Archive for the ‘Research’ Category

Pets, Asbestos Exposure, and Mesothelioma

Wednesday, December 5th, 2018

From www.mesothelioma.net

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Pets, like their human caretakers, are susceptible to becoming ill from asbestos exposure. Dogs, cats, and other animals can develop mesothelioma and other asbestos-related illnesses, with devastating consequences. As with humans, mesothelioma in pets is an aggressive and deadly type of cancer. The treatment options are even more limited and the hope of survival minimal.

Pets may become exposed to asbestos in many of the same ways people are. Older homes with worn and exposed asbestos insulation, for instance, can send fibers into the air that humans and animals alike may inhale. If the owner works around asbestos and brings fibers home on clothing, this too can lead to exposure in pets. Mesothelioma in pets is rare, but it is possible. It is important to minimize exposure risks for people and animals in the household.
mesothelioma in pets

Asbestos Exposure Causes Mesothelioma in Pets

Evidence that points to asbestos as a cause of mesothelioma in humans is already overwhelming. Research into pets with mesothelioma is much more limited, but it does exist. One study, for instance, examined the tissues of dogs that died from mesothelioma. Researchers saw pleural, peritoneal, and pericardial mesothelioma in the population of dogs studied and even some that had cancerous tissues in more than one part of the mesothelium. Most of the dogs in the study were found to have asbestos in the affected tissues, providing a link between the cancer and exposure to asbestos. Dogs in a control group had far fewer fibers.

Stories of animals suffering and dying from mesothelioma are rare, but heartbreaking.  In the United Kingdom there was a case reported of a dog that died from mesothelioma. The devastated owners reported that their dog had sniffed asbestos-containing materials that had been dumped at old building sites in the woods where they regularly walked. After thousands of dollars in vet bills the dog could not be saved.

How Pets May Be Exposed to Asbestos

Although mesothelioma is rare, it is strongly linked to exposure to asbestos so pet owners need to be aware of the asbestos risks and should take steps to minimize any possibility of exposure. One of the most likely ways in which an animal may be exposed is through secondhand contact. If you come home from work with fibers of asbestos on your clothes, your pet is likely to inhale those fibers or even ingest them.

Pets may also be exposed to asbestos that is in the home. Homes built before the 1980s most likely contain asbestos in insulation, HVAC systems, flooring, siding, ceiling materials, and other areas of the house. If that asbestos is disturbed, worn down, or damaged, the fibers can become airborne where they can be inhaled by anyone in the house, including pets.

This risk is especially high during renovation or remodeling projects. This kind of work can disturb previously encapsulated asbestos. The best way to protect animals during home projects is to keep them temporarily out of the home, at someone else’s house or at a kennel or boarding facility. While humans can wear protective gear, animals cannot. Also, dogs may lick things on which asbestos dust has settled.
Like the dog in the United Kingdom that died after being exposed to asbestos on walks, exposure outside of the home is a rare but possible risk for pets, especially dogs. Dogs that go outdoors for walks or spend a lot of time out in the yard may be at risk for exposure from any nearby demolition, construction, or mining.

Symptoms of Mesothelioma in Pets

If your pet has been exposed to asbestos, you may see signs of illness. If you catch these early and have your dog or cat diagnosed and treated, you may be able to extend the life of your beloved pet. There is no way to cure mesothelioma in cats or dogs, but early detection can give you more treatment options and a better chance of giving him or her a better quality of life for as long as is left. Dogs are more likely to develop mesothelioma than cats.

With pleural mesothelioma, a pet may exhibit signs such as labored breathing, rapid breathing, or shortness of breath, and a cough. With peritoneal mesothelioma, an animal may display abdominal discomfort, abdominal swelling, or vomiting. Other symptoms of any type of mesothelioma may include fatigue and lethargy, an enlarged scrotum, and unusual sounds in the abdomen or chest.

Diagnosing and Treating Mesothelioma

If you see any unusual symptoms in your dog or cat, you should take your pet to the vet immediately. If you have any reason to believe your pet may have been exposed to asbestos, inform your veterinarian so that your animal will get a complete diagnosis. As with humans, diagnosing mesothelioma can be tricky. Your vet will begin with a physical exam and likely a blood and urine analysis. From there your vet will probably want to do imaging tests, like an X-ray, to look for tissue abnormalities. The next step would be a biopsy to remove fluid or tissue for examination.

Much of the treatment given to an animal for mesothelioma will be palliative, to keep the pet comfortable. However, there are some cancer treatments that may slow the progression of the disease and give you more time with your pet. In one small study, a specific combination of chemotherapy drugs allowed a dog to go into remission, although other animals in the study did not. Palliative treatments for an animal with mesothelioma include medications for pain and procedures to drain fluid from the abdomen or chest cavity.

Help Your Pet Live with Mesothelioma

A diagnosis of cancer in a pet is devastating news, especially when the prognosis is not favorable. There are things you can do to make sure your pet lives the rest of his or her days in the most comfort possible. Limiting activity is important, especially for a pet with pleural mesothelioma. Taking slower and shorter walks can give your dog a chance for exercise and fresh air without overexertion, for instance.

Your pet should also be given a quiet and comfortable place in the home to rest. Make this area easy to access, but out of the way of noise or disruption so that he or she can rest as needed. Regular visits to the vet are also important so you can be sure that you are doing the best for your animal and providing all the care that is necessary for maximum comfort. When the time is right you may need to make the difficult decision about letting your pet go, but your vet can help you make that choice. The loss of a pet to a disease like mesothelioma is terrible and the only way to prevent it is to keep your pet safe from asbestos.

 

Canines’ Cancer-Sniffing Snouts Showing 90%-Plus Accuracy

Tuesday, May 20th, 2014
By Angela Zimm May 18, 2014 9:00 PM PT
Source: the University of Pennsylvania Veterinary School
Cancer detection dog McBaine

Which is better at detecting cancer, a laboratory or a Labrador retriever?

Consider the talents of Tsunami, a regal-looking dog with attentive eyes and an enthusiastic tail wag for her trainer friends. University of Pennsylvania researchers say she is more than 90 percent successful in identifying the scent of ovarian cancer in tissue samples, opening a new window on a disease with no effective test for early detection that kills 14,000 Americans a year. When found early, there’s a five-year survival rate of over 90 percent.

With 220 million olfactory cells in a canine snout, compared with 50 million for humans, dogs have long helped on search-and-rescue. Now, a growing body of evidence supports the possible use of canines by clinicians. The largest study ever done on cancer-sniffing dogs found they can detect prostate cancer by smelling urine samples with 98 percent accuracy. At least one application is in the works seeking U.S. approval of a kit using breath samples to find breast cancer.

“Our study demonstrates the use of dogs might represent in the future a real clinical opportunity if used together with common diagnostic tools,” said Gian Luigi Taverna, the author of the prostate cancer research reported yesterday at the American Urological Association in Boston.

While smaller studies have long shown dogs can sniff out a range of illnesses, the question of whether they can be used on a large-scale basis to find disease has drawn skepticism. Questions remain on whether one type of dog is better than another, how to systemize their use and the financial viability of any such system. As a result, most current research is looking at how to copy the canine abilty to smell disease either with a machine or a chemical test.

‘Method Reproducible’

“Our standardized method is reproducible, low cost and noninvasive for the patients and for the dogs,” said Taverna, the head of urology pathology at Istituto Clinico Humanitas in Rozzano, Italy, in an e-mail.

Taverna tested the ability of two professionally trained explosive detection dogs, Zoe and Liu, in 677 cases to assess their accuracy, according to his paper. The next step, according to Taverna, will be to extend the research into prostate cancer subgroups and to other urological malignancies.

The results may one day be used to help develop an electronic nose that follows nature’s lead in how a canine snout works, he said.

Taverna’s finding comes at a time when use of standard PSA testing for prostate cancer is being challenged as not accurate enough, with false positives leading to unnecessary treatment.

In 2012, the Preventive Services Task Force, which reports on medical issues to the U.S. Congress, recommended that healthy men shouldn’t be screened for prostate cancer using PSA tests after research showed that false positive rates of men tested may be as high as 80 percent. The test measures a protein made by prostate cells called prostate-specific antigen.

Volatile Compounds

When dogs sniff for cancer, they are detecting the chemicals emitted by a tumor. These chemicals are referred to as volatile organic compounds, or VOCs. VOCs have been found in the breath of lung cancer patients and colon cancer patients, as well as in the urine of prostate cancer patients. The most recent findings have spurred increased interest in dog cancer-detection research, including efforts to develop devices that can mimic the animal’s exquisite olfactory system.

Dina Zaphiris, a nationally recognized dog trainer who works with canines on federally funded studies in detecting early cancer in humans, is leading the charge for U.S. Food and Drug Administration clearance of a system that would use the unique olfactory talents of dogs in medical care.

In 2009, Zaphiris, a dog trainer for 25 years with an extensive list of celebrity clients and an education in biology, founded the In Situ Foundation, a nonprofit organization that trains cancer-sniffing dogs and conducts research in the field.

‘Early Warning’

Her organization is in the process of submitting an FDA application for approval of a canine medical scent detection kit. In her system, patients exhale through a tube on to a cloth, which captures molecules, or VOCs, of a malignancy. Trained dogs would then sniff the cloths for their presence.

The dog screening would be an “early warning test,” she said, possibly used in connection with a mammogram for reviewing results before proceeding to a biopsy.

“You should see the amount of e-mails I get saying ‘I got an unclear mammogram and I don’t know if I want a biopsy so could I have dogs screen my breath sample?’,” Zaphiris said.

Zaphiris’s interest in the issue began in 2003 when she worked with a research group on a study to detect breast and lung cancer. A paper on that limited study, published in 2006 in the Journal of Integrative Cancer Therapies, found that dogs could detect lung tumors with 99 percent sensitivity and 99 percent specificity; for breast tumors, results were 88 percent sensitivity and 98 percent specificity.

Training Time

Now Zaphiris is working with Jeffrey Marks, an associate professor of surgery and pathology at Duke University to train dogs to detect breast cancer, she said. It takes about six weeks to teach a dog for a study, and Zaphiris says she usually trains a new team of canines for each one, working at her 3-acre facility in West Hills, California.

Zaphiris isn’t alone in her quest to get dogs involved in medical care. At the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine, researchers are studying whether dogs can find ovarian cancer in tissue and blood samples. If so, it would be a breakthrough for a difficult disease.

“We’re trying a multiprong approach,” including the dogs and laboratory efforts, “to determine if there’s some signature in blood in women with ovarian cancer so we can develop a detection system,” said Cindy Otto, director of the university’s Penn Vet Working Dog Center in Philadelphia. “We’re using the dogs because we know the dogs are much more sensitive than any of our chemical techniques.”

The goal of the research is to one day produce a new screening system or electronic sensor to detect ovarian cancer’s odor signature, Otto said.

Blood Samples

The project, which began last year, is now focused on training the dogs using tissue samples from both cancerous ovaries and ovaries with benign disease. Although the three dogs in the research learned to recognize cancerous samples, the researchers have recently turned to studying the dogs’ reaction to blood samples because of lack of tissue.

The german sherpherd named Tsunami, named for her tendency to come happily at you when you least expect it, has been particularly successful early in her training, Otto said. When she’s working, she becomes a quiet, pensive animal. She works very slowly, circling a wheel containing blocks of samples. She sniffs, she stops, she thinks, Otto said.

When she identifies cancer, she sits; that’s the sign.

“She’s very serious about it all,” Otto said.

Electronic Nose

The research effort is a collaboration among chemists, doctors and physicists at the university, with a primary focus of developing an “electronic nose” that duplicates a dog’s ability to smell disease. Otto said she doesn’t think using dogs in a clinical setting may be practical.

“The challenge is the expense,” she said. “If you’re talking about screening every woman from 25 to 90, that’s a lot of samples.”

Zaphiris said the medical system shouldn’t wait for the development of technology that can accurately sense cancer with the ability of a dog. Her goal is to open canine scent detection centers that will make her animals accessible beyond just their use for research.

“If there is a machine as accurate as a dog, I say do it,” Zaphiris said. “It’s highly impractical to wait until the machines can catch up.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Angela Zimm in Boston at azimm@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Reg Gale at rgale5@bloomberg.net Andrew Pollack

Red Cross and Penn veterinary school develop pet first aid app

Saturday, January 18th, 2014
Animal Health AppUniversity of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine veterinarian Deborah C. Mandell collaborated with the Red Cross to create a first aid application for pet owners to use during animal health emergencies. Dr. Mandell has written books on animal medical emergencies but says the app includes just the right amount of information for owners during an emergency. The app, available for 99 cents, separates cat and dog information, and it also helps owners find the nearest veterinarian or pet-friendly hotel.
By Robert Moran, Philadelphia Inquirer Staff Writer

Is your cat breathing normally?

There’s an app for that – for knowing what’s normal, that is.

Is your dog not breathing?

Hopefully you will have watched the dog CPR video on the American Red Cross’ new mobile app called “Pet First Aid.”

The app, available for 99 cents on Apple and Android mobile devices, went on sale in December, but the Red Cross launched its awareness campaign on Thursday in Philadelphia.

The Philly connection comes from the humanitarian agency’s collaboration with University of Pennsylvania’s School of Veterinary Medicine.

Since 2006, Deborah C. Mandell, a staff veterinarian and adjunct associate professor at the Matthew J. Ryan Veterinary Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, has served as a pet care advisor to the Red Cross, writing separate books on first aid for cats and dogs, and developing Red Cross instructional courses for pet owners around the country.

Mandell said the app gives users information “right at your fingertips when you need it,” such as knowing “what’s normal so they can know what’s abnormal much sooner.”

For anybody who wants in-depth information about pet first aid, however, “the app is certainly not a replacement for our first aid books,” Mandell said.

Several pet first aid apps have been available since 2009, when Jive Media launched an app.

Red Cross officials said its organization’s reputation, and its association with Penn Vet, should be an advantage in the marketplace.

Unlike the Jive Media app, which costs $3.99 and hasn’t been updated since 2010, the Red Cross app separates information about cats and dogs

“You could look at it as two apps in one,” said Paul Munn, who helped develop the app for the Red Cross.

The app also uses GPS to locate the nearest veterinary hospital or pet-friendly hotel during emergencies.

Users can enter information about their pets that can be stored in app and emailed to a veterinarian ahead of a visit.

There also are quizzes to test if users remember what they’ve learned.

“They’ve done an excellent job,” said Mary Kury, a certified veterinary technician supervisor at the Quakertown Veterinary Clinic, who downloaded the app this week.

“They went through the most common emergencies we see on a daily basis,” Kury said.

She also praised the app for providing “enough information without giving too much information,” so a pet owner is not overwhelmed or confused.

The Red Cross has been offering apps since June 2012, when it launched its first aid app for humans, and has tallied 3.9 million downloads for all its mobile apps.

They also have been offered for free.

Don Lauritzen, a Red Cross spokesman in Washington, said the pet app was a bit outside the main mission of the organization.

The Red Cross decided users would feel that 99 cents is worth the cost for the specialized information and peace of mind, Lauritzen said.

bmoran@phillynews.com

215-854-5983

@RobertMoran215

Bentley, the world’s largest therapy dog

Monday, September 23rd, 2013

Bentley the Great Dane

 After a nine year old family member developed cancer 3 years ago, he wanted our huge Great Dane, Bentley, to visit him in the hospital.  Because of hospital rules, Bentley had to first become a therapy dog to be able to visit children in the hospital.  Bentley not only became a therapy dog, he became the World’s Largest Therapy Dog and also has the Guinness World Record for longest tail ever on a dog.  He missed being the world’s tallest dog and the longest dog by less than 1/2 inch each.  Sponsored by PetSmart and Organix dog food, Bentley has been going to children’s hospitals all over the United States raising money and awareness for canine and pediatric cancer research.  In 2012, Bentley raised $25,000 for canine cancer research and $25,000 for pediatric cancer research.  He now has a children’s book coming out on Kickstarter.com and a portion of the proceeds from the book sales are used to fund free books being given to the hospitals that Bentley visits.
Bentley’s a terrible showoff and when in public, he works the room shamelessly getting petted and rubbed.  Thanks for your support.  Patrick Malcom  

 

 

Survey helps owners make objective decisions about cancer care

Monday, September 23rd, 2013

The Pet Quality of Life Survey is designed to help owners by providing objective criteria they can use to decide if treating cancer is the right choice. Veterinarian Maria Iliopoulou developed the survey for dog owners but has plans to revise it so cat owners can use it too. Business Insider (9/19)

More than 73 million U.S. households own a pet and altogether they spend $53 billion per year to care for them.

 

More than half of that budget goes toward medical treatment, with money spent on supplies and OTC medications rising by more than 7% in 2012.

But where do you draw the line between keeping Fido healthy and compromising your finances to give him a few more months of playtime?

“It’s a very difficult situation [for both patients and veterinarians],” said Dr. Kristen Frank, an internist with the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.  “I’ve had pet owners who don’t necessarily have $15,000 to spend to treat a terminal illness, but they’ve done it anyway through borrowing money or credit cards.”

Emergency treatments can range from $1,500 to $4,000 for dogs, according to Frank, with cancer treatment sometimes costing twice as much or more.

Sometimes, the decision to forego medical care has more to do with the emotional cost of watching a beloved pet go than the potential financial burden.

“Recently I saw a woman who specifically said that her other cat passed way from cancer and she did everything including chemo and she said she did not want to go through that again,” Frank said.

Unlike hospitals for humans, vets don’t typically have the same flexibility to work with pet owners who can’t afford treatments. Pet insurance can be handy, but it often comes with maximum coverage limits, steep deductibles, and pre-existing conditions clauses.

“Payment plans are also hard to come by,” Frank said. “The financial aspect of veterinary care is toughest thing our people have to deal with on a daily basis …We all wish we could provide free care but unfortunately it’s just not possible.”

But how does a pet owner decide whether to pay for treatment or let their pet go?

There is no one-size-fit-all answer, but a Michigan State University research may have found a simple way to help pet owners through such difficult times.

“Pets are like surrogate children,” said Maria Iliopoulou. “In some cases, when a human bond evolves, it makes the decision more difficult.”

Iliopoulou, who owns a small menagerie of pets herself, set out in 2009 to create a “Quality of Life Survey for Canine Cancer Patients” that dog owners can use to look at medical treatment with an unbiased eye.

Before each visit, Iliopoulou suggests dog owners complete the survey, which asks basic questions to help them track major quality of life indicators for canines — play behavior, signs of illness, and overall happiness.

“What we were trying to do with the research was to isolate the emotions to help people make the best decisions for their pet and for themselves,” she said. “It helps the owner to pay attention to specific observable changes and transfer this info to the veterinarian.”

So far, the survey is applicable only to dogs, but Iliopoulou plans on continuing her research in order to create similar tools for a range of animals, like cats, birds, etc.

CLICK HERE to view the survey.

Rare bird hatched from surrogate egg

Tuesday, September 10th, 2013

hatching_egg.jpg.662x0_q100_crop-scaleA team of scientists in Dubai hatched a rare bird from a chicken egg, a potentially groundbreaking conservation advancement. The method involved the transfer of fertilized yolk from the houbara bustard, a threatened desert bird in the Middle East, into the white of the chicken egg. TreeHugger (8/28)

Researchers from the Central Veterinary Research Laboratory in Dubai say that have just successfully hatched a rare bird species from the egg of a chicken.

In a development being heralded as a major advancement for conservation, a team of scientists have proven that embryonic transfer from one bird species’ egg can successfully develop in that of another. Fertilized yolk from a houbara bustard, a threatened desert bird native to the Middle East, was placed into the ‘white’ of a surrogate chicken egg.

And sure enough, the transferred bustard chick embryos continued to grow and hatch normally, despite the unnatural setting of their development.

While the technique still has some refining, scientists are optimistic that the use of surrogate eggs to hatch unrelated bird types will be a boon to conservation efforts. For a rare species like the houbara bustard, which has declined by over 60 percent in recent decades, this method would give embryos in cracked or damaged eggs collected from the wild a renewed chance of survival.

Over the long term, embryonic transfer into surrogate eggs holds the potential to hatch birds from genetic material alone — pushing science one step closer to reviving extinct species once thought lost to the ages.

Dangerous breed debate fueled by recent media stories on dog attacks

Tuesday, September 10th, 2013

Pit BullPit bull attacks on humans are often news-grabbing events, but they don’t represent the disposition of all dogs included in this breed category, according to the National Canine Research Council’s Don Cleary. A 2012 AVMA report on dog bite incidents concluded that no single breed is inherently more dangerous than another, Cleary said. Contra Costa Times (Walnut Creek, Calif.)

By Tom Barnidge

Contra Costa Times Columnist

Pit bulls are in the news, and that’s rarely a good thing.

A 10-year-old boy mauled in Antioch this month had to undergo skin graft surgery and have his right ear reattached.

A Concord man, whose pit bulls fatally attacked his 2-year-old step-grandson three years ago, is standing trial for manslaughter and child endangerment.

A 6-year-old Union City boy died two months ago after being bitten while playing with a family pit bull that was described as “good with kids.”

Before the National Association of Pit Bull Huggers pickets in my front yard, let’s make one thing clear: Not all pit bulls are alike, and they don’t all attack children.

“I can safely say there are many more pit bulls that are wonderful, loving companion animals than there are pit bulls that have caused damage,” said Rick Golphin, deputy director of Contra Costa County Animal Service. “We adopt out a lot of pit bulls.”

One of the problems with trying to generalize about the breed is … well, pit bull isn’t a breed.

“The term is applied over a very broad range of dogs that aren’t defined by pedigree,” said Don Cleary of the National Canine Research Council. Pit bulls can be bull terriers, Staffordshire terriers, cane corsos or a mixture of those breeds and more. What matters more than the definition is the image the term conveys — a ticking time bomb with powerful jaws and sharp teeth that can turn savage in an instant.

Those who love the dogs point to the findings of the American Temperament Test Society, which I hadn’t heard of until two days ago. It subjects all breeds to pass-fail exams that measure their ability to interact with humans and their environment. You may be surprised to learn that pit bull terriers (86.8 percent) score higher than Dalmatians (82.7), beagles (80.0) and dachshunds (68.8), although that won’t comfort a 10-year-old whose ear has been ripped off.

Opponents point to the hundreds of cities nationwide that have outlawed ownership of such dogs, beginning with Denver in 1989. Even in anything-goes San Francisco, an ordinance passed in 2005 requires “pit bulls” — the legal definition spans 99 words — be spayed or neutered to curtail aggressiveness.

One thing all can agree on is the important role owners play. A dog’s behavior generally is a product of the training and treatment it receives. Find a neglectful pit bull owner, and you’ll find an ill-behaved dog at the end of his leash.

“Socialization is important with any companion animal,” Golphin said, “especially with one that has the potential for causing as much damage as large canines can.”

Cleary believes too many factors affect a dog’s disposition to blame the breed or pass sweeping laws. He cited a 2012 report by the American Veterinary Medical Association that surveyed 40 years of dog-bite studies in Europe and North America: “They reported there is no breed or kind of dog that we should consider disproportionately dangerous.”

He thinks the media focus excessive attention on sporadic attacks. (You know how the media is.) Circumstance and environment shapes a dog’s temperament, not genetics. You’re just as likely to get bitten by a Yorkshire terrier as a pit bull.

Maybe that’s so. But the results of those bites can be terrifyingly different. That’s why the pit bull debate won’t go soon away.

Contact Tom Barnidge at tbarnidge@bayareanewsgroup.com.

Calif. forensic lab uses animal DNA to solve crimes

Wednesday, September 4th, 2013

UCDavis Vet School Logo

The University of California, Davis’ Veterinary Genetics Laboratory helps law enforcement investigators by analyzing animal DNA from crime scenes. The lab’s three scientists can help solve crimes such as murder, rape and animal abuse, and they want more people to know what they can do. “What’s frustrating right now is we know there are a lot of cold cases out there where there’s animal evidence that can be used, and people aren’t aware that we can use it,” the lab’s Teri Kun said. San Francisco Chronicle (free content)

Stepping in dog poop is usually just bad luck, but for some criminals it’s a step toward the slammer.

That’s because dog feces pick up DNA-bearing epithelial cells from the colon on their way out. When those feces are found on the shoe of a suspect – one who claims not to have been anywhere near the scene of a crime where matching poop was found – a case may be cracked.

These are the clues prized by a tiny, three-person laboratory at UC Davis – the only accredited forensic lab in the country dealing in animal evidence.

“The shoe scraping I got, I remember, was just enough to cover the top of a pencil top, maybe a millimeter tall,” said Teri Kun, a scientist at the forensic lab of UC Davis’ Veterinary Genetics Laboratory, recalling a triple-murder case in Indiana in 2000.

“I remember taking it over to Beth (Wictum, the lab’s director), saying, ‘This is all I got. I don’t expect to get results.’ But I got a full profile.”

The profile from the suspect’s shoe matched a sample from the only dog on the property where the slayings occurred. The killer – who also left behind a shoe print in a poop patty – is now serving life in prison.

Struggling to get word out

That’s one of the more popular tales recounted by the three scientists who run the lab. And they have plenty of experience telling titillating stories for the media – one 2006 headline blared, “Snoopy’s poop scores crime coup” – because animals and crime together always make for a good yarn.

But despite the coverage and their unique status, they still struggle to get the word out to criminal investigators about what they can offer.

“What I hear the most when I tell people what I do is, ‘Wow, you can do that with animals?’ ” Kun said. “You know, animals have DNA just like humans. We do essentially everything the human labs do. We’re just doing it with animals. We’re using all the same techniques, all the same tools, just using primers that are specific to dogs, to cats.”

Such DNA comparisons can solve a wide range of cases: incidents of animal cruelty, animal attacks on humans, and human crimes like robbery, rape and murder where an animal left a mark behind – urine, hair, poop, saliva.

“Some studies show you can’t go into a house where there’s a dog or a cat without picking up some evidence,” said Wictum, the lab director.

Unlike in most genetics research involving animals, the samples aren’t neatly packaged. They’re often whatever scraps are left behind after they’ve aged, degraded, been cleaned away – sometimes just enough to extract the clinching DNA.

In one case, a stray dog hair caught around a power drill bit helped link a man to the killing of 29 puppies, one of which had been drilled in the head.

In another, a woman’s dog relieved itself on the tire of a car belonging to a man who tried to sexually assault her, so that even though she couldn’t pick him out of a lineup and he didn’t leave semen behind, he was linked to the scene.

And dog hairs recovered from a shower curtain wrapped around a slain 18-year-old girl were connected back to puppies her killer had received as a gift, solving a case that was four years cold.

Wictum, Kun and their colleague Christina Lindquist want to do more. They hope that every time they go to a law enforcement convention and give a presentation, they increase their chance of being hired and put to work.

“What’s frustrating right now is we know there are a lot of cold cases out there where there’s animal evidence that can be used, and people aren’t aware that we can use it,” Kun said. “Part of our endeavor in the past few years has been to try and push and get our name out there.”

For now, the lab is a humble setup: one trailer parked on a dusty side road on the fringe of the Davis campus, a tub of Dalmatian bones stowed in a corner.

But the scientists are uniquely positioned, with access to databases culled from years of research at the wider Veterinary Genetics Lab, which offers services to test animal parentage or find the likelihood of genetic disease. The DNA databases include dogs, cats, horses, cows, llamas, sheep, goats, pigs and alpacas.

“Having that sort of resource in conjunction with your forensics lab is going to be a rare combination to come by,” Kun said.

Settling animal disputes

The lab can settle disputes over cattle ownership. It investigates dogfighting, tracing abused canines back to breeders.

The lab also offers services in civil cases, usually species identification. For $150, the lab can test a meat sample to determine what it is – a helpful option for restaurateurs who want to make sure they’re getting what they paid for.

And many a hopeful bigfoot hunter has had his hopes dashed after a fur sample comes back stamped with “bear” or “chimpanzee.”

“Chupacabras always come back as coyotes,” Kun said. “Always. It’s never anything else.”

Golden Retriever Lifetime Study takes aim at canine cancer

Monday, August 26th, 2013

Magnolia DuffThe Morris Animal Foundation’s Golden Retriever Lifetime Study is recruiting 3,000 healthy, young golden retrievers to be studied for clues to the breed’s high incidence of cancer. The foundation is partnering with veterinarians and owners around the country in the 10-year, $25 million study. “Wouldn’t it be great if we could tell [an owner] whether her dog has a high predisposition to a certain cancer so we can catch it really early?” said foundation President and CEO David Haworth, also a veterinarian. “Or if we know what a cancer’s pathway is, our drug partners can find a way to intervene.” Tampa Bay Times (St. Petersburg, Fla.) (8/22)

At not quite 9 months of age, Cali has accomplished a lot. She knows her basic commands — that includes offering a soft yellow paw in both the standard shake, and an enthusiastic high five. She turns any occasion into a party, as I discovered Monday when we met at Partridge Animal Hospital in St. Petersburg.

And she may help unlock a mystery that has baffled many a veterinarian and grief-stricken family: Why do so many golden retrievers get cancer?

Cali is a healthy participant in the Morris Animal Foundation’s Golden Retriever Lifetime Study. It aims to recruit at least 3,000 dogs between ages 6 months and 2 years for an observational study planned to go on for 10 years at a cost of $25 million. Goldens all over the United States are needed for the project, which requires owners to bring their dogs to their own vet every year for a thorough exam and complete detailed questionnaires about diet and lifestyle.

Once she saw how happy Cali was to visit her vet, Dr. David Landers, Pamela Hogle felt comfortable committing to the study. Landers will be doing a lot of the work — and is happy to, being a big fan of the breed himself.

Hogle’s inspiration was another beloved golden, Oriel, who died of cancer two years ago at age 13.

“When you think about why people love their dogs, Oriel was the embodiment of all of those reasons,” said Hogle, a St. Petersburg freelance editor who works with a service dog organization in California. “She was sweet, gentle, calm, but always up for an adventure.”

Canine cancer is the leading disease cause of death in dogs over age 10. Goldens appear to be among the most susceptible, but no breed is immune. The study aims to establish whether cancer disproportionately afflicts certain dogs — and why.

Dr. David Haworth, a veterinarian who is president and CEO of Denver-based Morris Animal Foundation, described the golden study as the canine equivalent of the famous Framingham Heart Study. Morris (you may have seen the group promoted by its most famous board member, actor Betty White) has funded scientific research for 65 years. But this, Haworth said, is the largest veterinary study ever.

It could reveal information valuable to human health, too. Two cancers common in goldens — lymphoma and osteosarcoma — have so many molecular similarities to the human diseases that they’re considered models for studying the conditions in people.

But the primary purpose is to help dogs by examining the genetic, environmental and lifestyle factors that may contribute to cancer and other disorders. With that kind of information, in the future vets and pet owners might be able to find a cancer early enough to cure it — or even prevent it altogether.

“Wouldn’t it be great if we could tell someone like Cali’s owner whether her dog has a high predisposition to a certain cancer so we can catch it really early?” Haworth said. “Or if we know what a cancer’s pathway is, our drug partners can find a way to intervene.”

Goldens are one of America’s most popular breeds. But Haworth (whose puppy Bridger is in the study) explained the main reason they’re using purebreds is because they are so genetically similar, it’s easier to detect differences that might be connected to disease.

Which prompted me to ask: Are mixed-breed dogs and cats healthier than purebreds?

He paused. “That’s controversial. There have been conflicting studies. For the most part, purebred dogs that are responsibly bred — by which I mean breeders are paying attention to health conditions — are as healthy as mixed breeds.”

It will be a while until results start coming out of the Golden Retriever Lifetime Study. Meanwhile, we can do a lot to protect the furriest members of our families. Do your homework before you get a pet, and if you want a purebred, ask your vet how to find a reputable breeder. Look for changes in your dog or cat that might be a signal of trouble; as in people, some canine cancers can be successfully treated if caught early. Keep current on checkups (even if, unlike Cali, yours doesn’t adore the vet).

And if you have a healthy young golden, consider joining the study (get details at morrisanimalfoundation.org). You both could be doing a lot for your four-legged and two-legged friends.

Texas A&M veterinary school adds hands-on experience in addressing cruelty, trauma, neglect

Monday, July 15th, 2013

Houston SPCA LogoTexas A&M University’s College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences has teamed with the Houston SPCA to give fourth-year veterinary students a chance to work alongside experts in investigating and treating dogs, cats, horses and other animals that have been subject to neglect and abuse. “We will be graduating new generations of vets who will disseminate throughout Texas and beyond with a deep understanding of animal welfare and shelter medicine,” said dean and veterinarian Eleanor Green. The Bryan-College Station Eagle (Texas) (7/12)

By Brooke Conrad brooke.conrad@theeagle.com

The Houston Society for The Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences announced Thursday a partnership that will offer veterinary students a deeper look into cases of cruelty, trauma and neglect in a wide array of animals.

The Houston SPCA, the largest animal protection agency in the Gulf Coast area, investigates more than 9,000 cases of animal abuse and neglect and advocates for more than 50,000 animals a year. Through the partnership with the flagship university, fourth-year veterinary students at Texas A&M will undergo a two-week program at the SPCA, working alongside experts in cruelty, trauma and neglect to dogs, cats, horses, donkeys, farm animals, exotic animals and native wildlife, it was announced at a news conference in Houston.

Though Texas A&M veterinary students already receive a world-class, hands-on education, Eleanor Green, the Carl B. King Dean of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, said students will experience an “intimate immersion in the handling of animal abuse cases” because of the partnership.

“We will be graduating new generations of vets who will disseminate throughout Texas and beyond with a deep understanding of animal welfare and shelter medicine,” Green said. “It’s truly a win-win for the students, Houston SPCA and society.”

Green said some students have been exposed to cruelty cases, but the partnership will allow students to work with law enforcement in investigating the cases — something they likely haven’t done before. They’ll also experience going to court to see how the cases play out.

The first group of students began their rotations on June 3. Joe Pluhar is in the midst of his rotation, an experience he called “unique, both in volume and variety.”

Pluhar, who said he hopes to become an equine veterinarian after graduation, was able to care for a horse this week that had been mistreated and was unable to walk.

“There’s no other type of education opportunity like this for vet students anywhere else in the country,” Pluhar said. “[By the end of the rotation] we will have done upwards of 30 surgeries. At other schools, some students do maybe two.”

During their rotation, students live near the SPCA in an apartment that is funded by the college and outside donations. The SPCA is working to add a housing units on to its existing facility, Green said.

Kenita Rogers, associate dean for professional programs at the college of veterinary medicine, sparked the partnership over a year ago after she was urged by a longtime Houston vet to contact the SPCA.

“The reason this is so special is because it’s the largest partnership of its time,” Rogers said. “Just the breadth of species that are involved here — they handle up to 1,000 cases every day. It’s not just dogs and cats. It’s pocket pets, horses, farm animals and native wildlife of 240 species every year. There’s an incredible breadth of knowledge there to share with our students.”