The X and Ys of canine hermaphrodites
The Winter Olympics, 1968, Grenoble. Erika Schinegger was a 19-year-old Austrian champion downhill skier with her eyes on the prize. Part of the formalities of competing at the Games was the newly introduced gender test; Erika joined other hopefuls in submitting to the saliva test. Doctors found only male hormones from the swab and Erika, her family and friends were shocked to discover that Erika, who had been raised as a girl, was hermaphrodite. Erika was told by IOC Doctors she couldn’t compete in the Games because she was chromosomally male and intersex. Faced with this extraordinary news Erika became Erik with the help of a hormone regime and surgery to reveal his previously hidden, internal genitalia. He continued to train hard but he was denied a place on the Men’s 1972 Austrian Team in Sapporo, Japan, even though he had beaten many of the leading male competitive skiers at the time, that event convinced him to hang up his salopettes. He went on to marry twice and fathered a daughter.
Disorders of genitalia occur in all species of mammals and that includes dogs. It all begins in that collision of sperm and egg at conception, females are designated as XX chromosomes and males are XY. All embryos first develop with gonads (endocrine gland that produces the gametes or sex cells of an organism) that are not specific so depending on the testosterone levels in the foetus, the gonads will become testes or ovaries. With me so far? Hermaphrodites happen when the chromosomes have some abnormality and XX or XY just doesn’t happen. Commonly, true canine hermaphrodites have XX chromosomes but do not develop normally; the dog has both ovaries and testes. Sometimes it can be that one side has an ovarian/testicle combination organ and the other side has either a normal testicle or an ovary or it could be that each gonad is a combination of an ovary and a testicle called an ovotestis. In other cases there can be an ovary on one side and a testicle on the other. The amount of testicular tissue in the true hermaphrodite will determine how masculine or feminine the external genitalia appear.
It’s estimated that 25 per cent of intersex cases of dogs are true hermaphrodite and from the outside it can be difficult to tell if the dog is intersex. So what about the other 75 per cent? Well, the rest fit into pseudohermaphrodites, both male and female, this when the chromosomes and the gonads match but the external genitals just don’t follow suit. So a dog may have XX (female) and ovaries but also has a penis. Some breeds tend to be more affected than others with cases being seen in Miniature Schnauzers, Poodles, American Cocker Spaniels and Pekingese but have been noted in more than 20 breeds.
With the male pseudohermaphrodite the chromosome is XY but the genitals may appear female however some dogs may have vestigial oviducts and uterus with male appearing external genitals. The testicles may not descend into the scrotum but in cases where they have the condition can remain undetected unless abdominal surgery is performed. There are also cases that just don’t fit into either of these categories, they just have to remain as unclassified pseudohermaphrodite.
It seems ancient civilisations were more comfortable with accepting this naturally occurring phenomenon; Hermaphroditus, the two-sexed child of Aphrodite and Hermes, has long been a symbol of androgyny or effeminacy, and was portrayed in Greco-Roman art as a female figure with male genitals. Today we seem to have a plethora of terms to describe gender types but in our dogs it still comes as a surprise when this condition comes to light.
As well as occurring in a natural way it has been noted that androgens given during pregnancy will produce true hermaphrodite offspring in dogs. The anabolic/androgenic steroid known in the US as Cheque Drops was produced in the late 1960s to halt a season in female dogs or to suppress the symptoms of a phantom pregnancy and was in manufacture for veterinary use until 2000 when the license was taken over by Pfizer and has not been produced since. However it is still available in a generic form because the body building market has found that despite the terrible effects of over use the drug is still attractive to athletes and is most commonly applied during bulking phases of training, or to stimulate aggression before a workout or competition. This drug was never approved for use on humans and has possibly one of the most dangerous toxic effects on the liver of any black market, body building drug.
Having explained the nuts and bolts, if you pardon the pun, of the hermaphrodite dog I expect you are curious as to what signs may be visible. The dog has a bone that runs through his penis called the baculum, the word taken from Latin meaning staff or stick, to enable long mating with a bitch, it is interesting that an enlarged clitoris in the XX male is a consistent clinical observation, 90 per cent of which contain ossified tissue. In the intersex female there may be nothing to see other than abdominal enlargement. For most breeders the check for ’in place’ testes of their puppies begins quite early as cryptorchidism where both testes have failed to drop or monorchidism where only one testes drops into the scrotum is both a worry from the point of view of showing and breeding but it also has an increased risk of sertoli cell tumour in later life. Cryptorchidism has been associated with both hermaphroditism and pseudohermaphrodism but just because your puppy has a retained testicle that doesn’t make it intersex!
Humans, like the would-be Olympian Erik/Erika, suffer angst and confusion as they struggle with their sexual definition but it seems that dogs don’t share those hang ups at all. To date there is no evidence to suggest any psychological or behavioural difficulty in the hermaphrodite dog; I’m guessing they feel their time is better given to consideration of the next walk or the next bowl of food or the enjoyment as our close companion.