Canine Health Research—Some Exciting Stuff Is Happening!

Two weeks ago Purina sponsored a Canine Health Foundation (CHF) 2019 Conference for Parent Clubs in St Louis. It was the first time I had thought to attend, and I nearly didn’t make it this year. The sponsors wanted their writers to have a background in science, and lucky for me, I have a MA in Sociology—which in my mind qualifies as a science. I was offered a ticket, and excitedly joined about 300+ other invitees to hear about the current status of research being done by researchers funded with CHF donations.

All of the topics presented were infinitely interesting, but just as college professors have a knack for making the most inherently interesting subjects dreadfully boring, some of the speakers did the same. The audience was an impossible mix of AKC Parent club lay-people, veterinarians and animal researchers, and a few writers. The topics were all related to scientific research currently being done on some really interesting topics. None of the presenters lacked passion, but some got so mired in minute detail that they left the audience to glaze over, pull out their phones or take extended bathroom breaks. Yet even with the complexity and depth presented, all sessions had something of value for everyone in the room—not at all an easy task.

The conference started on Friday afternoon with five presentations by specialists in nutrition and disease. This was an outstanding opening to the conference. The speakers were informative and entertaining. You may think microbiomes in the gut and how they affect the immune system is not a particularly fascinating subject, but you would be wrong. I was mesmerized—especially considering Darling Husband was recently diagnosed with diverticulitis, I have a Basset that has long suffered from the effects of prolonged use of drugs to clear up chronic coccidia, and I recently took on three puppies that had been exposed to giardia. All three of these conditions affect the gut microbiome and require the use of the same antibiotics studied by these researchers. These are conditions that all breeders and most pet owners will have to confront at some time.

Dr. Jan Suchodolski opened the session with an informative overview of the gut microbiome. Don’t read his presentation abstract or you will become overwhelmed by his use of really big words. I was prepared to be bored silly and was pleasantly surprised at his ability to speak to a lay audience about the dangers and ineffectiveness of many antibiotics (including metronidazole—for me and every other person who travels with it when we go to dog shows), and the importance of maintaining gut stability with probiotics and nutritional diet changes. The newest research is showing some alarming results, eg., permanent changes in the microbiome that can be caused by metronidazole, and a study in Germany showing Clavamox was contributing to an increase in drug-resistant bacteria, but was no more effective at clearing up diarrhea than a placebo. Fecal transplants (yes, it is exactly what it sounds like) may become a common treatment in the future to restore colon bacteria balance, and are currently under controlled study. At least we can be assured that there will be no shortage or manufacturing disruption for the product needed in this treatment.

Dr. Michael Lappin from Colorado State University was highly informative and entertaining as he described his work with shelter animals and the chronic diarrhea issues confronting them. We all know diarrhea isn’t really funny, and I so appreciate all of the supportive research being done on this issue that affects anyone with dogs, children or spouses with diverticulitis. Dr. Lappin reports very positive results from the use of probiotics, but cautions that we are still in very early stages of identifying which probiotics work best, and what the appropriate strains are to promote a positive result. He also cautions that more than a quarter of all probiotics on the market have no live organisms in them, and the research to support appropriate mixes of these organisms is in its infancy. His work is finding that some probiotics are also being found effective at turning on animal’s immune system to help mediate the bad effects of stress and disease. For those of us who deal daily with animal stress and anxiety, this is amazing news.

Dr. Ragen McGowen spoke on the impact of a specific probiotic on anxiety in dogs. The issue is near and dear to my heart as the owner of a boarding kennel that often sees dogs people claim have separation anxiety. I also have a couple of Bedlingtons who exhibit anxious behaviors like drooling and nervous peeing.

Every speaker at this conference is required to fully disclose their professional affiliations, and Dr. McGowan disclosed that she is a research scientist funded by Purina. This information is important on two levels. First, it discloses that there could be a conflict of interest between her research findings and the people who are paying her to do the research. This is very important because it can be relatively easy to report results that look favorable to the company providing the researchers’ paycheck. Everyone should have healthy skepticism when companies with vested interests report findings from research they pay for. However, the flip side to this is that companies funding research are also more likely to use the results of the research in the development of their products. I am a huge fan of scientific research, but not always a fan of how it is used for marketing a product. I believe that most researchers do good work, but I have also seen how results can be shifted to satisfy a marketing department. Dr. McGowan studied a specific probiotic found in a Purina product, and she was very clear that her findings related specifically to that probiotic. It is possible that other probiotics will produce the same results, but her research could not verify
that conclusion.

Dr. McGowan’s results have been remarkable. She is proving that there is a direct link between gut activity and the nervous system. Manipulation of gut microbia can actually reduce anxiety levels in dogs, thus resulting in slower heart rates and fewer stress behaviors. Who knew that a simple pill or powder could reduce stress and anxiety! We may want to look at putting probiotics in human drinking water.

Dr. Darcy Adin’s topic was about the impact of nutrition on Dilated Cardiomyopathy (DCM). The presentation was extremely complex, but my takeaway was that nutrition can play a positive role in dogs with this diagnosis. Supplements like L-Carnitine, Taurine, COQ-10 and Fish oil with DHA provide supportive help and may be useful in managing symptoms of
the disease.

Dr. Stephanie McGrath presented information on the use of CBD, and the research being done at Colorado State University. The research on this topic is just beginning. Early work suggests CBD is well tolerated and has few negative side effects. However, dosing amounts in products on the market are not standardized, and not based upon clinical research. Her next research will focus on the use of CBD for
epilepsy treatment.

After individual presentations, the speakers were asked to stay for an hour for a panel discussion that included questions from the audience. This deliberate addition to the conference was well thought-out and highly effective. Questions could be directed at individual presenters or directed to the entire panel for discussion. The questions were intelligent and challenging, and the resulting discussions were to the point and relatively brief. The conference moderator could step in to move things along, but rarely needed to do anything except to say they had run out of time at the end of the panel discussion. Thankfully this was not a political debate, so the presenters were not trying to have their own voices heard at the expense of a good discussion among the experts. Sometimes a question was directed to one individual who would quickly defer to a colleague they thought could provide a better answer. As a political junkie who
listens to lots of debates, I found this refreshing—just a group of experts trying to get difficult questions answered in the best possible manner.

The second day of the conference was a bit more challenging. The morning presenters were all experts in their fields, and their presentations were extremely detailed in their science. I found myself often looking for my phone to check emails or visiting the bathroom or on-site Starbucks.

Eddie Dzuik opened with a brief description of the work being done at the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals (OFA). The DNA repository currently has more than 30,000 samples that may be used for future health studies. More DNA from affected animals is needed for future research, and they are encouraging all parent clubs to remind members to donate samples.

Drs. Steven Friedenberg, Karen Munana, Anita Oberbauer and Linda Kidd spoke about current research on Addisons disease, Steroid-responsive meningitis, auto-immune and endocrine disorders, and the link between auto-immune disease and vector-born (think tick bite) infections, respectively. Mostly their presentations clearly stressed the complexity of the issues they are addressing, and the likelihood that many disorders are polygenetic in origin, and will not be easily cured, though some research is promising. Dr. Kidd’s work may result in a shift in how we look at the immune system. She is determining that health, or homeostasis, is a balance of positive and negative bacteria, and treatments must address both targeting what is harmful and preserving what is healthy.

Dr. Jason Stull from Canada gave a truly frightening presentation on the resurgence of Leptospirosis, especially in the Midwest. The disease can be transmitted to humans, is carried by asymptomatic hosts, is found in urine-contaminated water, and contaminated areas are virtually impossible to decontaminate. Vaccination reactions are extremely low in the newer formulas, and he encourages widespread use of the vaccines, especially with young dogs who are most adversely affected by the bacteria. That is a huge shift in conventional wisdom among breeders who think young puppies should not be vaccinated against Lepto.

Drs. Breitschwerdt, Dow, Dickerson and Modiano spoke on various causes and treatments for cancers in dogs and humans. From identifying bacteria that may be causing some cancers, to using beta-blockers to treat some cancers, to exploring immune therapies to develop cancer vaccines, the research is challenging and rewarding. Clearly there will be new treatments for cancer coming to veterinary clinics near you. Dr. Stern spoke on cardiomyopathy and stressed the need for the OFA Advanced Cardiac Data Base. Dr. Clark presented on genetic risk assessment tools for multifactorial diseases and explained how complex inheritance patterns make breeding away from disease difficult, if not impossible, without genetic testing.

One of the final presenters was Dr. Brenda Bonnet, consulting epidemiologist and CEO of International Partnership For Dogs, which has started the international Harmonization of Genetic Testing in Dogs. This is important because so much DNA and genetic testing is being advised by Parent Clubs. She opened her presentation with a statement that nearly caused me to fall off my chair! There is no quality control in canine DNA testing labs. There are too many labs, and all of them rapidly commercialize (sell for a profit) the DNA tests they develop. She says there is an overemphasis on DNA testing, too early adoption of tests that have not been scientifically validated, widespread misunderstanding of how to apply results, and too much “decision-making by Facebook.” Wow! She was talking my language! My inner demographer has been craving this information from the dog world, and here it is. You can bet I will be following the International Harmonization of Genetic Testing for Dogs (HGTD) as it works to create comprehensive breed-specific packages that that describe the health picture for all breeds internationally. They are evaluating 300 tests done by more than 30 providers for more than 400 breeds—I can’t wait to see the results.

The day ended with an extraordinary presentation by Dr. Jerold Bell from Tufts University. He spoke about understanding breeds as populations—similar to early isolated human populations. My language again! A canine population specialist speaking to a sociological population specialist—it was like finding the only other person in dogs who had the same scientific background I do. He talked about the importance of diversity in a gene pool, and how inappropriate selection can do serious damage. He talked about the importance of educating breeders on the proper use and understanding of genetic testing, and
how to manage a population to increase health and genetic diversity without sacrificing important breed characteristics. He encouraged people to breed without fear, and to encourage and mentor more breeders to ensure the health of every breed’s gene pool. He encouraged all breeders to remain aware of breed conservation as they managed their breeding program.

I don’t know how I have managed to miss so many of these conferences, but I am certainly grateful for the opportunity to attend this one. While much of the detailed science was way beyond my expertise, all presentations were interesting because they affect what real breeders do every day. The researchers validate what good breeders do. We know that our world of purebred competitions cannot exist without breeders, and these are the scientists who are helping us to breed better, healthier dogs. They replace myth and hearsay with science and fact, and the importance of that cannot be underestimated. I do have a suggestion for the parent clubs, however. Instead of sending the same people to this conference every year, I’d like to recommend selecting a seasoned breeder and a novice breeder to attend together. Offer a scholarship to at least the novice breeder, if not both. Send different people every year but recommend that it is a great event for all breeders, even those who have to pay their own way. Encourage widespread attendance. This conference was one of the best I have ever attended, and it needs to be made widely available to all breeders. 

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