Dr. Stephanie Todd recalls one eager couple’s relief when she delivered the news: They were pregnant. Well, not them, exactly. It was their English Setter, and they were ecstatic.
The owners, who are breeders, had tried many times to get their Irish Setter pregnant with frozen semen from a stud who is one of the best hunters of his breed, but it didn’t “take.”
Harmony Veterinary Clinic in Ballston Spa made it happen. The Setter, a champion hunting dog, was inseminated endoscopically by transcervical insemination, or TCI, using frozen semen from the same stud. She is due to deliver four or five puppies soon.
“When I told them she was pregnant, there was this silence. Then a tear ran down one of their faces,” said Dr. Todd, a veterinarian who, with her husband, Dr. Keith Payton, owns Harmony Veterinary Clinic. The practice caters to dogs, cats, birds and other exotics.
The couple traveled across several states to have their champion dog artificially inseminated at the Harmony clinic, bringing her there when she came into heat. Staff at Harmony then followed the dog closely with vaginal screenings and progesterone monitoring to determine the perfect day and time to breed.
“It is very emotional for the owners. They have had a lifelong commitment to breeding and training for excellence, and the combination of this sire and bitch is their ideal. This sort of commitment to developing a line of dogs for excellence is quite typical of our clients who breed for performance or show,” said Dr. Todd. She will monitor the pregnancy closely and provide whelping, or “birthing” services, if necessary.
Twenty-five years ago, canine artificial insemination, known as “AI,” was a procedure reserved for the elite or the occasional dog that was physically unable to mate. Today, advances in technology, a growing number of sperm banks and a desire to promote better health by widening the gene pool make artificial insemination the preferred choice for breeders.
Pioneers of this phenomenon began producing litters from cooled and frozen dog semen in 1981. The following year an Irish setter named Kelly was the first dog produced from frozen semen to be registered with the American Kennel Club. Compare that with 2013, when the AKC registered approximately 2,200 litters, or about 10,000 dogs, conceived by artificial insemination.
Drs. Todd and Payton, graduates of Cornell University’s College of Veterinary Medicine in Ithaca, dramatically expanded their canine reproductive services since buying Harmony Veterinary Clinic 19 years ago.
They invested thousands of dollars in technology and training that allow them to offer such services as ovulation timing, ultrasounds ($90), artificial insemination ($160-$485), pregnancy diagnoses, cesarean sections ($1,200 to $1,900), pregnancy monitoring, infertility evaluations, stud evaluations ($120), semen collection ($218 for fresh, $500 for frozen), and shipping. Breeding costs, excluding the breeders’ stud fees, run from $500 to $1,500.
Harmony Veterinary Clinic is recognized for having the most extensive canine fertility services in the Capital Region. In 1995 when the two veterinarians bought the 30-year-old practice, canine fertility accounted for 1 percent of their work. Today, it accounts for 25 to 30 percent.
The growth of the industry in the U.S. can be measured in a number of ways.
Canada-based MOFA Global, a company that provides assisted reproduction technologies for pigs, cows, horses and dogs, reports that demand for its canine services in the U.S. represents its fastest-growing market.
Canine Cryobank in San Diego, California, one of the largest dog semen banks, now holds more than 25,000 samples. Clone Inc., a clinic outside Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, claims to have successfully produced more than 50,000 dogs through artificial insemination. Even Amazon has a piece of the action. The online seller advertises several brands of do-it-yourself ovulation detectors, reproduction manuals and fertility supplements for dogs.
Dr. Todd’s approach is personal. Aside from being a catalyst between a mother-to-be and a “long-distance boyfriend,” she educates and mentors their owners. She is the one who advises dog owners (much to their disappointment) to adopt from a shelter rather than breeding the family pet, or the one who refuses to breed an obese bulldog (yes, it’s happened) because the pregnancy would jeopardize her health.
“It’s not what a client wants to hear, but I have to be an advocate for animals,” Dr. Todd says.
The clinic also works closely with breeders like Lynne Anderson and William Powell. The husband-wife team owns Three Ponds Newfoundlands in Amsterdam, near the Glenville town line. Since retiring from General Electric, the two have devoted themselves full-time to their breeding operations. They have 12 Newfoundlands that produce about 25 pure-bred puppies a year, and they co-own another 15 “Newfies” with breeders around the world.
Much of their breeding program is done with Harmony Veterinary Clinic.
Semen from Three Ponds’ stud, Threepond’s Play It Again, produced Best of Breed in this year’s Newfoundland Club of America’s National Specialty competition. The Best of Breed winner, a 3-year-old named Heartsease King of the Jungle, or “George” for short, was conceived after semen from Threepond’s Play It Again was collected and cold-shipped fresh from Harmony Veterinary Clinic to the breeder in Vancouver, Canada.
Anderson estimates that shipping the semen to the “dam” in Vancouver and inseminating her there, cost the owner $1,500 rather than the $5,000 it would cost to ship her to the U.S. and spend a week trying to breed her with the stud at Three Ponds. There’s also a greater risk with side-by-side breedings. What if they don’t like each other? Or the timing isn’t right?
When Anderson and Powell started breeding Newfoundlands in 1990, their breeding was done locally and naturally. Now, as they look to improve the breed and widen the DNA pool, they are shipping and receiving semen worldwide.
“We’ve done natural breedings, but logistically it can be difficult because of size,” Anderson said. Newfoundlands weigh between 100 and 150 pounds, and it’s cheaper and easier to bring the semen to the female. Also, the females have only two breeding cycles a year and a missed “connection” with a live stud means losing a litter. The puppies sell for $2,500 each.
“We used to collect and ship the semen ourselves. But our puppies became more and more in demand and we did not have the special equipment or technology to test our specimens,” said Anderson. She has shipped and received semen from such places as California, Hawaii, Saskatchewan and New Zealand.
A majority of the Newfoundland puppies bred at Three Ponds become family pets. The remainder are used for show or service. Potential buyers are scrutinized heavily to ensure the dogs will be cared for properly.
“I’ve been told it’s easier to adopt a child than it is to adopt a puppy from us,” Anderson joked. She once flew to France to recover two of their Newfoundlands after learning of their neglect.
Harmony ships and receives semen from as far away as France, Australia and Estonia.
Harmony Veterinary Clinic works with all dogs but specializes in bulldogs and other “snorty-nosed” breeds. These particular breeds have difficulty breathing and can tolerate only minimum amounts of anesthesia, and Dr. Todd and her team have developed a reputation among breeders for their skills in this area.
On average, the clinic performs up to three breedings a day, ships up to eight fresh semen specimens a week, ships frozen sperm every few weeks and performs up to three cesarean sections and eight artificial inseminations a day.
The oldest frozen semen used at Harmony Veterinary Clinic. The sire, a Tennessee Walker Hound, was dead for 30 years when his semen produced a litter of 9 puppies.
Length of time that fresh, chilled dog semen is viable
Number of frozen semen specimens stored at Harmony Veterinary Clinic
Average cost to have a stud’s semen frozen in liquid nitrogen
What it costs per year to store that semen
What a Newfoundland puppy from Three Ponds Newfoundlands costs
Fewer than 25
How many puppies are born each year at Three Ponds
Pregnancy term for dogs
Largest litter delivered at Harmony Veterinary Clinic. "Mom" was a 120-pound Irish Wolfhound whose pups weighed 2 pounds each.