AKC Canine Health Foundation Celebrates 25 Years

group of dogs

Celebrating its 25-year anniversary, the AKC Canine Health Foundation stands proudly today as a radiant leader of canine health research. This nonprofit organization holds tenure as the largest funder in the world of health research exclusively for dogs. Its pioneering spirit is alive today, and the future promises good things are coming.

When Carillon Bedlington Terrier breeder Lucy Heyman bred her first litter of the rare lamblike breed in 1981, copper toxicosis affected 75 percent of the breed. The fatal inherited disease was a thorn in her side that ignited her passion and led her to build her breeding program on health advocacy.

Copper concentrations in affected Bedlingtons could be more than 15 times the normal amount, resulting in severe liver disease. Without treatment, most dogs died at 3 to 7 years of age. When geneticists at Michigan State University and the University of Michigan began studying copper toxicosis in Bedlingtons in 1989, Heyman gathered blood samples and pedigree information from anyone who would contribute to the cause.

Using DNA markers generated by sequencing many parts of the canine genome in a first-of-its-kind study, the researchers identified a genetic marker linked closely to the mutation. The discovery led to a linked marker test for the autosomal recessive disorder.

The test empowered breeders to identify unaffected, affected and carrier dogs. They could selectively breed away from producing affected dogs. Importantly, they could breed quality carriers to non-carrier dogs and then replace the carrier parent with a quality non-carrier offspring in one or two generations. This breeding strategy maintained breed quality without producing affected dogs and helped to promote genetic diversity by reducing the risk of a genetic bottleneck and the proliferation of deleterious genes caused by a reduction in breed population size.

At the inaugural AKC Canine Health Foundation National Parent Club Canine Health Conference in 1997 in St. Louis, Heyman met the lead investigators, including Dr. Yuzbasiyan-Gurkan, with whom she had corresponded frequently over the years. “It was wonderful to talk with them in person after many phone calls,” Heyman says.

Founded by the American Kennel Club in 1995 with a $1 million grant, the AKC Canine Health Foundation in 2020 is providing $3.29 million in funding. This supports 23 program areas, ranging from blood disorders, dermatology and allergic diseases to infectious diseases, oncology and ophthalmology.

Altogether, the AKC Canine Health Foundation has provided over $58.7 million in support of more than 1,030 research and educational grants. Over $25 million has come from AKC donations. CHF aims to advance the health of all dogs and their owners, a mission that resonates universally with dog lovers and aids fundraising efforts. The mantra is to prevent, treat and cure canine diseases.

“The AKC Canine Health Foundation has been integral to the evolution of canine health, including mapping the canine genome and developments in canine cancer, tick-borne diseases and many other ailments that affect our dogs,” says Dennis B. Sprung, President and CEO of the American Kennel Club.

Purina has supported the AKC Canine Health Foundation as a corporate partner since 1997, investing more than $14 million in canine health research to benefit all dogs. Purina also is a charter sponsor of the biennial AKC Canine Health Foundation National Parent Club Canine Health Conference.

“Our shared mission to advance canine health research and education is truly making a difference for all dogs,” says Ann Viklund, Purina Director of Conformation and member of the CHF Board of Directors. “We are partners in helping to educate dog owners about canine diseases and increase awareness about the outcomes of funded studies. Our passion is to help dogs live long, healthy lives.”

The broad scope of the work of CHF impacts many groups. “The AKC Canine Health Foundation works closely with breed clubs, breeders, veterinarians, and leading canine experts to find and fund research studies with real potential to improve the health of all dogs, purebreds and mixed breeds,” says Calvin B. Carpenter, DVM, MBA, DACLAM, CHF Executive Director. “Thanks to 25 years of donor support and our longtime partnership with Purina, we continue to fund humane research that addresses the diverse health needs of dogs across their entire lifetime.”

An early CHF-funded scientist, Elaine Ostrander, PhD, now Chief and Distinguished Investigator of the Cancer Genetics and Comparative Genomics Branch of the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI) of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), says, “The AKC Canine Health Foundation can be proud that they led the way, displaying remarkable vision, as much of the preliminary data that convinced NIH to sequence the dog resulted from grants funded by the Foundation. The Foundation helped dog breeders and owners understand that genomics would be good for canine health. They helped parent clubs understand that the more samples they provided from dogs of specific breeds, the more likely it was that the genetic results would improve the health of their dogs.”

CHF Research Initiatives

In 2018, CHF launched the Hemangiosarcoma Initiative to learn more about this aggressive, common canine cancer. Known as the silent killer, hemangiosarcoma (HSA) is often not detectable until a dog suffers internal bleeding or even sudden death. Since 1995, CHF has provided $4.1 million to support 28 grants focused on HSA.

The Tick-Borne Disease Initiative, launched in 2016, and the Epilepsy Initiative, begun in 2017, have both enjoyed funding boosts with AKC matching gift programs. Studies of tick-borne diseases, including Lyme disease, the most common tick-transmitted disease in the U.S., are closely monitoring the expanding geographical range of tick species and he increased disease incidence among dogs and humans. Research addressing epilepsy, the most common neurologic disorder in dogs, is evaluating the effectiveness of dietary supplements in treating affected dogs, as well as the underlying genetics and disease mechanisms.

White Paper on Genetic Testing

The recent release of the “Review of the Current State of Genetic Testing in Dogs,” a project co-funded by the AKC Canine Health Foundation and the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals (OFA), depicts a commitment to help dog breeders, owners and veterinarians interpret and understand genetic test results.

The manuscript was written at the University of California-Davis by Liza Gershony, DVM, PhD, an AKC Canine Health Foundation Clinician-Scientist Fellow and postdoctoral scholar, and her advisor, professor Anita M. Oberbauer, PhD, a CHF-funded researcher and recipient of the 2019 Asa Mays, DVM, Excellence in Canine Health Research Award. Geneticist Leigh Anne Clark, PhD, of Clemson University, also a CHF-funded investigator, contributed editorial input.

“Misapplication of genetic tests in a breeding program can lead to excessive neutering and unnecessary removal of individuals, which causes loss of genetic diversity and a reduced gene pool,” Dr. Oberbauer says. “Panel and diversity genetic testing provide information that thoughtful breeders may want to include in their breeding deliberations if — and only if — the testing data is pertinent to their breed and to their lines while being mindful of the health of the breed as a whole.”

As with copper toxicosis in Bedlingon Terriers, the object is to avoid genetic bottlenecks and preserve as much genetic diversity as possible while reducing the frequency of disease alleles. Carillon Bedlington Terrier breeder Heyman made a lifelong commitment to help advance the health of her beloved dogs when she began sending blood samples and pedigree information to the researchers studying copper toxicosis. “I am absolutely passionate about the AKC Canine Health Foundation,” Heyman says. “I love telling people about the good work of the Foundation and encourage them to donate and become members. For me, the joy of breeding healthy dogs that live the best lives possible wouldn’t be possible without the AKC Canine Health Foundation.”

The American Kennel Club provided a straightforward beginning for the AKC Canine Health Foundation with its $1 million grant and the vision of advancing health for all dogs. Carrying that mission onward, the Foundation has wowed us with its impressive portfolio of work that serves to prevent, treat and cure canine diseases. Congratulations, AKC Canine Health Foundation on 25 years!