Dogs Help Researchers Unlock Genetic Links to Human Disease

dog genetic study

Story at-a-glance -

  • Researchers with Darwin’s Dogs are gathering data from thousands of dogs to uncover genetic factors that may influence whether a dog has a certain physical or behavioral trait or disease
  • The data may help unlock genetic links to human diseases, too, since dogs and humans share many genes and suffer from similar diseases
  • If your dog has a gene variant linked to disease, it doesn’t mean he’ll express this negative genetic potential, especially if he’s raised in a healthy environment

By Dr. Becker

Dogs and people may suffer from similar psychiatric and neurological diseases, from canine compulsive disorder (thought to be similar to human obsessive-compulsive disorder [OCD]) to canine cognitive dysfunction (similar to human dementia).

Researchers are hoping that by analyzing doggy DNA, they may uncover genetic links to these conditions that could help shed light on both canine and human variations of disease.

The project, called Darwin’s Dogs, is currently gathering data from thousands of dogs. Owners answer detailed questionnaires and send in a saliva sample, which will be used to collect the dog’s DNA. The researchers then plan to analyze the DNA samples and compare each dog’s genetics to its behaviors.

What Can Be Learned From Studying Doggy DNA?

To date, dogs have played a role in the discovery of genes linked to human diseases like epilepsy, narcolepsy and OCD.

OCD in dogs (known as canine compulsive disorder), for instance, can manifest as repetitive tail chasing or licking an area of the body so obsessively that it causes a wound (although obsessive licking may also be caused by gastrointestinal disorders).

In 2014, research published in the journal Genome Biology analyzed the DNA of 87 Doberman Pinschers (a breed prone to OCD) and revealed several genetic variants that appeared to be linked to canine OCD.1

“The limited genetic diversity of dog breeds facilitates identification of genes, functional variants and regulatory pathways underlying complex psychiatric disorders that are mechanistically similar in dogs and humans,” the study concluded.2

Because humans are so genetically diverse, it can be difficult to reveal genetic links to diseases in human studies. “Dogs, however, are more genetically homogeneous,” Nature reported, which makes them ideal for studying genetic variants.3

“Selected over thousands of years for particular characteristics, they display less genetic variation than do humans. Pure-bred dogs, in particular, have been rendered highly genetically consistent to achieve a homo­genous appearance and behavior.

Dogs also live side-by-side with humans, which some think can make them a better model for human disorders than mice living in a laboratory cage.”4

Citizen Science at Its Finest

The Darwin’s Dogs project, which began in October 2016, is for all dogs, purebred or mixed breeds, as the researchers wanted to be sure no genetic links were missed.

The researchers, which include Elinor Karlsson, Ph.D., at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, the Broad Institute and others, ultimately hope to uncover genetic factors that influence whether a dog has a certain physical or behavioral trait or disease.

“This will help both dogs and humans,” Darwin’s Dogs noted, “as we share nearly all of the same genes and suffer from many of the same disease.”5 If you’d like to enroll your own dog to take part in this citizen science project, you can do so at Darwin’s Dogs.

By crowdsourcing the data collection, the researchers get access to high-quality data — and lots of it. To date, nearly 12,000 dogs are enrolled in Darwin’s Dogs. It turns out that this type of citizen science yields accurate data, too.

In 2015, researchers conducted a study to find out if dog owners acting as citizen scientists could help in the scientific process, and it turns out they produced quality data.6

The study involved a website called Dognition, which asks participants to play games (created by scientists, trainers and behaviorists) with their dog in order to complete a Dognition Assessment.

If you’re interested in finding out how your dog stacks up intellectually and otherwise, you can conduct an online assessment of your own dog using the Dognition site (there is a fee for this service).

After you play the games with your dog and report his results, he’ll be assigned a profile based on a combination of characteristics that shape the way he approaches daily life.

What to Do If Your Pet Is Genetically Predisposed to a Certain Disease

Unlocking genetic disease markers can pave the way for increased disease understanding, but it also brings up many unanswered questions, like what to do if your dog carries a genetic variant linked to disease or a potentially harmful behavioral trait.

For starters, don’t panic. Even if your dog has a mutated gene, it doesn’t mean he’ll express this negative genetic potential. In other words, having a certain "OCD gene" does not guarantee that your dog will suffer from the disease.

Karlsson points out, for example, that your dog’s personality and behavior are the result not only of genetics but also of life experiences — a combination of both nature and nurture. As a pet owner, you can’t control your pet’s genetic history, but you can control his environment.

To help your dog express as much of his positive genetic potential as possible, get back to the basics: a fresh, species-appropriate diet, appropriate exercise, playtime and mental stimulation and protection from emotional and environmental stressors.

This will help your dog to live out his fullest potential physically and mentally, regardless of what secrets his DNA may reveal.

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