Veterinarian W. Jean Dodds, DVM, is an internationally recognized expert in hematology and immunology, but that description is superficial at best. Dodds has been an iconoclast ever since she applied to veterinary school in 1959, at a time when few women were encouraged to enter the profession.
After graduating with honors from Ontario Veterinary College, she went about changing the face of veterinary medicine in the areas of hematology, immunology, endocrinology, nutrition, holistic medicine and animal welfare.
She was a pioneer and leading voice in the effort to revise vaccination schedules and curb overvaccination of pets. She has earned a long list of honors, including being named Woman Veterinarian of the Year and Holistic Veterinarian of the Year.
Dodds is the founder of the Garden Grove, Calif.-based Hemopet, which is an animal blood bank, rescue and adoption center for retired racing Greyhounds, and a specialty veterinary diagnostic laboratory. Before being placed in adoptive homes, Hemopet’s Greyhound blood donors provide canine blood components, and the bank provides blood supplies and related services throughout North America.
At an age when most people are thinking of retirement, if they’re not already there, she is works tirelessly to help the profession and the animals she loves.
Q: Your father was a doctor and he came from a family of medical professionals. How did that influence your choice of profession, and what drew you to veterinary medicine instead, especially when that was, at the time, such a difficult profession for women to enter?
A: I guess the medical leaning was there because of my family background. Most of the women were nurses and the men were physicians, of course, but when I was finishing high school my father said, “You don’t want to be a vet. It’s not very scientific. You need to be a pediatrician if you don’t want your patients to talk to you.” I insisted. So he took me down to the Ontario Veterinary College when I was in grade 11 and it turned out it was the most modern veterinary school in the world at the time. Everything looked like a human hospital: green scrubbies and sterile surgery and everything.
Instead of turning me off veterinary medicine, it turned me onto veterinary medicine even more. I filled out an application to enter the school. You had to get perfect grades and of course I was so naive I didn’t even worry about that. Talk about chutzpah. I just thought, “Well, if I have to get perfect grades, I’ll get perfect grades.” I had to do farm experience because I was a city girl, so I worked two summers milking cows by hand in order to qualify to get into the college.
After my first year, I came home for the summer, and he started asking me, pointing to different parts of his body and saying, “What are the veins and nerves and arteries?” and of course I’d just done anatomy so I could reel it off, and he said, “And you learn all the differences between all the different species?” and I said yes, and he said, “Oh my god, it’s much more difficult than human medicine.”
Q: You established the first nonprofit national animal blood bank. What pricked your interest in veterinary transfusion medicine?
A: I was on the East Coast in Albany, N.Y. I was in charge of the human blood program for the state of New York right at the time when AIDS and blood safety and everything became so important. I was a hematologist by training anyway as a veterinarian, and so I had to manage the regulatory issues for blood transfusion safety in the state of New York, including New York City, and I was therefore attending the regional Red Cross meetings.
I was coming home one night from one of them and I thought, “Why don’t we have a similar kind of blood bank just for animals?” I decided (the logo) would be a heart-shaped life preserver, which I called Pet Lifeline, and then I had to think of a name for the company that was a little bit more formal and that’s how I came up with Hemopet.
Q: How did you first become interested in the science of immunology, and what made you think, “Hmmm, maybe we need to take a look at the frequency of vaccination?”
A: I think that when you’re in hematology, you’re also in immunology. The two specialties sort of go together. When I started studying immunology, I realized that one of the things that was causing, or that appeared to be causing, problems was the fact that the animals would crash hematologically and immunologically after they received vaccinations. I don’t mean anaphylaxis, but within three days to 30 days after vaccination, these animals were all coming up with weird blood and immune dysfunctional problems and that’s how I started looking at vaccinations and whether we should be giving as many as we do, especially when we don’t do that in people.
Q: You were a leader in promoting the idea of more limited and less frequent vaccinations, spotlighting serious health effects of overvaccination. What’s happening with that today, and who is leading the change, veterinarians or pet owners?
A: Both the pet-owning public and veterinarians are finally starting to seriously embrace the need for a more limited “core” vaccine approach, and less frequent vaccination boosters Ñ once the puppy or kitten has received an appropriate vaccination series. Vaccine titer testing is also becoming more accepted as an alternative to automatic adult booster vaccinations, except for rabies, which is generally required every three years by law.
Q: Dogs also can suffer severe adverse reactions from rabies vaccinations and you are at the forefront of efforts to show that a rabies vaccine is effective for at least five years, and possibly seven years. To promote this research you are one of the founders of the Rabies Challenge Fund, which raises money to cover the cost of a seven-year rabies vaccine challenge study, as well as to finance a study of adjuvants used in rabies vaccines and establish a rabies vaccine adverse reaction reporting system. How far along is the RCF?
A: It’s complicated. We’re in our sixth year of the five- and seven-year trials, so the five-year trial has finished. Ronald Schultz, PhD, is conducting those studies through the University of Wisconsin Foundation, although the animals are not there. Nobody in the study is paid other than the people who care for the animals, so we all volunteer our time, including Dr. Schultz and the University of Wisconsin.
What’s happened so far is we’ve got all the vaccine titers done serially throughout the challenge studies for the five-year trial. We have not yet released the information on these results. We’ve not done any actual viral challenges at this point. We’re looking at the vaccine titer results for the five years and following up from there.
Q: You’re probably best known for your work in developing a limited vaccine protocol, but you also speak widely on autoimmune thyroiditis. What inspired you to investigate thyroid disease more closely?
A: When I started looking at the things that regulated the blood and the immune system, based on my background in hematology and immunology, I realized that a lot of it is controlled by the master glands of the body, namely the pituitary gland and the thyroid gland. Because we really can’t measure pituitary gland output efficiently, I decided, “Well, we have to then look at what the thyroid does to regulate the rest of the body as a master gland.”
When I started looking at that, not coming from that background, I had a broader, more wholistic perspective, and I think it allowed me to see that we really weren’t looking at this from the basis of breed differences or age differences or anything else.
Q: How did you develop your diagnostic assessment methods of thyroid function and the thyroid panel that you offer at your lab? Can you explain the technology behind the diagnostics and lab tests?
A: We have four patents on our novel “green” thyroid testing. We’re the only lab that uses only nonradioisotopic methods for measuring the complete thyroid antibody profile using novel methodology. Although some similar assays are available at other labs in the U.S. and Canada, the technology that we use is a trade secret and does not come from North America.
My commitment was if we were going to start our own in-house laboratory for specialty testing, we’re not going to use isotopes. I did not want to bring them into the lab because of the environmental concerns, so we developed this technology over a period of time and then we started our own testing in this niche specialty in 2009. We also are the only lab that uses a cumulative age- and breed-specific database to interpret our results based on the age and breed type of the animal being tested.
Q: Do you think autoimmune thyroiditis is more common than it used to be, or are we just better at diagnosing it? What are some of the early signs that owners and veterinarians should be aware of?
A: Basically, both answers are correct. We are more aware now of the need to test for thyroiditis, particularly among the purebred dogs that are being used for breeding that are commonly affected. We’ve got 25 to 50 breeds that have a relatively high frequency of this condition. We also know that thyroid testing today is better than it used to be because we didnÕt have the thyroid autoantibody tests that we have now to look for thyroiditis.
The most important early clinical signs are unusual weight gain (despite) normal intake of food and behavioral aggression or weird behaviors: the animal becomes suddenly submissive, or it becomes wholly different in behavior. This can happen around puberty anywhere between, we’ve seen 7 months but typically 10 months to 11/2 years, which is much earlier than we used to see hypothyroidism a decade ago. Probably partly because of the environmental changes we have with the chemicals and the depletion of the ozone layer, overvaccination issues, overuse of pesticides on lawns and shrubs and bushes.
The most important thing for the clinical veterinarian is that — and this is not taught in my view accurately at the veterinary school level or the continuing education credit level — veterinarians are looking for fat and lazy hate-the-cold dogs with bad skin and coat. That only occurs after 70 percent of the thyroid gland or more has been damaged. We’re not taught to look for the early clinical and behavioral signs of thyroid dysfunction that present prior to the eventual 70 percent destruction of thyroid output and its attendant classical clinical signs.
Q: One of your other interests is nutrigenomics. Can you talk a little bit about what that is and what changes we might see in pet foods in the future?
A: Nutrigenomics is a relatively new term that was coined around 2002. (It explains) that certain foods can change the expression of one’s genes, whether you’re a person or an animal, and that each individual person or animal has what we call a molecular dietary signature. There are specific foods that that individual should eat to promote health and well-being and to prevent chronic disease. Nutrigenomics basically is the concept of individualized functional foods.
Q: What are some of the other new diagnostics and technologies that you are excited about or involved with?
A: Well, the only new thing that we’ve done, and we’ve done it now for about 18 months, is Nutriscan, which is our salivary test for food sensitivity and intolerance. It’s the only one available in the world for animals. We (have it for dogs); we will be starting with cats sometime soon, and next year if things go as planned, we’ll be doing the horse.
We’ve done about 4,000 Nutriscan tests. It’s very easy because the sample is stable for 30 days, so people from all over the world are doing the tests and sending us samples (in the mail), so much so that we’re actually talking about building out a part of our laboratory now to make a special facility to automate the technology here because it’s very labor-intensive. So we now have 24 foods in our test profile. The results are just amazing, totally amazing.
Q: Can you share one or two examples?
A: One example was a Leonberger that had suffered from chronic diarrhea for four years, despite frequent dietary changes and therapy. After running the Nutriscan testing, the offending food intolerances were identified and eliminated from his diet. Within three days and ever since then, his bowel movements have been completely normal.
In a second case, the dog was constantly scratching and itching in a frantic manner for several months, and would keep the owners up at night. After Nutriscan testing, the only reacting foods were quinoa and salmon. When I related that to the owner, she was amazed because she had been baking quinoa and salmon cookies for the dog as treats! Eliminating these treats solved the itching.
Q: Over the years, your work has been very controversial. When I wrote about vaccinations a few years ago, I remember getting an angry letter from a veterinarian wanting to know why I would quote someone who wasn’t even an immunologist. Leaving aside the fact that veterinary medicine doesn’t have an immunology specialty, how do you respond to those people, and why do you think you make them so angry?
A: We still have many arrows in our backs, Ron Schultz and I. They pass us by now because there’s no room. We laugh about that. But you know, we were talking years before the concept of overvaccination even became acknowledged. What really changed the industry was when cats got tumors at the vaccine injection site and then dogs did also. Even though we’ve known long before that about the adverse reactions that can occur, that really galvanized the veterinary medicine throughout the world to realize that vaccines were not sterile water and that they could stimulate a lot of immunologically challenging conditions.
I think maybe, you know, people don’t like change. It’s the same thing in human medicine. I would be just as controversial if I was a physician. That’s because I’m challenging people to look beyond the envelope. When you do that, if you get highly visible, as I am today, even people who don’t understand, don’t know who you are, immediately don’t feel comfortable with trying to change what they think isn’t broken. We tell people, “Please don’t be upset if you were doing things 20 years ago or even 10 years ago that are no longer considered the best thing to do in medical care for animals today. It’s not your fault we didn’t know about it. Now that we know about it, let’s move forward and change.”