TO CLONE OR NOT TO CLONE?
Snuppy was an Afghan hound, the first dog clone. The puppy was created in 2005 using a cell from an ear from an adult Afghan hound and involved 1000 embryos and 123 surrogate mothers, of which only two produced pups. Snuppy’s brother died within a few days of pneumonia. The process has become much more efficient in the years since, but still requires a huge commitment of resources.
It’s easy to understand why someone would want to clone their dog. They’re adorable, they would do anything for us, and we don’t want to say goodbye to them forever. No argument there. Perhaps this discussion is moot, as the price tag for cloning a pet dog is currently $50,000 – half what it was when Snuppy was cloned.
“I understand the impulse behind trying to keep your dog in perpetuity,” says Alexandra Horowitz, head of Columbia University’s Canine Cognition Lab and author of the 2010 book Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know. “One of the great sadnesses about living with dogs is that the time we live with them is so short. Unfortunately, you have to overlook a huge amount about the process—to say nothing about what cloning actually is—to be satisfied with the results.”
The process of cloning sounds simple enough. It begins with cultured cells, preferably from a live donor. Next, scientists extract unfertilized eggs from another, unrelated dog, removing them from its fallopian tubes. That animal generally isn’t harmed, though the procedure is invasive. They take the eggs to the laboratory and suck the nucleus out, replacing it with the DNA from the animal to be cloned.
Then they hit the composite egg with an electric burst that “fuses” the two together. Now you have a full set of genetic information, just as you would in a viable embryo. After a few days, assuming that the process successfully takes hold, the lab can then surgically implant the cells into yet another animal: a surrogate dog mother. Treated with hormones, and sometimes made to “mate” with vasectomized male dogs, these surrogates can, under ideal circumstances, carry the pregnancies to term. Often, surrogates then go on to carry other cloned pregnancies.
Surrogates and embryos do not have to be matching breeds, only be relatively the same size for the safety of the mother. Additionally, sometimes surrogates are pregnant with dogs from multiple clients. Meaning, that a beagle could in theory give birth to one client’s chihuahua and another client’s English foxhound at the same time. “We put embryos [from different clones] into the same surrogate to economize the surrogate,” says Blake Russell, president and co-founder of ViaGen, the only US company currently cloning dogs, cats and horses.
Maybe we can begin to see that the costs are steeper than most realize—and go far beyond money. Even if one is willing to overlook the suffering of animals harvested for their eggs and co-opted into pregnancy, questions still arise. Key among them may be what pet owners think they’re getting when they clone a “beloved” animal.
WHAT DO YOU REALLY GET?
Cloned animals contain the exact same genome as their donor but might have slight variations in how these genes are expressed. Markings or eye color, for example, could differ. Our personality is unique to our individual selves. It is our past experiences that shape who and what we are today. The same holds true for dogs. Dog personality is influenced by the environment in which the puppy is born, so it's unlikely that can be replicated in a lab. If the new clone grows up in the same environment as the original dog then the personality may be similar.
Not every embryo transfer creates a puppy or kitten. There are also times when an embryo transfer results in more puppies than expected. “It’s not perfect science by any stretch,” says Russell, “Like IVF, sometimes they get twins. Or triplets.” In some cases of IVF, a litter produces five—exactly what happened to Meesha Kaufman, of Bel Air. In that case, the client can have the additional animals at no additional charge (which is what Kaufman chose to do, deciding to keep four chihuahua clones for herself while giving a friend the fifth). If they can’t take on the additional pets, the ViaGen contract states that the company is responsible for finding forever homes for the others.
Kaufmann points out that the black spotting on their white-furred bodies varies from dog to dog. Their personalities are also different, Kaufman says, pointing at each dog. “I have an angry one, a funny one, a really sweet one, and one that’s really independent.” So if you have your heart set on replacing your dog with an exact replica, you may be disappointed.
ARE CLONES HEALTHY?
The FDA monitors cloning of animals like sheep and goats and, according to the agency's website, cloned animals are generally healthy. Dogs, however, have slightly more complicated reproductive systems, making them more difficult to clone.
When dogs were first cloned, scientists were concerned that the clones would age faster than natural-borne dogs. But in most cases, clones have been just as healthy as dogs that aren't cloned. Snuppy lived to be about 10 years old before he died of cancer. Afghan hounds live for about 11 years.
In 2015, scientists took it one step further by cloning three new puppies from Snuppy. In a paper in the journal Nature about the research, scientists claimed the dogs appeared healthy and normal and would be monitored over the years.
ViaGen maintains that cloned dogs live full, healthy and happy lives and are no more susceptible to health problems than any other dogs.
Barbra Streisand is a proponent of cloning. In a 2018 Variety interview, she revealed that her two dogs, Miss Violet and Miss Scarlett, were clones of her late Coton de Tulear, Samantha.
As Streisand wrote a few days later, in an op-ed in the New York Times: “I was so devastated by the loss of my dear Samantha, after 14 years together, that I just wanted to keep her with me in some way. It was easier to let Sammie go if I knew I could keep some part of her alive, something that came from her DNA. A friend had cloned his beloved dog, and I was very impressed with that dog.”
She told Variety that her two cloned pups “have different personalities” than Samantha—and, presumably, each other. “Each puppy is unique and has her own personality,” she writes in the Times. “You can clone the look of a dog, but you can’t clone the soul.”
Others who have talked about their cloned pets are media mogul Barry Diller and fashion designer Diane von Furstenberg and “Real Housewives of Beverly Hills” star Lisa Vanderpump.
So the argument in favor of cloning is that you will still have the DNA of your original dog, although it may not look exactly like the cloned dog or have the same personality.
Unlike animals in the agriculture industry, where cloning is more common, pet cloning is largely unregulated. In 2005, California attempted to pass a bill banning the practice. Officials cited health concerns and worries that animal control would be unmanageable if pet owners turned to clones instead of shelters. The bill was ultimately voted down.
Without oversight, it's difficult to know how many dogs are cloned annually. “We are cloning a few hundred animals a year,” ViaGen’s Blake Russell said in January 2020. “We successfully produce healthy, happy cloned animals on a weekly basis.” ViaGen Pets clones dogs, cats and horses.
Some animal advocacy groups, such as the Humane Society, oppose the practice. “The Humane Society of the United States opposes cloning of any animals for commercial purposes due to major animal welfare concerns. Companies that offer to clone pets profit off of distraught pet lovers by falsely promising a replica of a beloved pet. With millions of deserving dogs and cats in need of a home, pet cloning is completely unnecessary," said Vicki Katrinak, the animal research issues program manager at the society.
And one veterinarian, Dr. Katy Nelson, says curious owners should reconsider. The laboratory procedure involves what she called a “really expensive, highly scientific puppy mill. Just because you can, doesn’t mean that you should”. Instead, the veterinarian recommends taking that $50,000, spending a hundred or two on a rescue pet’s adoption fee, and donating the rest of it “to save a heck of a lot more animals in need.”
ViaGen says their goal is to clone more pets cheaper, perhaps for little as $20,000 per animal. And Russell thinks that ViaGen can quadruple the number of pets they clone with the next decade— from about 300 pets a year to more than 1,000.
So far, those numbers are still a tiny part of the U.S. pet population. But as the process gets less expensive and more effective, it seems inevitable that cloning will only become more mainstream.
For those who love the dogs they’ve lived with, here is the critical point: you adore this animal—not because of its genetics, but because it became the creature that it is through time spent with you. While a clone may perfectly replicate its genome, it won’t be the same dog because it won’t have the same life, a life that it lived in your company. In almost every way that matters, then, they’re different dogs.
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