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News: JoAnna Lou
Creating a Monster
Labradoodle creator regrets breeding the first “designer dog”

Ever since the Labradoodle led the “designer dog” craze, pet stores have spawned countless spinoffs that include Puggles, Schnoodles and Maltipoos. These mutts fetch hundreds of dollars, while an abundance of mixed breeds continue to wait in crowded shelters.

The Labradoodle dates back to 1988 when Wally Conran of the Royal Institute of the Blind in Australia received a letter from a woman who needed a seeing eye dog, despite her husband’s allergies. In response, Conran bred a Labrador from the Institute’s breeding stock to his manager’s Poodle to combine proven guide dog qualities with a non-shedding coat.

With the subsequent commercialization of the Labradoodle, Conran recently said that breeding the first “designer dog” is the greatest regret of his life and that he wishes he could turn the clock back.

I know Conran feels guilty, but if it weren’t Labradoodles, it would be something else. I believe that everything always comes back to responsible pet care. Until people start doing their research, puppy mills will continue to exist, catering to impulse buys and uneducated consumers. One day its “designer dogs” and tomorrow it will be “accessory puppies” or Dalmatians.

And, of course, the best kept secret remains that “designer dogs” can be adopted from the local animal shelter for a fraction of the price!

News: JoAnna Lou
Collaborate for a Cure
New study aims to use doggy DNA to understand cancer.

The Translational Genomics Research Institute and the Van Andel Research Institute, in partnership with the National Cancer Institute, the University of Pennsylvania, and Michigan State University, have created the Canine Hereditary Cancer Consortium to better understand cancer in dogs and humans. 

The research features an unprecedented collaboration of veterinarians, scientists, research institutes, government entities, and corporations to accelerate the development of a cure.

By using the DNA in canine saliva, blood, and tumor samples, the scientists hope to better understand the genetic causes of cancer that will lead to treatment for both humans and canines. Having access to canine samples will allow researchers to study diseases, like sarcomas, where the scarcity of human samples makes it difficult to study.

The Canine Hereditary Cancer Consortium will be funded by a 2-year, $4.3 million federal stimulus grant and an additional $1 million provided by PetSmart and Hill’s Pet Nutrition. The research is also endorsed by the American Kennel Club and the Morris Animal Foundation

In addition to cancer, TGen and VARI eventually will study neurological and behavioral disorders as well as hearing loss and other debilitative conditions.

In a world where one of three dogs, one of two men, and two of three women will be affected by cancer, it’s important to pool our resources to finally beat this horrible disease.

News: Guest Posts
My Idiopathic Pup
Pondering one Border Collie's genetics

This post is really a spontaneous one. I’ve thought about this for many years, and I’ve had discussions with many a dog person on the topic of breeding. I am not a breeder and I have great empathy for those that truly advocate for their breed and those who attempt to maintain vigor and health in their breeding practices.

I am prompted to write today because of a scary episode that happened a few days ago with Cowboy, my five-and-a-half-year-old Border Collie. I was outside playing ball with him—doing our usual go outs and recalls. In the middle of one of the recalls, Cowboy started to arc in a circle, as if he were chasing a bee. Alas, no bees running around Wisconsin at the end of November.

Within seconds, he was down on the ground in the midst of a grand-mal seizure. I stayed by him, and watched him for 15 to 30 seconds that seemed like forever. When it was over, he was a little weak in his hind end and I rushed him to the emergency vet. By the time we arrived, Cowboy was his usual self and we did the customary “rule out” blood work and neurological exam. Everything came out normal, and it is likely that Cowboy may have a diagnosis of “idiopathic” epilepsy.

Time will tell how and if this progresses, but it made me think about the word “idopathic.” As a nurse I know that idiopathic refers to an unknown or indefinable cause. Well, it seems that my Cowboy, has hit the jackpot in the idiopathic category. He is definitely another heart dog—beautiful in appearance and sound in temperament. But Cowboy came to me with an interesting genetic package: He was cryptorchid, developed osteochondritis dessicans in his shoulder, had an unusual idiopathic swallowing problem as a pup, and now may have idiopathic epilepsy.

What is known about the Border Collie and their genetics is that in the past ten to twenty years as their popularity has dramatically risen, the vigor of the Border Collie’s genetics has been seriously compromised. It is not unusual to hear from a working stock dog breeder, “If you have a dog that works, don’t worry about the genetics.”

Well, my response to that, albeit sarcastic, is a similar word, but a different meaning.

Idiotic.

And sorrow.

This problem, often called “kennel blindness,” occurs all over the sporting world of dogs and the Border Collie is likely one of the last breeds to be affected by impulsive and unwise breeding programs. This stems from the concept of line breeding, that in order to produce outstanding traits, breed within the lineage of your successful dogs and accept the risks of outing recessive genes that carry pathology with them. After all, the breeder can choose to keep a few dogs that look promising, cull others, or place them in pet homes.

Cowboy will be fine. He is in a loving and safe home. He has people who will accommodate him and pay for potential medical needs. I worry about the future of this breed as well as others. I wonder what truly motivates such shortsighted and cavalier breeding practices. I hope that breeders will start to be a little introspective and honest and share their information about their bloodlines. Too many hide the history or make statements like “my dog got kicked in the head by a cow and then developed epilepsy.”

Anyone with experience and dedication to a specific breed can identify the weaknesses that circulate through each breed. The ER vet told me that there is a line of Labrador Retrievers that suffer from exercise-induced seizures. Those who know Flat-Coated Retrievers know about the challenges of lymphoma in the breed. And so it goes.

This is nothing new of course, but really worth thinking about and discussing. It’s actually quite extraordinary how quickly we can influence genetics. Think Belyaev and his foxes. The great concern is, that once we’ve opened Pandora’s box of pathologic genes, how then, do we clean up the mess?

Well, thanks for listening. I’m wise enough to know there are no easy answers. But, I do hope that those who breed and love their breeds will start responding to these challenging questions.

Often times, things just aren’t so idiopathic.

News: Guest Posts
The Age of Ruppies
Scientists clone dog with muzzle that glows

Have you heard the one about the Beagle that glowed? No. It’s not a joke. And it’s not a Claymation Christmas special. It’s another dog cloning experiment out of South Korea (home of RNL Bio, which is steadily building a commercial dog-cloning operation). According to a story in the Lexington Herald-Leader (with photos), the Beagle clones, infused with a gene from a sea anemone, have a rosy flush in their muzzles and paws. There are reportedly as many as 30 of these transgenic dogs, known as Ruppies (an amalgam of ruby and puppies), living in research facilities at the University of Seoul.

According to a University of Kentucky project researcher paraphrased in Herald-Leader, the glowing beagle represents a scientific advance that could lead to the commercial development of dogs bred with specific traits, “such as green eyes” (that’s an advance?) or as alternative to shorter-lived mice in developing genes that could address specific diseases.

I was dismayed by this story, not merely saddened for what is probably an unhappy lab life for current and future Ruppies but worried about the potential commercial applications in a world with too many designer dogs. Already, there is interest in glowing dogs as pets—hardly a big marketing leap in a world with genetically engineered glowing fish.

Also, I can’t help wondering about the role of American researchers working in South Korea’s labs, where—at least it’s been reported in the case of RNL Bio—they can ignore safeguards to ensure the wellbeing of dogs. Are they doing things over there that they couldn’t get away with here?

To my way of thinking, Ruppies are a step backward in a year when we reported good news for animals in lab settings. In May, the University of Cincinnati banned the use of purpose-bred animals for educational purposes (including surgeries and dissection). In October, we blogged about efforts to make experimental treatments available to dying pets, as an alternative to inducing sickness in otherwise healthy animals for research.

A shout out to Daily Dish, Andrew Sullivan’s Atlantic magazine blog, where I first read about the Ruppies. Sullivan has a pair of Beagles and occasionally sprinkles news from dogdom among his political fare, including earlier this week, this adorable YouTube video of Waffle the Goldendoodle versus an ice cube.

News: Karen B. London
Researching Social Cognition
Dogs finally get some respect

Science recently ran an article about the importance of dog research. It’s an understatement to say that times they are a-changing. The fact is that times have changed so much that it’s a whole new era. This journal is among the most prestigious of scientific publications, and to see a big article about the value of dogs as research subjects is mind-blowing to those of us whose discussions of dog research over the years were usually met with derisive comments about dogs that all fit into the category of “familiarity breeds contempt.”

Although Charles Darwin and Nobel Laureate Konrad Lorenz studied dogs and found them scientifically interesting, there soon followed a gap of many generations of researchers who mocked attempts to study dogs. In the last decade, the tide has turned, and now excellent research on dogs is being done in many areas of the world. Some of the most exciting studies are coming from a lab in Hungary where scientists, such as Vilmos Csányi and Ádám Miklósi, are exploring the canine mind. Along with American scientists, such as Marc Bekoff, Alexandra Horowitz, Colin Allen and Clive Wynne, some very revealing studies about the canine mind have come out in recent years. Canine research is finally getting the respect and attention it deserves. Hurrah!

News: JoAnna Lou
Three Genes Behind the Canine Coat
Scientists identify the genetic variants that influence dog hair.

From the Puli’s cords to the Poodle’s curls, the canine’s array of coats makes them one of the most diverse species in the world. Until now, little was known about the genetics behind their fur. Recently, a team of researchers at the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI) studied 1,000 dogs representing 80 breeds and identified three genetic variants that account for all dog hair types.

Long hair is linked to the variant in the FGF5 gene, curly coats to the variant in the KRT71 gene, and wire hair to the variant in the RSPO2 gene. But the combinations are what make up the many canine coats we see today, and account for what researchers call furnishings, like a Schnauzer’s mustache. 

Here is a list put together by Science Daily, recapping the combinations:

  • Short-haired dogs (i.e., Beagle): No variant genes
  • Wire-haired dogs (i.e., Australian Terrier): Varient form of the RSPO2 gene
  • Wire and Curly-haired dogs (i.e., Airedale Terrier): Varient forms of RSPO2 and KRT71 genes
  • Long-haired dogs (i.e., Golden Retrievers): Varient form of the FGF5 gene
  • Long-haired dogs with furnishings (i.e., Bearded Collie): Varient forms of FGF5 and RSPO2 genes
  • Curly-haired dogs (i.e., Irish Water Spaniels): Varient forms of FGF5 and KRT71 genes
  • Curly-haired dogs with furnishings (i.e, Bichon Frise): Varient forms of all three of the genes

In addition to explaining dog fur, scientists believe that this breakthrough in genetic research will shed light on human biology and disease. The true discovery doesn’t lie in the genes themselves, but in the way they interact. Elaine A. Ostrander, Ph.D., chief of the Cancer Genetics Branch in NHGRI's Division of Intramural Research, believes that this approach will pinpoint multiple genes involved in complex human conditions, such as cancer, heart disease, diabetes and obesity. 

News: Guest Posts
Origin of (Dog) Species
East Asia may not be where it all began.

Over the weekend, a science writer friend tipped me off to a paper to be published on Monday—“Complex population structure in African village dogs and its implications for inferring dog domestication history.” It was a gloriously sunny weekend, perfect for adventures with Lulu and Renzo, so I gave the paper a skim and managed to underappreciate the implications.

As usual, I left it to The New York Times to translate the “mtDNA haplotype diversity” into Research Undermines Dog Domestication Theory. Now this is something my little English-major brain can get. In short, the researchers' DNA-sampling of African village dogs revealed enormous genetic diversity—roughly the same amount of diversity as found in East Asia dogs. This is important because genetic diversity is closely associated with origin. The researchers aren’t arguing for Africa as the place of domestication but the study helps point the way for additional research involving samples from wolves as well as dogs.

News: Guest Posts
Mysteries of the Basset Hound Revealed
Scientists isolate the gene behind short legs.

A new study published in Science identifies the single evolutionary event that shortened the legs of Dachshunds, Basset Hounds and other stubby puppies. An extra copy of a gene (Fgf4 retrogene, to be exact), acquired by mutation at least 300 years ago, “causes the overproduction of a protein that disrupts growth during fetal development,” writes Sarah Arnquist, translating the study for a New York Times science blog.

I’m freaked out by efforts to engineer animals to suit our needs—according to Arnquist’s story, one advantage of shorter legs in Basset Hounds was allowing hunting humans on horseback to keep up. Plus, it’s hard to ignore the costs of tinkering. Last year’s BBC documentary, “Pedigree Dogs Exposed,” revealed just a few of the devastating health consequences of breeding for exaggerated physical characteristics.

But, all that said, these results have significant implications. First, it’s more evidence that all the investment of time and money in creating a dog genome is paying off. Secondly, discovering the gene behind Chondrodysplasia in dogs probably holds important clues into dwarfism in humans. I think it’s fascinating that dogs, so helpful to us in our everyday life as companions and assistants, are providing important keys to unlocking human health mysteries. 

News: JoAnna Lou
Dog’s Role in Studying Human Oncology
Similarities in the two species’ DNA helps researchers.

Meningioma is one of the most common brain tumors in humans and canines. Determining the gene responsible for the disease isn’t easy. According to Science Daily, humans with this type of cancer usually lose a certain chromosome made up of almost 50 million base pairs of DNA that code for more than 500 genes.

Lucky for oncology research, it turns out that dogs and humans are genetically similar, but organized differently. This makes it possible to isolate smaller regions of genetic data rather than searching through the whole chromosome. In other words, scientists can focus their studies on a small part of those millions of base pairs.

 

For a long time scientists had misidentified the NF2 gene as the culprit behind meningioma. By comparing human and canine genomes, researchers at North Carolina State University found that the NF2 gene on chromosome 26 was rarely affected in dogs with meningioma. Instead, the cancer-stricken canines showed the loss of chromosome 27. This discovery has allowed researchers to focus on the corresponding chromosome in humans, narrowing down the search 50-fold.

 

Sharing similar genetics means that both humans and canines will benefit from this research. And, down to our DNA, we have more in common with dogs than it might appear!

News: Guest Posts
Fetch the Meteorite
Forget about balls, maybe your dog can bring home something valuable.

Do you have one of those dogs who collects rocks? Maybe even plunges into lakes or streambeds to retrieve them? People sort of smile, sympathetically, when they see it; it’s cute but a little weird. Well, all those stone-loving pups with the ground-down teeth have a new patron saint: a Texas stray named Hopper. He had the good fortune to grab a meteorite in his chops in the weeks after a fireball hit the earth near Austin in February, which made him the first dog ever to recover a meteorite, according to Rob Wesel, a Portland, Oregon, a collector of space debris. Wesel knows a little something about dogs and rocks from outer space; his website Nakhla Dog Meteorites is named for a dog reportedly vaporized by a meteorite in Egypt in 1911.

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