Pet Owner Gets Questions Answered

Dr. George Lees, professor of Veterinary Internal Medicine at the College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at Texas A&M University (CVM) and his team, along with Dr. Keith Murphy, former colleague at CVM, answered questions for a grieving pet owner as they discovered another form of hereditary nephropathy (HN), an inherited disorder that damages tiny blood vessels in the kidneys that help filter blood, in a different canine breed – the English Springer Spaniel.

Dr. George LeesIn 2007, after a 15-year discovery process, Lees and his team patented a genetic test to identify carriers of HN in English Cocker Spaniels. Their efforts and research lead to the eradication of this inherited kidney disease through selective breeding in English Cocker Spaniels.

In 2009, Katherine Perry, owner of two English Springer Spaniels – Ginger and Coco, was referred to Lees when her puppies showed signs of a kidney problem. Lees evaluated both dogs and he quickly determined that they did have a similar disease that would shortly take their lives.

“What I learned from the first discovery was that the end of the disease was so short,” explained Lees. “HN is similar to an avalanche because it starts off slow, but the end is so fast and devastating.”

The dogs died shortly after the initial visit with Lees. Lees asked for Perry’s permission to take their kidneys and DNA to conduct further research.

Perry allowed Lees and his team to do research on her dogs because she wanted her questions answered. She wanted to know why they died so young. Her dogs were less than a year old.

“I did get my answers,” said Perry. “Until this situation occurred, I never understood nor appreciated the detail and dedication involved in medical research. When I was first informed of the possibility of having the girls’ kidneys researched, I assumed that it was going to be a cold and calculated business agreement. Never did I imagine that this team would be so understanding, gentle, sincere, or compassionate. The needs of the girls were their priority. After the girls were gone, their focus was on finding out how this disease originated.”

“Initially we tested the dogs’ DNA for the abnormality that affects English Cocker Spaniels, “explains Lees. “But we found that the English Springer Spaniels did not have the same DNA abnormality as the English Cocker Spaniel, so we continued with our research. We finally discovered their specific mutation in about a year. Then we went to the dogs’ family to try to find a pattern of DNA abnormalities that was consistent with their inheritance.”

They found out that the disease is recessive. There are a lot of carriers, but few are affected. However, the results can be devastating for the affected dogs as there is no cure for them and their lives are severely shortened.

“The cause of the disease is a condition that is known as Alport syndrome in people, but it is usually called hereditary nephropathy or ‘HN’ in dogs,” said Lees. “In both people and dogs, this disease is caused by defects in the genes that encode type IV collagen, which is a protein that is an important structural component of the parts of the kidneys (called glomeruli) that filter the blood.”

Armed with information provided by Lees and his team about the genetics status of related dogs, the breeders of the English Springer Spaniels who were affected have been able to breed their dogs selectively so that no other HN cases have occurred in their English Springer Spaniels.

“I would highly recommend Dr. Lees and his team to anyone who has a sick pet,” said Perry. “Several months after the girls were put down, I received a package from the clinic with two hand painted clay forms of the girls’ actual paw prints. This thoughtful gesture touched my heart in a way words could not convey. Lees and his team are an exceptional group of individuals; very caring and understanding.”

Lees explained to Perry the importance of understanding the origin of the disease by conducting further research. Even though Perry was overwhelmed by the process, she understood that she needed to allow the research to continue so that it could benefit other dogs in the future.

“It is important to develop an understanding of genetics and to conduct selective breeding to eliminate the problem,” said Lees. “When a dog gets sick, it takes time to do an investigation and to characterize the disease. Many diseases remain an unsolved problem. We, at CVM, set ourselves apart because we have the expertise and are able to spend the extra time needed to pursue problems like this to the point of understanding their root cause. This permits us to build a better future than would otherwise be possible.”

“I realized that Ginger and Coco were brought into our lives for a purpose,” explains Perry. “At the time, I assumed it was because they were going to need a lot of extra tender loving care. I never dreamed my selfish search for answers would benefit other animals. I encourage anyone who has a pet with a terminal illness to find out what created the illness. By doing so you can prevent other animals from having to suffer.”

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