AKC Canine Health Foundation-Funded Research Impacts Veterinary Care

12/06/2018
Author: Sharon M. Albright, DVM CCRT

You may wonder how research funded by the AKC Canine Health Foundation (CHF) and its donors really benefits the dogs in your life. While there are some breakthrough moments in science, most canine health studies slowly build on previous knowledge and inch us closer to a more complete understanding of health and disease. As part of CHF’s goal to address the diversity of canine health concerns and those that may have comparative medicine benefits for humans, each funded study on epilepsy, cancer, reproductive conditions and more is a stepping stone on the path to better canine health. There is no better example of this progress than CHF-funded research on infectious diseases.

Infectious organisms such as bacteria and viruses do not discriminate. They will infect a bench champion, a top canine athlete, or a family pet with equal vigor. Despite advances in veterinary medicine, these organisms continue to evolve and find new ways to thrive. Dr. Ed Breitschwerdt and his team at the North Carolina State University Vector Borne Disease Diagnostic Laboratory are hard at work learning about these organisms and how they impact canine and human health. Vector-borne diseases are those spread by insects such as fleas, ticks, and mosquitoes. Thanks to CHF funding, they are discovering more about infectious organisms such as Bartonella, Rickettsia, and Ehrlichia, which will lead to more accurate diagnostic tests and a better understanding of the role of chronic infection in the formation of various cancers.

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Dr. Breitschwerdt’s lab focuses on three aspects of canine infectious disease research – diagnosis, treatment, and prevention. “Preventing infectious disease is the ultimate goal,” he notes, “but until preventive measures exist, diagnostic and treatment options must also be explored.” Dr. Breitschwerdt commends CHF’s willingness to support diagnostic research, which is often overlooked. In the classroom, he always reminds veterinary students that an accurate diagnosis is the first step in administering successful treatment.

Dr. Breitschwerdt is passionate about protecting animal health and the human-animal bond. His discovery of Bartonella vinsonii in a case of canine endocarditis (heart valve infection) in the early nineties took Dr. Breitschwerdt’s career in an unanticipated direction due to the importance of this organism in canine and human health. Bartonella bacteria infect dogs, cats, humans, and other mammals. They are hard to find and hard to treat because they live inside host cells to evade detection. B. henselae causes cat scratch disease in people. B. vinsonii has been associated with endocarditis, immune-mediated thrombocytopenia, neurologic dysfunction, and potentially polyarthritis in dogs. It appears to be transmitted by ticks and may be co-transmitted with other detrimental bacteria such as Ehrlichia canis or Babesia canis.

“All vector-borne disease is complicated and dynamic,” notes Dr. Breitschwerdt.
Bartonella is teaching us this more than any other pathogen.”

Understanding Bartonella infection is important from the perspective of comparative medicine. Exploring how the disease affects dogs may provide clues about the process in humans and other species. For example, international vector-borne disease groups are currently focusing on the role of chronic bacterial infections in neuro-psychiatric diseases in children and potentially Alzheimer’s Disease.

Now that scientists recognize Bartonella infection with increasing frequency, Dr. Breitschwerdt and his team are working to create a more accurate diagnostic test for Bartonella in dogs. They have identified proteins in the bloodstream that may aid in diagnosis of the disease and, with funding from CHF Grant 2287: Enhanced Testing for the Diagnosis of Bartonellosis in Dogs, will explore the use of these proteins as a target for the immune system and vaccine development. They are also exploring transmission of the disease beyond the known tick and flea vectors. Disease transmission from dogs to people, either direct or through a vector, could seriously damage the human-animal bond. This is one more reason why Dr. Breitschwerdt’s team is working diligently to understand infectious diseases and how they affect dogs and the families that love them.

“I am very proud of the Vector Borne Disease Diagnostic Lab team,” states Dr. Breitschwerdt. “I am surrounded by an intelligent and motivated team addressing vector-borne diseases that impact canine and human health.”

CHF and its donors are eager to fund the groundbreaking research conducted by Dr. Breitschwerdt and his team. Understanding infectious disease, including the frequent co-infections we are just beginning to appreciate, is critical to the health and well-being of our canine companions. Improved diagnostics, new treatment options, and education of practicing veterinarians and dog owners are needed until disease prevention strategies are in place. Vector-borne disease affects all of us. Support CHF today at akcchf.org/donate to help prevent, treat & cure these and all canine diseases.

Read our previous story featuring Collie enthusiast and AKC judge, Robette Johns - Collaborating on the Greatest Needs in Canine Health.

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