shedding light: how dog hair can help diagnose disease

Posted by Dr. Ernie Ward on Dec 06 2013

Could the key to analyzing your pet’s health lie in the hair we vacuum from our floors each day?

Researchers say maybe. A recent discovery could allow veterinarians to quickly screen for disease by simply taking a hair sample from dogs.

Hyperadrenocorticism, or “Cushing’s Disease,” is one of the illnesses scientists have tested. A complex hormonal disorder typically occurring in older canines, its most common symptoms include increased thirst and urination, excessive appetite, thinning and loss of hair, and a pot-bellied appearance.

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But because these clinical signs can accompany many diseases, veterinarians and pet parents may delay testing or mistake Cushing’s disease for something else, resulting in late diagnosis and less than optimal treatment options.

Currently, testing for Cushing’s disease is complicated, time-consuming, and costly (particularly for pet parents who don’t have pet insurance), all of which hinders the diagnosis of the disease. Veterinarians need a quick, reliable, and inexpensive alternative – and hair samples just may be the answer.

Cushing’s disease causes most of its damage by increasing the body’s production of natural steroids, especially glucocorticoids. Too much of these steroids for too long can lead to serious complications and death. Researchers at the University of Veterinary Medicine, Vienna, proved these glucocorticoids accumulate in an affected dog’s hair and that analysis can provide rapid and reliable preliminary diagnosis of Cushing’s disease.

The veterinary scientists compared levels of the three main steroids in the hair of healthy dogs with those suffering from Cushing’s disease. The results verified that all three hormones, cortisol, corticosterone, and cortisone, were found in significantly elevated levels in the hair of Cushingoid dogs. Most importantly, cortisol was found to be particularly elevated, making that specific hormone a likely candidate for future tests.

Many of us have long speculated that hair could be used to diagnose many illnesses in pets. This research validates that suspicion. My hope is that diagnostic laboratories will begin exploring ways to make this type of testing a reality for veterinarians and our pet patients. I long for the day when I’ll simply be able to take a few hairs and accurately assess my patent’s health status. Studies like this bring my dream closer every day.

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