For thousands of years, humans have selectively bred a variety of domesticated animals, creating many different breeds and unique types. While these historic farmers and breeders were focused on producing the highest quality of wool from sheep or the muscular build of a Rottweiler, they were unaware of other, more destructive traits that were passed on as well.
Genetics is the science of heredity and how specific physical traits are passed from generation to generation in any organism. Most everyone can relate to genetics from high school science courses showing color blindness in human males or if you have the ability to roll your tongue. But, serious, life threatening diseases are also often governed by our genes and this holds true for pets and other animals as well.
Take Penny, for instance. She was a Pembroke Welsh Corgi, a breed of dog known for excellent cattle herding skills and a love of family. Sadly, these Corgis are also known for a genetic condition known as Degenerative Myelopathy, or DM. This disease essentially causes damage along the spinal cord, leading to progressively worsening weakness in the rear legs. Eventually, Penny was unable to move her rear legs due to paralysis. She was humanely euthanized after a long life with a family she adored.
DM is not a treatable disease, but scientists have now pinpointed the mutation responsible for this illness. Almost four dozen different dog breeds have this altered gene present. Recent research has shown that only dogs who receive a copy of the mutated gene from both parents will develop the condition. This is known as a “recessive trait”. Other recessive conditions in animals include certain enzyme deficiencies in cats or some skin issues in horses.
Not all genetic diseases are this simple. Some are passed as dominant traits, some are linked to specific physical attributes and still others have multiple genes affecting the eventual outcome. Even the environment can influence the process of the disease or condition. Hip dysplasia in dogs is an example of a multi-gene and environmentally impacted problem.
The entire sequence of the canine genome was published in 2005. The genome of our feline friends was published around 2007 and just recently, the entire gene sequences of a Quarter Horse and a Thoroughbred have also been discovered. The good news in all of this is that as scientists and veterinarians better understand the root causes of hereditary issues, tests to find the disease and even possible treatment options become available.
Dr. Gus Cothran, professor at Texas A & M University’s College of Veterinary Medicine says that genetic testing will continue to prove to be of great value to veterinarians and even pet owners. “Imagine doing blood tests to find animals that are carrying certain mutations that might lead to deleterious conditions or diseases. Now, we can remove these animals from breeding programs before they are bred and help reduce the incidence of some very serious problems in our domesticated animals.”
Tests for degenerative myelopathy in dogs and polycystic kidney disease in cats are just two of the dozens of genetic screenings that are now available. Facilities like Texas A&M’s Animal Genetics Lab and the University of California at Davis’ Veterinary Genetics Lab provide testing for animals ranging from our dogs and cats all the way up to horses, llamas, pigs and cattle. Other private companies, for example, VetGen or DNA Diagnostics Center, have also started reaching out to veterinarians and pet owners interested in this sort of testing.
While these tests may not remove the possibility of genetic disease, they still can be very valuable. Knowing the chance for disease exists can prompt pet owners and veterinarians to start intervention programs, such as swimming or increased exercise in the case of Corgis, which might delay the onset or progression of the condition.
Anyone interested in breeding domestic animals should familiarize themselves with the potential for genetic diseases. Your veterinarian can be very helpful in determining what kind of conditions are considered hereditary and even help you find the resources to test the animals you want to breed. More
Whether meeting a client for the first time or even while traveling on an airplane, it’s not unusual for a veterinarian to hear something similar to “Oh, I always wanted to be a veterinarian!” Veterinary medicine consistently ranks among the most respected and admired professions. Pet owners and animal lovers do think highly of veterinarians, but many don’t know the incredible schooling that these animal doctors must complete.
Additionally, when asked what a veterinarian does, most people will respond with a phrase about “taking care of animals.” While that is certainly true, most are unaware of the incredible diversity of careers found in the veterinary profession. Not only do veterinarians care for our companion animals and our livestock, but they are also found doing important research that benefits both people and pets or even helping governments track and prepare for newly emerging diseases. Veterinarians are active in the military, our food inspection services, in the public health sector and even in designing new foods and medications to help animals.
So, what does it take to become a veterinarian?
First, good grades throughout high school and an undergraduate program in college are essential. Course work should be strong in math and sciences, but it is also important for the student to be well rounded. As an example, communication courses are vital as the majority of veterinarians will need to effectively explain complex medical diseases and terminology to pet owners or ranchers and farmers.
These early years are also a great time to focus on finding a job or volunteer opportunity that gives hand on experiences with animals. Veterinary hospitals and animal shelters often accept school age volunteers, but don’t forget about the possibilities offered by Future Farmers of America programs or the local 4H. These days, weeks and months of working closely with animals can help a prospective veterinary student understand the challenges of animal care.
After a minimum of two years of undergraduate work, the process for applying to veterinary school can begin. Competition for the open spots is extremely fierce. There are 28 schools of veterinary medicine in the United States with 4 in Canada and another 4 located in the Caribbean. Compare that to the 134 human medical schools in the US! Also, each of these universities generally only accepts about 100 students for each veterinary class, meaning that about 3000 slots are available for each new class. Again, human medical schools graduate about 20,000 new doctors each year.
Once accepted, new veterinary students will find that their school days will be very regimented and filled with an incredible amount of information. For the first two years, the focus is on the sciences. Lectures on the anatomy of various animal species, physiology, microbiology and many more subjects are the focus on the student’s days.
Then, as the students progress into their third and fourth years, all of the information they committed to memory can now be used in a practical manner as they move towards more hands on work in the veterinary teaching hospitals and labs. Students interact with veterinary instructors and actual clients as they learn the important skills of client interaction. These “soon to be veterinarians” also find opportunities to assist in surgeries, extensive dental procedures and, of course, daily rounds with the attending veterinarians at the hospital.
When graduation finally arrives, the learning and education process is not over for these brand new animal doctors. In order to practice veterinary medicine, new graduates must pass national and state board exams. Then, even as they are learning the expertise of daily routines at their new job, continuing education (CE) is a requirement of all veterinarians. This CE helps veterinarians stay on top of a variety of technological and treatment protocol changes.
Some veterinarians continue their education, specializing in areas like dentistry, radiology, or even lab animal medicine. There are almost 40 different specialty organizations and veterinarians who seek to become a specialist may add another 4-6 years on to their education.
As you can see, becoming a veterinarian not only takes passion and intelligence, but a fair amount of sacrifice and commitment as well. The degree of “Doctor of Veterinary Medicine” or “Veterinary Medical Doctor” is one of diversity and certainly a rewarding profession. More
Experts estimate that more than 12,000 spinal cord injuries (SCI) occur every year in people and that more than a quarter of a million Americans are now living with some form of SCI. These injuries are not limited to humans, but happen frequently in our pets as well.
In people, damage to the spine often occurs due to a traumatic event, such as a car accidents, severe falls or even sports activities. Such injuries happen most often to younger men.
In dogs, not only are there a variety of accidents that cause SCI, but many breeds of dogs, can develop a bulging or full prolapse of the discs that are located between the vertebrae. This bulge puts damaging pressure on the spinal cord, causing pain and even paralysis. Any sort of pressure, trauma or tearing of the spinal cord is truly an emergency situation.
In both human and veterinary medicine new treatments are focused in an attempt to block certain biochemical pathways after injury to save mobility. But, until now, many of these treatments have been unsuccessful. Consequently, the human may spend the rest of their life in a wheelchair while many pets are euthanized due to costs or the owner’s inability to care for a pet who is unable to walk.
Dr. Jonathon Levine, a veterinarian and resident in neurology at Texas A & M University’s College of Veterinary Medicine says “about 3% of all hospitalized cases in veterinary medicine were due to disc related spinal cord injuries.” In certain breeds, especially dachshunds and other long bodied, short legged dogs, the incidence of SCI due to disc problems approaches 25%.
In some situations, especially traumatic events, like a dog being struck by a car, the onset is sudden and easily recognizable. But in other cases, the signs are much more subtle. Dogs with slow developing disc problems often show weakness in the limbs, abnormal gait, incoordination and pain across the back. Without treatment, these pets may eventually lose the ability to walk.
New advances in diagnostic technology, including increased availability of even more powerful MRI units for pets, have enabled veterinarians to more accurately pinpoint the cause of spinal injuries. But, the fact still remains that far too many dogs and people suffering lasting serious consequences, from spinal cord injuries.
In conjunction with the University of California Medical School, Dr. Levine and the team at Texas A & M are exploring a new drug that may protect the nervous system after spinal cord injury. Certain enzymes in the nervous system can actually destroy vital components of the blood-spinal cord barrier and of myelin, the protective covering over nerves. This current research looks at a new compound that may block these destructive enzymes. “We are hoping that this new drug will protect the nervous system shortly after injury, improve the outcome and help more dogs walk in these cases.” says Levine.
The importance of this study cannot be overstated. This is the first veterinary clinical trial that has been funded by the National Institutes of Health. In addition, because of the potential benefits to both dogs and people, the Department of Defense has also provided grant money to continue the research. Many of the quarter of a million people living with spinal cord injuries are soldiers wounded while in war zones.
Pet owners, especially those with specific breeds prone to back problems need to be aware of the subtitle signs of potential problems. A veterinarian should see any dog that cries out during play, has difficulty navigating stairs or that has any sort of uncoordinated gait. Pets that are overweight are more prone to spinal issues, so keeping your pet trim is one way to minimize the risks. In some cases, owners may receive a referral to a veterinary neurologist or surgeon for advanced care. More
The history of smoking tobacco may reach back many hundreds of years, but research in the 20th century has made it clear how harmful this habit is. Furthermore, secondhand smoke has been implicated in the illnesses and even deaths of non-smokers. What’s even more disturbing is that smokers may have unknowingly contributed to severe disease in dogs and cats.
Most people understand that secondhand smoke from cigarettes contains an incredible number of hazardous substances and many of them are carcinogenic. These chemicals are found in high concentrations in carpets and on furniture around the home. Pets sharing this environment will get these toxins on their fur and then ingest them during normal grooming.
Dr. Ann Hohenhaus, a board certified specialist in veterinary internal medicine and certified veterinary journalist, has written that increased numbers of smokers and smoking in households corresponds with higher levels of the by-products of nicotine metabolism in pets sharing that home. She further describes how carbon deposits are often seen in the lungs of these animals.
Research is now showing that our pets’ health is affected in ways similar to what is seen in humans.
In the early 1990s, researchers found correlations between nasal cancers in dogs and the presence of smokers in the home. There is also a concern that environmental tobacco smoke may increase the incidence of lung cancer in our canine friends as well.
Cats may actually be at higher risk for serious disease when they live in a smoking environment. As mentioned above, many cigarette smoke toxins settle to low levels in the home and cats will pick up these substances on their fur. Because of their fastidious grooming habits, cats end up ingesting a higher level of chemicals and this leads to a greater chance of several types of cancer.
Lymphoma is a cancer of white blood cells and is one of the most common cancers seen in our pet cats. When smokers are present in the cat’s household, the risk for this killer is increased by two or three times over cats living in non-smoking homes. Sadly, when our feline friends are diagnosed with lymphoma, the prognosis is very poor and many won’t survive another six months.
Another serious cancer with links to secondhand smoke is a cancer of the mouth known as squamous cell carcinoma, or SCC. Studies have linked a higher risk for SCC in cats living in smoking homes. Again, the prognosis is very grave and most pets won’t survive another year.
An unpublished study has also found that the levels of nicotine found in the hair of dogs exposed to second hand smoke is similar to levels found in children living with parents who smoke.
With more than 46 million smokers in North America and about 60% of the population owning dogs or cats, the risk for the animals is substantial. Pets are often good at hiding signs of illness, so many smoking owners fail to realize the damage that their habit is causing to the four legged family member.
Of course, the best course of action is to give up the tobacco habit entirely. It’s not only best for the health of the smoker, it will also greatly reduce risks for pets. Understanding that it’s not easy to quit this addictive habit, people who smoke and have pets should attempt to minimize their pets’ exposure by smoking outdoors.
Another important thing to remember is that smoking in the car with pets can create a toxic environment, even with the windows open. Some states and Canadian provinces even ban smoking in cars when children are passengers because of the chance for serious exposures. If you must smoke when you drive, leave your pets and kids at home!
Pets who are developing illnesses from secondhand smoke may exhibit symptoms ranging from lethargy to coughing to the appearance of masses in the mouth. It’s important to have your pet seen by a veterinarian if any of these signs are noted. More
Pets have become integral and beloved members of millions of families across North America. We provide them with special diets, unique toys and even grieve heavily when they pass away. Unfortunately, many dedicated owners fail to consider what might happen to their pets if they are suddenly unable to care for them.
Historically, this was never much of a concern. Pets have always been considered “property” by state and national governments and so when a person died, their possessions, along with the animals they owned, were disposed of as directed by the person’s will or by the probate court handling the estate.
In today’s society though, pets are thought of as much more than property. Although they still don’t have a different legal standing, most people will agree that their pets should be handled differently than their car, furniture or other material items. It’s a sad fact that many senior citizens who might benefit from the companionship of a pet actually avoid bringing an animal home over concerns of care should the pet survive them.
Over the ages, many people have tried to incorporate special provisions into their wills for their pets. English Common Law actually began to recognize pet trusts as far back as 1842. But it’s only been in recent years that true strides have been accomplished.
The first problem to overcome was that of the legal hurdle that “property cannot legally own property”. This means that the animal (property) cannot receive money (more property) in a will for its continued care. In a similar manner, a pet cannot be named a beneficiary of a trust. But, in the 1990s, the National Conference of Commissioners on Uniform State Laws saw the need and changed the Uniform Probate Code to actually permit pet trusts. To date, 45 of the 50 U.S. states allow an owner to create a trust for their animals.
The next, and probably bigger issue, is to educate pet owners about their options. Failing to consider what to do with your pet in the event you are unable to care for him or her could lead to your dog, cat or other pet ending up in a shelter or with a new pet owner. While these situations could work out just fine, some relatives or individuals may not be willing or able to provide proper care. In addition, the pet itself may not adjust well to the new environment, leading to behavior issues or even early euthanasia.
Pet trusts actually provide many benefits. First, since trusts are valid even while the owner is still alive, even if he or she is disabled or incapacitated. This simple fact allows the pet’s care to continue without the necessity of going through probate. Leaving money to your pet in a will might provide some resources, but the amount is subject to interpretation by the courts.
In addition, if the owner needs to move to an assisted care facility or nursing home, a pet trust is valuable in helping to keep the pet and owner together. This alone is a powerful reason to consider setting up a trust for your beloved animal.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, a pet trust is administered by a trustee (separate from the pet’s caretaker) who has a legal obligation to follow the guidelines set forth by the owner. This helps insure that your wishes for your pet are carried out and helps minimize the potential for fraud. You will want to make sure you have selected a willing and trusted person as the caretaker before the time for one is needed.
As with any legal matter, you should discuss the potential for creating a pet trust with your attorney. He or she can guide you through the legal ramifications and tax situations and help you draft a document that is enforceable and allows your pet to receive the right type of care in a safe environment. Your veterinarian may know of attorneys who specialize in these sorts of trusts or even resources that will help you provide for your pet after you are gone. More