match. Affectionate, charming, and gentle, the Bichon Frise loves everyone and is happiest when part of a family that takes him everywhere. They’re great with children and will get along with other pets. The happy temperament of a Bichon Frise makes him extremely easy and pleasant to live with.”
For a second, given the disparity in breeds offered by the first two sites — at least in terms of the size of dogs recommended — I pondered whether I might be schizophrenic. I pondered whether a Bichon Frise might make a good wife. I pondered whether size really matters, given that there seems to be a big dog inside every little dog, and a little dog inside every big dog. I pondered, briefly, whether or not a Mastiff-Bichon Frise mix, if functionally possible, might be best for me.
Confused, I headed over to the Purina Dog Breed Selector, where the first questions that popped up were how much I wanted to spend (as little as possible, I answered) and how much I was willing to commit to my dog food budget (same answer). I answered 16 questions that were intended, I guess, to reveal some things about me. By the time I was done, only two choices were offered: Cavalier King Charles Spaniel and Whippet.
Then a list of questions came up related to what I sought in a dog. Again I stuck with the same basic responses: a dog who was large, smart, friendly, etc. When I clicked for results, I got zero choices, so I refreshed the page and did it all again. This time I got 117 choices. Perhaps it was a computer error, perhaps it was my own. Sometimes my paws seem too big for the keyboard; sometimes, when trying to put a little check in a little box, I misclick.
Animal Planet’s breed selector only asked me 10 questions, one at a time. What’s interesting about this one is that, as soon as you answer a question, some of your choices disappear, so you can tell what it is about yourself that disqualifies you as an owner of that breed. After the first few questions, the dogs on my list were Akita, Bull Mastiff, Tibetan Mastiff and Bernese Mountain Dog.
When I specified a smart and “very trainable” dog, the Bull Mastiff disappeared. When I said I needed the dog to provide “little or no protection,” the Tibetan Mastiff disappeared. When I told Animal Planet that I lived in a climate that was warm in the summer and cold in the winter (aren’t most?), the Akita disappeared, leaving me with the Bernese Mountain Dog: “It is a sturdy, large, hardy dog capable of both draft and droving work. This requires a combination of strength, speed and agility.” I’m not planning to do any drafting or, for that matter, any droving — and (while I do love Bernese Mountain Dogs) the Animal Planet test wasn’t one of the more impressive.
At that point, not one of the four breed selectors I tried had suggested the Newfoundland, my favorite when it comes to purebreds.
I stopped by the American Kennel Club website to see what advice it offered. While it is perhaps the most breed-focused organization in the world, the AKC doesn’t offer a breed-selector test. Instead, its website supplies potential dog buyers with general information about factors to consider when choosing a breed: temperament, size, gender, age, coat/ grooming needs and health. Genetic problems are common in some breeds, it noted, just above a link to some pet health insurance it recommended.
My final stop was puppyfinder.com. Once again, I specified a large dog, in this case choosing the “over 90 pounds” option. I ranked temperament as most important, and answered that getting along with other dogs, children and strangers were the highest priorities and protection was the lowest. This time, the top result was Newfoundland, followed by Irish Wolfhound, Saint Bernard, Scottish Deerhound and Great Dane.
As with most of the tests, puppyfinder.com made no mention of mixed breeds, which, as a group, are America’s most popular dogs. Few, if any, of the quizzes delve into whether a test-taker was ready to make the commitment to caring for a dog. Most websites seem more concerned with helping you find a dog who “fits into your lifestyle” than if your lifestyle fits having a dog. Though all of the breed-selection tests seem to have great respect for your “lifestyle,” few of them point out that adding a dog to the family is going to give that “lifestyle” a good shaking up.
All that said, I don’t find breed selectors totally despicable. While they do oversimplify and while I do question the accuracy of some of their data and the results they offered, the quizzes provide humans with some knowledge, and humans can always use more knowledge. Used to supplement the decision-making process, as a starting point or to affirm a choice we’ve otherwise researched, they can be helpful.
However, relied upon exclusively, they turn what should be a matter mostly of the heart into a matter solely of the head, a decision we can reach from afar by coldly calculating a breed’s various features — checking little boxes to specify the amount of drooling and shedding we can tolerate, and maybe even finding a coat color that fits in with our décor.
Shouldn’t a personal connection be part of the decision? Shouldn’t love conquer all? You’re getting a dog, after all, not a cappuccino machine. We don’t choose our friends, at least our non-Facebook ones, that way. We don’t examine their specifications, or befriend them based on their energy levels, how much food they eat, or whether, when threatened, they will attack on our behalf or hide under the coffee table.
Proponents of using such computerized tests to match dog to human say it will lead to better relationships and result in fewer dogs ending up abandoned or in shelters. But I’d question how many of those situations are the result of breed-specific traits and behavior, as opposed to owners who either weren’t ready for a dog in the first place or who, placing their “lifestyle” above all else, were unwilling to invest the necessary time.
Others will point out, hey, computer matchmaking works, at least sometimes, for human relationships; why not for dogs? As with human-matchmaking websites, the breed selectors allow you to cast the widest net possible, specify what you’re looking for and what you’re willing to put up with, and click your way to true love. Website ads point out that every day, increasing numbers of people are coming together that way — something like one in five marriages, according to some studies, are couples who met online.
But there’s a difference. Those people, after confirming they both like long walks on the beach at sunset, generally meet before they permanently shack up together. They spend some time confirming, face to face, that what the database suggests might be love, really is. Not so with dogs. They become instant household members. And to think that your computer-determined love for the Golden Retriever breed means you are going to love each and every Golden Retriever is wrong, not to mention an insult to the remarkable individuality of dogs.
Until the day comes when breeders manage to make every dog of a certain breed exactly the same in every way (and I hope they don’t), matching human to dog breed remains a gimmick. Humans usually fall for gimmicks.
My prediction? Expect dog-to-human matchmaking to become even more popular, and go even more the way of human-to-human matchmaking — with more emphasis on pairing up similar personalities. Human-to-human matchmaking sites are mostly based on our desire to hook up with someone, preferably, a slightly younger version of ourselves.
Indications are that’s the direction doggie matchmaking is headed as well — matching humans not with an individual dog, but with the breed that supposedly best ref lects themselves. People are drawn to breeds that mirror their own personalities, according to research by psychologists, including a recent study by scientists at the UK’s Bath Spa University, with assistance from the Kennel Club. The findings, not yet peer-reviewed, were presented at the British Psychological Society’s annual conference in London in April 2012.
Here are some examples of what they found: Outgoing types lean toward Collies, Sheepdogs, Bulldogs, Heelers and Corgis. Highly agreeable sorts have a preference for Spaniels, Retrievers, Setters, Pointers and Weimaraners. Conscientious people go for Dalmatians, Poodles, Schnauzers, Chow Chows and Boston Terriers. Laid-back folks gravitate toward Rhodesian Ridgebacks, Foxhounds, Beagles, Dachshunds and Greyhounds.
The study — in which 1,000 dog owners took part — was based on questionnaires measuring five personality traits: openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness and anxiety. The conclusion? “We go for dogs [who] are a bit like us, just as we go for a romantic partner who is a bit like us,” says Bath Spa University study researcher Lance Workman. While “lifestyle” is a big factor in the breed people choose, he adds, “it seems likely that personality types are subconsciously drawn to certain breeds.”
Workman says fewer dogs might end up in shelters if prospective dog owners first took a test that measured both their personality type as well as practical, lifestyle-based concerns, such as the size of their homes. “You would type in these answers, and it would expand the 50 questions we’ve got to go into lifestyle, and it would say, ‘This is the dog for you,’” Workman concludes.
We must disagree (disagreeability being one of our personality traits). The traits and characteristics of breeds just aren’t that predictable. Your Great Dane won’t always be in the way (just most of the time); your Border Collie won’t always be a genius, your Weimaraner won’t always come around to your point of view.
What these selectors, quizzes and even scientists seem to fail to realize is that dogs are individuals, and even those bred to possess certain traits are not assembly-line creations with identical personalities. Each is unique, and guess what? There’s a soul in there; of that I’m pretty sure.
As for me, when the time comes to get another dog — no matter how advanced technology has become by then — I’m not going to let a computer, or website, or database decide what is the best dog for me. I’m not going to let a book, a magazine or a scientist decide what is the best dog for me. The best dog for me will be decided by me.
Dog's Life: Humane
Can dog-breeding practices be changed?
September 26 2011
As a cynical outsider might snobbishly see it, Americans have the attention span of an Irish Setter, the intellectual curiosity of an Afghan Hound, the turf-guarding ferocity of a German Shepherd and the hungry greed of a Labrador Retriever. Count up all the beings besmirched by those insults — the dogs, the Americans and perhaps most of all, the Americans who breed those dogs — and you’d have the makings of an army, and an angry one at that. But consider the possibility that, while grossly stereotyping, it contains some underlying kernels of truth, at least when it comes to human foibles. That might give you a better understanding of why the issue of genetic health problems in purebreds caused by inbreeding has never led to more than ripples on the pond of public consciousness in the U.S.
In 2008, the documentary “Pedigree Dogs Exposed” aired on BBC, showcasing the devastating health problems that have resulted from breeding closely related purebred dogs in the United Kingdom. Along with an accompanying push by animal welfare organizations, it prompted a wave of changes and led to re-examination of the appearance-above-all value system many dog fanciers, breeders and kennel clubs have long held dear.
Meanwhile, in the U.S., hundreds of genetic disorders afflict an estimated five million purebred dogs, resulting in close to $1 billion a year in veterinary expenses and incalculable amounts of pain to dogs and their owners. Here, outside of kennel club and breed club circles, the issue has rated little more than a blip on the dog lover’s radar screen, sometimes rising to the forefront, but rarely staying there.
In an attempt to import the debate to U.S. shores — or, in the view of some suspicious breeders, to fire “the first salvo” in an attack on the purebred dog-breeding industry — the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) convened “The Purebred Paradox” earlier this year. The April conference featured many of the same players who brought the issue out of the shadows and onto center stage in Great Britain. It wasn’t hugely attended, or hugely reported on. Nonetheless, the two-day conference at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., led to some serious and, despite the sensitivities involved, even civil discussions of purebred health issues. From the hazards of limiting and closing gene pools to the folly of turning breeds into caricatures of themselves, with exaggerated features that often make their lives miserable and their births difficult: many of the hard topics were on the table.
“It’s extraordinary that we should have bred animals that the only way they can be born is through C-section,” Sir Patrick Bateson said in the conference’s keynote address. Bateson served as chairman of the independent review of dog-breeding practices in the UK that came about in the wake of “Pedigree Dogs Exposed.”
Bateson, emeritus professor of ethology at Cambridge University and president of the Zoological Society of London, was referring to the “brachycephalic” breeds — English Bulldogs and others with wide heads and shortened snouts, many of whom can’t be born naturally and go through life with breathing problems. In the UK, he said, nine of 10 Boston Terrier births require Cesareans.
In his talk, Bateson suggested the inauguration of a public education campaign and better policing of unscrupulous breeders in America. He took pains to point out — as did several other speakers — that he wasn’t proposing people should no longer breed dogs, only that the industry, and dogs, could benefit from increased regulation.
“We have to realize that human breeders are as different from each other as dogs are from each other,” he noted. “Many breeders care enormously about the science and care about their animals. Some don’t know about the science but do care about the animals. And some neither know nor care. There are all types.”
Topics at the conference, co-sponsored by the Humane Society Institute for Science and Policy, the University of Pennsylvania Center for the Interaction of Animals and Society, and the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA), covered a range of canine health issues, from puppy mills to the evolution of dogs as household pets. But most of its focus was on the prevalence of genetic disorders and diseases that have come to afflict certain breeds.
There are Cavalier King Charles Spaniels whose brains outgrow their tiny skulls. Dachshunds, due in part to breeders’ focus on elongating them, are now prone to back problems. Great Danes, in the process of being made greater, have developed weak hearts and joint problems. English Bulldogs have trouble breathing and are prone to heat stroke. Collies suffer from genetic eye trouble. Shar-Peis suffer from congenital skin and eye problems. Dalmatians — 100 percent of those registered with the AKC — carry a gene mutation that can lead to bladder stones.
The list, unfortunately, goes on. Recessive genes are the main culprit, but as it has throughout the history of turning wolves into hundreds of different dog breeds, human whimsy plays a role as well.
Breeding close relatives, over-reliance on a single sire, shrinking gene pools and closed registries are some of the sources of the problems. They are fueled by a somewhat outdated emphasis on “purity”; breed standards and their interpretation by dog show judges; and the tendency of breeders — often in response to perceived public demand — to exaggerate a breed’s characteristics, making the small smaller, the big bigger and the wrinkly wrinklier.
To some, what has transpired — even if there’s no clear villain, even though it’s subtle, even though it has been stretched out (Dachshund-like) over time — is tantamount to abuse.
Perhaps the biggest dog-welfare issue in America is the reckless breeding of purebred dogs, which produces an incredible laundry list of inherited disorders, congenital health problems and welfare concerns for the animals,” Wayne Pacelle, HSUS president and CEO wrote in his blog just before the conference began.
Jemima Harrison, producer of “Pedigree Dogs Exposed” and one of the conference’s featured speakers, doesn’t see eye to eye with Pacelle, or the HSUS, on many points, but she agrees on that one.
In an interview, Harrison said, “It’s not as obvious an abuse as someone taking an iron bar and smashing a dog’s head in, or raising it in a puppy mill, but I do think it’s abuse nonetheless. The iron bar is more obvious, but I think it’s a slower, more insidious abuse to breed a dog knowing that you are condemning it to a lifelong painful problem.”
Subtlety was not the path Harrison chose for her documentary. She admits that “Pedigree Dogs Exposed” was “a bit of a sledgehammer.” She purposely chose to feature the most powerful and, as in the case of the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, most heart wrenching cases in the documentary.
Cavaliers are prone to syringomyelia, a condition in which fluid-filled cavities occur within the spinal cord near the brain. In severe cases, a dog’s brain swells beyond the space provided by its skull, leaving no options but pain, euthanasia or risky surgery in which the skull is opened to give the brain some room. Some studies have indicated that, due to its prevalence in the breed’s gene pool, 30 to 70 percent of Cavaliers will develop the condition.
In reality, the condition is not the most common genetic ailment of Cavaliers, but it is the most painful, and the most painful to watch. Harrison makes no secret of the fact that, aware as she was of other exposés over the years that didn’t lead to sustained interest or significant change; she was wanted to make an impact.
She succeeded, due perhaps to the documentary’s powerful images or the compelling evidence it presented. Maybe video gets through to us more effectively than the written word. Or maybe it aired at the right place at the right time.
“I think it worked because we were on prime-time television, on BBC One, the top channel,” she said. “Some people said it was sensationalized and belabored the point, but I think people recognized the essential truth of it.”
The Kennel Club in Britain initially discounted much of what Harrison reported. But after a private panel upheld nearly all of the documentary’s findings and organizations like the RSPCA and the Dogs Trust got behind the cause, a few small steps were made; since then, in increments, more have been taken.
Britain’s Kennel Club has banned the registration of puppies from closely related parents (such as fathers and daughters) and many breed standards, which describe what an ideal specimen of the breed should be, have been revised so to emphasize health and soundness more than appearance. Some extreme physical features that were once rewarded in the show ring are now penalized.
The new Pekingese standard, Harrison noted in an interview, specifies that a “muzzle must be evident.” Despite resistance from some breed groups to the rewritten standards, she said, “it was decided the Pekingese ought to have a bit of face in order to be able to breathe.” Harrison says the Kennel Club has introduced an unprecedented number of measures aimed at improving purebred health and welfare. “There is a welcome change of tone in the world of pedigree dogs and some real evidence at Crufts this year that judges were rewarding more moderate dogs (although very clearly not in every breed),” she noted on her continuing blog, which is also called Pedigree Dogs Exposed.
Therein could be another clue as to why the issue has stayed alive in the UK. Most journalists, documentary makers and book writers, after taking on an issue, leave it behind and move on. Harrison has remained on top of it, to the point of being commissioned by the BBC to make a follow-up film assessing the progress that has been made since the first one aired.
For multiple reasons, after the wakeup call Harrison issued, the public didn’t roll over and go back to sleep. But as she notes, hers was hardly the first warning about the dangers of inbreeding: “I looked back at who had tried to raise the alarm on purebred dogs, and we found people trying to do that going back as far as 1962, and even way beyond that — in Roman times.”
In the U.S., it has happened somewhat regularly since 1990.
That year, an article by Mark Derr came out in The Atlantic. The cover of the magazine featured a yellow Lab with a mouthful of cash. The piece was titled, “The Politics of Dogs: How greed and AKC policies are endangering the health and quality of American dogs.”
Derr’s 1997 book, Dog’s Best Friend, probed even more deeply into American dog culture and the dangers of inbreeding. In his conclusion, he notes, “In essence, the inbreeding of animals for appearance alone and the mass production of puppies to feed consumer demand have led to an epidemic of genetic disorders, and the loss of temperamental soundness and working ability in most purebred dogs recognized by the AKC.”
The prevalence of health problems in purebreds made the cover of Time magazine in 2001, in an article written by Michael Lemonick, titled, “A Terrible Beauty.”
“The appalling truth,” it said, “is that as many as 25 percent of the 20 million purebred dogs in America — one in four animals — are afflicted with a serious genetic problem. German Shepherds, for example, run an even higher risk of hip dysplasia than do Golden Retrievers. Labrador Retrievers are prone to dwarfing … Newfoundlands can drop dead from cardiac arrests. Chinese Shar-Peis, the wrinkly dogs that don’t seem to fit into their skin, have congenital skin disorders.”
In 2003, Consumer Reports concluded, “The demand for ever-moreperfect purebred dogs has concentrated bad recessive genes and turned many pets into medical nightmares.” And in 2010, All Animals, an HSUS publication, produced a comprehensive report on the genetic health problems of purebreds, “The Purebred Paradox: Is the quest for the ‘perfect’ dog driving a genetic health crisis?”
Given that media coverage, you’d think the issue would at least be up there with dog-fighting. But, among the general dog-loving populace, it doesn’t seem to have secured a hold. That’s not to imply that no one is doing anything. Scientists are studying it, respectable breeders are trying to stay on top of it and some breed groups have made it a priority. The American Kennel Club has funneled millions of dollars to research projects.
Yet, some still say the response pales in comparison to the problem, and that, on top of research, some reinvention may be called for — of dog shows, of our ideas surrounding the “purity” of purebreds, and even of the venerable American Kennel Club.
The AKC sent no official representative to the April conference, though two people who had served on AKC boards or advisory panels attended. Traditionally, the organization has sidestepped most media inquiries on the topic. (AKC officials declined requests for interviews for this story, providing instead a copy of its “Canine Health Fact Sheet.”)
“Both in Europe and here, kennel clubs are doing a very fine job of putting their heads in the sand over this and hoping, if they keep a low profile, people will ignore it,” James Serpell, director of the Center for the Interaction of Animals and Society based at the University of Pennsylvania, said in an interview before the conference.
Serpell, who helped coordinate the event, said the AKC declined invitations. “Considering the goal of the conference, it’s really rather shortsighted,” he said in an interview. “The conference is not about banning pedigreed dogs, as some extreme blogs are suggesting, but ways of improving the situation, which is causing a lot of animal suffering and a lot of owner suffering as well. When you in good faith buy a puppy that becomes ill down the road, that’s a terrible experience. It is shattering, emotionally gut-wrenching and enormously expensive.”
The nonprofit American Kennel Club, founded in 1884, has among its core values to “protect the health and well-being of all dogs” and “advance canine health.” It notes that since its founding in 1995, the AKC Canine Health Foundation has provided $25 million to more than 560 research projects at 75 vet schools and research institutes worldwide to improve the health of all dogs. It has also, in conjunction with the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals, established the Canine Health Information Center to encourage health testing by breeders and improve breeding programs.
But it’s the steps not taken and the traditions unchanged that concern those who see the organization as contributing to the problem even as it contributes to research.
What more could it be doing? Critics say the AKC could mandate health testing, rather than encourage it; work with breed clubs to establish standards that emphasize health and vitality; impose restrictions on inbreeding, prohibiting the mating of immediate relatives; and, anathema as the idea may be to some, consider permitting “crossbreeding,” or mating purebreds with dogs outside the breed, to broaden the gene pool and improve health.
On top of that, some suggest fundamental changes in dog shows, transforming them from “beauty contests” to more performance-based events that honor the various breeds’ disappearing working heritage. At such shows, dogs who exhibit extreme physical characteristics would be penalized rather than rewarded. And dogs who are paying for their “look” by living lives of discomfort — as was apparently the case in the UK with the 2003 Crufts champion, a Pekingese who had to be photographed sitting on ice blocks because he was so prone to overheating — should have no place in them.
The view that AKC policies are adding to the problem of genetic health issues in purebreds has kept some breed clubs from pursuing AKC recognition. The Jack Russell Terrier Club of America is one of them. Jack Russell Terriers are not one of AKC’s 173 recognized breeds, and the club doesn’t want them to be.
The club is “emphatically opposed to recognition of the Jack Russell Terrier by any kennel club or all-breed registry,” according to its website. “Recognition, it is believed, will be detrimental to the preservation of the Jack Russell as the sound, intelligent strain of working terrier it has been for more than 100 years … Inbreeding and breeding for the show ring will change the physical and mental structure of the dog. It will lose its purpose and its original character, as well as its mental and physical soundness, and will become something entirely different … whatever suits the whim of those controlling that variant of the terrier.”
The association prohibits the breeding of father to daughter, mother to son, and brother to sister because of the genetic health problems that can arise. And unlike the AKC-approved standard for the similar Parson Russell Terrier, its standards for the Jack Russell afford a great amount of leeway in appearance.
There is no “ideal,” the website says. “The ‘ideal’ is what suits their owner for what they want/need to do with their terrier. That is the uniqueness of this diverse terrier. The diversity … is what makes the Jack Russell Terrier suitable for a variety of working and performance abilities — in contrast with the narrow, cosmetic breed standards of many show breeds.”
One of the most black-and-white examples of what a closed registry can lead to can be found in the Dalmatian.
Registries, or stud books, are traditionally closed by the AKC once a dog breed is officially recognized, or shortly thereafter. That means no new stock enters the line and the gene pool is closed. By definition, every new AKCregistered member of that breed who is born is related to an existing member.
Because mutated genes can be recessive, or skip a generation — physical signs don’t always show up and tests have only recently been developed to detect them — dogs carrying a gene mutation can unknowingly be bred, and commonly have been, spreading the disorder further. Over time, that can lead to mutated genes being passed through the population to the point that a majority of a breed’s registered members are affected.
All AKC Dalmatians now carry a version of a mutated gene that predisposes them to bladder stones, known as “urate stones,” which are sometimes treatable, sometimes fatal.
In 1973, Robert Schaible, PhD, a geneticist and breeder of Dalmatians, saw a solution to the problem. He crossed a Dalmatian with a Pointer, a similar and closely related breed, and produced offspring that, though their spots were initially less defined, looked like Dalmatians and carried the normal gene for uric acid production.
The offspring and their descendants were backcrossed to purebred Dalmatians for many generations, resulting in dogs who, some insist, are now indistinguishable from purebred Dalmatians. But are they purebred Dalmatians?
For more than three decades, that point has been argued. In 1981, four generations after the backcross, the Dalmatian Club of America’s board of directors sought and was granted AKC registration for two descendants of Schaible’s project, known as Low Uric Acid Dalmatians. When the club’s membership found out, there was an uproar, and the AKC refused to register any offspring that contained Pointer blood.
In 2006, and again in 2008, the club’s membership voted against registering the dogs.
Meanwhile, Dr. Schaible has continued breeding Low Uric Acid, or LUA, Dalmatians (luadalmatians.com), who are accepted for registration by the United Kennel Club and, as of last year, were recognized as purebreds by the Kennel Club in Britain. The AKC has yet to officially accept them, but the AKC’s Health & Welfare Advisory Committee, in a report, concluded it should.
“Because the introduction of the low uric acid dogs into the AKC registry gives Dalmatian breeders a scientifically sound method of voluntarily reducing the incidence of the condition, this committee strongly recommends some controlled program of acceptance of these dogs. Where the strict health and welfare of the breed is the over-riding concern, no other argument can be made.”
Within the Dalmatian Club of America, an intense debate continues. “Allow us to produce Dalmatians that can ingest levels of protein considered optimal for the species. Allow us to breed Dalmatians that can live normal healthy lives in the average pet household employing normal husbandry practices for pet dogs,” concluded a report representing those in favor of bringing LUA Dalmatians into the ranks. “The club suffered from bad PR [public relations] in the past over deafness and temperament issues. We believe that if the public learns we actually voted to deny acceptance of Dals with a gene which corrects such a well-known, serious defect in the breed, the club will be irreparably tarnished — and rightly so.”
A paper representing the other side argues that the extent of the disorder is not fully known, it can often be addressed with new drug therapies and it hasn’t been proven that introducing LUA Dalmatians will totally solve the problem. “Dogs have 99 percent of their genes in common. … It’s the remaining 1 percent of the canine genome that separates them into distinctly different breeds,” the report reads. “That is not a little matter to someone who dedicates a big part of their life to preserving and caring for a particular breed. What appears as a miniscule fraction of the canine genome is a huge percentage of what distinguishes our breed from others. As protectors of our breed, it is our duty to guard those factors that make a Dalmatian a Dalmatian, and with facts, not unproven theories.”
In a way, the purebred dilemma goes to the very core of our thinking about dogs, and the generally accepted view that man has dominion over them. We shaped them, based at first on the work we wanted them to do. We placed them in neat categories and then took steps to keep those categories pure. Some see that pursuit as arbitrary and anachronistic; some see it as honorable. But rare is the person who doesn’t see the amazing diversity of breeds that resulted as worth preserving, treasuring and fighting for.
While the genetic health problems of purebreds may not be a high-profile issue for the general public, it is among breeders and the scores of breed clubs. To many of their members, organizations like HSUS have no place in the debate. Whatever agreement may exist in terms of a common cause — healthy animals — is undermined in America by a lack of trust among many of those who breed dogs and some animal welfare organizations.
Many breeders see HSUS as intent on bringing a halt to dog breeding, if not pet ownership. That point of view is based on actions HSUS has taken against large-scale and neglectful breeders and the organization’s stance when it comes to puppy mills, spaying and neutering, and the sales of dogs in stores. Those who accuse HSUS of having a hidden agenda also point to a statement attributed to HSUS President Pacelle.
“We have no problem with the extinction of domestic animals. They are creations of human selective breeding,” he was quoted as saying 14 years ago, before he joined the organization. Pacelle says he was misquoted, and that the remark was taken out of context. (He was talking about cattle.)
The “Purebred Paradox” conference ended with a call to bridge the rift between those who breed dogs and those who identify themselves as members of animal welfare organizations.
“We are going to have to heal that fissure before we can heal the dogs that we all know and love,” said the final speaker, Stephen L. Zawistowski, science advisor of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
His comment had a shallow ring to Sharyn Hutchens, legislative liaison for the Virginia Federation of Dog Clubs and Breeders, who blogged about the conference, which was attended by only a handful of breeders.
She called his remarks “inspiring and reasonable and, sadly, totally unrealistic considering that if the goals of the AR [animal rights] world were achieved, there would be no more breeding. But it sounded real nice and if you didn’t know the history of the disagreements between breeders and the animal rights movement, you’d have thought this conference was sincerely about doing what’s best for dogs and working together to solve problems.”
Hutchens, while acknowledging that the conference was informative, polite and not the breeder-bashing fest she feared, still viewed it as HSUS sticking its nose where it didn’t belong. “Nothing the animal rights organizations can do will help, unless they would like to make a contribution to the AKC Canine Health Foundation or fund a parent club health study.”
“I have no illusions — and neither should other breeders — that this will be the end of HSUS’s interest in purebred dogs,” she wrote. “Those of us who have been fighting the animal rights movement for the past 10 years have always said that after the commercial breeders, they’d be targeting show breeders. This is the first salvo.”
Even Jemima Harrison, who disagrees with HSUS on several issues, says she had second thoughts about attending — partly out of fear of being seen as “in league” with HSUS, partly because conferences are, after all, just conferences. “Will a conference make America roll over and sort out its pedigree dog problem? No.”
Then again, as HSUS sees it, one has to start, or restart, somewhere, and if there’s any issue dog lovers should be able to get together on, it’s this one.
“Every dog lover,” Pacelle noted, “should be on the same page … and no one — least of all those in the world of the dog fancy — should settle for anything less than the highest health standards for the animals we love so much.”
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