Cloning a Dog is Possible...But is it a Good Idea?

Inside the hidden costs of dog cloning.
By John Woestendiek, September 2019, Updated October 2019
Photo by John Woestendiek

Photo by John Woestendiek

Fourteen years have passed since the first dog was cloned by a South Korean team led by a scientist who would later be labeled a fraud. And more than 10 years have elapsed since the first cloned canines were delivered to a bereaved California dog owner and former beauty queen who accepted the genetic duplicates of her dead Pit Bull and had her scandalous past revealed.

It was wacky science back then, and the cast of characters—from the driven scientists who achieved it and the entrepreneurs who saw great profit in laboratory re-creations of dogs for grieving pet owners to the former beauty queen whose tabloid history resurfaced—gave the early days of cloning dogs for profit a nearly circus freak-show aura.

It doesn’t seem quite so wacky anymore.

Instead, dog cloning is following an arc much like in vitro fertilization—“test tube babies”—did in the 1970s. Once proclaimed as shocking, ungodly, a case of technology run amok, it is finding gradual acceptance, garnering little attention from regulatory agencies and becoming a pursuit no longer limited to millionaires.

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As 2020 approaches, cloned dogs are being churned out at a rapid clip and at less expense than ever before in South Korea, Texas and, most recently, China. Big-name clients such as Barry Diller and Barbra Streisand have been drawn in, as have Iceland’s former president and his wife. In China, a famed police dog was recently cloned and may someday be “mass-produced” for law enforcement.

Born in the USA

In the U.S., despite continuing concerns about the practice, opposition from animal welfare groups was reduced to nearly a whisper after dog cloning became a reality three years ago.

“We did that pretty quietly, when we moved from livestock to dogs, for the first year,” says Blake Russell, president of Viagen Pets. “We wanted to make sure we didn’t create a demand beyond our ability to supply, and make sure we built an infrastructure that was capable of [handling] it.”

Viagen Pets’ parent company, Viagen Inc., had cloned thousands of cows and horses and was storing the cells of thousands of pets whose owners were considering cloning. In late 2012, it was acquired by Trans Ova Genetics, and in 2015, Viagen Pets was created as a separate entity to serve the companion animal market.

“Client demand led to it,” Russell says.

“Companion animals are a different marketplace, but we felt quite good about the technology, and our team had been together a very long time and had a lot of expertise.”

Viagen Pets produced the first made-in-U.S. canine clone in 2016, a Jack Russell Terrier. “In the four years since then, it’s gone from ‘Can we produce cloned puppies and kittens,’ to today, when we’re weekly producing cloned puppies at rates we’re very happy with.”

In fact, Viagen Pets has produced hundreds of cloned puppies. Along with clients’ names, Russell says that the exact number is a closely guarded secret —as is exactly where the company acquires the other dogs necessary to transform one dead (or living) donor dog’s cells into a puppy.

There are dogs from whom egg cells (ova) are surgically removed, then vacuumed out, injected with the original dog’s body cells and spurred into dividing by electric shock. There are surrogate dogs, who carry the surgically implanted embryos to birth. The number of dogs required to clone one dog is a concern for animal welfare groups, as is the reality that the U.S. is already so overwhelmed with dogs that we euthanize them regularly. Do we really need, they ask, new ways to produce them? “It has been our position, and still is today, that there’s no justification to do this, in addition to the fact that there are millions of animals that need homes already,” said Vicki Katrinak, program manager of animal research issues for HSUS.

“These companies are preying on people who have loved and are missing their dogs, and making them promises. But you’re not getting the same dog; you’re not getting a pet that has the same personality. Customers don’t understand what’s involved in the process or realize [that] 100 dogs have to be sacrificed to create their clone.”

In actuality, the number of dogs needed to successfully produce a clone, while varying from case to case, has dropped significantly since Snuppy, the world’s first cloned dog, was produced at Seoul National University in South Korea. To create Snuppy, more than 100 dog-farm meat dogs had their egg cells surgically harvested, and at least 120 more served as surrogates.

The process has become far more efficient over time, and the other dogs involved, while subjected to intrusive surgery, are not disposed of afterwards— at least, not in the U.S.

HSUS says it has no idea how many dogs the American company has cloned, or where the egg donor and surrogate dogs come from. Katrinak assumes the egg cells are coming from laboratory dogs, bred for research purposes, and the surrogates come from breeders. Russell confirmed that the surrogate dogs come from breeders, but, citing proprietary interests, declined to provide more details.

No government agency—federal or state—tracks the use of dogs at the private laboratory, and for the most part, the company is spared scrutiny because technically, it is not engaged in animal research, and the number of dogs it holds at one time is kept under the number that would lead to government inspections.

“We do have concerns about the lack of regulatory oversight,” Katrinak says. At the same time, she admits that cloning cats and dogs is no longer a hot-button topic for the HSUS. “It’s not an issue we spend a lot of time on,” she says. “It comes up every time someone famous has a dog die and has it cloned. It comes up in the news, but obviously it’s still going on, and there are companies in the U.S. working on it now.”

The biggest news splash came a year ago when Barbra Streisand told an interviewer from Variety that two of her Coton de Tulears were clones of her deceased dog Samantha. Her new pups—Miss Violet and Miss Scarlett—were cloned at Viagen Pets using cells extracted from Samantha’s mouth and stomach.

The revelation led to a barrage of news stories, and that, cloning companies say, led to what has been the biggest spike of interest in getting one’s dog cloned since the service began.

Customer Satisfaction?

Cloned dogs have been produced for 10 years, so not every event makes the news anymore. When one does, it is generally treated as something new and wondrous. Almost always, the accounts are positive, since usually, only those happy with the clones they have received go public. Very few customers have publicly complained about their clones—for several reasons.

For one, people who have spent upwards— sometimes far upwards—of $50,000 are unlikely to admit they have wasted their money. They are inclined to see a mirror image of their original dog, partly because they want to and partly because, when it comes to purebred dogs, they are similar in the first place. On top of that, at least with some of the first dog clones delivered, cloning companies have made payments to those happy customers who are willing to go public with their stories. As a result, as cloning becomes increasingly commonplace, it’s rare for customers to voice complaints about either the process or the product—the pup or pups— they receive.

The Shields of Philadelphia are an exception. The couple has always had dogs, but none quite like their Maltese, Guinevere. Over the years, they went the extra mile for their dogs, home-cooking their meals and pampering them—especially for Guinevere, whom they purchased from a breeder.

When Guinevere died at 17 in Mr. Shields’ arms following a seizure, they were hit much harder than they’d been by the loss of any of their previous dogs. “After her death, we were literally walking the streets of the city,” Mrs. Shields says. “I couldn’t even deal with it. There was just an overwhelming sadness. I couldn’t sleep. I smelled her everywhere. She was the once-in-a-lifetime dog; we were very devastated.”

Mr. Shields says his wife brought up the idea of cloning, a $50,000 proposition, but one he decided was “well worth it, if only for her sanity.”

“I’d heard about it, but we never really talked about it until a couple of days after Guinevere passed,” Mrs. Shields says. “I found out you have to obtain cells within five days of death, and we were in the right time frame.” On the internet, she found a company called PerPETuate, which prepared and stored dog cells for cloning. “We listened to them and all the hype they spin on it—how we could get her back, how it is going to be essentially the same dog with the same character.”

Mr. Shields described the spiel as similar to one you might get from a funeral director. “They talk you into things when you are at your most vulnerable.” Among the promises: The cloned dogs would be healthy, maybe even healthier than the original. They would be lookalikes. And they would most likely have similar personalities and even similar behaviors to the original dog.

On the advice of PerPETuate, they took Guinevere’s body to Penn Vet (the University of Pennsylvania’s veterinary school), where tissue samples were taken, put in test tube–like cylinders and handed over to the couple. PerPETuate told them the sample could be sent by Federal Express to their lab, but the Shields felt that would be too risky. Instead, they made the eight-and-a-half hour drive to the company’s Worcester, Mass., facility and handed them over in person. They found it strange, they said, that they weren’t invited into the building; instead, a student met them on the street and picked up the cooler containing the samples.

Within a week and a half, a representative of PerPETuate called and informed them that two million cells had been harvested and isolated from Guinevere’s tissue sample and were being sent on to Viagen Pets, the only company that clones dogs in the U.S. Later, they got word from Viagen that the cloning was a success—not only a success, but also one of those rare cases in which it took on the very first effort—and that two puppies were growing inside a surrogate dog. They received a picture of the ultrasound.

The two pups were born and nursed by the surrogate for a while; when the surrogate became aggressive, the puppies were taken from her and nursed by another dog. Later, they were cared for by a Viagen employee, who met the Shields in New York and turned over the dogs. The Shields named them Guinevere and Gwen.

It wasn’t long before Gwen began showing some worrying signs: Her eyes became sunken. She was not the playful pup her cloned sister was. She bit both Mr. and Mrs. Shields. She paced. She was restless. She had difficulty urinating. One night, Gwen was especially restless, then became lethargic. She lay in front of her water bowl, and seemed to be having trouble breathing.

The Shields took Gwen to the Penn Vet emergency room, where a complete panel of blood tests was done. Her bile acid level, normally about 30 in a dog, was 200, which led the vets to conclude that the dog had a liver shunt and needed surgery.

While a dog is still in the womb, a liver shunt forms to provide toxins and waste with a way out. In the last trimester, that shunt is supposed to close. Gwen’s didn’t. As a result, blood—and the waste material therein—was bypassing her liver instead of going through it and being detoxified. Liver shunts can cause a host of complications, ranging from stunted growth to behavioral changes. Left untreated, they lead to death.

In Gwen’s case, crystals had formed in her bladder. The surgery to remove the crystals and to close the shunt was done over the summer; during the procedure, a ring was put around the shunt to force it to close over time.

“It was heartbreaking seeing her with tubes in her —seeing a little four-pound puppy suffering like that,” Mrs. Shields says. The couple fed her a special diet and spent sleepless nights checking on her to “make sure she was still breathing.”

By then, the Shields had spent around $10,000 on medical care, specialists and surgeries for Gwen. They complained to Viagen Pets and asked for help covering those expenses. As Mr. Shields says, “This guy, Blake Russell, he’s the president. I told him the way it is: ‘You guarantee a healthy puppy. I have a very sick puppy.’”

“My husband told them at the very least, they should be helping with these medical bills. These bills could be $20,000 or $30,000 before all is said and done,” Mrs. Shields recalls. Russell, she says, insisted that the Shields’ vet call Viagen Pets’ vet, and the Shields balked. When they did, they say, Russell asked, “Don’t you want the best for Gwen?”

The Shields acknowledge that the cloning agreement calls for conversations between their vet and the affected dog’s vet if any issues arise, but say their vet declined to do that “because they think it’s just so the company can cover themselves.” Their attorney also advised against it.

As Mrs. Shields says, “We told [Russell], ‘We don’t see a reason to have a conversation with your vets, when your vets clearly did not make the connections with the symptoms she was displaying and kept telling us it was all puppy behavior.’”

The Shields say that, since liver shunts are either a congenital disorder or occur in older dogs— and since the original Guinevere hadn’t carried it— it could only have come from the egg cells Viagen Pets used. While most of the DNA is removed before cloning, a small amount of mitochondrial DNA remains. According to the couple, Viagen Pets admitted to not having tested the eggs for the particular disorder.

“Most breeders do bile acid tests so they don’t breed dogs with that genetic component. And they don’t [sell] a pup [who] has it,” Mrs. Shields says. “They didn’t even follow the protocol that a breeder would do. In Gwen’s case, she had it at birth, and it was definitely genetic. If they had tested the donor dog … then they would know they shouldn’t have used that dog.”

Gwen’s surgery was a success, and her long recovery continues. Back home and on a special diet, she is starting to look more like her sister, and to more closely resemble the original dog whose cells she came from.

Photo courtesy John Woestendiek

Cloning’s Early Days

That things could go wrong—Frankenstein-ishly wrong—in the process of cloning dogs was evident from the start, but, as the technology developed and was quickly offered to the public, mistakes and monstrosities were not announced. Rather, they were euthanized.

At Texas A&M University, where the first effort to clone a dog was funded by John Sperling, the wealthy founder of the University of Phoenix, there were plenty of trials and errors, and countless abortions, as scientists checked on how the embryos inside surrogate dogs were developing. In the end, though they managed to clone bulls, horses, cats, pigs and more, Texas A&M never successfully cloned a dog.

Eventually, the school dropped the privately funded effort, to the chagrin of Sperling and his front man Lou Hawthorne, son of Sperling’s girlfriend. Hawthorne had by then established Genetics Savings & Clone, a company that banked cells of dogs in anticipation of cloning them. Later, he launched BioArts, which had started taking cloning orders and, at least initially, billed cloned dogs as virtual reincarnations of the original pets.

South Korea’s Seoul National University picked up where Texas A&M’s researchers left off and in 2005, succeeded in cloning the world’s first dog, derived from a graduate student’s Afghan Hound. The scientists named him Snuppy.

Woo Suk Hwang, one of the project’s lead scientists, was later released by the university after his claim to have cloned human embryos was found to be fraudulent. He then established Sooam Biotech, his own private lab, and Hawthorne ended up working with it to deliver cloned dogs to customers. The relationship didn’t last long.

Hawthorne pulled out of the business in 2009, citing abnormalities and deformities in clones as one of his reasons for doing so. In interviews, he mentioned a dog who came out green, and another with both male and female sex organs. His bigger concern, though, was that the South Koreans weren’t following accepted animal-welfare protocols.

In addition to fights over patent rights and the high cost of cloning, the “thousands of dogs suffering each year” in South Korea due to cloning—egg-donor dogs, surrogate dogs, pups born with deformities— were a large factor in his decision, he says.

Sooam Biotech was one of two South Korean companies cloning dogs. A second, RNL Bio, was affiliated with Seoul National University scientist Byeong Chun Lee, another instrumental member of the team that cloned Snuppy. RNL Bio was the first to present a cloned puppy to a paying customer (not counting the dog Hawthorne had Hwang clone for his mother, who declined the pup, saying it was too rambunctious).

The customer was Bernann McKinney, who had agreed to pay $150,000 for a clone of her Pit Bull, Booger. Instead, she received five cloned puppies, and was offered a discount by RNL Bio for doing publicity for the company.

In front of TV cameras at the press conference during which she received the dogs, she marveled at their resemblance to the original dog. In doing so, she was recognized as Joyce McKinney, a woman whose alleged kidnapping and rape of a young male Mormon missionary in England made tabloid headlines in the 1970s.

McKinney spent the next month flying the puppies, one at a time, back to her home in California. Once there, however, she was less enamored with them. After a disturbance with her boyfriend, all five ended up in animal control for a while before she reclaimed them.

Later, she noted that most of them didn’t resemble the original in terms of their markings. They also had health issues. All five developed stomach viruses, one suffered an anal prolapse, one was having seizures, one regularly snapped at invisible flies and most tended to be aggressive with the others.

“Sometimes when Ra is having a seizure and I am holding him in my arms and his eyes are rolling back in his head, I ask myself, did I do the right thing by cloning? … All I was trying to do was have my Booger back,” she said to an interviewer.

Other early customers complained, too, but generally not publicly. One owner was upset that her cloned dog did not come to her when she called him by the original dog’s name. Another clone was born with distemper, believed to have come from its surrogate mother, and had to be euthanized.

Cloning in the Present Tense

Cloning has come a long way since then, and Ron Gillespie, president of PerPETuate, the American company that prepares and stores cells for cloning, says most early problems stemmed from the South Korean companies’ use of farm dogs (dogs raised as livestock for their meat) as surrogates.

“They were not domesticated. They had never had any contact with humans. They were afraid of humans, and these clones required a lot of human attention, so that was an issue,” he says. Though Sooam denies that farm dogs are still being used, Gillespie doubts that claim.

“The [newly born] clones were kept in super-clean areas, but what would happen was that they lacked much human contact. An attendant would go in and the surrogate mother would get all upset and bark and get angry because she’d never had any contact with humans, and we saw that transferred to the pups,” Gillespie says.

Gillespie is a middleman in the cloning process. Upon receiving tissue samples, he isolates and cultures cells, keeping them in petri dishes and feeding them nutrients. Once a customer decides to proceed with cloning, he sends the cells on to Viagen or Sooam.

A staunch proponent of cloning, to the point that he sees it as the ideal method of breeding dogs, Gillespie contends that “instead of getting just half of the traits, you’re going to get 100 percent. It’s going to be an identical genetic twin of your dog.” He says the clones are likely to have the same intelligence, and even some of the same behavioral traits, as the original.

With traditional dog breeding, he says, “you maybe come up with one or two of ten that are desirable. With cloning, you would only get the ones that are desirable. And at some point, we could remove or splice genes to do away with hip or leg problems or whatever. That’s where it’s taking us—to much better, higher-quality animals. It’s the ultimate breeding.”

Despite his vision of the future, Gillespie admits that the technology is in its infancy and as a result, mistakes will happen and be learned from.

“There’s a cost to science, and there are going to be more cases, I’m sure, where we learn that there are problems,” he adds. “But making a judgment early on about a biotech innovation is unfair. … It takes a while before you can begin to master some of these things.”

“There definitely has been a learning curve,” says Viagen Pets president Russell. “But it has gone really, really well. The pregnancy rates we are achieving exceed what anyone would have thought, and it continues to change as we better understand how to optimize results.

“We’re not perfect, we’ll make some mistakes, but we are absolutely dedicated to doing the right thing for our clients, for our dogs and for the technology. Cloning is an advanced reproductive technology that continues to need to improve, but it’s not fraught with many of the things that people have historically tied to it all the way back to Dolly [the sheep who was the first mammal to be successfully cloned].”

Cloning a dog today takes fewer egg cells, fewer surrogates. And the price continues to drop, from $150,000 a decade ago to $50,000 now (and $25,000 for cats).

Russell declined to comment on the Shields’ complaint, but says he doesn’t believe mitochondrial DNA left in a vacuumed egg cell has affected the quality of any clones. Surplus clones, another concern of cloning’s opponents, have not been a problem either, he says. Generally, at Viagen Pets, only one or two cloned dogs are born, and clients often want them both. If Viagen does end up with surplus clones, there is a program to find them adoptive homes. Most often, though, Russell said, employees want them.

Surrogate dogs are also put into the adoption program after they give birth, though in some cases, after a period of rest, they may be used again. The surrogate dogs come from a breeder who does not want to be identified as working with a cloning company, he says.

“It has all been just amazing, and really fun. I have delivered dogs [to clients] myself and that is just the most incredible thing of all, seeing their joy when they see their clone for the first time.”

For the Shields, that joy was short-lived. Gwen, the sick puppy, is acting normally now, but remains on a special diet and will need monthly injections of B-12, possibly for life. A B-12 deficiency is very rare for younger dogs, and Mrs. Shields says she and her vet suspect that it too may be related to the cloning. While enjoying her new pups, she regrets her decision to clone.

“I was believing what I wanted to believe … I was reading just positive things about it, and probably I was being selfish. We’re animal lovers. We’d do anything for them. And I’m sure whoever thinks about cloning is that way as well,” she adds. “But it’s not the thing to do. I wouldn’t do it again. We went through such grief with [the original Guinevere’s] death, and we did this to comfort ourselves,” she said. “Then we wound up being in the same grief again. It was double the pain.”

John Woestendiek is a Pulitzer Prize–winning investigative reporter who also writes and produces the popular site ohmidog! He’s a 35-year veteran of newspapers, including the Baltimore Sun. His book Dog, Inc. covered the dog-cloning industry.

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