Epigenetics: Your Dog’s Genes Are Not His Destiny

Epigenetics In Dog

I’m starting with a puppy video today. It shows some of my puppies eating their first meal at 4 weeks … and they’re eating raw food. 

You might think it’s not a good idea to feed puppies a raw diet until they’re older. But before you make that choice … you need to understand something called epigenetics.

Some people call this nature vs nurture. It’s all about the importance of your dog’s genes (nature) … and how his food and environment (nurture) can affect his gene expression.

But epigenetics isn’t just about puppies. Your adult dog can also reap HUGE benefits from this cool science.

How Genes Influence Your Dog

Your dog has over 20,000 genes, each made up of DNA. DNA is long strings of proteins called bases – about 3 billion of them. The order of these bases is your dog’s genetic code.

DNA determines your dog’s size, shape and appearance … even his behavior. 

Genetically, your dog is very close to the wolf. He shares 98.8% of his genes with the wolf. That might not surprise you. But it’s also the same amount of DNA we share with chimpanzees. So our base physiology is very similar.

Collectively, DNA sequences are called the genome. The genome for all dogs (and wolves) is pretty much the same. DNA sequences also combine with proteins to form your dog’s chromosomes. 

Genetic Shuffling

When puppies are conceived, one egg and one sperm cell from his parents form a single cell. But the DNA from each parent’s chromosomes is recombined. This genetic shuffling makes every puppy unique. But most physical traits (like size and appearance) are pretty much set.  

This is why all dogs have the same number of legs, a furry coat and tail … and why they like to chase and hunt. It’s in their genes.

But what about identical twins? They share the exact same genes and DNA sequence, so they look exactly the same. Yet identical twins have different behaviors, preferences … and diseases. 

Studies on identical twins show that only half of their traits are determined by their genes. The other half are determined by their environment. Again, this is nature vs nurture. And their effects are pretty evenly balanced.

The non-genetic factors that shape half of your dog are called epigenetics.

How Epigenetics Affect Cells

In Latin, the word epigenetics means “on top of genetics.” What’s on top of the genes doesn’t change the DNA sequence … but it does change the gene expression (how your dog’s body reads a DNA sequence).

Here’s a simple way to think of it …

Your dog’s cells are constantly dividing. Inside every cell is your dog’s DNA. DNA is the genetic material that gives his cells instructions on how to make other cells and proteins. 

But not every cell needs every protein. Almost every cell in the body contains the same DNA sequence. But different cell types will use it in different ways.

A liver cell has a different job than a brain cell. So they get different instructions. In brain cells, the genes that make proteins for liver cells are turned off. And in liver cells, the genes that make proteins for brain cells are turned off.

Skin cells are another example. Most cells don’t need collagen. But skin cells do. So other cells have the gene that makes collagen turned off … while it’s turned on in skin cells.

Epigenetics influences a cell’s specialization through gene expression or silencing. And epigenetics is what makes us unique. It’s why puppies in the same litter grow to be different sizes and have different personalities. The different combinations of genes that are turned on or off make each puppy a different individual.

Gene Silencing

We humans (and our close genetic cousins the apes) can make our own vitamin D. When our skin is exposed to sunlight, UV rays help us make vitamin D3.

Dogs’ bodies don’t do this. The vitamin D-making gene has been turned off. On the other hand, dogs and wolves can manufacture vitamin C … but in humans and apes, this gene is turned off. 

It makes sense. Primal humans naturally eat a diet that’s rich in vitamin C, while the primal dog doesn’t. Human bodies don’t need to make vitamin C so that gene is turned off.

And the primal dog eats a lot of animals that make their own vitamin D. So again, that gene is silenced. Dogs do have the blueprint to convert UV rays to vitamin D … but that gene has been turned off. 

This ability to turn genes on and off means our environment can change our gene expression. And that’s true for your dog too.

Now what has that to do with his health?

RELATED: Important vitamins and minerals your dog’s diet may be missing …

What Agouti Mice Tell Us

Methylation is the process epigenetics use to regulate gene expression. Methylation turns genes off, while demethylation turns them on. This story illustrates how it works.

Scientists first studied epigenetic changes in an inbred little mouse called the agouti mouse. These mice have a piece of repetitive DNA near their agouti gene. (Agouti is a type of fur coloration). 

Normally, agouti mice are brown, normal-looking mice. But if their agouti gene is activated, the mice have a yellow coat. They’re also much more prone to develop obesity, diabetes and cancer.

Here’s the really interesting part …

When agouti mouse mothers get a diet rich in folic acid, their babies’ agouti gene is silenced. This is because folic acid is rich in a substance called methyl. When methyl is added to the agouti mouse’s DNA … the DNA becomes methylated or inactivated. 

This is why a mother’s diet and toxin exposure is so important to her baby’s health. It can methylate or unmethylate DNA. This turns some genes on and other genes off. 

And it’s not only about what mothers eat. Our ancestors also leave their mark on our genes. Things like how our grandparents or great grandparents ate, affect us now.

One example is the impact of famine on future populations. Several studies show that malnutrition causes higher incidence of diabetes, obesity, heart disease and cancer in later generations. These problems showed up as long as 3 generations later after starvation conditions in China, Netherlands and Norway.

But the good news is .. we can control these effects through epigenetics.

RELATED: Epigenetics aren’t the only way you can prevent cancer in dogs …

Your Dog’s Genes Are Not His Destiny

Epigenetics is great news for your dog. That’s because it means it’s not just his genes that impact his health. It’s also his environment.

Think of it like a movie script. The script is your puppy’s genes. His diet and environment are the director and actors. But with a different director and different actors the movie can turn out completely different. That’s epigenetics at work.

Your puppy is most susceptible to epigenetic changes when he’s still developing … either in the womb or while his cells are still quickly dividing. 

So, getting back to my little 4-week-old puppies … now you can see why it’s important to start puppies (and their mom) on a high-quality diet as early as you can.

Even though many vets advise waiting to feed a fresh food diet until your puppy is older … that reduces the quality of the puppy’s diet when he needs it most. So don’t listen to your vet if she tells you to wait! Get your puppy onto fresh food as soon as you can!

RELATED: How to start your puppy on a raw diet …

When I mention the importance of your puppy’s environment … it’s not only about his diet. Epigenetic effects are everywhere. It can be where your dog lives, or how he exercises. Or the chemicals he’s exposed to. Vaccinations, de-wormers, medications, pesticides, heavy metals and other toxins can all change your puppy’s epigenome and contribute to unwanted epigenetic changes.

But what about adult dogs … is epigenetics still important? Well, it’s so important, it has its own word …

Nutrigenomics Is Epigenetics For Adult Dogs

One of the key causes of impaired methylation is poor nutrition. Poor nutrition is simply a diet that’s lacking key bioactive food components that help prevent unwanted methylation.  

Nutrigenomics is the science of using these bioactive food components to manipulate health and disease. If we can control methylation, we can control …

  • Diabetes
  • Cancer
  • Inflammation
  • Organ disease

So it’s important that dogs get a good serving of bioactive food components. These foods don’t just prevent disease … they can also treat it.

There are a few powerful bioactive food components you should focus on. That’s because they can change DNA methylation …

1. Polyphenols

Polyphenols are the bioactive parts of fruits, berries and veggies. They can significantly change the epigenome of cancer cells. And they can reactivate silenced genes that allow cancer to grow.

Some important polyphenols include:

  • Epigallocatechin-3-gallate (EGCG) from berries, plums, peaches kiwi and avocado
  • Resveratrol from cranberries and blueberries
  • Curcumin from turmeric
  • Isoflavones from alfalfa, lentils and beans
  • Isothiocyanates in cruciferous veggies that can inhibit cancer cell growth and modulate methylation

2. Selenium

This antioxidant is a trace mineral that can restore the expression of silenced cancer genes. Selenium is found in most meats. Selenium deficiency can lower immune function and stress tolerance.

3. Other Vitamins And Minerals

Most vitamins and minerals play a key role in your dog’s epigenetics. If his diet lacks micronutrients, it can change the way his genes are expressed … and that can silence key functions. 

So there’s a lot you can do to change your dog’s disease destiny.

Start by feeding a nutritionally complete diet that supplies folic acid and other important vitamins and minerals. Then include a daily serving of cruciferous veggies, berries and fruits.

You can also get more specific to address specific health issues in your dog. Veterinary homeopath Dr Dee Blanco offers these helpful tips on how different colors of fruits and veggies can help your dog.

  • White = strengthen the immune system
  • Yellow = improve skin elasticity
  • Orange = prevent inflammation
  • Red = support heart and blood health
  • Purple = protect the nervous system
  • Green = detoxify

Keep these colors and your dog’s needs in mind as you shop for his produce. For example, during the spring consider extra green veggies for a detox. Feed orange foods to manage inflammation if he’s got some arthritis. Or feed a rainbow of colors for all-around support.

And remember … avoid all chemicals and toxins that can change your dog’s epigenome. And don’t forget the importance of exercise.

How Exercise Helps

Exercise silences genes that are involved in inflammation. This could explain why regular exercise lowers the risk of cancer and other chronic diseases. But it ties into epigenetics in other ways too.

Exercise increases the expression of genes that suppress tumors. And it lowers the expression of oncogenes. These are abnormal genes that predispose cells to develop cancer. Cancer cells have abnormal DNA methylation. And exercise can reduce and even reverse methylation.

You always knew that a healthy diet and clean living was better for your dog … and now you know the science behind it. So give your dog a fresh, whole food diet. Avoid chemicals and toxins. And keep him moving. You’ll find you can influence your dog’s health more than you thought!

References

Wang T, et al. Quantitative translation of dog-to-human aging by conserved remodeling of the DNA methylome. Cell Systems. 2020;11(2):176-185.e6.

Polderman TJ et al. Meta-analysis of the heritability of human traits based on fifty years of twin studies. Nat Genet. 2015 Jul;47(7):702-9. 

Lindholm et al. An integrative analysis reveals coordinated reprogramming of the epigenome and the transcriptome in human skeletal muscle after training. Epigenetics. 2014 Dec;9(12)

Handy DE, Castro R, Loscalzo J (May 2011). Epigenetic Modifications: Basic Mechanisms and Role in Cardiovascular Disease. Circulation. 2011;123(19):2145–2156.

Coyle YM, Xie XJ, Lewis CM, Bu D, Milchgrub S, Euhus DM (February 2007). Role of physical activity in modulating breast cancer risk as defined by APC and RASSF1A promoter hypermethylation in nonmalignant breast tissue. Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention. 16 (2): 192–6.

Tabitha M Hardy1 and Trygve O Tollefsbol. Epigenetic diet: impact on the epigenome and cancer. Epigenomics. 2011 Aug 1; 3(4): 503–518.

Jie Li et al. Prenatal exposure to famine and the development of hyperglycemia and type 2 diabetes in adulthood across consecutive generations: a population-based cohort study of families in Suihua, China, The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Volume 105, Issue 1, January 2017, Pages 221–227.

Tessa Roseboom et al. The Dutch famine and its long-term consequences for adult health, Early Human Development,Volume 82, Issue 8, 2006,Pages 485-491,ISSN 0378-3782

Lumey, L.H. & Poppel, Frans. (2013). The dutch famine of 1944-45 as a human laboratory: Changes in the early life environment and adult health. Early Life Nutrition, Adult Health and Development: Lessons from Changing Diets, Famines and Experimental Studies. 59-76.

Kaati G, Bygren LO, Edvinsson S. Cardiovascular and diabetes mortality determined by nutrition during parents’ and grandparents’ slow growth period. Eur J Hum Genet. 2002 Nov;10(11):682-8.

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