When Fig, a mixed-breed dog, was 11, Gainor Riker worried that her pet's biological clock was ticking so she decided to have his sperm frozen and stored at a canine semen bank. Her hope is to one day use the sperm to produce a litter of puppies, giving her another wonderful pet with the same fantastic temperament as her beloved Fig.
Fig died two years ago at the age of 15, and his sperm is still in the bank.
"I don’t think our other dog is sociable enough to be around a litter of puppies," says Riker, of Warren, Ore. "But I’m happy to continue paying the annual ‘keep-it-frozen’ fee until the time is right. Just knowing it's there is very reassuring.”
While professional breeders have long relied on canine semen banks to help ensure that the genes of top dogs are passed along to future generations, veterinarians say dog lovers everywhere increasingly are using sperm banks with the goal of eventually creating puppies with the traits of a favorite pet. (Technology to clone dogs isn't ready for prime time yet.)
“More than 40 percent of our business comes from dog owners just like Riker,” says Carrol Platz, founder of the International Canine Semen Bank in Sandy, Ore., and a former professor of veterinary reproductive sciences at Texas A&M University.
“General interest has more than doubled in the last few years," he says.
There are now canine semen banks throughout the country, including 32 branches of Platz's company, one of the largest.
But animal-welfare workers worry how this growing craze will impact the millions of pets in shelters waiting for the chance to be adopted.
“To put it in gross economic terms, the supply of these animals so exceeds the demand that the best way to honor a beloved pet is to adopt another wonderful animal from your local animal shelter and name your new companion after your previous pet,”says Ken White, president of the Peninsula Humane Society/SPCA in San Mateo, Calif.
Preserving the ‘family jewels’
Sperm can be collected at any time in a dog's life, as long as he isn't neutered, though the sperm count and quality begin to drop at around age 7 to 10, says veterinarian Jeff Glass of the Stonecreek Animal Hospital in Irvine, Calif.
“We simply collect more semen from older dogs to compensate,” explains Platz. Oftentimes, though, pet lovers decide to collect sperm at the same time they neuter their pets. That’s exactly what Katherine Madison of Kent, Wash., did with her “little street urchin,” a short-haired mutt named Dexter.
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"Being a responsible pet owner, I wanted him neutered," she says. "But before doing so, I arranged to have his family jewels locked up in the canine semen bank to ensure a future generation.”
So how exactly are those "family jewels" obtained? Unlike men, male dogs aren't turned on by pornographic pictures or videos. Instead, canine semen banks often rely on a female in heat known as a “teaser” dog. When the male gets ready to mount her, technicians manually stimulate the dog's penis until the animal ejaculates into a collection kit called an "artificial vagina." Sometimes, electrical stimulation is used to retrieve the sperm.
“One collection can be enough for several breedings," Platz says. "The sperm is frozen in straws until it’s required.”
As for the price tag, the initial collection procedure costs about $300, and annual storage fees range from $60 to $90. Then there can be fees to hire a female to carry the pups. Some breeders may charge thousands of dollars, while others just ask for the pick of the litter.
When the time comes to use the sperm, a female can be artificially inseminated in three ways. The standard procedure is a vaginal insemination using a syringe. A trans-cervical insemination involves threading a tube through the cervix directly into the uterus. However, the most successful method — with rates as high as 90 percent — is a surgical procedure done under anesthesia; an incision is made in the abdomen, exposing the uterus, and then the sperm cells are injected directly into it.
The right bitch and three decades later, five puppies
Recently, sperm that had been frozen for 34 years was used to produce a healthy litter of five German shepherds. This is a world record for freezing canine sperm and using it successfully.
So why did internationally recognized German shepherd breeder Olivia Fowlis of Portland, Ore., keep it on ice for so long?
“I knew back in the '70s that my dog Charlie B was very special. That’s why I collected his semen,” says Fowlis. “And it’s taken me until recently to find the right bitch to perpetuate his line. Many of the German shepherds bred today are so inbred that they are small in stature. Charlie B’s puppies are just like him, with magnificent bodies and big heads and they all have his friendly nature. Watching them at play is like watching Charlie B growing up all over again.”
Veterinarians at the University of Florida in Gainesville are currently at work on a program to harvest eggs from female dogs and store them the same way canine semen is stored. They haven't succeeded yet, but perhaps one day in the future, pet lovers will have the option of harvesting eggs from their female doggie companions, too.
Increasingly, cat owners also are choosing to bank sperm, though the practice is much more common in dogs.
Just like dear old Dad
Even when a dog dies, canine owners have an eleventh-hour option to collect semen.
“It’s called a testicular harvest,” explains Platz. “A veterinarian must remove the testes and get them to a canine semen bank within 24 hours. This method is comforting for dog owners should their pet die unexpectedly.”
Joeri Goedertier of Battle Ground, Wash., did a testicular harvest after his champion Rottweiler named Umbro died.
“I rushed him to an emergency vet and asked [the vet] to cut off the dog’s testicles so that I could FedEx them to a canine semen bank," says Goedertier. "He thought I was some kind of crazy psycho. Time was of the essence and when I threatened to do it myself, he complied.”
A few months later Goedertier and his wife became the “proud parents” of a healthy litter of potential Rottweiler champions.
“They’re wonderful,” he says. “Just like their dad!”
But that's not always the case, warns Mary Leake Schilder, public affairs manager of the Progressive Animal Welfare Society (PAWS) in Lynnwood, Wash. "Animals are individuals, just like people are, and there’s no guarantee that the next animal is going to be just like the animal that has passed away,” she says.
Sandy Robins is a freelance writer and columnist based in Irvine, Calif.
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