Dogs walking six minutes for science – researchers are studying diseases in over-bred varieties

Breeding has narrowed the genetic variation in some dog breeds to the extent that all individuals are effectively identical twins of one another. Finding an effective drug for dogs often also boosts human health.

What if all dogs could breathe without making a raspy noise? What if owners no longer had to worry about the possibility of their pet being diagnosed with a hereditary disease caused by breeding?

Millennia of breeding has created a veritable rainbow of dog breeds where everyone can find their favourite variety. But breeding has a dark side. When close relatives have been bred to enhance a desired characteristic or feature, negative characteristics have also become heightened.

For example, the genetic diversity of the English bulldog has become so low that it could almost be considered an identical breed, consisting of identical twins.

Humans have made choices to create several dog breeds which enjoy the company of humans and can help them, for example by detecting ivory smugglers or letting diabetics know if their insulin levels go too low. However, in the course of breeding dogs we have also caused them respiratory difficulties, behavioural disorders, eye and skin problems as well as bone structure disorders.

During the past few years, the canine genetic research has progressed in leaps and bounds, and genetic problems causing diseases can be detected in many breeds. These findings can help with future breeding choices.

However, more research and practical application of the research results is needed before we are anywhere near the goal of healthy dogs. The dog health research fund (link in Finnish), established by the University of Helsinki and the Finnish Kennel Club, supports this work. Research also owes a great debt of gratitude to the dog owners who have volunteered to provide blood or tissue samples or other information on their dogs.

Breathe easier

Researcher, Veterinarian Minna Rajamäki leads a University of Helsinki group funded by the dog health research fund, which has developed a walking test for brachycephalic breeds with short skulls and noses, which suffer from breathing difficulties more commonly than other dogs. Breeds such as the English and French bulldog, pug and Boston terrier are at heightened risk of Brachycephalic Obstructive Airway Syndrome (BOAS).

In the walking test, the dogs will walk for six minutes or one kilometre, during which the researchers monitor either the distance travelled or the time spent walking in addition to how the dog recovers from the exercise.

 “Developed in cooperation with dog breeding organisations, The Finnish Kennel Club has certified this as an official test. Now the ball is back in the court of the breeding organisations, who will have to decide whether to make the test compulsory for dogs used in breeding,” says Rajamäki.

Will puppies be healthier if their parents can breathe better? How does aging affect the dog’s breathing?

According to Rajamäki, the research will continue to need support in the future, as the popularity of short-nosed breeds has increased during the past decades. For example, Lennu, President Sauli Niinistö’s dog, is a Boston terrier, a breed which is rapidly gaining in popularity in Finland and abroad.

 “One of the most important things for the dog’s wellbeing is that it can breathe normally,” states Rajamäki.

Her group is among the first to study the impact of the walking test on the development of a dog breed. Will puppies be healthier if their parents can breathe better? How does aging affect the dog’s breathing?

Minna Rajamäki believes in slow development.

 “I believe that general awareness of what kinds of dogs are healthy puts pressure on the juries at dog shows as well as dog breeders. That way we will gradually move towards healthier individuals and the reduction of all kinds of extreme variants.

Getting good results fast

Short-nosed and flat-skulled dogs are not the only group of dogs whose hereditary diseases have been successfully studied recently.

The border terrier may not seem over-bred to a layperson. It doesn’t have short legs, extraneous skin folds or a structure that places excessive weight on the front of the body. The breed is small and spirited – and relatively healthy.

Nevertheless, the border terrier is not without its hereditary diseases. One problem which has been much discussed during the past year is Spongiform LeukoEncephaloMyelopathy(SLEM), or “shaking puppy syndrome”. Puppies with the syndrome will begin shaking at the age of two or three weeks. As there is no treatment, these puppies must be put down. 

In the UK, where the breed originates from, breeders became aware of the existence of SLEM less than a year ago. Less than 12 months after the problem was recognised, a gene test detecting SLEM had been developed and made available to border terrier breeders everywhere.

 “The Finnish Border Terrier Club made a donation to the Animal Health Trust, which developed the test in cooperation with the University of Missouri. We wanted to show that we support the health of the breed,” says Sari Pöyhönen, chair of the Finnish Border Terrier Club.

However, Pöyhönen believes SLEM is not the biggest health problem plaguing the border terrier. For example, cataracts and seizures resembling epilepsy are bigger concerns.

Canine cataracts are one of the research groups of the University of Helsinki group led by Professor Hannes Lohi and funded by the dog health research fund. There are hopes of including the border terrier in the study.

Dog health is also human health

Professor Lohi’s group studies hereditary canine diseases with a broad approach. Afflictions shared by dogs and humans are receiving increasing attention. If a genetic test or effective drug for dogs is discovered, it usually also promotes the discovery of human diseases and their treatment.

 “By focusing on dogs, we could side-step the rodent stage of scientific studies, which would save pharmaceutical companies tens or even hundreds of millions,” Lohi believes.

The dog health research fund strives to allocate grants as broadly as possible to different types of topical canine research subjects at the University of Helsinki.

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