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Focus: Canine Co-operation

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

The Guelph centre is the first Canadian institution invited to join the effort, which Dr. Khanna says he hopes will lead to important breakthroughs.

"The problem with the conventional approach is that it's a one-way path, which often answers a very small set of questions and leaves many unanswered," he says. "To move a cancer drug from inception to a pharmaceutical product can cost from $800-million (U.S.) to $1-billion (U.S.). And even then, very few get approved.

"We see comparative oncology as a way to simply add more information to the process. Information that is critically needed to successfully bring new cancer treatments to patients."


Research benefits or not, cancer treatment - whether that's radiation or chemotherapy - doesn't come cheap. And the cost varies based on the type of cancer, the size of the dog, and in the case of chemotherapy, the drugs that are used.

The typical cost of multi-agent chemotherapy for a dog that has lymphoma and weighs 25 to 30 kilograms ranges from $3,000 to $4,000 for 16 treatments.

Radiation therapy is even more costly: A dog with a nasal tumour requiring 20 to 24 treatments given daily and under general anesthesia for four or five weeks could cost $4,500 to $5,000.

Guelph resident Penny McDonald has been bringing in her dog, Max, for radiation and chemotherapy for osteosarcoma since January, and figures she has spent about $6,000 so far.

But, like most pet owners, she doesn't begrudge the expense. "As long as he's happy and not in any pain, I will keep doing the treatment," says Ms. McDonald, who has lost three dogs to cancer in as many years.

Max, who is a cross between a Bernese and a golden retriever, is turning 10 and takes painkillers and a bone-strengthening drug similar to that prescribed for women suffering from osteoporosis.

He is also part of a clinical trial conducted by Dr. Boston, who is a surgical oncologist, and has Max come in every three weeks to run on a "force plate" treadmill, which measures his gait and gives her an indication of whether the meds or the radiation need to be altered.

"I'm hoping Max is going to be around for at least a year," his owner says. "I've had dogs my whole life and I can't imagine being without one. Max can't make it up the stairs any more, so he and I both sleep in the family room."

Her first retriever, Jenny, died of lymphoma after having chemo for 13 months. Ms. McDonald lost another golden retriever, Ginger, last November to pancreatic cancer. She has spent roughly $10,000 on cancer treatment, and makes regular donations to the OVC Pet Trust Fund, which provides research grants as well primarily funding the cancer centre's expansion.

Dr. Stone admits that some people are amazed at what pet owners will spend but cautions those without a pet not to pass judgment.

"It's a very personal decision, and it depends on the bond between that individual and their pet. And I know some people don't understand giving money to a research program for animals, as opposed to one for human beings. But in my mind, it's all one biology as far as cancer is concerned," adds Dr. Stone, who also recently lost her dog, Majic, to cancer.

"It seems to me our cancer centre gives you two bangs for the same buck."


Finally, her wandering over, Milou, the Great Pyrenees, is prepped for her CT scan, and rolls by on a gurney already fast asleep.

Her cancer was diagnosed a year ago, and owner Hari Menon, whose wife drives Milou into Guelph from nearby Waterloo, was told their dog probably had another six months.

Mr. Menon calculates the visits have cost him $7,000 to $8,000. "We decided to let her have a good life," he explains, "and we'll keep doing the treatment as long as we can."

Postscript: "As long as we can" turned out to be not long at all because the CT scan did not go well, and Milou lost her battle.

But staff at the centre say they won't soon forget the gentle giant who was such a fixture for so many months - and to help them remember, Kim Stewart has given Milou's photo a place of prominence on her wall of stars.

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