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Whatever happened with … ?

'Talking' dogs, jerky-related illness, lethal rabbit virus and other topics revisited

December 29, 2022 (published)
By VIN News Service staff

Humane Society of the United States photo by Meredith Lee
A just-passed measure eliminates a federal requirement that all new drugs be tested on animals before people. A beagle getting a hug at a rehabilitation center in Maryland in September is one of 4,000, raised for experimentation, that were ordered by the U.S. Department of Justice to be removed from a breeding facility run by a private company due to poor living conditions. Proponents of the change in law cited cases like this as a reason to limit reliance on the use of animals in research.

Before closing the book on 2022, the VIN News Service checked in on some simmering stories that made past headlines. Read on to learn how the new $1.7 billion federal spending bill relates to drug testing on animals; what's known about why a rare bone marrow condition killed so many cats in the United Kingdom in the summer of 2021; what research into "talking" dogs and cats reveals; whether jerky treats are still making dogs sick; where rabbit hemorrhagic disease is showing up in North America; and the status of a court battle in Washington state over a noncompete clause.

FDA animal-testing mandate lifted

After months of legislative fits and starts, the FDA Modernization Act was signed into law by President Biden today as part of an omnibus spending bill to fund the government through September.

In 235 words, the act ends a decades-old U.S. Food and Drug Administration mandate that drugs be tested in animals before being used in clinical trials in people. 

The law does not ban animal testing. Rather, it allows the use of alternatives — such as organ chips that recreate in a microchip the physiology of the human body — that are said to be better than animal models for assessing drug safety and effectiveness in humans.

"It's been a longer path than we expected but we obviously wanted to get it done in this Congress," Wayne Pacelle, president of the lobby group Animal Wellness Action and a proponent of the bill, told VIN News last week.

Although the legislation had broad bipartisan support from the start, it went through several iterations — from standalone bill, to rider, back to standalone bill — before catching a ride on what Pacelle called "the last train."

Also included in the omnibus package is $5 million in new funding for a New Alternative Methods Program at the FDA to spur the development and adoption of alternatives to testing in animals.

— Lisa Wogan

UK cat-disease puzzle inspires research effort

At least 350 cats, and likely many more, died in the United Kingdom last year during a strange outbreak of pancytopenia, a bone marrow condition that causes a rapid fall in the patient's number of blood cells.

The outbreak, which made international news headlines and sparked a government-led investigation, was noteworthy for its size. Pancytopenia typically is a rare condition. The sudden clustering of cases set off alarm bells in government, veterinary and pet-food circles.

According to an update issued in September 2021 by Britain's Royal Veterinary College (RVC), 565 cases were recorded, with a 63% mortality rate. The school noted, however, that many other cases would have gone undocumented, since not all sufferers would have been seen by a veterinarian.

Now, more than a year later, identifying the cause of the outbreak, which peaked in June 2021 and petered out a few months later, remains a work in progress.

Initially, the U.K. government's Food Standards Agency suspected pet food was to blame, as many of the victims had similar diets. Fold Hill Foods recalled some dry cat foods, prompting the likes of supermarket chain Sainsbury's and pet store and veterinary practice owner Pets at Home to pull the diets from their shelves.

Whether the recall was necessary is uncertain: The regulator ultimately found "no causative link" between the recalled cat food and the outbreak. Accompanying investigations led by veterinarians at the RVC appeared to rule out a range of culprits including common feline infectious diseases, common toxicants such as heavy metals and estrogen, or abnormal levels of vitamins and minerals.

Investigators aren't giving up — especially after Pets at Home decided in March to launch a £100,000 (US$120,568) research fund to support researchers "seeking to better understand the condition, identify causes and improve treatment options." Applications for the grant closed at the end of May, and one study already is underway. More details are expected in the New Year.

Separately, two papers related to the outbreak but unrelated to the Pets at Home grant have been accepted by the Journal of Veterinary Internal Medicine and are expected to be published in coming weeks, the RVC told VIN News.

— Ross Kelly

Studies advance on 'talking' dogs and cats

Photo by Patrick Wood
Dillon is among thousands of dogs and cats participating in research that is trying to assess whether pets can communicate in human language using paw-activated soundboards.

Can dogs and cats communicate in human language by pressing buttons that sound words? Can they combine those words to form novel sentences? How about "telling" owners and veterinarians when and where they feel pain?

Researchers led by cognitive scientists at the University of California, San Diego, have been attempting to answer those questions with the research project TheyCanTalk.

The project is perhaps less well-known than its most famous research subject, Bunny, a celebrity sheepadoodle on the social media platform TikTok (who now has a "brother" in the form of Otter, a standard poodle).

Along with Bunny, TheyCanTalk now encompasses thousands of other dog and cat recruits, situated in 47 countries. Each has access to a board fitted with paw-activated buttons that sound words or phrases when pressed, such as "toilet," "now," "play" or "ouch."

When VIN News first spoke with Federico Rossano, director of UC San Diego's Comparative Cognition Lab, in April 2021, the project's initial phase was in full swing. Still underway, it involves owners responding to questionnaires or sending in video clips.

Now, TheyCanTalk has concurrently entered its second and third phases, which involve cameras being installed in pets' homes, and select animals taking part in behavioral experiments. Ongoing first-phase efforts have been enhanced by the creation of an app that allows owners to more conveniently contribute data and videos. Soundboard manufacturer FluentPet has developed a version that automatically records and uploads data when its buttons are pushed.

In a follow-up interview, Rossano said the researchers have submitted two academic papers, which are under review for publication in the New Year. Another two papers will be submitted in January, he said, with another three likely following close behind.

So what's been discovered? Although he can't give away many juicy details just yet, Rossano said the results so far have been promising, albeit varied. Some animals, such as Bunny, have learned as many as 100 words; others, just a handful.

Asked if any pets are stitching sentences together, Rossano said: "We are excited about some of the things that we're seeing. But because a lot of the data is coming from humans — who we have to just trust — we want to make sure that we have more data from phase two and phase three to corroborate what they're showing and telling us."

Phase two's around-the-clock filming, for instance, allows the researchers to assess whether animals are responding to owner cues. Three cameras are being placed in subjects' homes to watch owners as well as their pets. (Progress has been slowed partly owing to a global semiconductor shortage, making it harder to obtain devices that synchronize filming).

Perhaps of particular interest to veterinarians, Rossano said a number of subjects have indicated when they're unwell.

"I've seen examples of dogs pressing buttons like 'belly,' followed by 'ouch,' and then puking a few minutes later," he said. "Or they're limping and then pressing 'concerned' and 'walk.' " Others have communicated apparent auditory issues, such as being bothered by fireworks.

Whatever the ultimate findings, Rossano posits that enabling animals to express their suffering by pressing just a few buttons could be groundbreaking. "We shouldn't disregard the fact that even if their abilities aren't cognitively amazing, we could be helping them to communicate in a new way that's beneficial to their welfare."

— Ross Kelly

Jerky-treat-related illness, mystery continue

Fifteen years since veterinarians began noticing a connection between jerky treats and kidney problems in dogs, cases continue to surface, while an explanation for the link remains elusive.

The FDA has not released updated counts since May 2016, when the agency said it had received reports of illness involving more than 6,200 dogs, 26 cats and three people.

Anne Norris, an agency spokesperson, said in late November by email: "Although FDA still receives reports of illnesses associated with jerky pet treats, reporting has greatly declined since the height of the investigation (2012-2014). FDA continues to monitor this issue."

Posts by veterinarians this year on message boards of the Veterinary Information Network, an online community for the profession and parent of the VIN News Service, indicate that new cases still are occurring. And while many veterinarians know that dogs given jerky treats regularly may be at risk of illness, not all are aware.

Increased thirst and urination are signs of a kidney disorder called Fanconi syndrome that is associated with jerky-treat consumption. Usually, Fanconi is an inherited condition found in certain breeds such as basenjis. The jerky-associated illness is an acquired syndrome that, tellingly, often resolves once the patient no longer is fed jerky.

Other clinical signs seen with jerky consumption are diarrhea, vomiting, lethargy and loss of appetite.

The FDA has been expected for some years to provide a summary of its investigation into the jerky-treat question. Norris said the report is still in the works but with no specified date for release.

Veterinarians and pet owners should continue to report cases to the FDA.

— Edie Lau

Lethal rabbit virus continues march 

In the 2½ years since a highly contagious viral disease that causes sudden death in rabbits was first identified in wild jackrabbits and cottontails on the continent of North America, the virus keeps marching across the land. Rabbit hemorrhagic disease virus type 2 has been confirmed in 28 U.S. states, 19 Mexican states and two Canadian provinces since April 2020.

RHDV2 causes lesions throughout a rabbit's internal organs and tissues, particularly the liver, lungs and heart, resulting in bleeding. It is often fatal. The virus does not make humans sick.

Early in the outbreak, efforts to protect rabbits were made more difficult by a lack of domestic vaccines. Although Mexico and the U.S. each had an in-country inoculation available by late 2021, Canadian veterinarians had to go through a time-consuming and expensive process of importing vaccines made in Europe, where RHDV2 has been endemic for years.

One of two European vaccines, Filavac (from Filavie in France) since has received market authorization in Canada. Veterinarians there now have access to it through major distributors, according to Dr. J. Scott Weese, an infectious diseases veterinarian at the University of Guelph's Ontario Veterinary College.

Filavac also is the go-to vaccine for two efforts to protect endangered wild rabbits. Vaccinations of riparian brush rabbits in Central California and Columbia Basin pygmy rabbits in Eastern Washington started in the summer of 2020 and have continued apace.

In May and June this year, alert levels spiked for California conservationists when RHDV2 was confirmed as the cause of a few deaths in riparian brush rabbits and desert cottontails that live in the San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuge.

Despite that news, Dr. Deana Clifford, senior wildlife veterinarian at the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, told VIN News: "We are cautiously optimistic because our fall effort still resulted in the capture and vaccination of 283 riparian brush rabbits." Those captured included previously vaccinated and unvaccinated rabbits that appeared healthy.

Clifford added that CDFW continues to monitor for infection by testing animals found dead, along with screening rectal swabs from captured animals for the virus.

Meanwhile, on the sagebrush steppe of Eastern Washington, a team led by state Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) biologist Jon Gallie is working to bolster the pygmy rabbit population. Gallie has estimated there may be fewer than 200 total. Most of the vaccination efforts focus on rabbits in sprawling breeding enclosures.

Dr. Katie Haman, a WDFW wildlife veterinarian, recently said nearly 100% of the rabbits in the enclosures have been vaccinated. She did not have population figures.

In favor of North America's smallest rabbits: There have been no documented cases of RHDV2 in wild rabbits in Washington.

— Lisa Wogan

Judge rejects antitrust claims against NVA

A couple months shy of what would have been the expiration date on noncompete agreements that two Spokane veterinarians refused to sign, a federal judge rejected their ensuing lawsuit.

Drs. Dru Choker and Matthew De Marco alleged that National Veterinary Associates (NVA) was trying to build a regional monopoly through noncompete agreements and referral requirements tied to its planned purchase of Pet Emergency Clinic (PEC), where they worked.

With more than 1,400 practices around the world, NVA is owned by JAB, a German private equity firm. PEC is the only emergency clinic and referral center in Spokane, the largest city in sparsely populated Eastern Washington.

NVA had been in negotiations to buy PEC in 2017. As a condition of the deal, PEC shareholders — a group of about 50 veterinarians in the community that included Choker and DeMarco — were required to agree not to compete with the emergency clinic. Moreover, shareholders who worked in general practice would be obligated to refer patients needing emergency or specialty care to PEC.

The veterinarians were terminated after refusing to accept the restrictive terms. They sold their shares and opened an emergency clinic 35 miles away in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho.

The sale to NVA was not completed.

Meanwhile, Choker and DeMarco sued PEC and NVA for breach of contract, conspiracy to commit unlawful business practices and wrongful termination in state court in 2019 before rolling those claims into an antitrust suit in federal court in 2020.

Judge Stanley A. Bastian of the United States District Court Eastern District of Washington dismissed Choker and De Marco's antitrust claims in August.

The veterinarians have appealed the decision. PEC and NVA responded with a cross appeal.

— Lisa Wogan

Corrections: The story has been changed to reflect that President Biden signed the federal spending bill on Thursday, Dec. 29. The caption on the photo of a beagle has been revised to correct the fact that the dogs were removed from a breeding facility, not a laboratory, and clarify the connection between the beagle incident and support for the legislation. The RHDV2 map and the story have been corrected to include cases identified in Washington state in 2022.


VIN News Service commentaries are opinion pieces presenting insights, personal experiences and/or perspectives on topical issues by members of the veterinary community. To submit a commentary for consideration, email news@vin.com.



Information and opinions expressed in letters to the editor are those of the author and are independent of the VIN News Service. Letters may be edited for style. We do not verify their content for accuracy.



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