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Animals and humans have a lot in common. Not only do they share the same living environment, but they also share many similar segments of genes. This makes animals great models of disease in research.
Dr. Alycen Lundberg, a veterinary oncologist at the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine, studies cancer in feline patients to improve the lives of feline and human patients everywhere.
Cancer in cats
“In veterinary research, cat cancer is generally underrepresented,” explains Dr. Lundberg reported that there is less information available about cancer in cats compared to dogs, which is a great opportunity for researchers.
“Cat owners are incredibly dedicated people and will go to great lengths for their animals,” says Dr. Lundberg.
Numerous clinical studies in which pet parents have their animals enrolled are available through the UI’s Veterinary Teaching Hospital. These studies provide much-needed data on these often difficult-to-treat diseases and can significantly improve the quality of life for these pets.
“Cats, dogs, and other species share a large percentage of the human genome,” says Dr. Lundberg. “Cancer in our animal patients is very similar to that in humans.”
Cancer development is a complicated, multifactorial process. Cats can be a good model for many cancers that humans develop, because cats and humans not only share genetic similarities, but also live, eat, and breathe in the same environment. As a result, they are exposed to many of the same factors that can contribute to some types of cancer.
More Cancer In Pets?
“I am often asked why we see more cancer in our pets,” says Dr. Lundberg. “It is not necessarily that the number of cancer cases is increasing. The thing is, we’re better able to diagnose cancer and live longer lives thanks to improved pet health. Hence, they live long enough to experience genetic changes that can lead to cancer. “
There are currently no proven ways to prevent all cancers other than avoiding known risk factors for certain types, she said.
“We know a lot about cancer now, but there is still so much that is unknown,” explains Dr. Lundberg. “The best we can do for pets is get regular checkups with the family veterinarian.
“If you keep the animals informed about vaccinations and regular blood tests, you can spot problems sooner. For some cancers, earlier diagnosis leads to better outcome and response to treatments. “
In human medicine, researchers have identified many genetic mutations and biomarkers that can determine a person’s risk for a specific type of cancer. An example of this is the mutated BRCA gene, which can increase a person’s chances of developing breast cancer.
While specific tests for biomarkers or genetic mutations are not as common or as readily available in veterinary medicine, there are prognostic panels or test groups and ways to look for specific proteins or mutated genes.
“The panels are not as simple as they seem and have to be related to many other factors in the individual patient,” explains Dr. Lundberg.
The veterinarian uses a combination of tools to diagnose cancer. The first is a thorough physical exam. If the exam reveals a worrying mass or enlarged lymph node, the veterinarian may decide to take cells from it to better understand the composition.
Help for all kinds
“Diagnostic and treatment options in veterinary oncology have come a long way. There is so much we can do for pets in terms of their quality of life. A cancer diagnosis is not a death sentence, ”explains Dr. Lundberg.
The cancer team at UI Veterinary Teaching Hospital values patient wellbeing and the desires of owners in providing treatment and assistance to pets with cancer.
“We are not only there for the patient, but also for the human family dealing with this cancer diagnosis,” says Dr. Lundberg.
Hospital oncologists are also at the forefront of cancer research, resulting in better treatments for pets and, in some cases, humans.