Along with the joys of owning Portuguese Water Dogs come certain responsibilities. This breed came close to extinction in the 1970's. The population had been sharply reduced as technological advancements starting replacing the dogs on the fishing boats. Then in 1974 Portugal experienced a revolution.
During war animals suffer terribly. People who are caught in the war torn area can't care for their animals and they're either killed or left to fend for themselves. Most of the remaining PWDs at that time were in several large breeding kennels. The kennel owners tried to save the dogs by sending them out of the country. 25 dogs were sent abroad and two, Makuti and Margareda were housed in the Lisbon Zoo to save their lives.
A group of people who loved the breed hoped to save it and increase it's numbers. They were successful, there are now several thousand PWDs worldwide, but it came at a cost. Due to the small number of dogs available for breeding, fathers were bred to daughters, mothers to sons and brothers to sisters. I'm not a geneticist, but even I know that health problems show up when such close breeding occurs.
Because of the small gene pool of the modern PWD and the care taken by owners and breeders in tracking pedigree lines, the breed has become a good research candidate. We have been able to find genetic markers for Gangliosidosis (a wasting disease), Progressive Retinal Atrophy (an eye disease that causes blindness), Juvenile Dilated Cardiomyopathy (a fatal heart condition in puppies) and most recently Improper Coat ( not a medical condition, but one that causes a non-standard smooth, short coat).
One of the research groups studying the PWD is The Georgie Project, at the University of Utah. Georgie was a Portuguese Water Dog born in 1986 who died in 1996 of an auto-immune disease. Her owner funded the Georgie Project in her memory to try to find a marker and eventually a cure for her disease.
From The Georgie Project website:
The Georgie Project is a collaboration between owners and breeders of Portuguese Water Dogs and scientists at the University of Utah. The rewards for owners - healthier dogs and more informed breeding. For Scientists - a new system to study genetics using well cared for animals, new information and concepts.
The current studies are Skeletal Anatomy and Autoimmune Disease. Future studies include Canine Hip Dysplasia.
With the help of several research groups, we have been able to screen for several diseases that used to plague our breed. By testing the parents before breeding we can make good breeding decisions and ensure that the pups won't be affected, but several serious diseases still need more research. The research can help not only PWDs but other breeds affected by the disease and perhaps eventually humans.
Hemangiosarcoma is a tumor of the blood cell vessels It is most commonly found in PWDs, German Shepherds, Golden Retrievers, Boxers and English Setters. It's one of the leading killers of Goldens.
Addisons Disease is most common in Bearded Collies, Standard Poodles, Great Danes, Soft Coated Wheaten Terriers and PWDs. Addisons is also found in the human population.
Canine Hip Dysplasia is now found in almost every breed. It's thought to have genetic as well as environmental and possibly nutritional causes.
MMM (Masticatory Muscle Myositis) is most commonly found in German Shepards, Doberman Pinschers, Labrador Retrievers, Golden Retrievers, Chesapeake Bay Retrievers and Flat Coat Retrievers. This auto-immune disease is found in a number of other breeds as well and is the condition that my Samba is dealing with.
PWD owners are urged by the breed club and by breeders to support these research projects for the benefit of the breed. I asked my puppy buyers to register their dogs with The Georgie Project and they did.
Our part in this is to supply our pedigrees along with blood and serum samples. Sometimes x-rays are requested. Then comes the hard part, the autopsy program. When a PWD dies, if it's a registered member of The Georgie Project, it's body is shipped to the University of Utah overnight. There an autopsy is performed, then the dog is cremated. The owner receives the ashes and a complete autopsy report. The information is put into the database to help the scientists try to figure out how and why these diseases occur.
Ever since Samba entered our lives, I've planned to register for Georgie, but when you hold that squirmy puppy in your arms you don't think about the end and autopsies. I kept putting off making the call. Then Samba was diagnosed with MMM and suddenly things changed. Last month I made the call and registered all eight of my PWDs in the project.
Last week a packet arrived containing tubes for blood samples. They'll be returned as each dog goes for it's next blood test. Then UPS delivered this to our front porch.
This is the cooler that will carry Samba to Utah when the time comes. Receiving it was an emotional experience. It currently sits in the garage wrapped in black plastic garbage bags to keep it dust free and to keep us from having to see it every time we go past it. I hope that it sits there wrapped in plastic for many years.
I urge any PWD owners who might read this to register their dogs with The Georgie Project. How could I not do it? What if Samba provides the one missing piece to solve the mystery of MMM? What if because of her, thousands of dogs in the future are saved the pain and disfigurement of this hideous disease? That is a legacy to be proud of.