Fresh off a $75 million fund raise and a record-setting year of pandemic era growth fueled by a spike in pet ownership, Boston-based Embark Veterinary is looking to turn that money and momentum into its next big project; extending the lives of dogs by 3 years.
In announcing its new venture, the six-year-old start-up is not only appealing to the hearts of pet owners everywhere but to their common sense too, as its ever-increasing trove of DNA data and growing list of customers has eased its entry into longevity.
“We know that purebred dogs have more genetic issues than mixed-breed dogs, and since with purebreds you’re combining two similar parental genotypes, it makes sense that the dog is more likely to have these recessive disorders,” Embark Veterinary Co-founder and Chief Executive Ryan Boyko told PYMNTS’ Karen Webster.
In its funding announcement, Embark said its expanding database enables it to “exponentially increase the number of novel discoveries it makes to help dogs live healthier, longer lives” with the specific goal of increasing canine lifespan by three years within the next decade.
“When there is a genetic predisposition or condition, there are things you can do to either completely prevent it or to perhaps delay or reduce the severity,” Boyko said. “For example, you can change your dog’s diet to avoid bladder stones, or let your vet know if they have certain drug sensitivities that may change how they need to be treated.”
Boyko told Webster that attempting to expand a dog’s lifespan by two to three years is entirely realistic, though of course, the exact length would be dependent on the breed.
It’s important to be aware that most dogs are inbred to an extent, with some reflecting the genetic disposition of certain European royal families in the 1800s and others being even more inbred than that, he said. But the top 25 percent of most inbred dogs of a specific breed will typically have lifetimes of around two to three years less than more genetically diverse dogs within that same breed, he pointed out.
“We think there’s a lot more you can do with genetics than just that, but it’s clear that many dogs are losing two to three years of life due to a single genetic phenomenon that we can test for,” Boyko stated.
That’s not to say Embark’s goal is to simply eradicate any dog that is genetically disposed toward a certain disease or condition. Rather, the company is trying to learn more about which genetic conditions a certain breed of dog might be susceptible to. So, although it’s still important to test breeding partners to ensure that their puppies won’t be too inbred, it’s just as vital to test their offspring.
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“The goal isn’t to eliminate every condition out of a certain dog breed, because you don’t want to create a dog with a recessive disorder,” Boyko said. “There’s no harm in having drug sensitivity if your vet knows about it. But there’s a lot of harm if you say that any dog with a certain gene should never be bred, because that limits the gene pool, meaning every dog within that breed will become more inbred. If that happens, you’ll develop some problem that’s even worse than the drug sensitivity you’re trying to eradicate.”
Long term, Boyko believes Embark can use the datasets created by its DNA tests to work with pharmaceutical companies and dog nutrition specialists to advance the science of dog health. Embark has already done a lot of research in the space, mainly with third parties that have access to facilities, samples and technologies that it doesn’t have.
“I think there is so much we can do with this kind of genetic information to advance dog health over the next decade, so we’re happy to work with others to move things faster,” Boyko said.
Naturally, that will include working closer with veterinarians themselves. Boyko said this is an important aspect of his company’s work, because another of Embark’s goals is to strengthen the pet owner-vet relationship. Many treatments are best performed holistically, and vets who know their customers’ dogs are in the best position to do that.
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In that respect, it’s not dissimilar to the relationship between humans and their physicians. Many times, it will be someone’s general practitioner who first notices that they might be suffering from cancer, simply because they know the patient and their medical history so well. The same dynamic applies to dogs and their vets.
“There’s no substitute for that relationship where the vet sees the same dog year after year and knows the owner,” Boyko noted.
Embark is already monetizing the data it has collected, and in the future, there may be an opportunity to expand into retail. After all, its data puts it in a very good position to know a dog’s healthy eating habits. Boyko sees an opportunity, as there is a dearth of scientifically-backed information on what dogs should really be eating.
“I’ve talked to some of the best dog nutritionists on the planet and it’s hard to get a sense of what’s right,” he said. “Ultimately, I’d love to be able to show that for most dogs, we can create an optimized diet that helps them live for one, two or three more healthy years.”