Joint Venture: Research Aims to Shed Light on the Mysteries of Canine Arthritis

Monday, May 14, 2018

Ariel Bohner was inspired to investigate the causes of canine arthritis after noticing one of her dogs was struggling with his favorite activity, retrieving a tennis ball.

Looking a lot like two large, white Muppets, Goldendoodles Ty and Ranger bound and leap in pursuit of tennis balls thrown by their master.

Noticeably, one of the dogs, Ty, is having some trouble. While Ranger leaps high in the air to snatch a ball in his mouth, Ty often simply looks on, unable to match Ranger’s speed or agility.

It turns out, Ty is one of the roughly 25 percent of household dogs who have arthritis. In his case, it started when he was very young and has now spread to the joints in his hips, knees, elbows, wrists and heels. Ranger is luckier. So far, he seems unaffected by the disease.

The dogs’ owner, Ariel Bohner, a junior biology and biomathematics major, decided she wanted to know more about the arthritis affecting her beloved pet. She even wondered whether years of fetching a tennis ball, Ty’s favorite activity, had made matters worse. After all, human athletes often experience injuries related to their sports later in life. Why not dogs?

“I started looking into it, and found, there’s really not much data out there about retrieval,” Bohner says. There’s plenty of research published about the effects of agility competitions and ordinary daily activity, but little work has been done to study the effects of fetching a favorite toy, a very common canine pastime.

This is where Bohner, who plans to attend veterinary school, hopes to make a difference. Armed with the knowledge of a biology major and the analytical skills of a biomathematician, she has designed a study aimed at uncovering any correlations between retrieval and canine joint problems.

As with most studies, Bohner’s first step has been to collect lots of data. She is doing this by videotaping several dogs of different sizes and breeds retrieving their favorite toys at a local dog park. Her next step will be to evaluate the video using a computer program that tracks, analyzes and converts into data, each dog’s motion. With that information, she’ll look for correlations between how the dogs retrieve and other factors, such as their joint health, age, weight, limb length, range of motion, and more.

“Hopefully, from there, I can start to build models that will predict…whether retrieval will be a good exercise for them,” she says. Bohner also hopes to discover whether other exercises can reduce the risk of joint problems. “Through this research, veterinarians may start to determine the stressors on the joints which cause this outcome and could help dogs in the future avoid what Ty has now,” she says.

As with all Rose-Hulman senior projects, Bohner did not work alone. She was mentored and guided throughout by biomedical engineering professors Glen Livesay, Renee Rogge, and Jameel Ahmed. Associate Professor of Mathematics, Eric Reyes, a statistics expert, provided protocol review and project advice.

Inspired by her pet’s painful condition, Bohner’s research promises to uncover new insights for an important area of canine health, while preparing her for work in her chosen field. “This project has been super fun and interesting to me,” she says. “Working with animals gives me a chance to make a difference in the larger world.”