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Dogs Help to Find and Cure Rare Human Disease

Posted on: September 18th, 2006 by

By: Dr. Jack Stephens

At the University of Missouri-Columbia, Tibetan terriers are contributing to a canine DNA bank in an ongoing research program that studies the genetic basis of a neurological disease that affects both dogs and humans.

The disease is neuronalceroid lipofuscinoisis (NCL) in dogs and Batten disease in humans. A rare, inherited neurological disorder, NCL/Batten disease does not currently have a cure. According to Dr. Martin Katz, professor of ophthalmology with a dual appointment in the School of Medicine and the College of Veterinary Medicine, human NCL often goes misdiagnosed due to its rarity and symptoms that are similar to other diseases. Affected children develop symptoms that may include blindness, seizures, cognitive decline and loss of motor function.

But Dr. Katz feels the purebred Tibetan terrier may hold the key for the genetic basis of the disease. By comparing the mutated genes of affected dogs to unaffected dogs, researchers have been able to pinpoint the mutant gene and identify through a complicated mapping process where the gene is in the DNA sequence.

A simple test for the mutation can then be performed on any dog using DNA extracted from a blood sample. This test will enable breeders to screen dogs prior to breeding to prevent future generations from being affected. This process will also lead to making it possible to determine whether any humans with NCL have the same mutations in the corresponding human genes.

The shorter life span of a dog allows researchers to conduct their studies much faster than with people, and the similarity of the disease will allow for better and faster results for humans. Another benefit of studying the genes in dogs is that there is excellent record keeping by the breed registries and close observations by the dog owners, which make them ideal subjects for genetic studies.

Another way man’s best friend continues to help us.

Source: Veterinary Medical Review, College of Veterinary Medicine, University of Missouri.

Cantankerous Goose Helps Elderly Cancer Patient

Posted on: September 9th, 2006 by

By: Dr. Jack Stephens
9/9/2006

A northern Idaho man diagnosed with terminal cancer says a usually cantankerous goose that befriended him on his walks has helped him live past doctors’ predictions. Bill Lytle, 73, a two-time state legislator told the Coeur d’Alene Press that after retiring, he became a founding member of a walking club that walked around a local lake where a goose was well-known to actually attack humans. After he was diagnosed with cancer, the goose, called Mr. Waddles, began to attach himself to Mr. Lytle. For some strange reason, this change in behavior only happened after he was diagnosed with cancer and seemed to be limited to this one person.

Mr. Lytle thinks Mr. Waddles knew he was sick and started coming up to him and letting him pet him. The goose now rubs his head against Mr. Lytle, yet will snap at anyone else who comes too close! This has inspired Mr. Lytle to continue his walks despite feeling ill, in order to have the daily meeting with Mr. Waddles. “He keeps coming to me, and I look forward to the daily sessions. Although I have cut my walks, he inspires me to keep going even when I do not feel like it,” Lytle said. (Coeur d’Alene Press)

Another example of animals helping humans. It is a mystery why this goose-who was well-known in the area for being a bird to stay away from-would change from a goose that would charge and nip anyone straying to close to suddenly befriending one ill person. Why would its behavior change so dramatically to this one person and become a motivational factor in this man’s battle with cancer?

My own personal experience with Spanky, coming to my rescue in my battle with cancer, was similar in that his behavior changed suddenly when I was diagnosed with cancer-although not as uncharacteristically as Mr. Waddles. He became tuned in to my need to fight the disease with more than drugs and radiation-a mystery in life that I feel is somehow rooted in our biology from eons of interaction with animals. My faith says humans are the stewards of animals, but is that because of our hierarchy or is it much more because they benefit us in ways we do not understand?

Aging Well

Posted on: August 28th, 2006 by

By: Dr. Jack Stephens
8/28/2006

Skeeter is nearing his fifteenth birthday. As Skeeter ages I am witnessing on a closer and more intimate the effects of aging on pets. It is not that I have not lived with older pets previously, but Skeeter shares my life nearly 24 hours every day, going to work with me and traveling with me. His aging has begun to affect how we relate with each other and has made me more sensitive to aging in general.

Older pets have similar problems as older humans-they get arthritis, have liver and kidney failure, obesity, gum disease, decreased thyroid function, blindness from cataracts, diabetes, dull hair coat and skin problems, loss of hearing, and even dementia from decreased cognitive function.

Decreased cognitive function can be demonstrated through an increasing reliance on you and concern over their immediate environment. In other words, they become more anxious and dependent, a version of separation anxiety.

With pets living longer due to better health care and nutrition, we are also witnessing much more cancer, a huge concern for our pets. It has been reported by a leading University School of Veterinary Medicine that 60% of dogs over six years of age will acquire some form of cancer. Today, cancer does not necessarily create a situation for euthanasia, as many cancers can be cured or controlled so that a pet can lead many more years of a healthy life. But, cancer in pets, like humans, has a high price tag. It creates a crisis for the pet owner both emotionally and financially. With Pets Best insurance, at least the financial concern is eliminated because you can afford the best care.

Skeeter has lost his hearing completely, I now must “motion” to him when we need to move along or I want him to come to me. When he first started losing his hearing I was left to determine if he simply could not hear me or was ignoring me, as he could do at times. Finally, it was apparent that the verbal request was no longer an effective communication tool when he would not respond to the door bell or loud noises.

He is also developing cataracts, which are beginning to affect his vision. We have had his initial exam from an eye specialist (ophthalmologist) which indicates that if the retinal scan is clear that we can proceed with corrective surgery to remove the cataracts. My goal is to restore his vision and avoid blindness.

His bouts of colitis are more frequent if I am not careful what he eats. His hair coat is duller and turning the brilliant back sheen of his coat to a brown. Supplements and coat conditioners are now part of his regime.

Yet, despite his infirmaries, he is still more than willing to follow me everywhere, if he sees me move. He sleeps more soundly than he used to, and with his loss of hearing he can slumber long after I have moved off. Once he awakens he will patiently begin his search for me in all the usual places. There is no panic, yet he is definitely becoming more apprehensive if he cannot soon find me. His frustration quickly evaporates once I am found. He now lives for the moment and constantly reminds me to emulate his patient, stoic nature, which I seldom heed.

Torrey has long since taken over the role of primary lap dog with her overbearing personality and strong will. Skeeter is content just to lie next to me or near me while I am working. Torrey is now the entertainer and dominant dog in the pack, despite her diminutive one and half pounds. Skeeter simply ignores her, although often, as Skeeter lays on the rug while I am showering, I see her rub up against him and walk under his chin, rubbing as she walks-just like a cat does when they rub up against you wanting attention. So much like a cat, I quite expect to hear her purring one day.

Although aging pets, like Skeeter, do not have the stamina they once did, they still can have a high quality of life. After all, after a decade or more of their enhancing our lives, we owe them continued loyalty and a willingness to change our approach to a more senior-care focus.

As your pet ages, you should be diligent with their exams from at least once a year to twice a year. A semi-annual exam should also include diagnostic test to screen your pet’s internal organ functions and urinalysis to test kidney function. These tests become even more important as a pet ages.

Teeth cleaning to remove tartar-which can accumulate and enter the bloodstream as micro emboli or as an infection-also becomes more important. As your pet ages, or if they are prone to heavy tartar build up on their teeth, you may need hand scaling of the teeth, with light sedation, once or twice a year and a deep cleaning with anesthesia yearly. Bad breath can be eliminated, but more importantly the overall health of your pets is greatly improved by keeping their teeth and gums healthy.

Senior pets should receive a modified diet to meet different age-related requirements. Also consider vitamin and mineral supplementation. As pets age, just as in humans, vitamins and mineral supplementation become important again to prevent disease and maintain our immune systems. I was never a big fan of supplementation, but as Skeeter ages and we placed him on a senior vitamin supplement, I can definitely see an improvement in his coat, activity level and cognitive functions.

Older pets’ immune systems diminish with age, and they become more prone to disease and cancer. This weakened immune system encourages us to be more diligent through exams and early diagnostic testing, modification of their diet, and supplementation.

Skeeter receives a semi-annual exam with a blood test to screen his health, because I want to catch any problems early, before they become critical. As you know, pets age faster than humans. Large dogs age faster than small dogs, and small dogs age faster than cats; therefore, a year to a pet is like four to seven years for us as they age.

Follow your veterinarian’s advice and set up a senior program for your pet based on his or her assessment. Then your treasured pet, like my Skeeter, can live a long and relatively health life. Pets are good for you, be good to them.

Decreasing Loneliness in Nursing Homes

Posted on: August 12th, 2006 by

Posted by Jack Stephens on 8/12/2006 in Pet Vet – Talks

Individual dog visits at nursing homes resulted in a bigger decrease in the feeling of loneliness than group visits with a dog, according to Saint Louis University School of Medicine. They found that nursing home residents prefer one-on-one time with a dog. Their original prediction for the study was that dog visits would increase interaction between the nursing home residents. Based on the results, these researchers say the main way pets reduce loneliness in nursing homes is by being with people alone, not by enhancing socialization among people who already spend their days together.

Man’s Best Friend comes through again.

Walking Your Dog is an Effective Weight Loss Plan

Posted on: July 10th, 2006 by

By: Dr. Jack Stephens
7/10/2006

According to a research project at the University of Missouri (conducted by Rebecca Johnson PhD and Richard Meadows D.V.M.) study participants who walked a dog averaged a weight loss of fourteen pounds, which was a better result than most weight loss plans.

The project goal was to look for ways to increase the average exercise regimen. They found being responsible for a pet, such as committing to walk a loaner dog, encouraged people who did not own dogs to walk more often and for longer periods of time. Their first study group averaged a weight loss of fourteen pounds during the one year program.

The lesson was this: having a pet encourages owners to get more exercise and lose weight. Good for the human and good for the dog.

As you know from my prior posts there are other advantages of being with your pet that result in biochemical changes that take place in you. Some examples:

• Reduced cortisol, the hormone associated with stress (therefore your stress level decreases),
• Increased oxytocin hormone, which makes you feel good,
• Increased prolactin, your bonding hormone,
• Increased serotonin levels, helping to reduce depression, and
• Increased phenylethylamine which increases your feeling of exhilaration.

All that and loosing weight while walking your dog!

Another way pets help us physically.