Can Dogs Help Improve Human Health?

Canine Genetics & Human Health

Dogs have been part of our lives for hundred of thousands of years. They have helped us hunt, herd and survive in conditions that humans alone would not have been able to.

Now scientists claim that they could also help us better understand debilitating diseases in people. So, can dogs help improve human health? 

Dr Elinor Karlsson

Dr Elinor Karlsson is the director of the Vertebrate Genomics Group at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Over her career, Dr Karlsson’s has contributed significantly to studies that have helped us better understand the genetics of diseases and behavioural disorders in dogs and humans. 

Somewhat surprisingly there are several groups of genes in dogs that have evolved in parallel with humans.

These include those related to neurological processes and food digestion. This is commonly attributed to our shared lives and environments over thousands of years.

The Science Bit

Dogs and humans share a number of conditions, such as PTSD, OCD, autism, phobias, narcolepsy, epilepsy, dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. 

The dog version Obsessive Compulsive Disorder shows the same need to repetitively complete a behaviour. Like in humans, the condition develops naturally and can be relieved with the same medical treatments.

As the gene pool of a dog is smaller than that of a human, Dr Karlsson and her team ran extensive testing and were able to pinpoint four genes that were present in all dogs that had the disease. This suggest that those genes might be involved with causing the disorder. 

By finding the genetic variants that cause OCD in dogs, we hope to understand more about the underlying neural pathways. Therapies and drugs used to treat OCD today often don’t work very well in dogs or in humans. If we can figure out precisely which brain circuits are disrupted in OCD patients, this could lead to more effective and targeted treatments"

Dr Elinor Karlsson

Further research needs to be conducting to identify ways that these findings can help improve treats. However, her research on Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) in dogs and in humans demonstrated that dogs are an excellent model for studying and understanding the genetic basis for human psychiatric diseases. 

The Darwin Dogs Project

With this knowledge, Dr Karlsson launched the Darwin’s Dogs – Darwin’s Dogs – project in 2015.  The intention is to learn how genetics shape behaviour. With this knowledge the team can gain new insights into psychiatric and neurological diseases in dogs and people.

The Darwin’s Dog project requests dog owners to answer a set of short questions on their dog’s behaviour and personality. As a result of this worldwide scale, they hope to collect data from thousands of dogs. The project sends and collects saliva DNA via kits that are mailed out to dog owners.

It is important to note that Dr Karlsson and her team do not harm or cause distress to any dogs during their research. Unlike many scientific research involving animals, all studies are conducted without any suffering. 

I have completed the online questionnaire and requested the DNA kit for my beautiful greyhound Tipps.

Become a Darwin's Dog Member

Providing Dr Karlsson and her team with this detailed information on the behaviour of large numbers of dogs could revolutionise our understanding of canine genetics. This in turn could to lead to new and improved treatments for people who suffer debilitating diseases. 

Over thousands of years dogs have helped us hunt, herd, defend, explore and survive in climates, terrains and environments we would not have been able to alone.

They have contributed to our growth as a species and developed a relationship with us like no other animal has achieved.

Dogs have now become outstanding guides to people with disabilities. They are our brave rescuers to people injured in the wilderness. They are loyal workers to many and loving companions to us all.

Now it seems that they can give us even more to us – improved treatments and possible cures to our diseases. Dr Elinor, her team, and her studies play the vital role of working it all out but without dogs none of it would be possible. 

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