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Animal Genetic Health

December 1, 2011

Of course humans are animals, but sometimes we forget that our companion animals have genes too. For example, pet dogs have many genetically inherited conditions that can affect their health. Some genes just make for interesting traits like coat color of Labradors. You can try breeding yourself to see how the puppies turn out.

Unfortunately, though, many traits people think cute cause big problems for dogs, such as the long backbone of a dachshund or the folded skin of a bulldog. Other conditions such as vision defects accumulate through inbreeding. This occurs because the breeder does not realize the mated dogs are going blind; the blindness may occur later than breeding, or else the dogs compensate by their other senses. Thus, there is no “selection pressure” against visual defects in pet dogs. (In laboratory mice, there is an even more interesting effect; Mice are traditionally selected for mating by pulling out two individuals by their tails. Since mice with good vision avoid the grab, breeding actually selects for bad vision.)

What should be done about animal genetic defects?  Should we restrict animal breeding for aesthetics at the expense of health? Should we invest in treatments and cures?

And for comparison, what about all the mice deliberately bred to exhibit diseases as models for human treatment?  Whole colonies of mice are bred for sickle-cell anemia, tumors, even autism/OCD. Should there be different standards for laboratory versus companion animals?

  1. December 1, 2011 9:52 pm

    Again, I think at the logical extreme, we shouldn’t be allowed to own animals at all, much less breed them however we please, whether they’re laboratory or companion animals.

  2. December 1, 2011 10:53 pm

    Well, firstly, I think it an unfortunate choice of words to say “You can try breeding yourself to see how the puppies turn out.” I’d prefer to let the breeding experiments stay in the dog kingdom–and I don’t think the dogs would appreciate my efforts to breed with them.

    Having said that, I should like to address Jeanne–Jeanne, I see the world as a biosphere–on a microscopic level, life tends to interact with life, skin, scale, or fur coatings notwithstanding. The very odors we inhale are samples from the surrounding life-forms, including our own if we don’t bathe frequently enough. Where it is difficult to draw an absolute border-line between two life-forms, it is impossible to draw a line between humanity and our interaction with other life.

    Once having left the wild, Homo Sapiens is in for a penny, in for a pound–the dogs themselves wouldn’t exist if their ancient wolf ancestors had not formed a symbiosis with humanity–our relationship predates history. And, since we reason and dogs don’t think things all the way through, we were bound to take our mastery over them for granted.

    However, back then a dog was a valued asset. Nowadays, with our overpopulation, there is little difference between our harshness towards dogs and our harshness towards each other. At least with the laboratory dogs, they are being tortured for a purpose. I believe we must address our civility towards each other before we muddy the water with debate on the treatment of other species–I think the ASPCA has taken the animal cruelty thing to the max, considering what kind of people we are at present.

    But I’m carnivorous, so maybe my POV is skewed–I can’t see the point of eating an animal and then worrying about all the other animals that don’t taste as good. It’s kinda like the whole baby-seal thing–those li’l guys are far too cute to bludgeon to death–but would we have been concerned if they looked like oversized tarantulas?

  3. December 1, 2011 11:19 pm

    History is littered with exotic, and very much extinct, animal and plant varieties that were bred for some exotic qualities (polydactylous Roman horses, dutch tulips, intersexed Melanesian pigs, etc). This may be callous, but I figure that in a world where a lot of people believe they have to suffer for fashion, it’s going to be really hard to persuade them not to share that suffering with their pets. Better to persuade them not to embrace suffering quite so much, first.

    I’m rather more perturbed by industrial meat production. It’s not just the cruelty and suffering, it’s the massive unhygienic conditions, the massive use of chemicals such as antibiotics, working conditions so bad that we effectively need illegal immigrants to make it work (in the US), the upstream and downstream environmental costs (from petrochemical corn to transcontinental shipping to dead zones and pollution), all just so we can have a cheap steak or chicken that tastes like crap.

    Yes, I eat meat, so I’m part of the problem. That’s why I’d rather focus on something that’s causing all sorts of problems, beyond breeding. Yes, teacup poodles bother me quite a lot, but I don’t think they’ll be around in 20 years, let alone 50 or 100.

  4. December 2, 2011 9:12 pm

    Well, I hadn’t heard of “intersexed Melanesian pigs.”

    An argument for focusing on animals is that, historically, civilizations that care about animal wellfare also care about marginal humans. That is, whatever faculty of caring we exercise toward animals also raises our awareness of marginal humans. There is evidence for the reverse as well; that humans who commit cruelty to animals are also likely to mistreat humans.

    A counter argument can be made that humans evolved to require meat in the diet, at least small amounts to provide B12 and omega acids. From this, we should follow the Temple Grandin model of “humane killing” of animals we need as food.

  5. December 4, 2011 6:01 pm

    Or even animals we want as food. If we try harder to be kind, then we will do a better job of raising animals for food or companionship, even for testing. Then we won’t need the ASPCA or whatever kinds of groups police animals in labs to keep us from going too far.

  6. busy bee permalink
    December 4, 2011 6:55 pm

    I have seen mice that were genetically engineered for studies of heart disease, and what little suffering they go through is surely worth it. They are very well cared for, apart from the one time somebody injects them with something that they’ve been engineered to respond to with heart failure. The person who took care of them really liked these mice, and their death yields precious data that could otherwise be obtained only through rather more suffering of vastly larger numbers of animals.
    Then there are the beef cattle that generate lots of meat, but can only be delivered by Caesarian section.
    Or the dog breeds whose ears or tails have all sorts of problems if the puppies aren’t mutilated at birth, and a different set of problems if the tradition to mutilate them is followed.
    I think that on most of these issues reasonable people can disagree about the conclusion, even if they are in complete agreement about all the arguments for and against. It’s the people who can’t be bothered to consider arguments for and against, rather than the people who come to a conclusion different from mine, that I have a problem with. So the standard for lab animals seems adequate: you have to consider the ethics, minimize suffering and weigh the amount of suffering against benefits. Perhaps we should hold the breeding and treatment of animals kept for food or companionship to the same standard? Then again, following the debacle that outlawing horse meat for human consumption in the U.S. turned into, I’d rather see efforts to spread more information than efforts to spread more rules.


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