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Focus: Canine Co-operation

How dogs and cats are helping to solve a medical mystery Add to ...

Dog, as well as being man's best friend, is the only other creature on Earth known to die from cancer of the prostate.

Which is why Bernie is in intensive care. His giant head resting on his paws, the massive Bernese mountain dog is recovering from the removal of a blockage that was making it difficult to relieve himself.

The doctors feared that it was prostate cancer. The biopsy will prove them right.

Around the corner in the oncology ward, a mixed terrier named Dakota is getting over a blast of radiation to treat a nasal tumour and a sarcoma on the hip.

Down the hall, Milou, a snow-white Great Pyrenees, roams around, albeit gingerly because of a large tumour on her right, front paw, waiting to have the CT scan that will determine how far her bone cancer has spread.

Elsewhere, a cat with a suspected brain tumour is having an MRI. A golden cocker spaniel, which arrived two weeks ago from Korea, is being prepped in the oncology ward for treatment for cancer in its ear canal. And radiation therapist Kim Stewart has just finished treating a 150-pound, pot-bellied pig.

At first blush, it looks like an episode of Celebrity Pets featuring overly sentimental people willing and able to drop serious money on high-tech medical care for Spot and Rover.

Doctors and health-care professionals who research and treat cancer in pets are familiar with criticism from those who can't fathom why resources are directed at animals, when there's so much more to do in the fight against cancer in humans.

But the oncologists and their support team at Guelph are well past the sneers and jeers, primarily because they have been able to prove the bond between pet and owner has an added dimension: Patients of the Animal Cancer Centre at the University of Guelph's world-renowned Veterinary College also are taking part in scientific research.

I know some people don't understand giving money to a research program for animals... But in my mind, it's all one biology as far as cancer is concerned. Elizabeth Stone, dean of the Ontario Veterinary College

They are helping to develop new treatments for animals that, in turn, are expected to result in breakthroughs in human care - a contribution so vital that it is in large part responsible for the $20-million expansion of the centre that should be finished next year.

For years, cancer research was the work of rodents. Mice and rats received injections to induce tumours that were then used to evaluate potential therapies. But there was a big problem: Rarely did something successful with a lab rat work well when tried on a human.

Frustrated, comparative oncologists - the collective medical (human) oncologists, veterinary oncologists, academics and pharmaceutical companies who have been studying cancer in different species for 30 years - began to pay more attention to pets, especially dogs.

"If it wasn't such a struggle, if cancer research was efficiently done, and wasn't so expensive, there might not be this need," says Tony Mutsaers, a veterinary oncologist at the centre who is also finishing his PhD in medical biophysics at the Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in Toronto, an hour's drive to the east.

"But the dog is now viewed by many as a plausible stepping stone."


That's within the research community, of course. "One of the things that continues to amaze me is how many people don't realize that animals get cancer, even physicians," says Elizabeth Stone, dean of the veterinary college, which began training vets in 1862 and boasts graduates such as W.G. Ballard, of pet-food fame.

"Just the fact that we call our facility the Animal Cancer Centre hopefully will make people realize, yes, animals get cancer. And, yes, their physiology isn't that different from the No. 1 species."

And so they have veterinary oncologists such as Paul Woods and Sarah Boston to care for them and they receive the same consideration human patients do.

Ms. Stewart, the radiation therapist, worked in a human cancer ward before transferring to the centre. She takes photos of her clients to post on her "wall of stars" - a cheerful gallery of dogs, cats, horses, ferrets, the odd pig and even a bunny.

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