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Dogs May Help to Cure Human Hereditary Disorders

I firmly believe that pets are good for people. Their beneficial effects on our mental health are obvious to anyone who has ever patted a...

Dr. Eric Barchas  |  Mar 12th 2009


I firmly believe that pets are good for people. Their beneficial effects on our mental health are obvious to anyone who has ever patted a dog on the head or sat with a cat on his lap. Pets also benefit our physical health. They lower blood pressure, inspire sick children to fight to get well, and reduce the likelihood of stroke and heart attack. They can detect diabetic seizures before they happen. Pets assist people with disabilities ranging from blindness to Parkinson’s disease to post-traumatic stress disorder.

A recent article in The Economist describes yet another way that dogs may soon help people. Certain breeds may serve as research models for hereditary diseases.

A DOG may be mans best friend. But man is not always a dogs. Over the centuries selective breeding has pulled at the canine body shape to produce what is often a grotesque distortion of the underlying wolf. Indeed, some of these distortions are, when found in people, regarded as pathologies.

Dog breeding does, though, offer a chance to those who would like to understand how body shape is controlled. The ancestry of pedigree pooches is well recorded, their generation time is short and their litter size reasonably large, so there is plenty of material to work with. Moreover, breeds are, by definition, inbred, and this simplifies genetic analysis. Those such as Elaine Ostrander, of Americas National Human Genome Research Institute, who wish to identify the genetic basis of the features of particular pedigrees thus have an ideal experimental animal.

Dr Ostrander has already used dogs to track down the genes behind certain cancers that the species shares with people, and to work out the dog family tree. At the [American Association for the Advancement of Science] she described her search for the genes controlling three of the most important features of a breed: its size, its hair and the length of its legs.

What is the relevance of looking at dogs’ leg length? It turns out that chrondrodysplasia, which is what causes Dachshunds and Corgis to have short legs, may be caused by the same set of genes that triggers what is “known vulgarly as dwarfism” in humans.

The upshots of this work are twofold. One is to show that a lot of variety can be caused by only a little genetic variation . . . [t]he second upshot is that dogs may cast light on the condition of human chondrodysplasics and thus prove, once again, what good friends they are to man.

I should add that I, like many men in their thirties, also can think of at least one very solid upshot to studying the growth of hair in dogs (or any species)!

Click on the humanhealth tag for more posts on the health benefits that humans derive from pets.