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Hope for UK’s Rarest Dog Breeds: DNA Tests

The Skye Terrier is one of the more recognizable dog breeds out there, but it is facing a very real threat: extinction.

The breed was put by The Kennel Club on its list of vulnerable breeds in 2004 after having fewer than 300 registrations in the UK per year. Last year, only 53 new Skye Terrier dogs were registered in the UK.

What endangers the breed even further is its high likelihood of getting a hereditary form of hepatitis. Because of the small breeding population, it gets more difficult to find a Skye Terrier without the disease. However, dog DNA tests just might save the Skye Terrier.

The Skye Terrier Club, a group of breeders, enthusiasts, and owners, decided to solicit DNA samples of the dog in 2006 with the aim to build a DNA bank. They were also able to raise enough money for veterinary scientists at Cambridge University as well as geneticists from the Animal Health Trust to study the disease Skye Terriers are predisposed to.

Through the studies, it was discovered that an extraordinary copper accumulation in 1988 could be the culprit behind the breed’s chronic hepatitis. The veterinary scientists confirmed that the illness that occurred in the 80s is the same as the illness happening today.

Similar to many chronic conditions affecting dog breeds, the gene mutation that caused the Skye Terrier’s chronic hepatitis occurred because of in-breeding when it was common practice to mate champion dogs over and over again. By breeding together dogs within a small population, the risk of getting recessive diseases increases.

The Skye Terrier Club estimates that there are only 5,000 Skye Terriers in the world, compared against 40,000 yearly registrations in the UK of the more popular Labradors. The breed is not dying en masse, but because the mutation is present in the small population of Skyes, there is a very high chance that two dogs carrying the same predisposal to the chronic illness will be mated together.

Bill Lambert from the Kennel Club supported this, saying that a breed becomes unsustainable when it becomes low in numbers because of the limited breeding population. Breeders are then forced to mate close siblings, which is not ideal. The club hopes that eventual animal DNA testing will give more information in preventing this.

Before testing was available, in order to decrease the likelihood of in-breeding, breeders would choose to mate dogs from separate countries. But with cheap genetic testing, it is possible to mate suitable dogs within the same geographies.

Because of technological advancements in genetics, the whole strand of a dog’s DNA can now be mapped. The Animal Health Trust and Cambridge University plans to use whole genome sequencing to isolate the hepatitis-causing gene mutation. Through this, breeders can identify dogs carrying the mutation and keep it from spreading to a new generation. While it may happen in the course of time, this solution can effectively eradicate the harmful mutation.

This breakthrough will benefit not only the Skye Terrier but also other dog breeds with hereditary illnesses. The Dog Biomedical Variant Data Consortium or DBVDC is a global effort to collect DNA across breeds and form a single library. As of today, the group has already gathered 590 canine genomes. On the other hand, the Helsinki DNA bank, which opened in 2006, is one of the largest in the world and has gathered more than 80,000 DNA samples from 330 dog breeds.

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