In June 1996, after nearly 60 champions and years of successfully breeding
to the standard, my breeding program came to a crashing halt.
I received the devastating news that a puppy I co-bred and co-owned had
renal dysplasia. This beautiful puppy represented five generations on both
sides of the pedigree, 16 years of work within my breeding program. She
also represented 12 years and four generations of Julie Timbers' work.
Her sire, an exquisite dog, won both of his majors at specialties. Her
breathtaking dam is a specialty winner from the classes. While the deep
valleys are further apart as time goes on, it has been a roller coaster
ride, playing havoc with our minds, emotions and breeding programs.
Renal dysplasia is a disease that affects the development of the kidneys.
All dogs are born with immature kidneys, made of fetal kidney tissue. By
about eight weeks of age, the kidneys will have developed into mature
kidneys. This transition does not complete itself if the dog is affected
with renal dysplasia. It is manifested by the presence of fetal or
immature glomeruli and/or tubules within an otherwise mature kidney.
(1) The percentage of immature glomeruli present determines how
affected the dog is. The dogs are classified as normal, borderline, mildly
affected, moderately affected, moderately severe and severly affected.
The degree of affectedness determines the dog's life span.
Mildly affected dogs will live an asymptomatic, normal lifespan!(2)
To make matters even worse, the breeding had basically been repeated
-- same sire bred to a sister of the dam of the RD puppy. What about my
expected litter? I didn't know where to turn. There were so many
questions. What I would have given to have been able to contact
another Lhasa breeder who had successfully dealt with RD in a breeding
I remembered an article written by veterinarians at the University of
Minnesota (3), as well as an article about RD in the AKC Gazette, in a
Shih Tzu column4. My friend searched the net, looking for information on
breeds with RD. My vet did a search through his veterinary resources for
information. Although it was bits and pieces, it was a place to start.
Each lead led to at least one more, and so I gathered information.
I read and studied the information. I talked with knowledgeable
veterinarians, researchers and geneticists. I wrote to every university
that has a grant for any kind of kidney research in any breed. I realized
that most research in the past has focused on the treatment of animals
with RD or the underlying pathology of the disease. There was little
available on how to deal with RD within a breeding program.
There were days when it all seemed so overwhelming -- I felt like I
couldn't go on. What was I to do about my breeding program, my
passion, my work? What about the expected litter? How should I deal with
that? What about my beautiful dogs, a product of my creativity and my
passion? I felt like I was responsible for giving them this dreaded
disease. I felt like I caused it. That was the hardest feeling to get
over. It took months before I stopped blaming myself and was able to
talk about it without breaking down.
Besides my close friends, there are three breeders who have helped
me deal with the emotions and the decisions I faced.
Patricia Craige Trotter, Vin-Melca Norwegian Elkhounds, was the first
breeder I contacted because one of the articles mentioned that Elkhounds
also have this disease. She has had my respect for years because she
consistently breeds outstanding dogs. Mrs. Trotter lived up to my
expectations and responded immediately. I would like to quote parts of
her letter because it has been a source of inspiration for me.
"First of all, you have taken the most important step of all ...
identifying the problem and recognizing it ... i.e. verbalizing it. That
is painful and involves self-awareness as well as responsibility and
accountability. You are not the first person who has inadvertently made
breedings that come back to cause pain and suffering. You will not be the
last. The big thing you have going for you, again, is admitting it,
facing it head on and trying to cope with it ... Try to research and find
out everything you can about the disease and its hereditary behavior. And
keep in mind that in time it will sort itself out ... right now is as bad
as it gets. In other words, keep the faith."
Mrs. Trotter also invited me to meet with her at a show in Colorado where
she was judging hounds. That meeting was very difficult because I was
still unable to talk, face to face, and not break down. Her compassion
and concern, as a fellow breeder, has given me solace.
Janet Edwards, chairman of the American Shih Tzu Club's Renal
Displasia Committee, was another person I contacted immediately.
She sent me a very helpful information packet. Most of the literature
was written by Dr. Kenneth Bovee of the University of Pennsylvania.
He has been studying this disease, including the mode of inheritance,
since at least the early '70s.
In Janet Edwards' letter, she writes, "Back in the early '70s
when I first got into Shih Tzus, my first litters were all affected with
RD. Of course 'no one had ever had this problem and it was something
I had done that had caused this to happen.' So I stayed with the same
bloodline, changing breeding dogs, and the same thing continued to happen.
"In the mid-'70s," continued Janet, "I contacted Dr.
Bovee and talked my vet into doing kidney biopsies, changed bloodlines
and biopsied all dogs kept for breeding. They do not know the mode of
inheritance for sure so I approach it like trying to breed out hip
dysplasia. Use dogs with normal biopsies for breeding and as those dogs
'accumulate' in the pedigrees the chances increase of you
producing normal pups. This has worked for me. Don't give up
you'll get yourself out of this!"
Wasn't her approach drastic? Invasive wedge biopsies? Wasn't
there some other way to do this? What was I going to do with my
litter? Couldn't I screen my litter with BUN, creatinine and specific
gravity tests? Couldn't I have their kidneys ultrasounded or x-rayed?
Surely I wouldn't need to have surgery performed on my dogs. Would I?
There must be another way!
Through a chain of events I met Donna Rogers, a Soft Coated Wheaten
Terrier breeder, who has helped more than I ever would have thought
possible. She presented my situation to the genetic scientists at VetGen.
Donna, having dealt with RD for several years, is further along in the
entire process than I am. She is committed to finding answers and
educating people. She helps me through the bad times and there still are
plenty of those. In one of our first conversations Donna said I had to
get to the place in my heart where I no longer blamed myself.
Intellectually, I knew I didn't give this to my dogs, but in my heart
I felt responsible, so I knew exactly what she meant. We've
cried together and we've laughed together about situations that arise
that only someone dealing with RD could understand.
In August, still unable to talk about what was happening with out breaking
down, I attended our local club's meeting. Ironically, it was the day
after my meeting with Pat Trotter. The subject of kidney disease came up.
Misinformation and accusations were flying around the table. Is this why
breeders don't want to talk about this disease in public? I didn't
utter a word. I couldn't. I sat, mute, with more information on RD
than anyone there. I had to leave the meeting. I drove home on the back
roads, pointing my car down any road, as long as it was a quiet country
road, that headed in the general direction of home. I was mad, sad, and
felt hopeless. Why oh why was this happening to me? Why? As time
went on, it became easier to talk about it. I have informed the board of
the American Lhasa Apso Club of my situation, as well as the members
of my local club and some other breeders. I am now able to converse on a
rational level, anytime, about RD.
But what about my puppies? Four bitches and one dog were born July 5,
1996. Adding insult to injury, four out of the five were liver pigmented!
I haven't had a liver-pigmented dog in years. I thought I had taken
care of that! Here was a not-so-gentle reminder of the strange things
genes will do. All I could do was laugh and name them after coffee drinks.
At least they weren't going to die from liver pigment! Coloration was
the least of my concerns. My worst suspicions were confirmed when Cisco,
the male puppy, was euthanized because of a brain infection
(diagnosed after necropsy). His kidneys were sent to the University of
Pennsylvania. Dr. Bovee's report came back -- moderately affected
with renal dysplasia.
The liver pigment turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Three puppies
would be spayed because of the liver pigment. The puppies couldn't be
placed until I knew the status of each puppy's kidneys and knew that
the puppy would live a normal lifespan. How was I going to guarantee that?
A wedge biopsy read by a specialist, is the only way to know if a dog is
affected and to what degree. What if my vet, Dr. David Manobla, spayed
them and biopsied them at the same time? This was not an easy decision.
It took four months to make the decision to have the biopsies performed.
It was the right decision. It was a wise decision. It was a decision that
will, I hope, affect all breeders.
In addition to the three liver pigmented puppies, biopsies have been done
on their sire and three older dogs. The three older dogs had normal
kidneys, but the puppies and their sire weren't as fortunate. The
sire is mildly affected with 5% fetal glomeruli. Latte is also mildly
affected with 4% fetal glomeruli. These two dogs will lead an
asymptomatic normal lifespan. Mocha and Chiata are not so lucky.
Chiata is severely affected with 40% fetal glomeruli. She has an
expected six-month life span. Mocha is moderately affected with 15%
fetal glomeruli and has a one to two year life span. It is important to
note that, in spite of this diagnosis -- Chiata and Mocha's BUN,
creatinine and specific gravity tests are normal right now! These test
values are not enough to diagnose RD!
The biopsies performed on the puppies, their sire and the older dogs also
provided VetGen with tissue from normal kidneys and affected kidneys for
their studies. VetGen is the canine molecular genetics company that
developed the marker test for copper toxocosis in the Bedlington Terrier
and the Von Willebrand's marker test in both the Scottish Terrier and
the Doberman Pinscher. The company is developing a test for renal
dysplasia that will indentify not only affected dogs but also carriers.
VetGen has confidence that, with the help of this tissue and DNA I've
been able to supply, that a non-invasive marker test for RD will be
available in the future. The DNA is collected, simply and painlessly,
with a small brush that is about 4 inches long. The brush is twirled in
the cheek of the dog for 15 seconds. Every DNA sample submitted is coded,
making references to a specific dog's identity and genetic status
If you are willing to provide DNA samples from affected dogs contact
either myself or Rob Loechel at VetGen, 1-800-4-VetGen.
If it had not been for Julie's persistence and Dr. Tim O'Brien, a
pathologist at the University of Minnesota with special interest in the
kidney, we would still be unaware of the problem! It is extremely
important to work with urinary specialists because, although the disease
is familiar to veterinary urologists and many breeders, it has only been
superficially described in the veterinary literature.(5)
Dr. Ken Bovee, University of Pennsylvania, who has been studying this
disease and its mode of inheritance for more than 20 years, interprets
the pathology reports and makes the diagnosis and prognosis for each
animal that we've had biopsied. Dr. Bovee also requested all of our
dogs' pedigrees to further his studies. All biopsies that we've
had done since the original diagnosis are sent to: University of
Pennsylvania, School of Veterinary Medicine, Laboratory of Pathology,
3800 Spruce Street, Philadelphia, Pa. 19104-605, attention: Dr.
Michael Goldschmidt. The phone number is 215/898-8857.
I still have bad days. I've been asked why I would let anyone know
this is happening to me. I've been told I'm going way overboard.
I've been told I'm brave. I don't think either is true.
I just know that I'm doing what I have to do.
I am Breaking The Silence.
Debby Rothman´s e-mail address is:
1. Lees, George E., DVM, MS. "Congenital Renal Diseases."
Veterinary Clinics of North America Small Animal Practice, 26: 6,
2. Bovee, Kenneth, DVM. Telephone conversation with Dr. David Manobla,
3. O'Brien, TD, and C.A.Osborne, B.L. Yan, et al.
"Clinicopathologic manifestations of progressive renal disease in
Lhasa Apso and Shih Tzu dog. J Am Vet Med Assoc, 180:658-664, 1982.
4. White, Jo Ann. "Shih Tzu Breed Column." AKC Gazette, Nov.
5. "Canine Genetics Service." Handout published by VetGen.