Collaboration Advances Canine Reproductive Health


In 2016, the American Kennel Club (AKC), the AKC Canine Health Foundation (CHF) and the Theriogenology Foundation teamed up to support training the next generation in the field of small animal theriogenology, or reproductive medicine. CHF is proud to be administering these grants with four US veterinary schools: Auburn University, Ohio State University, North Carolina State University and the University of Pennsylvania. These residencies will provide specialty training in reproductive medicine and surgery, as well as all aspects of clinical practice and research related to male and female reproduction, obstetrics and neonatology.

Prior to this new collaboration, the AKC and the Theriogenology Foundation joined resources in 2014 to fund theriogenology residency programs at the veterinary colleges of the University of California-Davis, Auburn University, and the University of Pennsylvania.

Andrea Hesser, DVM, was the recipient of the theriogenology residency at UC Davis in 2014. Dr. Hesser received her DVM degree from Oklahoma State University. While completing her DVM, through a scholarship from the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals (OFA) and CHF, she attended CHF’s National Parent Club Canine Health Conference, a biennial educational event sponsored by Nestlé Purina PetCare Company. This experience helped foster her interest in canine reproductive health. Before being selected for the two year residency program at UC Davis, Dr. Hesser was a private veterinary practitioner in Overland Park, Kansas.

During Dr. Hesser’s residency she has been a member of the research team on two CHF-funded grants led by co-investigators and veterinary theriogenologists Stuart Meyers, DVM, PhD, DACT and Bruce Christensen, DVM, MS, DACT:  Grants 02124-A: Determining the Characteristics of Sperm That Accurately Predict Fertility of Stud Dogs , and 02192-A: Advanced Semen Analysis in Labrador Retrievers.

This research team has worked with Guide Dogs for the Blind, Inc, and Dr. Hesser has collected and evaluated the semen of this population of Labrador Retriever stud dogs ranging in age from 18 months to 10 years. All of the active breeding Labradors had semen collected and testing performed to assess both traditional measures of sperm health, such as motility and morphology, and novel parameters, including sperm chromatin structure, mitochondrial DNA, oxygen free radicals, and lipid membrane tests. To mimic the real-world situation for dog breeding, semen was evaluated for these parameters in a fresh and chilled (48h) state, and frozen semen samples were stored for future analysis.

Preliminary findings indicate senior dogs (those older than 7 years) had lower percent normal sperm morphology compared to dogs younger than 7 years old, and velocity of motility decreased with increasing age. Despite these "abnormal" findings, the dogs maintained similar fertility (conception rates and average litter size) compared with the younger dogs. Complete analysis is underway, and the investigators expect to publish their findings later this year.

“This study has been beneficial in further developing my interest and expanding my knowledge in canine semen evaluation. I am very interested to see the effects of the freeze process on sperm from the dogs we collected for this project,” said Dr. Hesser. “Use of frozen semen is increasing in the canine breeding world. I look forward to gaining a better understanding of outcomes, and know which methods are more likely to result in higher pregnancy rates.”

Much of what researchers extrapolate as "normal" for stud dogs is derived from large studies in other animal species. Through this study, Dr. Hesser and the research team were able to characterize "normal" for a variety of testing methods for canine semen, and hope to associate predicted fertility with test results. In the next phase of the project, the researchers will further investigate subfertile Labrador Retrievers for comparison. This information will allow for comparisons of "normal" to "abnormal" and pinpoint the usefulness of advanced semen evaluation methods to bring greater predictability of fertility rates for frozen and fresh sperm from stud dogs. Further, the research team aims to bring about rational improvement of transported and frozen semen for Labrador Retrievers. These findings will likely benefit all breeds.

During her residency, Dr. Hesser also completed external clinical rotations under Dr. Cheryl Lopate (featured speaker on the CHF and Zoetis Reproduction Podcasts: Infertility in the Bitch and Canine Semen Evaluation) and Dr. Milan Hess, a member of the CHF Scientific Review Committee. Drs. Lopate and Hess are accomplished board-certified small animal theriogenologists with thriving practices, a model which Dr. Hesser hopes to emulate in her future practice. She also shared her knowledge of purebred dogs and provided a positive introduction to the show dog world through trips for UC Davis veterinary students to AKC-sponsored dog shows, providing personal insights and explanations to interested veterinary students, and working with the “Canine Breeders Excellence” seminar at UC Davis, which drew nearly 250 dog breeders.

Nearing completion of her residency, Dr. Hesser is preparing to take the certifying examination for the American College of Theriogenologists in summer 2016, and will enter private practice with a focus on reproductive medicine and as a breeder veterinarian.

“The residency program at UC Davis enabled me to learn firsthand from such an interesting and important research project. Canine reproduction has always been my primary interest, since I first encountered the subject in my veterinary education,” said Dr. Hesser. “As an active AKC exhibitor and breeder of purebred dogs, it was second nature to choose canine reproduction as a focus. This project has given the field valuable information about sperm quality in working dogs.”

With program research funding from the CHF, and training funds from the AKC, Dr. Hesser is one example of the power of such collaboration, and the opportunity it provides to not only advance our understanding of canine reproductive health, but to ensure that we will continue to have trained experts to meet the future health needs of our dogs.

Click here to read more about this exciting new collaboration between CHF, the AKC and the Theriogenology Foundation.


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