Spiral of Death

The delays in getting Sydney’s revived tram system up and running have gone on long enough to become the stuff of legend in New South Wales, but the development has thrown up a new problem in addition to the disruption of the seemingly never-ending construction phase: leptospirosis.

Leptospira bacteria can cause disease in humans and dogs which can be fatal. Leptospirosis is zoonotic so can be transferred between humans and dogs, but it is difficult to confirm transmission because the same serovars affect dogs as humans. Only three species of leptospira had been isolated until 1987 when sub-classification identified 19 species and 240-260 pathogenic serovars. Serovars can adapt to their local environment and, to some extent, their identification may vary according to the methodology used. Dogs in Europe are commonly exposed to the Icterohaemorrhagiae serogroups which are transmitted via infected rat urine whereas in Australia, the main vectors were usually other forms of wildlife. It seems that now however, the disruption to the local rat population caused by the building of the tram system in Sydney has enabled the bacterium to spread to the local dog population. The most commonly seen rats in Australia are the Black Rat (Rattus rattus) and the Brown Rat (Rattus norvegicus) . Both were introduced from ships arriving from Europe and Asia. The two native species, the Bush Rat (Rattus fuscipes) and the Water Rat, also known as a rabe or rakali (Hydromys chrysogaster) are unlikely to be seen in urban or suburban areas. People and other animals can become ill when the urine from and infected rat is present in water or soil that is then ingested or enters the body through a cut. It can also be spread though contact with infected blood or tissue.

Wood mice, bank voles, house mice and yellow necked mice can also carry the disease and, in common with rats, do not become ill. Rats living in confined, damp spaces such as sewers are more likely to be infected so it is thought that urban rodents are more likely to spread the disease.

So far, seven dogs have died in Sydney within 48-72 hours of being diagnosed, two of which had played in a park that had been flooded due to construction works.

The World Small Animal Veterinary Association (WSAVA) does not class the leptospirosis vaccine as being core so it is not recommended in all circumstances or geographical locations in spite of the fact that the World Health Organisation (WHO) classify it as the most widespread zoonotic disease in the world. It is not a notifiable disease in the UK. Dogs had therefore not been vaccinated as routine in new South Wales become none had ever been reported as being infected. However, the British Small Animal Veterinary Association (BSAVA) considers that leptospirosis is a core annual vaccine for dogs in the UK because they are at risk of contact with rodents and contaminated water and soil, especially in rural areas. The most common vaccines work against two serovars and there are three and four serovar versions available. Wet and warm conditions increase the chances of survival of the bacteria once they enter soil or water.

There has been some controversy spread in social media about the Lepto 4 vaccine but, although more common than in Lepto 2, adverse reactions are still extremely rare. The incidence of adverse reactions for all L2 vaccine products is 0.015% and for L4 0.069%. That means that fewer than 2 and fewer than 7 suspected adverse reactions were reported for each vaccine respectively in every 10,000 vaccines sold. Some were later found not to be attributable to the Lepto vaccination or could not be classified. Even if reactions are extremely minor (a little swelling at the injection site for a short period, for instance), it will be reported as an adverse reaction. That is not to say that worse reactions do not occur and can sometimes be fatal but, as with all vaccines, the risk of becoming very ill and dying from the disease is also very real and mostly far greater than the chance of an adverse reaction to the vaccine.

The morbidity rate for humans is one in every million in England and Wales and the mortality rate is up to 5%. Many people become infected due to prolonged contact with infected water or soil due to their occupation; the high profile case of the death of Olympic gold medallist Andy Holmes when leptospirosis resulted in multiple organ failure following a fall into a river during a rowing event shows how hazardous rivers can be. This is aggravated in times of flooding but also drought as shrinking areas of water concentrate the number of bacteria present.

Under-diagnosis, often due to differential diagnosis and self-limiting strains in the early stages, and the lack of obligation to report means that estimating the prevalence in the dog population is difficult so there are no available figures to date. Prevention still remains the best option. Dogs living near or with regular contact with water or woodland are most at risk. 14.61% of the 89 vets surveyed in the study mentioned above reported diagnosing leptospiris within the previous 12 months in n=13 dogs, 8 of which died either as a result or via euthanasia. All were under 10 years old. Only one of the dogs in the confirmed cases had been vaccinated but had not received a booster within the recommended 12 month period. Additionally, the practices that reported a lower general level of vaccination also reported higher rates of leptospirosis.

Some owners will vaccinate and then titre test their dogs to assess the level of antibodies still present before deciding whether to undertake booster vaccinations. This is not suitable for leptospirosis because the correlation between antibody levels and protection is poor and the antibodies do not persist for very long. Protection is advised as being valid for twelve months. It is not known whether natural infection results in life-long immunity. Vets will make decisions regarding the most suitable leptospiral vaccination regime by taking into account the knowledge of serovars in circulation locally, the ability of the available vaccines to provide effective coverage against the relevant serogroups, weather, flooding and environmental risks, the lifestyle of the dog, travel plans that may risk exposure to leptospirosis and public health considerations. However, a thesis written in 2014 found that only 60% of dogs attending vets had been given a vaccination. leptospirosis can be misdiagnosed in the early stages and, by the time that signs are unequivocal, mortality rate is likely to be high. Some serovars can be highly contagious. Infected humans can shed bacteria for up to a year after becoming infected and leptospira can cause abortions in cattle, sheep and pigs.

Signs of infection include:

  • High fever (which can then drop)
  • Gastroenteritis with vomiting and diarrhoea which may include blood
  • Jaundice
  • Dark urine
  • Marked dehydration
  • Congestion of the mucous membranes
  • Lethargy
  • Acute renal failure
  • Death.

Bacteria and other organisns are engaged in a constant “arms race” and there is always the risk that a new strain may appear and prove fatal. Even when dogs have been vaccinated, access to potential sources of exposure should be reduced by ensuring that dogs avoid drinking from, wading or swimming in fresh or stagnant water and marshland. Leptospirosis dies when exposed to bright sunlight and in temperatures above 20ºC (68°F), so dogs should definitely be kept away from stagnant water in shady areas. Rodent populations can be controlled by not discarding food or food-related litter or feeding wildlife. your dog may not become ill or die if he is infected but another dog or human might.

Don’t take the risk for yourself or others: vaccinate.

The Dope About Dope

DogsNet was contacted today by an organisation asking for support in promoting owner-administered cannabinoids for dogs. Promotors claim that cannabinoids can “serve as an alternative medication to help treat symptoms in dogs with cancer, seizures or anxiety”.

This is an extremely worrying trend that goes hand in hand with the provision of online veterinary “consultations” and which encourages owners to take matters into their own hands. Owners who do so in the UK may run the risk of being prosecuted under the Veterinary Surgeons Act 1966 which makes it illegal for anyone other than a registered veterinary surgeon to diagnose illness and to prescribe or administer treatment to an animal. Additionally, veterinary surgeons in the UK must abide by the European Union Veterinary Medicines Directive (2001/82) which mandates them to prescribe as a first line treatment, preparations that are licensed for animal use where they exist and thereafter:

a. A veterinary medicine product authorised in the UK for use with another animal species for that condition, or another condition for that animal species.
b. If there is no such medicine:
i. An authorised human medicine or
ii. A veterinary medicine product not authorised in the UK, but authorised in another EU member state for use with any animal species
c. If there is no such medicine, a veterinary medicine product prepared extemporaneously by a pharmacist, veterinary surgeon or person holding a manufacturing authorisation for that type of product.

Anxiety, pain, cancers and seizures are all treated, often extremely efficaciously, by existing supplements and drugs, some of which come under the veterinary cascade.

In the case of anxiety, it is essential to determine the root cause before considering relief. Over the counter preparations for anxiety can be used effectively in conjunction with a professionally provided behavioural plan and should always be used with the knowledge of the animal’s veterinary surgeon.

It is also worth pointing out that animals cannot exhibit symptoms, which are subjective, but do exhibit signs, which are objective, and frequently missed by owners (and sometimes vets). Recognition of pain in particular can be problematic with even vets being reported as referring animals for behavioural problems when in fact the cause of the aberrant behaviour has been pain. The thought that owners would be dosing their animals with quack preparations whilst their underlying condition remains undiagnosed or untreated is horrifying.

A recent review of scientific literature regarding the use of cannabinoids in veterinary medicine noted that attempts to provide medical uses of cannabinoids in the 1960s ended in failure because the therapeutic effects could not be isolated from the psychotropic effects”. The Veterinary Poisons Information Service states that “Clinical effects of cannabis toxicity in dogs are similar to those reported in humans, and usually appear after 30-90 minutes if ingested, and 6-12 minutes if inhaled. Out of the 286 cases with follow up presented to VPIS [this was within a twelvemonth period], the most common clinical effects reported were ataxia, dilated pupils, vomiting, drowsiness and hyperaesthesia. Both bradycardia and tachycardia were documented as well as hyperthermia and hypothermia; only 18 dogs remained asymptomatic…While dogs typically recover from cannabis intoxication with no long-term effects, complications, the exposure to a potent strain or the ingestion of a large amount of the drug can be fatal.”

The way that cannabinoids affect the human and canine body is extremely complex. Cannabinoids do not only affect the body’s cannabinoid receptors but those that affect mood-altering hormones as well as those that affect inflammatory processes. Thus far, evidence concerning the effects of cannabinoids in animals has only been found at an experimental level during the pre-clinical testing of specific substances in laboratory rodents (mice, rats and guinea pigs). A much smaller number of published papers concern pre-clinical testing of cannabinoids in rabbits, ferrets, cats and dogs and very few of those provide reliable sources concerning the clinical use of cannabinoids in veterinary medicine for companion animals. The majority of articles published about companion animals concern marijuana poisoning and its treatment. One study tested the effects of an ophthalmic solution containing 2% THC on aqueous humour flow rate and intraocular pressure in 21 clinically normal dogs. Aquaeous humour is a fluid that helps to regulate the shape of the eye and pressure is measured as an indication of, amongst other things, glaucoma. The study found a moderate reduction in mean intraocular pressure in the dogs. Another study found a reduction in skin inflammation produced by hypersensitivity to the Ascaris antigen in six beagles that were injected with Palmitoylethanolamide (PEA).

Not something that an owner would be fiddling round with and hardly a body of evidence in support of clinical use.

The literature review concluded “It should also be taken into account that the majority of cannabinoids possess psychotropic properties which may change the behaviour of animals (eg locomotion) and that these substances have addictive potential”.

Furthermore, the authors state: “The reluctant attitude of veterinarians towards the use of cannabinoids/medical marijuana in animals could be associated with the risk that owners will make attempts to treat their animals using cannabis-based products, which can lead to intoxication”.

They are not kidding. The VPIS raised similar concerns in 2016 when they noted “With recent votes legalising the use of both recreational and medicinal cannabis in some US states (Colorado, Washington, Alaska and Oregon) and the growing popularity of cannabis-infused pet products, there has been a lot of discussion around its effect in animals. The US’ Pet Poison Helpline have reported a 200% increase in the number of enquiries they have received on this agent…Trupanion, an American pet insurance company, reported receiving a claim of over $6,000 for a Shetland Sheepdog who ate a tray of “weed brownies” and needed to be hospitalised for seven days.”

The fact that various over the counter preparations are openly on sale in the UK would suggest that they are so lacking in potency as to be virtually ineffective. They will probably prove to be profitable because, let’s face it, some people still believe in homeopathy and some vets still peddle it.

There is certainly scope for investigating the potential for clinical use of cannabinoids but, there are already plenty of products available that have been proven to be effective and, more to the point, are dispensed by qualified professionals.

At best, dosing your dog with cannabis (aka snake) oil will probably not do much harm in and of itself (other than to your pocket), but not getting professional veterinary advice almost certainly will if your dog is suffering from any of the things that the purveyors of these products claim to be able to alleviate.

You can find more information at Rational Veterinary Medicine.

Hidden In Plain Sight

I recently wrote about the seasonal dangers of hidden adders and oak processionary moths, but the Veterinary Poisons Information Service highlights a recently published paper reporting that there is a canine hazard hiding in plain sight – the common stinging nettle (Urtica dioica).

Two gun dogs developed signs of neurological toxicity after working in the same area on the same day. One was a seven-year-old castrated male springer spaniel weighing 18kg and the other a two-year-old spayed female Labrador retriever weighing 21 kg. The dogs presented with slightly different signs that included a skin reaction (urticaria), rapid, abnormal breathing (tachypnoea), hypersalivation, constricted pupils in both eyes, reduced ability to walk showing in all four legs, twitching muscles and decreases in normal reflex actions. One dog suffered three episodes over a three week period and the other just one. Both dogs made a complete recovery after veterinary treatment. Some dogs have been reported as circling and showing signs of gastrointestinal problems and collapse after exposure to stinging nettles.

Pretty much everyone will have been stung by nettles – was it just my dog who chose to defecate amidst nettles or brambles? They are also often a hazard when wearing short sleeved clothing when it is easy to brush against them on overgrown paths. Nettles grow hairs known as trichomes that contain, amongst other chemicals, histamine, acetylcholine and 5-hydroxytryptamine (serotonin), all of which can cause toxicity in humans and other animals. Different species of nettle contain different concentrations of toxins and individuals vary in their susceptibility.

I am particularly interested in this report because I suspect that I might be particularly susceptible to at least one toxin. If I am stung, symptoms often persist over several days and flare up when I think that they have died down. I don’t know of anyone else that reacts in the same way.

So, it seems that we need to be cautious when our dogs are rooting around, seemingly unperturbed by nettles and perhaps consider it as a possibility if any of the above signs are seen following a walk or after a dog has been working in nettles.

This Year’s Crufts Controversies

Tragically, it seems inevitable that there would be something considering how little improvement we have seen in many suffering breeds and how entrenched poor breeding and judging still is.

In the show ring, Pedigree Dogs Exposed reports that the pug Eastonite Randy Andy won Best of Breed. I would like to think that one glance at this dog would make even the most ardent fan of snorting, brachycephalic dogs think that something was awry – literally – (I live in hope). Not the KC judges, however (I am not surprised).

The dog has severely stenotic nares and strabismus. In other words, it can barely breathe and it, again literally, cannot see straight because one eye is turned outwards permanently due to a shallow eye socket. The KC breed standard says that this dog’s eyes should be “full of fire” when it is excited. Maybe because it is so angry that humans keep on writing stupid rules and rewarding severe defects deliberately caused by in-breeding.

It is common knowledge that first cousin marriages in humans double the chance of severe birth defects in offspring. Various studies have proved that being born to a marriage of first cousins produces a one in sixteen chance of suffering from a congenital abnormality. First cousins have an in-breeding coefficient of 6.25%. If a grandfather produced an offspring via his granddaughter, their in-breeding coefficient would be 12.25% and father to daughter 25%.

Eastonite Randy Andy has an in-breeding coefficient of 19.8%. This compares to the breed average of 4.9%.

So much for the KC Pug Health Scheme. The KC Pug Information Pack says that “The Kennel Club will not register merle pugs, including those imported from overseas. This is because the merle gene in this breed carries an increased risk of impaired hearing and sight problems”.

True. However, the KC does not seem to worry that extreme in-breeding of registered dogs that are a “recognised” colour is just as likely to result in problems such as those presented in poor Eastonite Randy Andy, whose owners will no doubt use the BOB as a promotion to perpetuating his line as much as possible. The information pack does not even mention BOAS. Recent research, funded by the Kennel Club Charitable Trust, found that half the dogs in the study of 189 pugs, 214 French bulldogs and 201 bulldogs were suffering from BOAS which was likely to shorten their lives by 3 years – approximately one third of their expected life span. That is equivalent to lopping nearly 27 years off the average life expectancy of a man in the UK purely because of deliberate in-breeding fuelling the demand for severely deformed dogs. 30% of affected dogs also have a tendency to regurgitate saliva or food in addition to not being able to breathe, frequent fainting and the ever-present danger that they will just die in their sleep.

Where the KC leads, others follow.

Royal Canin market so-called breed-specific food. Royal Canin say on their website “At Royal Canin, we believe that every dog is unique. We research breed-specific traits before combining scientific and nutritional research from our veterinarians and nutrition experts to create precise nutrition for your dog. Whatever your breed of dog, this range contains a multitude of formulas tailored to individual dog breeds. ”

“Whatever your breed of dog?” hardly. You’re catered for (literally) if you have a beagle, bichon frise, boxer, CKC spaniel, Chihuahua, Cocker spaniel, Dalmatian, dachshund, French bulldog, GSD, golden retriever, great Dane, JRT, Labrador, Maltese terrier, miniature Schnauzer, poodle (size not specified), pug, Rottweiler, Shih Tzu, WHWT or Yorkshire terrier. That leaves 196 of the UKKC “recognised” breeds untouched then, never mind the remaining 150 or so that the FCI “recognise”.

Royal Canin go on to state that their breed-specific food “…features high-quality protein sources, unique nutrients, and [is] designed with specific shape, size and texture for each dog’s facial and jaw structures and biting patterns.”

Unique nutrients? This amounts to a few more herbs here and a few more (unproven) nutraceuticals there by the looks of it.

I couldn’t find any detailed information on the UK website but the Australian site does have a breakdown of the breed-specific food. Some are more active and require joint support. Others need their appetites kept under control. Then there are those whose jaws make it hard to pick up kibble. These needs are why Royal Canin make specific breed-specific diets”.

Why would more active dogs require joint support? Surely a dog that is suitably stimulated and exercised just needs to eat well, not be stuffed full of prophylactic joint supplements. There is of course no control over owners who may feed additional supplements. This suggest that amounts in food are so low as to have little efficacy, not least given that there is no warning not to give additional supplements and there is no loading dose which would be the case if a vet prescribed them.

There is very little relaible information on the nutrient requirements of different breeds. Thus, breed-specific dog and cat foods may not contain breed-specific, optimum nutrient contents , never mind a suitable dose for an individual. There are definite breed-specific nutritional needs such as carefully formulated food for large breed puppies to control growth and prevent surplus weight damaging joints. Useless though if the dog is then over-exercised. Great Danes have a unique metabolism and require more calcium and protein than small and medium-sized breeds to ensure that their bones and muscles develop properly. Arctic breeds can suffer from zinc deficiency, Bedlington terriers can suffer from copper storage disease and both Bedlingtons and Great Danes are affected by copper and calcium toxicity at lower intake levels than other breeds.

That aside, the Crufts controversy was caused by Royal Canin’s marketing of “bulldog-specific” food. Now, as they point out in their marketing, severely brachycephalic dogs can find it very difficult to eat due to the poor conformation of their face and teeth and the fact that many are struggling to breathe simultaneously through their mouths (not a normal way of breathing for dogs) just to get enough air in to survive. Many struggle to even pick up kibble and are more prone to dental caries and related health problems because of the misalignment of their bite. The explosion in the numbers of such dogs being bred, registered by the KC or not, provides a potentially lucrative market for dog food companies, especially if they can convince owners to buy breed-specific food. The in-breeding coefficient of KC-registered bulldogs is 8.4%. Pretty grim, and much worse than the pug or the French bulldog (2.5%)

Royal Canin, official sponsors, compounded the issue by using a drawing of a severely brachycephalic dog to advertise their breed-specific foods at Crufts. The massive deformed face was flaunted on a giant banner until protests by vets and other concerned individuals obliged them to remove it and apologise. This occasioned the usual counter-protests from breeders who are perpetuating the phenotype but was not picked up to a great extent by other media. Perhaps it is a form of compassion fatigue because there are so many reasons for Crufts to raise the hackles of people genuinely concerned for canine welfare.

Minor in comparison, but an indication that poor practices are creeping into non-showing activities at Crufts was the acceptance of Rachel Ward’s Shimmer in the agility ring when it was dyed pink. Allegedly she was told to remove the dye but she clearly did not, and perhaps it is time for other disciplines to tighten their rules to prevent this sort of abomination being perpetuated.

Running Commentary

As we are (I hope) coming to the end of a miserably hot summer I find that it beggars belief how many people continued to inflict heavy exercise and exposure to direct sun on their dogs without any apparent concern for their welfare. Most owners have a very poor grasp of how to fulfil their dog’s needs for stimulation and exercise and assume that “a good run” is ideal regardless of the weather or the obvious distress of their dog.

The numbers of people running with dogs and towing them behind bicycles has increased massively in recent years and with it consequential stress and probably injury to dogs. It hasn’t been helped by the heavy promotion of running and cycling and dog ownership as being beneficial (to humans) without a simultaneous education campaign about canine welfare and owner responsibilities.

No doubt the runners soak their own aches and pains in a hot bath or pay for a massage but do they ever consider how sore their dogs are after they have been pounding tarmac for an hour? What exactly possessed the owner whom I see in the park to force his limping, overweight (black) dog to run with him a few short weeks after having cruciate ligament surgery, itself damage exacerbated by her excess weight? But damaged ligaments and sore muscles are not the only danger to dogs that are made to run.

When the message that dogs can die in minutes in a hot car hasn’t got through to professionals, never mind the public, no wonder that owners give little consideration to heat stress in their companion dogs. It is not just people competing with their dogs in sports such as Cani-X, Bikejor and sled racing but individuals who decide that they can kill two birds with one stone by getting the “chore” of the dog walk and their own exercise completed in one go.

A new study investigating the body temperature of dogs competing in Cani-X is therefore a very important step towards establishing reliable guidelines as to the effect on canine welfare when dogs run.

This study and those that it cites confirm that there are many factors that affect whether a dog will suffer from heat stress, or worse, heatstroke, when obliged to run, including the weather conditions on the day. Heatstroke can be fatal condition and can occur after just six minutes of exercise in hot conditions. Owners have little or no understanding of how their dogs regulate heat as evidenced by the number of people shaving off their dog’s coat or swaddling their dogs in raincoats just because they don’t want them to get dirty. The warmer that the environment becomes, taking into account humidity and wind as well as “actual” temperature, the less efficient that the dog’s natural mechanisms of heat loss become.

There are other factors to consider in addition. Dogs measured after competing in Cani-X were significantly hotter than bitches and dark-coloured dogs developed significantly higher temperatures after running when compared to medium-coloured dogs, but not when compared to pale-coloured dogs. The dogs with the hottest post-running temperatures were thus more likely to be male and dark coated. Also, dogs that completed the course in the fastest times had higher post-running temperatures. This would suggest that a sprinter, such as a greyhound, would be hotter after running a typical race than might a Siberian Husky after running a long-distance sled course. Dogs running up a slope also had significantly higher temperatures after racing than those running on the flat.

The study suggested that, theoretically, all racing dogs would exhibit potentially dangerous high temperatures once the temperature reaches 22°C (taking into account the humidity and wind factors). The longer that the dog’s temperature remains high (approximately 3°C above the average resting temperature) the more likely the dog is to sustain long-term damage from heatstroke. In all of the races where dogs’ temperature was measured in the study, at least one dog developed a body temperature that would be considered to be at risk for developing heatstroke, with the highest recorded temperature being 4.5°C above the average resting temperature (bearing in mind that there is some individual variation). All of the dogs returned to a normal body temperature within 10–20 minutes of finishing their race. However, had the ambient temperatures been higher, this may have taken longer and owners also need to realise that dogs do not cool down immediately after stopping any more than people do. Running with a dog and then transporting it in a hot car and/or leaving it in a hot room may inhibit cooling considerably. It must also be noted that some of the dogs that had been raced when it was snowing still exhibited potentially dangerous high temperatures after running.

Owners who compete regularly with dogs are likely to monitor their water intake and regulate their diet with a great level of precision and understanding of their dogs’ requirements. Owners who haul their unfit dogs around the park are not. As the study’s author commented, “An unfit, poorly acclimatised, dark coated male dog may be at greater risk of heatstroke running in late autumn than a pale coated, female dog in regular training, running in the middle of summer”.

It beggars belief that owners with brachycephalic and achondroplastic dogs force them to run but it is easy to see that they do in any park on any day. Small dogs are also less able to regulate their temperature and are often those rugged up at every opportunity, including on warm, wet, muggy days when they too, are forced to run.

Dogs that are only taken out to run with owners have no opportunity to sniff and socialise and are often interpreted as being aggressive by other dogs as they run past in a desperate attempt to keep up with their owners. I have seen extremely fearful dogs quivering with stress as they weigh up whether to risk running past another dog or lose sight of their owner who, more often than not is either oblivious with headphones blasting muzak into their ears or running on whilst screaming at their dog to catch up.

It is amazing, especially this summer, that more dogs do not suffer from heatstroke as a consequence, although the long term damage to their social requirements and toll on their bodies is less apparent.

All owners need to be alert to the potential for heat stroke and over exertion in their dogs and to ensure that they neither drink too much or too little.

Many thanks to Emily J Hall and Anne Carter Pullen for making their research available and for the permission to link to the canine heatstroke website.

It’s in the DNA

DNA sequencing is the process of determining the precise order of nucleotides within a DNA Whole genome sequencing has made the complete DNA sequence of an organism available for analysis and study. The first organism to be sequenced in 1977 was a virus and the human genome project was launched in 1990, with the first draft of the full sequence being published in 2001 and the final draft in 2003. The dog genome was published in 2005 and <ahref=”https://research.nhgri.nih.gov/dog_genome/study_descriptions/publications-study.shtml#genomics_dog_breeds” target=”_blank”>several peer-reviewed publications detail research into the origins of the domestic dog, variations in physical characteristics and canine diseases.

Originally an expensive process, DNA testing and sequencing has become considerably cheaper and 19 laboratories across the globe support commercial provision of approximately 200 DNA tests, most commonly undertaken for disease prevalence and to determine breeds in crosses. However, not all DNA tests are the same. Knowing what breeds constitute a cross may provide a broad idea of temperament but the effects of epigenetics and other environmental factors, not to mention training, play a huge role in determining how a dog will behave. Even where susceptibility to disease and defects are concerned, DNA tests need to be treated with caution, as indeed do other tests such as screening for hip and elbow dysplasia which need to be seen in the context under which the results are reported as well as assessing the validity of the tests themselves. Inaccuracies in human genetic tests can be as high as 40% and with humans and dogs, the tests are often only partial, with companies failing to screen for all known disease-linked mutations. For example, a mutation in the ABCB1 gene occurs in many herding dogs including collies, Australian shepherds and Shetland sheepdogs that renders them susceptible to poisoning by commonly used veterinary medications such as flea and worm treatments., Although there is a genetic test available to screen for one type of this mutation, it appears that two other types are not screened for which may result in dogs being designated as clear when they are not.

An article in the prestigious journal Nature has raised serious concerns about the scientific basis behind DNA testing to predict the likelihood of disease occurrence as well as concerns regarding conflicts of interest. They state that most genetic tests for health are based on small studies where the accuracy and ability to predict health outcomes has not been validated. Owners are likely to come across the results via breeders and/or vets, neither of whom are unlikely to possess detailed knowledge about the limitations of such tests. This can not only lead to owners being misled, but to dogs undergoing invasive and unnecessary testing and even being euthanised on the basis of the results.

As with human DNA testing, researchers look for mutations on “candidate genes” that might lead to future genetically-linked health problems. However, just possessing a mutation is not guarantee that disease will develop: this has only been found to be the case in 2% of human candidate gene studies. In human genetics, collaboration between industry, academia, doctors and patients has resulted in a more detailed and nuanced assessment of the effect of candidate genes. No such collaboration exists, or is likely to in the near future, where canine health is concerned.

There is also plenty of scope for conflict of interest and little or no regulation with a predicted explosion in the availability of relatively cheap testing for dog owners.
The authors of the study are calling for:

  • The establishment of common standards in testing methodology and the reporting of test results
  • The establishment of guidelines drawn up by interested parties and which may form the basis for legislation
  • Comprehensive sharing of anonymised data
  • Recruitment of dedicated expertise to manage and analyse data
  • The development of a cadre of professional genetic counsellors to provide support and advice to owners following genetic tests with potential for affiliation with counterparts in human genetic counselling at leading academic medical centres.

Genetic testing is a vital tool for improving dog health and it would be a tragedy for dogs if commercial incentives and incomplete knowledge were to lead to it being generally discredited because it has been falsely presented. We have seen the damage being wreaked from the false information spread about vaccination. It should serve as a warning.

Against the Grain

There has been an explosion in the availability of grain-free canine diets, not to mention the increasing popularity of meat-based raw diets which accompany the belief that dogs are “natural” meat eaters and little changed from their supposed carnivorous wolf ancestors. Unlike cats, even wolves are not obligate carnivores and eat a varied diet including the grain and grasses in the stomachs of their prey as well as berries.

It bears repeating yet again then, that the domestic dog is not descended from any living wolf but from a mega-fauna wolf that is now extinct. In the initial process of self-domestication, rapidly accelerated when man began to intervene, the dog adapted to new environments and became something utterly unique.

Whole-genome re-sequencing of dogs and wolves has identified 3.8 million genetic variants and 36 genomic regions that are thought to represent targets for selection during dog domestication. Ten of the genes play key roles in starch digestion and fat metabolism which show also that dogs changed as they became domesticated. Mutations in key genes enabled increased starch digestion in dogs relative to wolves, indicating that the early ancestors of modern dogs thrived on an omnivorous diet rich in starch relative to the largely carnivorous diet of wolves. This was a crucial step in
domestication because early dogs probably both scavenged from and lived with man, either way sharing a diet that included starch-based nutrients.

Further evidence that dogs are perfectly well-adapted to eating grain and starch has come from recent research into the Mayan civilisation dating from 1000 BCE to 250 CE. The Pre-classic Period between 1000 BCE and 175 CE provides the earliest direct evidence that live dogs were traded in the Americas as remains of two dogs and one jaguar-type feline, deposited between 400 and 300 BCE, were found to be non-local animals. The remains were recovered from two large pyramids in a central plaza and dated using radiocarbon dating techniques, leading researchers to conclude that that all three animals may have been involved with early ceremonial events at the site. It is thought that the dogs originated from the Guatemalan volcanic highlands and the foothills of central Guatemala and that they were imported via a trade network as gifts or as companions belonging to humans travelling along the route.

Remains of dozens of local dogs proved that they had been eating a diet rich in maize, whilst the two imported dogs showed evidence suggesting that they also consumed less meat than a carnivore. The canines were mostly small and resembled modern Chihuahuas. Butchery marks found previously on ancient dog bones at other Mayan sites suggest that the dogs were raised as a food source and it is possible that maize-fed dogs were a significant protein source for the Mayans before they domesticated turkeys.

Anti-microbial Resistance – Are YOU Making Things Worse?

The World Health Organisation (WHO) regards anti-microbial resistance as being “one of the biggest threats to global health”. The Wellcome Trust commissioned a survey in 2015 to evaluate the perception of antibiotic effectiveness and potential problems in the UK. The worrying conclusions were that

“…resistance’ is either not on the radar or misunderstood – everyone assumes it’s the person that becomes resistant”

“There’s a natural tendency to dismiss the idea – or to purposefully blank it out”

“…everyone assumes that the experts will work it out – they are confident that time and money will be spent to find a ‘cure’ and that it will eventually all be ‘sorted’ and some then struggle with what they personally can really do about it”.

The majority of the population alive in the UK today has grown up in a world where antibiotics and mass vaccination are easily available (and often free or heavily subsidised at the point of use). Many of these people have become complacent and latched onto panics when they fail to assess the actual level of risk posed by the miniscule chance that a reaction will occur. Conversely, they are much more likely to ignore the very real risk that resistance is occurring and that the commercial realities of capitalism mean that big pharma mean has not developed an effective new class of antibiotics since 1987.

Antibiotic resistance is not just a problem for humans directly, but for our companion animals and those in the human food chain. Whilst misuse by human and animal health professionals and the public has contributed to the problem, the increasing popularity of raw food diets fed to companion animals may be providing a new source of resistance.

Escherichia coli (E.coli) is just one of the so-called “superbugs” that is causing worry and is prevalent in commercial raw food diets for companion animals examined recently in the Netherlands. The study found that cats and dogs fed raw meat are much more likely to become infected with such antibiotic-resistant bacteria than animals on conventional diets and that shedding of ESBL-producing Enterobacteriaceae was more likely in dogs that ate raw meat.

Campylobacter infection is a serious concern in poultry and, while the FSA has made great strides in working with supermarkets to lower the levels of contamination, the same cannot be said of independent retailers where owners feeding home made raw diets may shop for products such as chicken wings that are not available in supermarkets.

There was “universal agreement” at the recent British Veterinary Nursing Association (BVNA) congress “that homemade raw feeding is dangerous because it is so difficult to get right in terms of nutrients and balance. They also agreed that handling raw meat products is riskier.” Several studies were presented to the congress proving that raw meat diets pose a “serious health risk to the animals concerned, their owners and the wider public”. Mike Davies, a vet who specialises in clinical nutrition stated that veterinary professionals would be “crazy” to recommend raw diets not least because they could be held legally liable and open to prosecution if a person became seriously ill or died as a direct result of them recommending a raw diet. Marge Chandler who practices as a private consultant in small animal medicine and nutrition also concluded that homemade raw diets are too variable, unbalanced and lacking in essential nutrients and that few commercial raw diets have
been properly evaluated in feeding trials. Davies suggested that clients be asked to sign disclaimers if they opt for raw feeding but that would still do nothing to protect staff or the wider public from the effects of pathogens that their animals are shedding. (Veterinary Record 2017 181: 384 doi: 10.1136/vr.j4709)

The presence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria in raw diets poses a serious risk to animal and human health because infections are difficult to treat and because they contribute to a widespread occurrence of the bacteria in the environment.

Don’t contribute to the problem in the false belief that your animal will be healthier – nothing could be further from the truth.

With thanks to Paul Overgaauw for making the full text of his study [Zoonotic bacteria and parasites found in raw meat-based diets for cats and dogs, Veterinary Record, V182(2)] available as well as published articles discussing the results.

What’s In Your Pie?

In spite of plenty of peer-reviewed studies and veterinary advice to the contrary, owners are still being conned by the “feed raw” myth.

Well unsurprisingly, another peer-reviewed study has concluded that raw food is often riddled with parasites and bacteria:
Bacteria

  • Escherichia coli serotype O157:H7 (infection can lead to haemorrhagic diarrhoea and kidney failure) – present in 23% of products
  • Extended-spectrum beta-lactamases-producing E coli (can cause urinary tract infections that can also progress to sepsis and which are resistant to many penicillin and cephalosporin antibiotics and other types of antibiotic) – present in 80% of products
  • Listeria monocytogenes (one of the most virulent food-borne pathogens responsible for an estimated 1,600 illnesses and 260 deaths in the USA annually, with 20% to 30% of infections in high-risk individuals proving fatal) – present in 54& of products
  • Other Listeria species were present in 43% of products
  • Salmonella species the second most common food-borne pathogen in Europe) – present in 20% of products.

Parasites

  • Sarcocystis cruzi (causes acute fever, myalgia, bronchospasm, pruritic rashes, lymphadenopathy, subcutaneous nodules associated with eosinophilia, elevated erythrocyte sedimentation rate and elevated creatinine kinase levels. Symptoms may last for five years in humans) – present in 11% of products
  • S tenella (causes similar effects as Sarcocystis cruzi) – present in 11% of products
  • Toxoplasma gondii (can cause changes in human behaviour by altering the effects of dopamine and testosterone causing reduced psychomotor performance) – present in 6% of products.

The study examined 203 products from 21 brands. Alarmingly, the authors noted that warnings and handling instructions on packages were lacking from all but one brand”. Even where that one warning was apparent, it does not mitigate the fact that salmonella in particular are resistant to destruction even when food bowls are cleaned at high temperatures, using detergents in a dishwasher or treated with disinfectant. Salmonellae infection in raw foods varies from 7% to 80% in Canada and 5% to 45% in the USA. A systematic review of case–control studies has shown that direct contact with companion animals plays a major role in human salmonellosis and direct transmission has been reported frequently. Human outbreaks of salmonella infections have been associated with contaminated dried pig ears and contaminated chicken jerky treats as well as raw diets. Animals are exposed directly to foodborne pathogens when they ingest food and humans through direct contact with the food, contact with a contaminated animal by sharing the same bed and allowing licking of the face and hands, contact with household surfaces or by ingesting cross-contaminated human food. Cross-contamination may occur after preparing RMBDs or cleaning infected food bowls.

Unlike in companion animals, L monocytogenes can cause serious illness in human beings. Infection of healthy adults usually leads to influenza-like symptoms, but can be life-threatening, especially in neonates and pregnant women where it may cause abortion. Contaminated food products, including raw meat, are common sources of infection and the bacteria replicate easily in food bowls at room temperature. Vacuum cleaner waste from households with RMBD-fed dogs has also been shown to be more
frequently contaminated with salmonella species than waste from other households because animals fed on raw food will be continually shedding pathogens into the environment.

The authors of the study concluded “The results of this study demonstrate the presence of potential zoonotic pathogens in frozen RMBDs that may be a possible source of bacterial infections in pet animals and if transmitted pose a risk for human beings. If non-frozen meat is fed, parasitic infections are also possible. Pet owners should therefore be informed about the risks associated with feeding their animals RMBDs”.

Dogs and cats may be asymptomatic even though infected. Humans are more likely to develop illnesses picked up from their animals because pathogens remain for much longer in the digestive tract and have the opportunity to multiply. Young, elderly and immuno-compromised people are much more at risk and can be infected by asymptomatic humans as well as their animals. Pathogens can also harm other animals: bitches have aborted when infected by pathogens from raw meat products and fatal septicaemic salmonellosis has killed cats fed on raw meat diets.

So, apart form not providing a balanced diet including all of the requisite nutritional elements for dogs and cats, feeding raw diets could result in illness and death as pathogens are shed by animals into the environment and spread after being handled by humans.

FSA Warn Against Raw Chicken – Again

Yet again the FSA has been obliged to issue a warning against eating raw and undercooked chicken. The latest warning was prompted by a chef who was promoting chicken sashimi and who stated that “…if birds have been free range, kept in quality conditions and processed in a clean environment, there’s not so much to worry about”.

Not much other than campylobacter, salmonella and e coli that is. The FSA state yet again that “All raw chicken is unsafe to eat” regardless of the conditions in which the birds have been kept. They add that, in humans, eating raw or undercooked chicken can result in “Symptoms [that] include abdominal pain, diarrhoea, vomiting and fever. In some cases, these bugs can lead to serious conditions”.

In an update on October 19th, 2017, the FSA published their annual results, and, although levels of campylobacter have continued to fall in tested chickens, between 46.7% and 67.3% of chickens tested positive. the high-level campylobacter prevalence among the top nine most popular retailers surveyed was 5.6%. That means for every 100 chickens purchased, at least five are likely to have very high levels of contamination. Smaller retailers and butchers had a significantly higher prevalence at 17.1%. This is especially significant as people who feed raw diets are more likely to shop at independent retailers, presuming that the food will be “healthier”.

Dogs have different digestive systems to humans; they have a shorter digestive tract and a higher stomach acidity. This means that, if otherwise healthy, they are less susceptible to the pathogens present in raw chicken as bacteria do not stay in the dog’s body for as long as they do in a human. The bacteria have less time to multiply to dangerous levels and dogs are generally better able to cope with the toxins that the bacteria produce which is the cause of illness in humans and dogs. Whilst healthy dogs might be able to cope with the pathogens that they shed when fed a raw diet, young, old or sick dogs will be less resilient and all of the humans with which they come in contact will also be exposed.

A peer-reviewed paper published in April 2017 noted that the cats in the study shed pathogens as a result of eating a raw diet “for months” and concluded “The practice of feeding raw meat to dogs and cats may increase the potential transmission risk of meat-borne pathogens to people. Pet owners, especially individuals at increased risk for infectious diseases (small children, old people and immunocompromised individuals), should be aware of the safety risks of feeding RMBDs”[raw, meat-based diets]. Of course the transmission of pathogens from handling the food and the dog or cat will not only affect people in the household. Dogs and outdoor cats have the potential to come into contact with vulnerable people every day as well as other animals.
Charity Burns By Your Side is the most recent organisation to exclude dogs from their volunteer scheme if they are fed a raw diet.

There is a lot of anecdotal support that can be found online from supporters of raw diets but, not only is there no peer-reviewed evidence to back it up, a growing body of a veterinary organisations and scientists are finding that such diets are harmful because they lack essential nutrients and can cause damage when digested and excreted.
There is another worrying factor that is not immediately obvious for some owners who feed raw. There is evidence to suggest that such owners are also less likely to use prophylactic health care such as vaccination and treatments that prevent parasitic infestation because they do not trust veterinary advice.

The serious contamination of pet food with illegally imported melamine in 2007 still has repercussions, although food in the UK was not affected. Marion Nestle’s Pet Food Politics: The Chihuahua in the Coal Mine provides the only independent account of this scandal. Anyone contemplating feeding raw because they do not trust commercial dog food should read it. Similarly, scares about the dangers of human vaccines abound, even though disproven and have spread to companion animals.

The wide availability of NHS services means that most people in the UK are not used to paying for healthcare at point of use. Many are therefore shocked at the cost of veterinary treatment and accuse vets of profiteering, having no idea of the actual cost to the vet, and ignoring the fact that, if vets do not make a profit, they will go out of business. They are similarly inclined to accuse pharmaceutical companies of advising over-vaccination. Again, this is illogical: no vet would ethically or professionally administer a drug that was not necessary. In fact they could be prosecuted if they did.

Not vaccinating puts your dog and every other dog at risk from dying of parvo-virus, leptospirosis, canine parainfluenza, distemper and hepatitis. Not worming your dog puts other dogs and humans at risk of picking up tapeworms, lungworm and toxocariasis amongst others.
Some of these diseases such as parvo virus and distemper were rare due to mass immunisation in the 1970s and later, but are now on the increase fuelled in part by the number of illegally imported dogs. This, combined with irresponsible owners not vaccinating their dogs reduces the herd immunity conveyed when the majority of dogs are protected, so the danger of catching a potentially fatal disease is increased for each unvaccinated dog.

The evidence is plain. Don’t feed raw , vaccinate your dog and treat it for fleas and ticks. It is your responsibility to your dog, every other dog and your community.