2021 AKC CHF Parent Health Club Conference

Sponsored by Purina
By Madonna Holko

What did you do last summer? Go to a dog show? Barbecue in the backyard? I spent the second weekend in August tied to the iPad attending the virtual AKC CHF National Parent Club Health Conference. Sponsored by Purina, presentations are given by researchers they fund in hope of improving the health of dogs and people.

So, what did I learn?
  1. Eat your broccoli!
  2. Skin tests for allergies are useless.
  3. The role of fat in our diet is confusing.
  4. Search and rescue dogs of 9/11 had normal life spans
  5. Marijuana might help dogs who have epilepsy.
  6. Neurological diseases like Lou Gehrig’s disease and multiple sclerosis afflict dogs.
  7. There’s another bug out to get us and our dogs.
  8. There are some breeds with diseases so endemic they can’t be eradicated.
  9. Responsible breeders have the most impact on diseases.

Overall, the day of, you have a headache, take an aspirin, is on its way out. Research has advanced to the point that better results occur when a specific protein is identified as the culprit and treatment to control or eradicate it is discovered. That goes from why your dog is always scratching nothing, atopy, to why it suddenly can’t walk, meningoencephalomyelitis. The ability to sequence the genome of just about anything has given researchers more data to use, while simultaneously requiring them to be careful interpreting it.

To begin with, eat your broccoli, and your cabbage, and your spinach, and about a dozen other foods, liberally sprinkled with turmeric! Who knew your parents were ahead of their time when they told you to eat that green stuff on your plate? We’ve known for years we are what we eat, so why has science come so late to the table? The immune system is responsible for fighting off invaders, and its been determined that the best way to strengthen it is to provide it with the building blocks it needs to have a strong army. While you’re at it, don’t be so fussy about killing all the germs in your environment. It’s also been proven that the more germs we are exposed to, the better job our immune system does at recognizing the bad guys and fighting them off. No, you don’t have to move to the city dump, but you do have to make an effort to get out to more places and different environments without carrying a can of Lysol or a bottle of bleach.

Skin tests for allergies are useless. If you or your dog has an allergy, it’s more useful to eliminate possible allergens as a test. When it’s not a food allergy, the skin is the first defense against the cause, and the usual reason it has failed is because its makeup is compromised. Simple. It’s too dry, which of course can be affected by what you or the dog eats. It’s not just a matter of too little water, it’s more a matter of too little fat. A lot of research is going into ways to improve the fat content of the skin through nutrition. Before you think French fries and fried chicken are the answer, its been proven that excess body fat stores allergy causing chemicals, be they household or outside, herbicides, etc. So, its not simply increasing fat in the diet; it’s getting the fat content of the skin to remain uniform. When all your efforts to combat allergies don’t seem to work, you have to consider where you live. Both you and your dog are affected by bad air, bad water, too much noise, etc. You may simply have to move.

Cancer also has similar causes as allergies. All those bad things we complain about really do make us sick; so, the AKC CHF sponsors a lot of research into cancer’s causes, identification, and treatment. The research presented at this conference focused on ways to identify the genetic makeup of each cancer so that the right drug will affect the right cause of each cancer. Stopping cancer from growing can improve chances for remission and prevent metastasis. As it stands today, a dog with cancer has a very short life ahead, so every positive step is important. An area of importance is the lysosomes, the cell’s trash collectors, which cause major disasters when they stops doing their job. Investigators are hoping to develop tests that will identify why and where the junk is collecting, so dogs at risk can be treated sooner with the right drug.

Part of the cancer presentations was an update on the search and rescue dogs of 9/11. Research on their health issues was funded by the AKC CHF over the past 20 years. Contrary to expectations, very few of the dogs involved died from cancer, with the overall ratio being similar to dogs who weren’t there. Most simply died from old age. And, unlike their human counterparts, they did not suffer from PTSD; in fact, they often provided the relief the humans who did needed to recover.

Epilepsy has been identified as the most common neurological disease in dogs. Most drugs for severe epilepsy are very debilitating and often lead to the dog being euthanized, so a veterinarian in Colorado decided to investigate if cannabidiol would help, how much it would take, and how often it had to be administered. She’s had limited success, and has many more questions to answer. Her research is constrained by Colorado’s law against researching marijuana’s medical use without meeting stringent requirements. She says it will take several more years to have the answers needed, but it’s very promising.

Two other neurological diseases that mimic human diseases are also being studied, canine degenerative myelopathy (Lou Gehrig’s disease) and meningoencephalomyelitis (multiple sclerosis.) The first is more common in large breeds and research is focused on finding ways to determine how soon it will occur, with the objective of only breeding dogs in whom it appeared late in life, not an easy task. The second disease is primarily in small dogs such as Shih Tzu, although they were not identified as being frequently seen. However, anyone who has been in this breed for an extended period is bound to have seen somewhere sometime a dog whose rear legs cease to function normally and which gradually loses the ability to stand up or move. Research here is attempting to find out if its an inflammation of the brain or spinal cord, an infection of some other sort, or possibly the growth of a tumor in the brain or spinal cord. MRI’s are the best way to determine the extent but the cost is prohibitive for most owners and not many veterinarians have the equipment. Analysis of spinal fluid has been suggested; as well as the temporary use of steroids. The thought here, too, is that some imbalance in the microbiota in the gut is allowing the disease to take hold.

Sunday morning was focused on cardiology, with the most depressing news coming from the researcher studying mitral valve disease in Cavalier King Charles Spaniels. According to him, with 13 years of experience in studying the disease in Cavaliers, it is endemic and the only way to get rid of it would be to get rid of the breed. Almost all Cavaliers 7-9 years old have some form of this disease, that may or may not affect their lives. The questions are, how serious is it, how soon did it appear, how to find it sooner and treat it sooner. No known cause has been found, although research has shown that the Cavalier’s mitral valve is flatter than in other dogs. Lack of a murmur doesn’t mean freedom from the disease. The recommendation is to echo dogs intended for breeding every six months, and only breed those dogs who have not exhibited the disease before they are classified as seniors, a difficult problem in bitches.

The correct definitions of congenital and hereditary diseases were emphasized; the first meaning being present at birth; and the second meaning inherited; neither necessarily synonymous. Research is being done hopefully to distinguish when a cardiac disease is inherited as opposed to when it’s an accident of birth, so that correct treatment and breeding decisions can be made. . Heart diseases discussed were tricuspid valve dysplasia in Labradors and subaortic stenosis in Boxers, and pulmonic stenosis, seen more often in brachycephalic breeds such as Shih Tzu.

The last speaker reminded me of the 2019 conference which had a focus on tick borne diseases as well as a disease believed to be relatively unknown in the United States, but that was showing up again, brucellosis. This speaker from Texas A&M described Chagas disease, a heart problem caused by a bug once found only in Mexico and Latin America but now making inroads into the United States. The bug invader is the kissing bug, so called because when it bites humans, usually during the night, it is attracted to the lips and nose area. This is not a little bug like a flea or tick; it’s almost an inch long. Like most bugs it hides out in spaces we avoid. It actually affects all mammals, so we are just as much at risk as our dogs. When it bites, it usually injects a protozoa that gets into the blood and goes directly to the heart. So, if you thought heartworm was all we had to worry about, here’s another possibility. It causes enlargement of the heart, conduction issues, and loss of rhythm control. It can and does kill. Although dogs have been diagnosed with it as far north as Michigan (most likely having traveled there from the south), it is mainly seen today in the southern United States. More publicity is needed to accurately diagnose it.

The last point surprising on the one hand, but expected on the other. Considering all the efforts researchers continue to make, there are some diseases we will never get rid of; we can only hope to control them. As with the Boxers and aortic stenosis or the Cavaliers with mitral valve disease the final responsibility lies with the breeders. We have to make the right decision when we plan a litter, so we need to acquire as much information as possible about the health of our dogs, our breed, and the diseases that they might get. The AKC CHF website is a great place to see what is being investigated and what the results have been so far. In addition, the OFA and participating parent clubs research and maintain information on the health issues prevalent in specific breeds, as decided by those parent clubs via the CHIC program. Dogs tested in accordance with that protocol are recognized with a CHIC number and certification. Click here to see the requirements for Shih Tzu participation. Eddie Dziuk, the presenter, emphasized that the center needs genetic information from healthy dogs as much as from dogs afflicted with any disease. This information is provided to researchers to help them find the correct answer to their questions. Please be aware, that no particular dog’s information is disclosed unless the owner has given permission.

The complete presentations of most of the researchers at this year’s conference will be available, at a fee for those who did not attend, on the website soon.