Doctors, veterinarians, and scientists work together to study diseases affecting pets and people. The aim is to improve medical care for people and our companion animals. More than half of U.S. households have at least one pet, and most consider them part of their family. Like any family member, pets can get sick.
Our pets live in our homes. They drink the same water and eat some of the same foods. They are also exposed to many of the same environmental issues. They share many of the same genes and get many of the same diseases. Pet dogs, for instance, can develop cancer naturally, just as people do. Tumors in dogs tend to spread the same way human tumors spread. And they respond to therapies the same way that our cancers respond to treatments like chemotherapy and radiation.
Pet cats, too, might inherit genes that raise their risk for conditions like severe kidney disease that can be similar to human disease. Cats get asthma just like us and can be allergic to dust mites. Cats can become obese from eating the wrong kinds of foods and just sitting around the house, which can raise the risk for diabetes, just like us.
National Institutes of Health (NIH), Turning Discovery Into Health
Over the years, NIH-funded studies of dogs and cats with naturally occurring diseases have improved therapies for people and pets. For example, researchers studied an aggressive type of childhood bone cancer that is rare in people (affecting about 600 children and teens a year) but common in dogs (affecting up to 15,000 a year). The cancer, called osteosarcoma, occurs in large bones in the arms and upper legs. By studying pet dogs and people, researchers developed techniques that are now used to prevent arm and leg amputations and sometimes cure this cancer.
In other research, NIH-funded scientists studied pet dogs with blood cancer to develop better treatments based on bone marrow transplants or stem cell therapies. The improved techniques have now been widely adopted for treating human cancers nationwide. The therapies also treat cancer in dogs at some veterinary hospitals.
These medical advances are made possible because owners of sick pets enrolled them in veterinary clinical trials. These trials can help speed up the discovery of new and effective therapies for human patients and ultimately improve care for pets. As in human clinical studies, cats or dogs might receive experimental treatments for cancer or other conditions. Some veterinary clinical studies evaluate imaging techniques that might help humans and animals. Others study the biology of genetic conditions that pass from dogs and cats to their puppies or kittens.
In 2003, NIH launched a program called the Comparative Oncology Program to learn more about the biology and treatment of cancer. Scientists compare natural cancers in people and animals (mostly pet dogs). Today, the program runs a research network including 20 veterinary centers across the United States and Canada. At the centers, dogs with different types of cancer can receive cutting-edge treatments that might save their lives, and at the same time, the studies add to our understanding of cancer in all creatures.
Because NIH is concerned with human health, these studies aim to develop therapies for people. But, the two-way flow of information is essential to everyone. Pets participating in NIH-sponsored veterinary clinical studies get a lot of oversight and care. The researchers talk with pet owners to ensure they understand the studies' risks and benefits. A data safety and monitoring board tracks the trial's progress as they do in human studies. As in human studies, the study is stopped or altered if serious side effects or other problems arise.
Although much of the NIH-funded research focuses on dogs, cats are also crucial in helping to understand human disease. Cats with a condition called polycystic kidney disease (PKD) is one of the more common inherited diseases in cats, especially Persian cats, and it is a common inherited trait in humans. PKD leads to a harmful buildup of fluid-filled cysts in the kidneys. PKD can strike cats hard when they are about seven years old. But it takes much longer to be noticed in people. In humans, the condition generally leads to kidney failure later in life, when people are in their 50s or 60s. Currently they cannot stop the disease, and there are no effective treatments that are approved for humans that will slow the progression of the cysts and delay the onset of kidney failure. The researchers are working to set up veterinary clinical trials for PKD. If they find a therapy that helps fix PKD in cats, they will be able to make many cats better, and then, most importantly, they may be able to develop effective treatments for humans.
Not all pets can qualify for veterinary clinical research. The pet's condition needs to match the type of research study underway. If approved for a study, pets often receive medical care free of charge.
This page provides articles on Life and Life-Health on Mondays and Wednesdays, about your best friends, Cats, and Dogs, and then on Fridays on Environmental issues.