Scooby deux: The problem with canine cloning

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Cloning your beloved canine does not mean you’ll have the same pet. Clones are much like twins with their own unique physical characteristics and personalities. Photo by Bill LeSueur Cloning your beloved canine does not mean you’ll have the same pet. Clones are much like twins with their own unique physical characteristics and personalities. Photo by Bill LeSueur

It was a trivial bit of celebrity news, but it evoked conversations I’ve had with clients in the past, and probably meant I’d be having them more often in the future. Barbra Streisand cloned her dog. I have never had someone approach me with the serious intention of cloning a pet, but the idea is frequently sprinkled into wistful conversation after a loss. “She was such a great dog. I wish we’d cloned her.”

Anybody who has lost a dog can sympathize with this wish. It is such a deep and fulfilling bond that we share with our dogs, and it is precious in its brevity. Wouldn’t it be something if cloning could circumvent biological reality and let that bond persist indefinitely?

To answer that question, it’s important to be clear about what a clone is. Science fiction often depicts cloning as a kind of biological photocopier. Short on time, but need a vast army of perfectly identical Stormtroopers? Bring in the clones! This vision of cloning presumes that genes work like blueprints—that they contain an encoded description of the final product. This misconception is common not only in fiction, but in classrooms. There is a good chance you once learned that DNA is the “blueprint of life.” If you did, it is best to unlearn that lesson.

Genes do not function as blueprints. They do not describe the end result. Instead, they provide a set of conditional instructions to be carried out in time. Variations in exactly how those instructions are performed can—and will—result in significant differences. This means that identical genes will never be expressed the same way twice. This phenomenon is so complex that it has spawned an entire field of study called epigenetics, but it won’t surprise anybody who knows identical twins. They are similar, to be sure. If you don’t know them well, you might even have trouble telling them apart. But on closer inspection, the differences become clear. They look different. They act different. They are genetically identical, but unique individuals.

Stripped of all the science, a clone is just an identical twin born at a different time. While natural identical twins occur when a single embryo splits in two, a clone is produced when the DNA from a living animal is transplanted into a new egg. But the result is effectively the same. If you were able to clone your dog, you wouldn’t be getting your dog back. You wouldn’t even be getting a copy. You’d be getting a virtual twin, with all the differences that implies.

Right now, dog cloning is far too rare and expensive to be accessible to anybody but the ultra-wealthy. But as these services become more available, it is important that people understand what they really offer. And, more to the point, what they don’t. It’s not the ethics of cloning that concerns me so much as the ethics of marketing it for this purpose. I worry that the promise of commercial cloning preys upon a fundamental misunderstanding, exploiting a heartfelt desire to preserve one relationship by covertly replacing it with another.

It is sad that we need to part ways with our pets, but I’m afraid that cloning offers no way around it. The best and only way to get more time with your dog is the old-fashioned way—spending it with them to begin with.

Dr. Mike Fietz is a small-animal veterinarian at Georgetown Veterinary Hospital. He received his veterinary degree from Cornell University in 2003 and has lived in Charlottesville since.


Ready to be adopted!

Hello! My name might be Beauty, but I’m not all about my looks. In fact, I’m pretty adventurous—
I’m up for long walks and playing chase, and interested in taking agility or nose-work classes. Let’s explore together.

What’s up? I’m Brooklyn, a medium- hair, muted tortie with a love of the outdoors. Once inside, I’ll sit and let you brush my fluffy coat for hours (how fun!), as long as there are no other cats or dogs around.

Hey, I’m Chloe. Folks at the shelter describe me as “spritely” and “friendly.” And I guess that’s true—I love playing, eating treats, receiving pets and generally hanging on your every word. Let’s be pals! 

You may call me Watson (that’s my name, indubitably). I can be a bit of a wallflower, so my new family will need to help me socialize, with both humans and other canines. Perhaps an obedience class is the ticket.

Charlottesville-Albemarle SPCA, 3355 Berkmar Dr. 973-5959, caspca.org, noon-6pm, daily

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