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When Peanut died unexpectedly last year at the age of 10, Denise Westervelt was devastated by the loss of her chihuahua. So she had him cloned.
"He was like my soulmate," Westervelt said. "I had such a bond with him. If he could have lived forever, it would have been great. I couldn't bear to get another dog."
Pets have become part of the family. Americans spent $69.4 billion on their pets last year, according to the American Pet Products Association. A recent survey from Harris Poll on behalf of SunTrust Mortgage said that one-third of millennials were buying homes because they had dogs, more than the number doing so as a result of marriage of having children.
Couple that with replicating technology, and there's more demand from pet owners for the cloning of their beloved dogs and cats.
Westervelt turned to Viagen Pets, a division of Trans Ova Genetics, to bring a little bit of Peanut back into her home. For $50,000, plus the costs of genetic material collection and storage fees, Westervelt is now the dog parent of two genetically identical versions of her original chihuahua.
"They even sound the same way when they bark, exactly the same back when he was a puppy," said Westervelt, who lives near Poughkeepsie, New York. She's yet to give them a name.
Dolly the Sheep was the first cloned mammal in 1996, but tadpoles were cloned back 1952 and mice in 1986. The first dog clone, Snuppy, was born in 2005 and was also able to breed with other cloned dogs.
Viagen, which is based in Cedar Park, Texas, began cloning animals in 2003, with a focus on livestock and equine animals. Its Viagen Pets division, which officially launched in 2016, now offers cloning services for dogs and cats using similar processes.
Westervelt had owned chihuahuas before, but Peanut was special for his sweetness and loyalty, she said. Cloning first hit Westervelt's radar when she read an article about a woman who used South Korean cloning firm Sooam to replicate her dog.
When Peanut died of heart-related issues last April, Westervelt's son called Viagen Pets and inquired about the process.
"I was so excited," she said. "At least there is an option to have a piece of them. I would be able to survive."
To clone a dog or cat, owners obtain a ViaGen Pets Biopsy Kit, which allows veterinarians to take a tissue sample of the animal. The company cultures the cells in its lab and stores them cryogenically until they're needed.
When it comes time to clone, Viagen takes one of the cells and replaces the nucleus of another female dog or cat's egg. The egg and cell join together, and an embryo that's genetically identical to the pet begins growing. The embryo is then implanted into a surrogate dog and the clone is carried to term, born naturally and inspected to make sure it is healthy at birth.
The animals are expected to have a normal lifespan, though any genetic risk factors from the original animal will carry over. Peanut had cancer at age 5, so Westervelt is keeping an eye out for signs of the disease.
Viagen kept Westervelt up to date during the whole process. Because the fertilized egg split in two, identical clones were born. Westervelt said she was told Viagen had cases of up to four identical clones.
"Every Friday they would send me pictures," she said. "Friday would become my day."
The process isn't cheap. Genetic preservation will set you back $1,600 and the cloning process costs $50,000 for dogs and $25,000 for cats, which have a less complex reproductive system.
Just because they're genetically identical doesn't mean they'll look the same. Genes can be expressed in different ways, so the new animal may have different markings. And personalities can vary dramatically.
Westervelt said the clones look almost exactly like Peanut did as a puppy, with blue-grey fur, brown facial markings and a white chest. One puppy has two white toes on one paw, and Westervelt said she's curious to see if their colors will change as they grow older.
They even act the same, she said. They lick her face constantly and, like Peanut, lie in bed with her.
"When you walk into a room, Peanut would just stare at you, then take off and run in circles and bounce like a little hamster," she said. "The temperament is the same when they are playing with toys. Peanut was a little possessive with his toys too."
Westervelt acknowledges that the new puppies won't replace Peanut, but they're helping her with the grieving process. She said she'll probably end up naming one Peanut and the other a nickname she had for him.
"They are able to help me, but he's always in my heart," she said. "And there's only one of him."