By Katherine Leviste
Next Thursday, T.V. viewers across the country will watch Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retrievers, Portuguese Water Dogs, and other purebreds trot around the Greater Philadelphia Expo Center in a Thanksgiving tradition that ranks right up there with parades and football: the National Dog Show. As the dogs sit, stand, and jog, licensed judges evaluate them based on a set of standard character and physical appearance expectations for each breed.
Behind those expectations lie a collection of inherited factors that influence the competition dogs’ bone structure, movement, and behavior. These characteristics and the genetics behind them are hot topics in the realm of dog shows and performance sports such as agility and tracking. Yet research on these traits across populations and generations remains a challenge: while most purebred dog breeders keep meticulous records of their own dogs’ health and performance, accessibility to these records is limited to those active in the show or performance circuits
For this reason, I started the Canine Health Project during my undergraduate years as a pre-veterinary student at the University of California, Davis. This citizen science project aims to encourage kennel owners to share health records, pool collective data for researchers studying specific genetic diseases, and provide pharmaceutical companies a narrower drug target by highlighting the most prevalent health issues affecting dogs and their owners.
In the digital age, Electronic Health Records, or EHR, are the gold-standard method for reporting and documenting human patients’ medical information. For dogs and other pets, most veterinary offices still rely on outdated paper charting for documentation. Accessibility and user preference are key barriers to transitioning to this form of documentation, which would allow pet owners and veterinary clinics new tools to digitally manage their pets’ health, and provide easy access to data showing clinical trends in veterinary medicine.
Through the citizen science platform, owners and breeders can advance the accessibility of health data in the purebred dog population. This information can provide researchers a larger dataset, complete with family lineages, to better identify specific gene mutations among inherited diseases or common disease traits.
The benefit of using a platform to communally share health data among dog breeders is transparency: in proof of health testing, and in ethical conscious breeding decisions to improve the next generation and the overall health of the genepool. One such database is the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals (OFA), which publicly shares the health testing results of registered animals, based on the recommended tests for the most common issues affecting the breed (i.e. hip dysplasia in German Shepherds, congenital deafness in Dalmatians). In this database, breeders are encouraged to share litter statistics such as birthweight and observational notes on temperament— measurements and information which few owners and researchers are currently privy to.
The idea is to capture a more comprehensive profile of animal health from all stages of life, including the prevention and mitigation of congenital and inherited diseases and their outcomes. For owners with pets in advanced disease states, drug treatment may be experimental but on the ground—allowing researchers to quickly target and reach out to parties willing to partake in clinical trials. Owners hoping to search instead for cures may find respite through these clinical trials, given full disclosure of the risks and benefits associated with the study.
Competition dogs are an investment. To raise and nurture a competition dog from puppyhood to adulthood takes a lot of time, commitment, and veterinary care to keep it in optimal health. Ethical breeders can spend thousands of dollars on competitions and health testing to vet the quality of their breeding stock. While breeders keep their own kennel records, much of this information is lost when they choose to exit the dog show circuit. The investment they put into competing with their dogs is maintained through the genetics that are passed on. Unfortunately, newcomer competitors who have dogs from that lineage are often left in the dark as to their dogs’ ancestral health history. My own undergraduate adviser Anita Oberbauer is among the researchers using health databases to analyze genetic mutations in dogs, with findings that may have future applications in human health.
Through citizen science, owners, breeders, veterinarians and researchers can collectively weave together data highlighting the most prevalent health conditions affecting purebred dogs. By identifying which diseases and which populations are most affected by these issues, researchers will be able to more quickly home in on treatments, while breeders can improve their selection process in planning future litters. With enough quality data derived from this breadth of perspectives, the severity of how these genes are affecting individual dogs can be more easily quantified, thus improving the overall health of the purebred dog genepool.
Katherine Leviste graduated from UC Davis with a B.S. in Animal Science. Leviste’s interest in learning canine genetics started at the age of thirteen. During that time, she researched and developed her own breeding program, Dynamo Dogs. She currently works in the Kaiser Clinical Laboratory, as part of the Emergency Department’s critical response team.
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