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Therapy Dogs for Children with Batten Disease
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“I come from a background of working with rats and mice [in a] laboratory . . . where you could control everything. I thought, ‘This is impossible, there’s no way you can do this type of research depending on the pet population.’ But I’ve learned that it is possible. I was pleasantly surprised,” Dr. Katz noted.

This research is possible in part because of all the new tools now available, in particular, an innovative Tibetan Terrier DNA bank that has allowed him to compare genes in healthy and diseased animals as well as identify this genetic disorder in several other breeds. While his personal priorities remain human well-being, Martin Katz’s approach to his work has been radically—and humanely—changed.

Unfortunately, given the limitations of current research, Dr. Katz could not give Erika Gaspar a definitive diagnosis for her dog. But though she was sad, she seemed to feel perhaps less burdened, less alone. Which is why this extended family, galvanized by a rare disease, believes it’s onto something. Those affected have reached out beyond their respective boundaries to shepherd change and find a cure.

Postscript
Owners of Tibetan Terriers needn’t panic about Batten disease. While late-onset Batten has been diagnosed in the breed, the incidence is fairly rare. In fact, the Tibetan Terrier Club of America estimates its occurrence at less than 5 percent. The reason this particular breed figured so largely in this story is the creative advocacy shown by Tibetan Terrier breeders and owners. By collaborating with the human Batten disease community, they’re hoping not only to find a cure, but to gain the tools necessary to test all dogs before they’re bred. In this way, they hope to eliminate Batten disease from the breed. Several other dog breeds have been diagnosed with a similarly small percentage of Batten disease. For more information, contact the American Kennel Club Canine Health Foundation (akcchf.org).

Editor’s Note: The exact percentage of Tibetan Terriers affected is not yet possible to calculate. According to Dr. Martin Katz, of all the samples collected for the breed’s DNA bank since he has been involved, at least 10 percent are affected. However, this late-onset condition manifests at about age seven. If you consider the samples in the DNA bank representing dogs seven or older, the percentage of those affected increases. At this point, and until a marker is found, it’s difficult to determine to what degree the sampling is a representation of the entire breed or skewed toward those who have contributed because their dogs are affected.

Copyright © 2006; Used by permission of National Public Radio

 

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This article first appeared in The Bark,
Issue 38: Sep/Oct 2006
Ketzel Levine is NPR Senior Correspondent for "Morning Edition" and has reported on everything from the restored prairie at the Bush ranch to the 100th anniversary of Madam Butterfly.

Photograph by Kersti Malvre

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