Thursday, October 20, 2011

Thoughts on the Tufts Canine & Feline Breeding & Genetics Conference

Photo by Rachel Doyle
I attended this year's Tufts cat & dog genetics conference at the Omni Parker House in Boston. It was a last-minute opportunity, when my friend Gina Spadafori had to cancel and transferred her registration to me.

It was two solid days, 8am to 5pm, with a lunch break and two short breaks, one in the morning and the other in the afternoon. We sat in a room set up classroom style and listened to researchers and veterinarians talk about genetics research on cats and dogs, and the implications for breeding purebred and pedigreed dogs and cats, as well as behavior and health care for pet dogs and cats. Does that sound dull? It was fascinating!

Dogs and humans hooked up maybe forty thousand years ago, maybe even earlier. The genetic and archaeological evidence isn't 100% clear yet. Cats moved in with us about ten thousand years ago, when we started settling down, inventing agriculture, and storing grain. At this point, we've had a significant impact on the genetics of both species.

This conference is for the veterinarians, the breeders, and other serious "pet people" who want to know more about keeping cats and dogs healthy--making the breeding choices that minimize the risks of genetics-based diseases in the first place, but also recognizing, treating, and managing those diseases when they present themselves. One important point that was made repeatedly is that while a few genetic diseases are a simple question of "have the gene (or two copies of the gene), have the disease", most are more complicated. Having the "wrong" gene or combination of genes significantly increases the risk, but developing the disease is a combination of the genetics, environment, and even nutrition. All AKC Dalmatians have the gene that causes high uric acid and are at high risk for forming stones and blockages (but more about that in a future post); they don't all develop stones or blockages. The right diet can reduce (but not eliminate) the risk. If you have a Dal, it's important to know that. Bull terriers are susceptible to "spinning" and tail-chasing, not in a fun, puppy-playing kind of way, but in an obsessive-compulsive way. Dogs suffering from a severe form of it can seriously hurt themselves, and certainly aren't enjoying their lives. It shows every sign of being genetic in origin, but not in the simple, straightforward way of Dalmatians all being homozygous for the gene that causes high uric acid. There's not one gene to select against. For many dogs, though, their lives can be kept manageable and happy with management of their environment and/or medication.

I'm working on an occasional series of posts that will cover some of the many specific topics presented at the conference in more detail. First up will be the post on Dalmatians, because there's a really happy development there.

I hope you'll enjoy these upcoming posts.