Will My Dog Get Precision Medicine Before Me?

A photograph of a french bulldog puppy posing on pastel pink background.
Stocksy / Brat Co

The canine health and wellness market is full of innovation, with new products for early cancer detection, genetic testing, and behavior tracking.

As we search for ways to live longer, we’d like to see loved ones by our side—and that includes pets. “I’ve had four golden retrievers. Two of them died of lymphoma,” says Tom Butera, a veterinarian and the CEO of Volition Veterinary, which offers a cancer pre-screening tool for dogs. His current dog, Sammy, is 12 and healthy, fingers crossed.

Dogs have garnered attention for their potential benefits to human longevity beyond direct owner benefits like companionship and increased steps per day. They’re important participants in U.S. Food and Drug Administration trials for medications that ultimately benefit humans, says Gerald Post, a veterinary oncologist and chief medical officer of FidoCure. And according to biogerontologist Matt Kaeberlein, co-director of the Dog Aging Project, “It’s a near 100 percent certainty that we’ll learn something about human aging from studying dogs.” 

Still, dog longevity is not fully understood. Dogs flaunt lifespan norms seen in other species, and researchers are still exploring why larger dogs tend to have shorter lifespans than smaller breeds. The facts we have aren’t rosy, either: The American Veterinary Association reports that half of dogs over age 10 get cancer, and the Veterinary Cancer Society says a quarter of all dogs will develop cancer at some point in their lifespan. 

As we untangle the mysteries of dog lifespans and hope to increase them, scientists are exploring new ways to help dogs enjoy those same benefits, through sophisticated wearables, targeted cancer therapies, and more. Here are a few of the companies offering advanced health care products for dogs that are already on the market.

FidoCure: the promise of targeted doggie chemo
The One Health Company

In his 30-year career, Post has seen a boom in cancer advances for people—including better scanning methods, new blood biomarkers for early detection, more powerful and precise radiation treatments, and the rise of new stem cell-based medicines and immunotherapies. “The veterinary oncology field,” in contrast, says Post, “has seen relatively small increases in the number of diagnostics and therapeutics.” 

With FidoCure, Post hopes to change that. Working directly with veterinarians who provide tissue samples, the service sequences the DNA of tumors in dogs. Depending on the type of tumor and potential genetic mutations involved, FidoCure offers targeted therapies through a partnered compounding pharmacy. The result? A pill-based, orally administered, precision medicine for dogs that avoids some of the side effects of traditional chemotherapy. The service currently has sequenced the entirety of 56 genes and counting with updates, Post says, every six to 12 months.

Embark Breed + Health Kit: a DNA test for 200 canine diseases
Embark

Breed identification DNA tests may be all the rage, but Embark’s Breed + Health Kit promises to go one step further by not only indexing your dog’s DNA in their database for future research, but by using a genotyping array with more than 200,000 genetic markers that provides clues about more than 200 potential medical conditions your dog may develop.

Whether and how to use this information is up to you and your veterinarian. Genetic markers established through association studies may signal a predisposition for a disease, but not necessarily an early diagnosis. In other words, not every dog that has a gene associated with a given ailment will go on to develop that disease, and this could make interpreting the results difficult for owners. While amassing genomic information about dogs will advance canine research, Post wonders, “How do you interpret that for the dog in front of you? That’s a much more difficult question.” Could canine genetic counseling be next? 

You can complete the test at home, but be sure to check out Embark’s website for a primer on how to cheek-swab your pup.

A picture of a dog owner swabbing his dog with the Embark test.
The Embark breed and health swab.

Nu.Q Vet Cancer Screening Test: searching the blood for signs of early cancer
Volition Veterinary

Nu.Q is a blood test that measures levels of nucleosomes, which are bundles of DNA and protein normally found inside healthy cells but that are released into the bloodstream when cells die. Nucleosomes in the bloodstream can be early signs of cancer. The test is targeted to healthy dogs starting at age seven, or dogs that may be more cancer-prone (ask your veterinarian) starting at age four, Butera says, and requires a four-hour fast prior to sampling. 

Testing for Nu.Q is still in early stages—FidoCure’s Post says that he respects and has collaborated with one of the researchers behind it, but he feels that the test’s reliability is still subject to ongoing research. At present, Butera says, it’s best at detecting two common cancers, lymphoma and hemangiosarcoma (cancer of the cells lining blood vessels).  

Currently available only through veterinarians, the Nu.Q test itself does not directly diagnose cancer, but indicates the need for further testing, which Butera says typically starts with a full panel of bloodwork and X-rays. 

Whistle FIT: a smart collar that tracks behavior
Mars Petcare

Unlike GPS wearables, the Whistle FIT device is a tracker that seeks to categorize your dog’s daily activities so you can better titrate food to your dog’s actual activity levels and monitor behavioral changes. A self-funded study by Mars Petcare released in May found the device could reliably classify eating, drinking, and shaking behaviors—as well as, to a lesser extent, scratching and a behavior coded as “lickself.” One user even reported an early version of the device could monitor her dog’s end-of-life decline

You can currently track excessive scratching, drinking, or licking, as well as sleep disruptions, with a subscription to the Whistle 360° plan. The collar-mounted wearable is linked to the company’s three-year Pet Insight Project, which aggregates data from more than 60,000 dogs. 

We may not yet be able to offer our dogs the same level of precision medicine available to humans, but with pet health insurance plans on the rise and research underway, targeted therapies and predictive technology promise to spur our understanding of canine behavior and the all-too-common illnesses that cut dogs’ lives short.

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