There are many dog behaviors that we humans find downright cute, but do we know the underlying reasons why our furry friends are performing them? Take tail-chasing, for example; I could happily watch a dog chase it’s tail for hours on end and just chalk it up to a unique doggy quirk, but there may be something more serious underlying that behaviour.
It turns out that canines can develop canine compulsive disorder, a condition thought to be similar to human obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Interestingly, some of the characteristics of the disorder are behaviors that many dog owners brush off as typical canine-oddness, such as tail chasing or obsessively sucking on a toy or body part.
But canine compulsive disorder isn’t the only mental illness that mirrors a human disorder. There is also evidence that canine cognitive dysfunction is the dog version of dementia and possibly Alzheimer’s disease.
Researchers working on a project titled Darwin’s Dogs believe that there may be a genetic link between these canine mental illnesses and human psychiatric disorders. To determine this, Darwin’s Dogs has begun comparing information about the behaviour of thousands of canines against the animals’ DNA profiles. With over 3,000 dogs participating in the project so far, researchers hope to begin analyzing DNA samples this month (March 2016).
The reason that dogs make for such a good species to study is that dogs are not as genetically diverse as humans. We’ve bred them over thousands of years to display particular characteristics, resulting in a relatively genetically homogeneous species, especially when it comes to purebred dogs.
One of the Darwin’s Dogs researchers, a geneticist by the name of Elinor Karlsson, has done previous studies on canine compulsive disorder. Her previous research found that some species are more prone to developing it, Doberman Pinschers being one such breed, leading to the discovery of possible links to four genes that encode proteins that act in the brain.
Darwin’s Dogs doesn’t want to focus on select breeds, though. They want to maximize the results they find, which is why they’re collecting data from both pure and mixed breed dogs. The incorporation of mixed breed dogs gives researchers the unique perspective of seeing how these different genes work when mixed together.
While you can gather a lot of information from a dog’s DNA, sometimes words can paint a fuller picture. Owners of the participating dogs need to answer approximately 130 different questions about their pet’s unique behaviour. Some of these questions draw on questions from human surveys to assess impulsivity in humans, whereas others are based on behaviors professional dog trainers have observed during their career.
It’s still unclear whether or not the results will be able to shed any light on the human-displayed disorders, but Karlsson is hopeful. Even if there is not a direct overlap in the genes involved, there is still a chance that the different genes “converge on the same cellular pathways.” Even if this doesn’t end up being the case, the researchers and participants won’t walk away empty-handed; at the very least, they’ll be able to gain a little insight into why their dogs behave the way they do.
If you’re interested in signing up your dog to participate in the Darwin’s Dogs project, head on over to their website. The team is hoping to reach at least 5,000 samples before they begin analyzing DNA this month. Not only will you get to know your best friend a little bit better, there’s no cost to participate and any dog can join!
H/t to Nature
Featured image via @catherinetilley /Instagram