Client Support Helps Find Cause of Common Dog Disease

The Funderburgs’ Labrador Retriever Opus had laryngeal paralysis and was part of a School of Veterinary Medicine study of the disease’s genetic basis.
The Funderburgs’ Labrador Retriever Opus had laryngeal paralysis and was part of a UW School of Veterinary Medicine study of the disease’s genetic basis.

When Allison Smith and Tom McManus noticed their Labrador Retriever, Beau, was breathing noisily more often and walking differently, they knew something was wrong. After taking Beau to the veterinarian, they discovered he had laryngeal paralysis.

This degenerative neurologic disease is common in Labrador Retrievers. Primarily affecting older dogs, the condition decays the fibers of motor nerves, which control muscle movements. This decay leads to impaired muscle function around the larynx and restricted breathing.

During normal breathing, a dog’s larynx, located at the back of the throat, will open for air to pass through. With laryngeal paralysis, dogs can have difficulty getting enough air into their lungs. Although surgery can lessen the severity of restricted breathing, it is not a cure.

The Comparative Genetics and Orthopaedic Research Laboratory at the University of Wisconsin School of Veterinary Medicine is working to better understand this disease and identify the genetic mutations associated with it.

Directed by faculty members Peter Muir and Susannah Sample MS’07, DVM’09, PhD’11, the lab’s analyses of laryngeal paralysis will help improve veterinary care for the disease and help breeders reduce its prevalence in offspring.

Ultimately, the lab aims to create a genetic test for laryngeal paralysis in the Labrador and Golden Retriever (another breed where the condition occurs frequently). Then, they’ll determine whether the test applies to other dog breeds. Once developed, this diagnostic test can be used to inform dog breeding and patient management.

The team is also studying other genetic conditions, including cruciate ligament rupture in Labrador Retrievers, fibrotic myopathy in German Shepherds, and degenerative suspensory ligament disease in horses. This research not only benefits veterinary species; it also sheds light on similar genetic disorders in humans.

Genetic samples (often collected through a small blood sample or saliva swab) from client-owned animals naturally experiencing these diseases support the researchers’ work. For example, for years, they have gathered samples from dogs across the U.S. and Canada to help unravel the mysteries of laryngeal paralysis.

“We could not do any of the research without outreach and support from the public. Donations from the public have a massive impact on moving things forward.”

Beau’s family enrolled him in the laboratory’s laryngeal paralysis study in 2015, adding his genetic material to the sample population.

Sadly, Beau passed away in 2016. After losing Beau, his family was driven to find a way for Beau’s legacy to live on.

“He was a therapy dog,” Smith reflects. “He gave in life and we wanted to find a way to keep giving.” So, Smith and McManus started Beau’s Fund for Excellence in Laryngeal Paralysis Research to raise money for the work done at the UW School of Veterinary Medicine, and they have encouraged others to support the research.

Hugh and Gail Funderburg also share an appreciation for this research, having first donated to the efforts in 2017 and recently contributing to Beau’s Fund.

Like the Smiths, the Funderburgs had a dog with laryngeal paralysis. Their dog, Opus, was diagnosed with laryngeal paralysis almost a decade ago. Over the course of Opus’ disease, he lost his bark.

“It was devastating,” Hugh says.

Hugh and Gail Funderburg, second and third from left, visit with members of the Comparative Genetics and Orthopaedic Research Laboratory.
Hugh and Gail Funderburg, second and third from left, visit with members of the Comparative Genetics and Orthopaedic Research Laboratory.

The family’s veterinarian in Rockford, Illinois, advised them to visit the SVM for surgery to open Opus’ paralyzed larynx. It was there they learned of the school’s laryngeal paralysis research and added Opus’ genetic sample.

Opus died in 2018, but the Funderburgs still bring other pets to the SVM for specialized care and continue to make gifts.

“I’ve been impressed with the people here. The honesty and quality is just outstanding,” Hugh reflects.

All the way in Montana, Jaye Melcher also contributed to the research, establishing the Slick and Zephyr’s Fund for Excellence in Veterinary Medicine Research in the spring of 2022. Melcher’s dog Slick developed laryngeal paralysis in 2014, which is when she discovered the School of Veterinary Medicine laboratory and added Slick’s blood sample.

After receiving a letter of gratitude from the lab for participating in the study, Melcher was touched by their care and determination and donated to the group’s work. Then, in 2022, when her other dog, Zephyr, developed laryngeal paralysis, she created the fund.

“It was heartbreaking to have first Slick and then Zephyr, both of whom are dog agility champions and were active going into their senior years, diagnosed with this terrible disease,” she says. “When I learned about the SVM’s research, it gave me hope that someday there would be a genetic test to help prevent producing puppies that would be afflicted with laryngeal paralysis in their old age. I wanted to help support that and leave a legacy that would honor the human-animal bond and my wonderful dogs.”

As a biologist herself, Melcher understands the difficulty of obtaining research funding, which further inspired her gifts. “I know what it’s like to get funding for research. It’s really hard,” she says. “I can help fill that gap and make funding available for research that will benefit animals and their families.”

“When I learned about the SVM’s research, it gave me hope that someday there would be a genetic test to help prevent producing puppies that would be afflicted with laryngeal paralysis in their old age. I wanted to help support that and leave a legacy that would honor the human-animal bond and my wonderful dogs.”

The Comparative Genetics and Orthopaedic Research Laboratory relies on these public donations. Lab members have been touched by the widespread support of their work, partly due to the global reach of social media. Beau’s Fund, for example, has generated gifts from donors in 20 different states plus the United Kingdom.

“We could not do any of the research without outreach and support from the public,” Sample says. “Donations from the public have a massive impact on moving things forward.”

To learn more, visit www.vetmed.wisc.edu/lab/corl.

Britta Wellenstein

This article appears in the winter 2022-23 issue of On Call magazine.


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