Hall Family Twice Benefits from CHF Funded Research

11/21/2011

No dog owner wants to hear a diagnosis of Degenerative myelopathy (DM). Similar in symptoms to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS-Lou Gehrig’s Disease) in humans, DM is a death sentence.

That’s why Lois Hall simply couldn’t believe it when her highly accomplished search and rescue dog, Hawk, was diagnosed with DM.

“I could understand it, since he’s a seven-year-old German Shepherd,” Lois said. That’s a breed and age group at high risk for the disease. “But I couldn’t believe that amount of lameness could come on so suddenly.”

Hawk and Lois’s husband, Bill, were training with a team in an old cemetery in Leadville, Colorado, when Bill noticed something was wrong. Hawk was just not performing as usual. He had no strength in his rear legs. Shortly before the Colorado trip, Hawk completed an agility class with no lameness problems.

They contacted Hawk’s veterinarian immediately. When X-rays showed no spinal problems, the veterinarian diagnosed DM. Lois asked for a second opinion. The second clinic confirmed the diagnosis.

That was when Lois turned to the University of Missouri for help. “I knew they had an excellent neurology department, and were studying DM,” Lois said. The DM study is funded through the American Kennel Club Canine Health Foundation. Through the funding, University of Missouri created a genetic test for DM in some breeds of dogs.

Joan Coates, D.V.M., M.S., of the University of Missouri heads the study. Her work began several years ago at Texas A&M University, where her department head wanted to test a theory. Symptoms of ALS—Lou Gehrig’s Disease in people and DM in dogs are eerily alike. Could there be a connection? They began working with military dogs.

“There’s a special place in my heart for these dogs,” Dr. Coates said.

Other research teams found a genetic mutation in dogs that is similar to one found in some cases of ALS. This mutation in the superoxide dismutase 1 gene (SOD1) proved to be significant in DM in Pembroke Welsh Corgis, Boxers, Chesapeake Bay Retrievers, and German Shepherds. Affected dogs were homozygous for the gene, indicating that it is an incompletely penetrant autosomal recessive disease. The mutation exists in the same gene area for some people with familial ALS, representing 10% of all cases.

At this point, Dr. Coates says, her team needs to step back and learn more about DM in dogs. They also need to establish markers for disease progression, so that when treatments are found, they can measure the success of those drugs or therapies.

Understanding the similarities between DM and ALS means that at last researchers have a naturally occurring spontaneous gene mutation in another large mammal. Work on each species may lead to faster advancements in both. One goal is a genetic test for ALS in humans, currently diagnosed definitively only at autopsy.

Hawk
Hawk does rehabilitation exercises 5 weeks after surgery.

To Lois and Bill’s great relief, at Missouri an MRI revealed that Hawk had ruptured two disks and they were pressing on his spinal cord. Though it was a serious injury, it was preferable to the fatal diagnosis of DM. Hawk immediately went to surgery. Four weeks after surgery he began rehabilitation, and the neurologist believes he may make a complete recovery. Meanwhile, results of the DNA test confirmed that Hawk does not carry the genes for DM.

Lois is hoping he will recover before December, when they have a grant through AKC Companion Animal Recovery to take both Hawk and Strider, another German Shepherd, through a disaster training course in Texas through Texas Engineering Extension Service (TEEX).

Hawk
Hawk walks over hurdles seven weeks after surgery.

Dogs have always been a part of Lois’ life. She was leader of 4-H clubs dedicated to raising puppies for The Seeing Eye, and when the couple ended up in Iowa, she immediately began 4-H work again. Lois already knew conformation wasn’t her favorite canine activity, and wanted to show her 4-H members other interesting things to do with their dogs. Her co-leader in 4-H was a former military and police dog handler, so the club turned to tracking.

Success, and the enthusiasm of the dogs led Lois and several other Clinton residents to want to do more than just track for sport. Seven members, all volunteers with either local police or fire departments, began to train with a search and rescue group  They learned multiple disciplines, from tracking and trailing to cadaver and missing persons detection. Eventually, they formed their own local team, Emergency K- 9 Operations, Inc.

Their first cases were with law enforcement. After a series of unsolved burglaries at a local strip mall, the police department asked if Lois would bring her German Shepherd, Trax, to the next crime site. At 3 a.m. one morning, they got their chance. Trax picked up the scent at the store, and set out across roads and alleys. In one yard, he alerted to a spot in the driveway, scented to the curb, and looked up, puzzled. Unbeknownst to Lois, police had arrested a suspect. The spot Trax indicated was where they had him lie prone on the ground, and the scent ended where he was put into the police car. The case helped Lois’ team establish their credibility with the police.

Lois and Bill’s team trains intensively, but works to make it a game for the dogs. Their reward is food or a tug-toy, depending on the dog’s preference. Trax’s favorite was squirt cheese from a can. When they aren’t performing life-saving searches, the dogs visit nursing homes and hospitals as therapy dogs.

Trax had a 12-year search and rescue career, finding everything from lost baby teeth to missing elderly, before losing his life to cancer. He, like Hawk, was once diagnosed with DM, but the genetic test was negative, and physical therapy helped him recover. Then Lois and Bill noticed he was tentative when crossing the dog walk, an agility obstacle. They suspected a urinary track infection, but x-rays showed a mass in the dog’s bladder. He was diagnosed with transitional cell carcinoma (TCC), a form of bladder cancer.

Trax’s illness was Lois’ first experience with AKC Canine Health Foundation-funded research. She entered him in a study conducted by Deborah Knapp, D.V.M., of Purdue University College of Veterinary Medicine.

Dr. Knapp remembers Trax well. He was part of a study group using the human chemotherapy drug vinblastine. Trax responded well initially, but his tumor became resistant to the drug. Though the chemo stopped growth of the initial tumor, cancer spread to Trax’s leg. The dog still had such a strong will to live, Lois convinced veterinarians to amputate the affected leg. They bought Trax a mobility cart, and he returned to searching. Unfortunately, the cancer continued to spread, and he lost his life to it in March of 2010.

Trax was one of the contributors to a genetic study conducted through CHF funding by Dr. Knapp and Dr. Elaine Ostrander of the National Institutes of Health. The goal is to find a gene to indicate which dogs are prone to bladder cancer. Finding such a test would let veterinarians screen and treat the lethal disease earlier, and someday, perhaps prevent it.

Ironically, Bill Hall has shared several diseases with his dogs. He was diagnosed with prostate cancer around the same time Trax received his diagnosis. Then he injured his back, and until surgery could be scheduled, Bill and Lois trained Hawk to work in a harness as an assistance dog.

“I tell Bill he can’t get sick with anything else,” Lois joked. “We can’t afford the vet bills!

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