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Would you clone your pet?

Science makes it possible, but is it right?

Created date

May 9th, 2018
two seemingly identical cats sit together outside on an autumn day

Would you clone your pet?

Earlier this year, Barbara Streisand wrote a moving editorial in The New York Times. It was an account of the profound grief she had felt when her dog Samantha died. As Streisand put it in the editorial, “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.”

Shortly before Samantha died, her vet collected a DNA sample and sent it off to ViaGen Pets in Texas where they would attempt to clone Samantha.

ViaGen’s website explains it this way, “Preservation and cloning with ViaGen Pets can allow you to reimagine and extend the very special love and experience you have with your pet to a genetic twin—a new adorable puppy or kitten that shares many of your original pet’s traits.”

The procedure isn’t cheap—cloning a dog costs $50,000 and cats are $25,000. What’s more, there’s no guarantee that the cloning procedure will be fruitful. In Streisand’s case, it worked. ViaGen produced four Coton de Tulear puppies from Samantha’s DNA.

Streisand explained her decision to clone Samantha this 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.”

The loss of a pet

Streisand is not alone in suffering through the death of a beloved companion animal. A study conducted at the University of Michigan found that 85.7% of pet owners suffered at least one clinical symptom of grief after the death of a pet. Those who are especially attached sometimes need clinical support to work through their loss.   

For many, the best way forward is to give themselves time to mourn. Later, they may decide they want another pet. Some people choose to get an animal of the same breed or with similar characteristics of the one they lost. And more recently, a growing number of people invest in a clone.

History of cloning

In 1996, the birth of a sheep named Dolly made history. She was the very first animal clone. Dolly represented the one successful birth out of 277 attempts with thirteen surrogate mothers. Poor Dolly made headlines around the globe but ultimately, she lived only six unhealthy years—half the typical lifespan of a sheep.

In 2005, South Korean researchers successfully cloned the first dog.

Over the years, the cloning process has been refined, making successful births more likely than they once were.

The process

Animal rights organizations like PETA and the American Humane Society oppose pet cloning. In their view, cloning is unnecessary given the vast number of unwanted pets available for adoption.

The cloning process is complicated and not without some degree of animal suffering, another reason the procedure is not endorsed by animal rights groups.

To clone a dog, surrogate canines are impregnated. Once their embryos reach a certain stage of development, they are surgically removed. Then, doctors delete the embryos’ DNA and insert DNA from the deceased dog. Those embryos are then surgically inserted into a surrogate mother.

Surrogate mothers are given large doses of hormones to support the reproductive process and essentially live lives similar to “breeders” in puppy mills.

Outcomes

For those who can afford the steep price, buyer beware—a clone is not a look-alike.

DNA determines certain attributes but not all. Take CC, the first cat clone. Cloned from a female calico cat, CC (CopyCat) looked nothing like her mother. That’s because the color and pattern of a cat’s coat is not exclusively attributed to genetics. After paying $100,000, it may be difficult to accept an animal that looks nothing like your former pet.

Furthermore, the animal’s personality is likely to be different since personality is heavily influenced by what the animal experiences in the early weeks and months of life.

Perhaps the biggest issue with animal cloning is the potential health risks for the clone. While ViaGen says that clones are no more likely to be unhealthy than other animals, the National Human Genome Research Institute disagrees. As its website states, “Researchers have observed some adverse health effects in sheep and other mammals that have been cloned. These include an increase in birth size and a variety of defects in vital organs, such as the liver, brain, and heart. Other consequences include premature aging and problems with the immune system.”

Ethics

Some see cloning as a way to pay tribute to their deceased pet. As Streisand put it, knowing that Samantha’s DNA was present in the cloned puppies helped her deal with the loss.

Others, like bioethicist Jessica Price, see it differently. In another New York Times editorial, Price ruminated on her dog Maya’s impending death  “…even if I had millions of dollars at my disposal, I wouldn’t consider cloning Maya. It isn’t because she’s not exceptional, but precisely because she is.”

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