Depressing DNA: On genetic diseases and the future of pet-dom
For the past eight months, I’ve been putting together this genetic disease library for Embrace Pet Insurance. It’s a labor of love and a well-paying job––not to mention a great review of the 120 most common genetic diseases we see in companion animal medicine. Problem is, it’s also depressing.
Why? Because every time I get to the end of an article (on, say, spina bifida or elbow dysplasia) I’m forced to stare down the same underlying problem yet again.
Let me explain: After spending 600 carefully chosen words describing the basic devastations of each genetic disease I profile, I inevitably arrive at a section titled, “Prevention.” Here, I always detail the ways we can mitigate the condition’s overall impact on canine and feline health. And it almost always goes something like this:
There is no direct mode of prevention for X disease. Consequently, genetic counseling to advance the sterilization of affected animals and their first degree relatives (parents and siblings) is a fundamental approach to limiting the inheritance of the genetic material responsible for this disorder.
Pretty basic, right? Ain’t much else you can say in the case of most diseases except maybe, “Keep animals lean to minimize the effects of X inherited orthopedic condition or Y endocrine disorder.” But as I completed more and more of these articles, I noticed that all these ancillary prevention techniques belonged in the treatment section, instead.
After all, our pets have either got these genes or they don’t. So you won’t find yourself preventing their expression with weight loss or diet changes. Circumventing symptoms, ameliorating their severity, even messing with their expression...maybe. But preventing them? No way.
Indeed, there’s only one way to prevent genetic disease and that’s to use our "superior" human brains to accomplish the obvious: breed it out of them. Which is why I‘ve taken to adding the following brand of statement to my “Prevention” sections:
Breeders should be counseled to abandon entire breeding lines when a trait this deleterious arises. Moreover, X extreme conformation should be eliminated from breed standards to minimize the inheritance of diseases directly associated with it.
Makes sense, right? We're human. We're rational. And these are animals, to boot. Meaning that we don't have to prevent homozygous Romeo from marrying homozygous Juliet. So what's wrong with people who say they breed for health and still breed in defects as part of their breed standard?
That's why I'm thinking I should have pushed my comments further...
“If you don’t want disc disease, don’t complain; just sterilize, abort affected lines, eliminate screwtails and build a healthier back. If you don’t want painful lagophthalmos (eyes too droopy to close normally), pull the plug on the practice of breeding “bloodhound eyes” into your breed.
Think butterflied vertebrae, skin folds, hip disease, etc. All these traits might be largely prevented with judicious breeding. Most cases could be significantly minimized or potentially eliminated within three generations if those who breed truly cared more for health than for breed standards, aesthetics and the kind of competition that rewards an early bloom over long-term soundness.
You say you’re not a breeder? Fine. Then don’t buy a purebred animal unless you’re willing to accept some responsibility for the kind of diseases purebreds tend to suffer as a result of their conformation and inbreeding.”
Yep. That’s more along the lines of what I’d like to write. But I can’t exactly jump all over my needy readers like that, can I? Not when you consider that by the time anyone attempts to digest any one of these 120 genetic disease articles it’ll typically be too late for these already-sick pets.
Still, there’s an interesting catch that keeps me thinking I might have to reinforce my “Prevention” sections with some harsher language: Embrace’s Pet Health Center (where my articles are being hosted) are linking their Breed Library (the best I’ve ever seen, btw) directly to the articles I’m writing (scroll down on the same page as the breeds to see my health-related articles).
Hence, if you’re looking for a purebred dog or cat (or if you’ve been wondering what kind of diseases to expect for the one you already keep), you can research your breed and leave Embrace’s site with a list of scary stuff that actually means something. It’s info pet owners might actually use to alter their healthcare decisions. All of which means I have no reason to keep it soft...not if hitting ‘em harder means better decisions.
PS: Go check out Embrace’s website. Not only does Laura Bennett run a great blog, there you can check out the excellent Dog Breed Library along with the Dog Health & News Articles (so far all mine). If you’re wondering why some key genetic diseases aren’t there yet, it’s because I’m still working on the last 20 or so....sigh....