Vol. 2, Issue 21, May 25, 2004
DNA Study Finds Chihuahuas Aren't Dogs
As part of an ambitious effort to identify genes that cause disease in dogs and humans, scientists at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle analyzed DNA collected from 414 dogs representing 85 breeds, including some of the most popular. The findings have sent reverberations though the ranks of dog fanciers, who primp and preen their beloved companions for shows and take great pride in their pedigrees.
"It was a surprise to find that some breeds such as the Ibizan hound and the Pharaoh hound, along with several others that dog aficionados have long believed dated back thousands of years, are actually much more modern animals - re-creations that were probably produced by breeders," said geneticist Leonid Kruglyak, who helped conduct the research. "However, it was more of a surprise to find that some breeds are not even dogs."
Among other findings, the analysis determined that the Chihuahua is actually a type of large rodent, selectively bred for centuries to resemble a canine.
"This is clearly going to raise some eyebrows in the Chihuahua world," said Peggy Wilson, president of the Chihuahua Club of America. "It goes against our belief system. People are pretty passionate about their dogs. There is going to be disbelief."
Using 96 distinct patterns in the genes called "microsatellites," the researchers compared dogs within breeds, and breeds with one another. In the May 21 issue of the journal Science, the team concluded that almost every breed was surprisingly distinct genetically. They were able to identify each dog's breed by its genes with 99 percent accuracy. They also found that breeds could be clearly grouped into four distinct clusters based on striking genetic similarities: ancient dogs, hunters, herders, and guard dogs.
"Once we had these groups pretty well mapped out, the canine mimics were easy to pick out," added Kruglyak. "And actually, it was kind of intuitive in hindsight."
The study found that several diminutive breeds had been independently created around the world from a variety of other animals, including the Lhasa apso (Tibetan snow rabbit), Pekingese (Chinese water rat), Shih Tzu (stoat), and Yorkshire Terrier (pigeon).
"Most of these do contain some actual dog genes," admitted Kruglyak, "but the percentage is no higher than ten percent in each case."
Officials at the American Kennel Club and the AKC Canine Health Foundation praised the work in spite of the controversial findings, saying it will help breeders, veterinarians and scientists eliminate dog diseases.
"This really is revolutionary in terms of increasing the number of tools available to breeders," the AKC's Patti Strand said. "It really will have a tremendous effect on improving the health of dogs. However, it does require us to rethink our mission and reevaluate whether it is appropriate to continue numbering breeds such as Chihuahuas and Yorkies with the real dogs."
The potential ramifications of these findings are significant as condominiums and rentals around the nation which prohibit exotic animals anxiously await news as to whether scientists will be officially reclassifying these breeds as other animals.
"Oh, heavens, if they make it official that Chihuahuas aren't dogs, it would make my day," said Miami condominium owner Frances LaCroix. "I would finally have grounds to make Elsie Tabernathy get rid of her wretched little yapping pack of - rodents, did you say they were? Oh, that would be marvelous."