West Highland White Terriers Could Help Your Health

July 30, 2011

Westies, as they are popularly known, are an attractive breed and got a media boost when featured in the Hamish Macbeth tv series, but it seems they may well be man’s best friend in more ways than one as they may hold the aswers to similar human diseases.

The Westie Foundation of America (WFA) has announced preliminary findings in two major studies involving the health of West Highland White Terriers and findings in these and studies of other dogs may hold answers for similar human conditions like Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD).

In one study, researchers are looking at the role of a mucosal gene driving inflammation Canine IBD, a chronic intestinal disorder that creates a bacterial-driven inflammation in the intestines. In the second, scientists are researching Legg-Calve Perthes Disease (LCPD), a debilitating developmental disease that causes pain, lameness and muscle atrophy of the dogs’ hip joints. Both are considering implications for humans since the diseases share commonalities in disease symptoms and pathology.

In IBD, genetic factors are thought to contribute to the cause of the disease in both dogs and humans and researchers are utilizing unique molecular biology tools to identify key genes which regulate intestinal inflammation, similar to human IBD.

Albert E. Jergens, DVM, PhD of Iowa State University is the study’s lead investigator and he explains: “It is our expectation to identify specific genes which serve as biomarkers for diagnosing canine IBD and for monitoring the effects of therapy. We have now identified a grouping of 17 ‘marker’ genes that may be more critically assessed in future studies. We have preliminary evidence that changes in the composition of the intestinal bacteria accompany the abnormal gene patterns…this situation is remarkably similar to the association between people and their intestinal populations causing human IBD (i.e., Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis).”

LCPD is an orthopedic disease that may require surgery to relieve the clinical signs and researchers are using technology to assess nearly 127,000 points in the dog genome. The goal of this project is to identify genes that contribute to the development of LCPD. Preliminary study findings show LCPD may be inherited in much the opposite way previous studies have shown. Earlier studies suggested LCPD is transmitted in an autosomal recessive pattern but the current data suggest it is inherited in either a dominant or complex fashion. The investigators currently have samples from 58 Westies, 23 of which have LCPD and more research is needed with the results of the candidate gene analysis to be published later this year.

Dogs are used in healthcare in other ways, as hospital visitors for instance where their presence is known to have a calming effect on patients and reduce their blood pressure but that they might help us get a cure for disease and hip disorders is certainly a step beyond that. If you have a Westie then perhaps an extra chew or toy as a thank you might be appropriate on behalf of his/her American relatives?


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