Disappearing Doberman

doberman standing on a beach in front of a sunset

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The Doberman Pinscher is a loyal guardian and faithful companion to many. Unfortunately, Dobermans suffer from many diseases that shorten their lifespans and impact their quality of life. In a study of over 5,000 dogs across 179 breeds, Dobermans had the shortest average life expectancy (Lewis et al.,2018). This lower reduced life span is likely linked to a high rate of disease impacting the Doberman Pinscher including dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM), hepatitis, hypothyroidism, cervical vertebral instability (CVI/Wobblers), numerous cancers, and various other diseases.

The Disappearing Doberman Project is a remarkable undertaking that will make significant advances in our understanding of these diseases in the Doberman. The first part of this project, the lifetime study, will enroll at least 1,000 dogs less than one year of age to follow throughout their lifetime with the goal of identifying how the animal’s genetic make-up (genotype) interacts with the environment to result in disease. All participants will be asked to submit DNA samples and fill out an annual survey regarding the dog’s diet, vaccination schedule, location, exercise regimen, annual health testing results and medical records. Owners will also be asked to update the research team if anything changes with the dog’s health. This study will allow us to make a truly comprehensive investigation of all the factors that influence important diseases in the Doberman, and will allow us to answer questions regarding the role of the environment in the development of disease.  This study may also allow us to identify early markers of disease so we can intervene earlier and improve outcomes for our dogs.

doberman puppy playing in a patch of gravel and grass

The early impact study portion of this project will enroll Dobermans at any age with a particular focus on dogs that have been diagnosed with DCM, hepatitis, hypothyroidism, and wobblers, and normal  healthy Dobermans, especially those over the age of eight. The goal of this part of the study is to estimate the heritability or genetic component of these diseases and identify additional contributing genes and mutations for each disease. While this study won’t let us explore the environmental impacts on disease the way the lifetime study will; this part of the project will give us valuable information about the underlying genetic risk for these diseases. This part of our project will also give us some answers sooner than the lifetime study—so we can start improving Doberman health as soon as possible.

As many as 58% of Dobermans will develop DCM in their lifetime. (Wess et al., 2010). Cardiomyopathy can present in different ways: one is characterized by the enlargement of the ventricles of the heart, weakening the walls of the heart muscle causing impaired contraction of the heart’s ventricles. Other dogspresent with arrhythmias (i.e., irregular heartbeats) including ventricular premature contractions (VPCS) with little to no evidence of heart dilation. Some dogs present with both arrhythmias and dilatation of the heart muscle (myocardium), in these dogs it is difficult to determine which came first. The presence of arrhythmias are particularly concerning as these arrhythmias can lead to sudden death (Wess et al., 2010).Many Doberman owners and breeders screen their dogs yearly for DCM. This screening includes an echocardiogram which can detect changes in the heart muscle and a 24-hour electrocardiogram (ECG), called a Holter monitor that detects electrical abnormalities and arrhythmias. The goal of this screening is to identify dogs early in the course of disease so veterinarians can intervene with treatment before the dog is noticeably sick. While researchers have identified two genes that increase projected risk for the development of DCM, we know from the experience of breeders, and the scientific literature, that these two mutations are not the whole story. The Disappearing Doberman project aims to investigate the relationship between the known risk alleles and development of the disease, as well as identify additional mutations underlying DCM in Dobermans. By following dogs throughout their lifetimes, we will be able to better measure all the risks that lead to DCM, including a dog's genetic make-up and factors in the dog’s environment.

Doberman in mid-jump over grass, facing camera, with buildings in the background

Doberman Pinschers are particularly predisposed to chronic liver disease (hepatitis or hepatopathy). Some Dobermans have copper associated hepatopathy (CAH) which is caused by excess build up of copper in the liver, while others have a more inflammatory disease, suggesting the immune system is playing a role in the destruction of the liver. This inflammatory liver disease is referred to as immune-mediated chronic hepatitis (ICH). Some dogs have liver disease that is characterized by both copper accumulation and excess inflammation. Doberman hepatitis, whether categorized as CAH, ICH or both, causes progressive liver injury leading to cirrhosis (scarring) and liver failure. In the breed, the underlying inheritance of hepatitis is likely complex, resulting from the cumulative effect from multiple genes and environmental factors. The Disappearing Doberman Project will help us better understand the forms of hepatitis, identify genetic alleles that increase risk, and find better ways to treat and prevent this disease. Learn more about the inspiration behind our hepatitis research.

Hypothyroidism, a common condition in Dobermans, is characterized by insufficient levels of thyroid hormone due to an underactive thyroid gland. While the direct cause remains unknown, it is hypothesized that both genetic and environmental factors play a role in the onset of the disease. Hypothyroidism can present as lethargy, weight gain, skin and coat issues, failure to regrow coat, and cold intolerance.

Doberman jumping over obstacle bar with trainer running alongside 

Dogs offer a unique spontaneous animal model for many forms of cancer. This is because cancer in dogs shares many characteristics to those in humans, they are exposed to the same environmental factors as their owners, and many breed predispositions for cancer exist (Gardner et al., 2016).  Some scientific reports suggest that Dobermans are at higher risk of developing cancer because the Doberman is often overrepresented among dogs with many cancers  including lymphoma, osteosarcoma, mammary cancer, and prostate cancer. Other scientific reports do not conclude that Dobermans are at higher risk.  Our lifetime study offers a unique opportunity to determine the incidence of cancer types in the Doberman, and may help us understand the underlying genetic predisposition to cancer in the Doberman.

The Doberman breed is also predisposed to developing cervical vertebral instability (CVI), often referred to as “wobblers”. Affected dogs display ataxic gait, which worsens with time, caused by compression of the spinal cord by the vertebrae. This painful condition requires significant veterinary care, with some dogs requiring spinal surgery or euthanasia. Dobermans commonly experience compressed discs between C3 and C7; or around the base of the neck. Symptoms typically present in middle age dogs, and can be managed with corticosteroids for a period of time. To diagnose, a myelogram or an MRI must be performed. There is no cure for CVI and has been noted to have both hereditary and environmental factors. Due to the breed specificity of this disease, CVI is thought to have a genetic basis. However, at this time, no underlying cause has been determined.

These dogs make our lives whole, it is time we make their lives healthier and longer. The loss of every Doberman is devastating, knowing that the breed has one of the shortest life expectancies is tragic. The information gathered in this study will help us make better lifestyle and breeding decisions for our dogs, and give us new ways to increase longevity and prevent or reduce disease severity.