Interview with Dr. Andrea Vollmar

1. Who is the woman behind Andrea Vollmar? We only know you from the heart test but what is more interesting to know about you?

Difficult question, I have always been and still am very interested in the veterinary profession. I read a number of veterinary journals on a regular basis, attend veterinary conferences and some of my best friends are veterinary cardiologists from the USA and other European countries. So aspects of veterinary medicine are associated with my private life.
On the other hand I always had a lot of fun with my kids who are now 20 and 18 years of age. My daughter Claudia and I share common hobbies: we have 3 horses and did great horse back rides together in our hilly area and we also had a lot of fun with our 2 Border collies training them, doing agility and so on. In addition we also played volleyball together in a fun team. Now Claudia has started to study veterinary medicine, too. My son, Gerrit, plays soccer in a high league and whenever I have time I attend the matches. We also use to play beach volleyball together or ride our bikes.
In Bonn there are excellent possibilities for entertainment and culture, like art exhibitions and concerts. In summer I enjoy the open air festivals, and often I go to a pub and have a beer with my friends.

2. When did you specialize in heart test?

Cardiology was always my first interest. When I did my education as a small animal veterinary specialist in 2 vet clinics I saw all cardiology cases, reading ECGs and later on started with echocardiography as one of the first in Germany.

3. When did IW's get your attention and why?

Some things just develop by chance. I had a few breeders in the area, kennels like vom Othetal (deriving from the Ard Ri kennel), Maol-Cu and especially the Cerunnos kennel, owned by a nice young couple (Nau/Ripke) who were very interested in the breed and cooperative. I realized that many IWs had heart problems and got more and more involved.

4. Have you ever owned an IW yourself?

No, would be difficult to decide for a certain line knowing many of the breeders, and for private life I love our Border collies. They are so easy to handle and it is so much fun to work with them.

5. There are people who really appreciate what you are doing for our breed but there are also those who don't. Do they influence your investigation? And can you understand why they feel this way?

They don´t influences my work. I understand that it is hard for an owner of a multi champion to get the message that the dog has a genetic disease and should not be used for breeding anymore. And I can understand that some people don´t want to know their own diseases or the diseases of their dogs as they would live in sorrow afterwards. But, I also heard a breeder say that it is normal for IWs to die early, that the breed always had the heart problem and when a dog dies he can sell the next one more early, which I think is a very rude opinion ignoring the fact that the owners of the dogs severely affected with heart disease have to go through a very hard time, they love their dog as a member of the family and last not least have to spend a lot of money for all the medications to improve the quality of life.

6. There are different ways to do the heart test for DCM can you tell the differences between the “Vollmar protocol” and the other kind of tests looking for DCM? What does the so called Vollmar protocol mean? And is the one test better then the other?

I think all veterinary cardiologists perform a similar examination for DCM consisting of multiple measurements of the sizes of all 4 heart chambers and their function.
As a basis for the protocol I established the reference values for the breed based on the statistical evaluation of measurements of the heart chamber sizes and left ventricular contractility of several hundred normal IWs. These are published data and are now used as reference values for the breed internationally by veterinary cardiologists.
In Germany we have a heart panel. Members took special cardiology training and exams. There are also some members from other European countries (i.e. The Netherlands and Austria). All panellists carry out the cardiovascular examinations in a standardized fashion in the same way comparable to the eye examinations performed by the European eye panellists.

7. What do you do with the information you gather with the test?

Test results are given to the owners and breeding clubs (with owner consent only) . I personally use the information for research. Today we know a lot about the nature and time course of the heart disease in IWs, the variations in the development of the disease and optimal treatment. In addition, research for genetic testing is under way.

8. What happens with the two blood-samples you take from the IW’s when they come first time for the hear test?

One sample goes to Prof. Distl, the geneticist of Hannover University, the other one to Prof. Leegwater from Utrecht university. The geneticists are striving to identify the genetic background of DCM and bone cancer in IWs, respectively.

9. Why should IW's be tested every year? Is once in two years not enough?

Knowing that every IW affected with DCM potentially gives the disease to 50% of its offspring it is highly recommended to test females before each litter and males depending on the number of matings at least every year. Looking at the individual dog it is wise to have the diagnosis affected with DCM as early as possible in the time course of the disease, as an early start of medical treatment is very beneficial for the dog´s life expectance and quality of life.

10. For approximately 12 years IW's are tested in Holland, do you see any influence on the population in Holland now dogs are tested over this period? Is the figure of DCM going down in the diagram or is there no difference?

I am sure that in the Netherlands the number of IWs newly diagnosed affected with DCM is going down.

11. Do I understand you right when I say that we should do these tests so we at least not breed with heart sick dogs but that in fact, especially because of the age IW get DCM, we just have to wait till DNA markers give the solution?

The central problem is that in people a number of different mutations are known today to cause DCM or HCM, respectively. It is very likely that there will be different mutations also within the IW breed causing DCM. In case genetic testing will be available one day for a certain mutation the benefit is that you can identify dogs affected with the mutation early (as puppies), but this does not mean that dogs which don´t have this mutation will not get DCM. As presently shown in the Maine Coon cats genetic testing does not replace echo testing.

12. What do you advise the breeders/owners to do during the time the DNA marker isn’t found yet : continue or stop testing?

As I mentioned before, to improve the health status of the breed cardiovascular examinations should be continued not only until a genetic test will be available but also thereafter.

13. Do you already see more European IW club’s promote the heart test? Can you give us the names of the clubs or countries?

I think that hearts testing promoted by breeding clubs is only performed in The Netherlands, Belgium and Germany with publication of the results, while in England test results were just told to the owners and had no consequences for breeding etc.

14. If so, do you get the test results from these IW clubs?

I only can get the officially published results.

15. Is it important that IW clubs (worldwide) cooperate by testing with the same protocol, the same testing schedule?

It makes it easier to see if for instance some detected abnormalities in the ECG is clinically relevant or not (already means the dog has DCM or not).

16. Do you think it’s important to publish the test results?

Yes

17. Can you tell us more about the medication study, per example why the study, how many hounds are in the study, the results, a.s.o.

During about 8 years we included 78 dogs in the study. Final evaluations aren´t performed yet, as we follow the dogs till they go into heart failure and until they die and about 15 dogs are still alive.

18. Can you tell us more about the bone-cancer research done by Dr. Teske University Utrecht who receives blood samples which you are taking at the heart examination?

The blood samples are stored at Utrecht University. It is very important for us to receive the information from the owners when a dog develops bone cancer as well as the information that a dog grew really old and never developed DCM or bone cancer. These groups are the basis for genetic research.

19. What do you want to achieve for the Irish Wolfhound?

In my studies based on survival information of about 500 dogs, the median life expectancy for IWs was about 7.5 years and only 9% of dogs became 9 to 10 years of age and finally died from old age or were euthanized because of old age weakness or severe hind leg paresis, while almost 35% died from DCM at younger ages and more than 17% died from bone cancer.
The rates of both of these nasty diseases are unnaturally high in this breed compared to people and other breeds of dogs. I hope to improve the life expectancy and quality in Irish wolfhounds.

20. What’s your expectation - concerning the heart problem - for the breed in the future?

I am sure that with consequent heart testing the number of dogs affected with DCM will continue to decrease.

21. You have your own Protocol ‘ The Vollmar Protocol’ but I have my own extra heart beat the ‘ Duke's Paradijs tick’ , can you tell a bit more about this? (big smile).

In the ECGs of some families of IWs we see certain minor conduction abnormalities which do not appear to be associated with DCM.

Thank you very much for this interview!

Henny v.d. Berg - 2009