The future of pet cloning

Pet cloning gives clients an opportunity to recapture the past, though ethical concerns linger

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2016 saw the 20th anniversary of the birth of Dolly the sheep, the first successfully cloned mammal.

What at first were heated, theoretical discussions about the ethics of cloning changed in 2005 when a South Korean firm, Sooam Biotech Research Foundation, cloned the first dog. A year later, Sooam began offering pet cloning to anyone willing to pay the $100,000 fee. Commercial cloning was now an option, albeit one limited to the wealthy.

In 2015, ViaGen, a Texas company that had been cloning horses and livestock, expanded into replicating cats and dogs. In October of that year, two litters of kittens were successfully delivered, followed a few months later by a Jack Russell terrier.

Today, ViaGen will clone a dog for $50,000 and a cat for $25,000. (Felines apparently are easier to clone.)

ViaGen also offers a genetic material banking service. The preservation costs $1,600, plus $150 a year after 12 months. Pet owners can opt to clone at a later date or leave the cells in storage.

“Those cells can be stored for decades,” said Melain Rodriguez, ViaGen’s client service manager. “That’s what the majority of our clients do: Simply store the cells for potential use down the road. There could be future cell-based therapies where these cells could be useful at some point. There isn’t really anything available now, but research is always being done.”

The Ethics of Cloning

Now that pet cloning and genetic preservation are available in the United States and the prices have dropped, veterinary clients may begin asking about the services.

Some practitioners have serious concerns about the ethics of cloning companion animals. First and foremost are considerations about the embryos that are created and the animals being used as surrogates for those embryos.

“There’s a significant loss of embryos,” said James A. Serpell, Ph.D., the Marie A. Moore professor of ethics and animal welfare at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine.

“It’s unclear at this point how many of the cloned offspring actually survive to term,” Serpell said. “It depends how far through gestation these embryos get and how sentient they are when they die. Do some of the puppies die very young? Are we intentionally inflicting suffering on the ones that don’t make it?”

Other Factors

Also of concern is the welfare of the surrogate bitches used to gestate the clone. The embryos are implanted when the dog is under general anesthesia.

“I know it happens all the time with bitches who have trouble reproducing, but it’s still an unnecessary medical procedure that the female dog has to endure in order to provide a surrogate placenta for this cloned embryo,” Serpell said. “So that certainly raises ethical concerns. Should we be using dogs for that sort of purpose?”

The pet owner’s expectations come into play as well.

“There is this notion that a clone is an exact copy, and it’s true from a genetic standpoint—it essentially is,” Serpell said. “But that completely discounts how genes are translated in phenotypes during the course of development, and we know that has an enormous effect.

“I would be concerned about the level of disappointment they might experience as a result of not getting back what they thought they were going to get and how that would then impact their relationship with the [cloned] dog.”

Duplication, to a Point

Rodriguez pointed out that a cloned pet won’t necessarily be an exact match to the original pet, not even in appearance.

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“One thing that can change in a cloned animal is the patterning of the fur,” she said. “Let’s say a black dog with white spots is the original dog. The cloned puppy would be black with white spots, but those white spots can be in a different location.

“That’s something that is determined by an external factor: the uterine environment,” Rodriguez added. “Typically the ratio of black to white is going to be very similar. Body shape and size and conformation should be very similar.”

As for concerns that a cloned pet may be less healthy because of some genetic abnormality, Rodriguez reported no complications. The company foresees normal life spans for the undisclosed number of canine and feline offspring it has produced.

Understanding the Why

Why someone might go to such financial extremes to hold on to a pet can be hard to grasp, but some owners are not ready or able to accept that their pet will no longer be with them.

“The common thread is a love for their pet,” Rodriguez said. “They share an extreme love and bond. It’s something that can give a client a little bit of hope for the future that there’s a little piece of their pet still growing and living.”

Mary Gardner, DVM, cofounder of Lap of Love Veterinary Hospice, a network of veterinarians dedicated to end-of-life veterinary care, has helped two clients collect tissue samples for genetic preservation. She can relate to the emotional side of not wanting to let go of a special pet.

“While I completely agree with the beginning, middle and end to life, I can also appreciate why people want to keep a certain pet,” Dr. Gardner said. “My 12-year-old Doberman is a geriatric boy. I do not want to see him go, and weird thoughts creep into my mind.

“With that said, I personally wouldn’t clone him,” Gardner said. “I think it’s easy for us to sit back and think about this rationally, but when you add the emotional aspect of losing a pet to the equation, rationale changes.”

Gardner, who does home-based hospice and euthanasia, estimated that 50 out of the approximately 4,000 families she has worked with have asked her about cloning.

“I see people massively grieving every day and they ask me the craziest things during this grief,” Gardner said. “Every family that has asked me about cloning all agreed it would not have the most important aspect of their pet, which is personality.

“For the two families I helped take samples for, I absolutely told them it was not going to be a facsimile of their pet and possibly similar to a twin, and even that I was unsure of since the technology is so new and unproven in my mind.”

Neither client has opted for cloning at this point.

Forever After

If a pet owner had an intense bond with a special dog, and that dog happened to still be intact, they could breed it and keep a puppy. But a large number of companion animals are spayed or neutered before puberty, so breeding is not an option for those pets.

Cloning offers the only opportunity to continue the legacy of that special pet.

A more reasonable application for cloning might be in the area of working animals, such as police K9s, search- and-rescue dogs and other service dogs.

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“Working-dog organizations routinely neuter animals that go into service, but they subsequently discover that those animals turned out to be uniquely gifted working animals, and cloning offers the opportunity to reproduce those animals after they have been neutered,” Penn Vet’s Serpell said. “That’s sort of a practical role for cloning that seems quite viable and sensible.”

Animal conservation is another area where cloning could make a positive impact. ViaGen is involved in cloning two endangered bovine species native to Asia: the gaur and the banteng.

Not All Vets Approve

Some veterinarians refuse to take genetic samples, whether for cloning or preservation. In fact, ViaGen keeps a list of practitioners willing to offer their services to clients whose veterinarians refused.

“If they feel it’s something that goes against their own conscience, then they should fess up to the owner,” said Serpell, who also serves as director of Penn Vet’s Center for the Interaction of Animals and Society. “[But] I think as long as every effort is made to ensure the welfare of the animal that’s providing the material, and if it’s something that the client definitely wants and they’re well-informed about the process, and they are aware that they may not get their original dog back, then I think it’s hard for a veterinarian to come up with a strong justification for not doing it.”

Perhaps the biggest role veterinarians can play in the commercial pet-cloning process is that of educator. Clients may be aware that cloning exists but may not understand the realities.

“I think it would be very beneficial if veterinarians could counsel owners who are going into this with a very limited knowledge of what’s involved and what the outcome is likely to be,” Serpell said. “In some cases, the owners, when they are informed about this, might change their minds.

“Or they might go out and adopt a shelter dog, which in many ways would be much better.”

What about the surrogates?

One ethical concern regarding cloning is the welfare of the animals being used as egg donors and surrogates.

ViaGen purchases canine oocytes from the research market, then enucleates them and reconstructs them with the DNA from the donor animal. The oocytes are then implanted into surrogate dogs, which ViaGen obtains from a large partner breeder.

“They are provided a very-high-quality diet and are cared for by professionals,” said client service manager Melain Rodriguez. “The dogs are kept inside a biosecure facility and are housed in social groups with toys and daily interaction with people for play, petting and grooming.”

Prior to whelping, the surrogates are moved to a nursery facility. The puppies receive customized socialization and care, and the client may visit their new pet and observe it through a video monitor before taking the animal home at 9 to 12 weeks of age.

“We do offer adoption to the client if they want to adopt the surrogate,” Rodriguez said. “If the client chooses not to adopt the surrogate, then she may be adopted out or she may be utilized again within the program.”

For cats, ViaGen sponsors spay clinics nationwide to obtain oocytes. The company also owns a feline surrogate colony, offering adoption of many females, both to clients and other interested adopters.

Cloning: yea or nay?

The topic of pet cloning is hotly debated. the Society for Veterinary Medical Ethics to gather thoughts and opinions about pet cloning from its member base.

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“The future will bring more options for pet carers, and among those options will be the choice to harvest DNA to clone a beloved pet,” said Alice Villalobos, DVM, FNAP, the society’s president-emeritus and director of Pawspice and Animal Oncology Consultation Service in Hermosa Beach, Calif.

In her more than 40 years as an oncologist, Dr. Villalobos recalls only two clients who chose to genetically preserve their beloved pets.

“So far, the number of requests for preservation of DNA for cloning far surpasses the number that actually follow through,” Villalobos said. “The first step may just serve as an option to comfort those experiencing the loss of their beloved pet. As long as pet owners are made aware of the facts regarding cloning and raising a cloned pet, they will make an informed choice.” Here’s what other member veterinarians had to say:

Wendy Koch, DVM: “I think people clone pets for the same reason they breed them and keep a puppy: They want that connection. You can’t breed a spayed or neutered dog, but you can collect tissue for cloning. As long as the technology and methodology are adequate to ensure that no animals suffer, I see no reason why cloning would be unethical if other means of assisted reproduction are not.”

Ron Banks, DVM: “The central and continuing problem with cloning is aging. A cloned animal is not a newborn, chromosomally speaking. It might look like a kitten, but its body is already well along in life. As such, geriatric medical issues will come a lot sooner than usual. Why create for my pleasure an animal that will suffer old-age maladies while middle-age joy is fleeting?”

Marty Greer, DVM: “We work with many people who show their dogs and want appearance as a priority. Cloning is so common now that one in three attempts to clone cattle end in live birth. Why do people want a cloned bull? Certainly not for personality. An educated client should have choices.”

Susan Spence, DVM: “I believe that every life has a beginning, a middle and an end. It’s curious to me why a person would want to reanimate or re-create a specific life. The circle of life is an absolute, and helping people cope with this is more compelling to me than re-creating a specific life.”

Joel Ehrenzweig, DVM: “Full disclosure: I have been consulting with ViaGen since their decision to include companion animals as part of their services. Giving an owner an option at end of life allows them the opportunity to work through the grieving process and, over time, evaluate their needs more objectively. Genetic preservation, the first step in the cloning process, is as far as the vast majority of clients go. It meets their emotional needs at end of life—to have something to hold onto, to memorialize their pet.”

Jenny Maas, DVM, MS: “As members of a profession that has a mission to advocate for the interests of our patients, is our primary ethical concern really whether the clone satisfies the emotional demands/needs/expectations of our clients? Should we not instead be examining the degree of animal suffering, or lack thereof, inherent in this growing industry?”

Originally published in the January 2017  issue of Veterinary Practice News. Did you enjoy this article? Then subscribe today! 

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