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home : columns : columns December 14, 2017

10/3/2017 12:29:00 PM
Should you clone your pet?
Nubia, the cloned Jack Russell terrier. photo by Jodi Schneider McNamee
+ click to enlarge
Nubia, the cloned Jack Russell terrier. photo by Jodi Schneider McNamee

By Jodi Schneider McNamee

Maybe you've had that extra-special pet, the one you just couldn't bear to say goodbye to. What if you didn't really have to?

You might remember when Dolly the sheep was cloned in 1996. It's been over 20 years since Dolly made the headlines, and cloning has come a long way. Scientists have managed to clone a variety of animals, including cats, cows, horses, mice, mules, pigs, rabbits, and rats but had been unable to successfully clone a dog due to the problematic job of maturing a canine ovum in an artificial environment. Then after a few failed attempts by other scientists, Woo Suk Hwang, a lead researcher at Seoul National University in South Korea, was able to successfully create a clone using tissue from the ear of a three-year-old Afghan hound.

Snuppy the Afghan hound is credited with being the world's first cloned dog in 2005. A year later the same South Korea firm, Sooam Biotech Research Foundation, began offering pet cloning to anyone willing to pay the $100,000 fee. Commercial cloning became an option, although limited to the wealthy.

The science has advanced at an interesting time as people are increasingly seeing their pets as members of the family.

One well-publicized cloning was of Trakr, a former police dog hailed as a hero after discovering the last survivor of the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center. The faithful hound passed away in 2009, but before he passed away his pet parent James Symington entered a contest for the world's most "clone-worthy dog" that offered to clone a pet dog for free. Sooam produced five clones after Trakr's owner won the contest.

In 2015, ViaGen, a Texas company that had been cloning horses and livestock, expanded, and began replicating cats and dogs. In October 2015, two litters of kittens were successfully delivered, followed a few months later by a Jack Russell terrier.

With that delivery ViaGen became the first American company to offer pet cloning services in compliance with U.S. regulatory standards and humane pet-care practices, according to a release from that company.

ViaGen has lowered the price for a dog clone to $50,000 and for a cat a mere $25,000. (Apparently felines are easier to clone.)

So now that you know a dog can be cloned, just how do they do it?

The first step would be collecting and preserving genetic material from the dog who will be cloned.

Using a kit from ViaGen, a veterinarian takes a skin punch biopsy using local anesthesia so the dog feels no pain, ViaGen representatives say. And then the samples are sent to the company to produce a cell line. The cells are frozen and stored in liquid nitrogen and can remain viable indefinitely. In other words, they can be used for cloning right away or can be stored for decades.

Now that pet cloning and genetic preservation are available in the United States and the prices have dropped, veterinary clients may begin asking about the services.

However, some practitioners have serious concerns about the ethics of cloning companion animals. The first considerations are about the embryos that are created and the animals being used as surrogates for those embryos.

According to James A. Serpell, professor of ethics and animal welfare at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine, there is a significant loss of embryos.

And if you've watched sci-fi movies, you might think that a clone of your dog will be a perfect replica, but it's not that simple.

Cloning won't give you your pet back, not exactly. Melain Rodriguez, client service manager for ViaGen pointed out that a cloned pet won't necessarily be an exact match to the original pet, not even in appearance. Basically, there are no guarantees when it comes to a cloned pet's personality. However, feedback from clients from ViaGen say that personality and temperament are very similar in their cloned animals.

"One thing that can change in a cloned animal is the patterning of the fur," Rodriguez said in an interview in Dogster magazine.

So, if a black dog with white spots is the original dog, the cloned puppy would be black with white spots, but those white spots can be in a different location.

As for concerns that a cloned pet may be less healthy because of any genetic abnormality, Rodriguez reported no complications. The company predicts normal lifespans for the canine and feline offspring it has produced.

Now that cloning is no longer just livestock, the odds of meeting someone with a cloned pet are going up.

But just because there's a new technology of cloning pets, doesn't mean you should do it.

According to Rodriguez, they will be cloning exceptional therapy dogs and working dogs, such as drug-sniffing dogs.

Even though working dogs or service dogs are typically spayed and neutered young, an outstanding dog's genes are valuable. And cloning offers a way to use those genes for future generations.

ViaGen is now involved in cloning two endangered species related to cows: the gaur and the banteng.

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