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March 27, 2019 – Cancer is a disease that impacts animals everywhere, from the pets in our homes to marsupials half a world away. With approximately 12 million diagnoses every year in dogs and cats, cancer remains a leading cause of death in our companion animals.

In 1962, the Foundation funded its first animal cancer study, “Phase One:  A Study of Enzymes in Canine Neoplasia.” The investigation, out of The Ohio State University, was one of the first to try to gain a basic understanding about the formation of tumors in dogs. Subsequent studies continued to narrow in on specific types and aspects of cancer among dogs and cats.

“For many, many years, the focus on cancer funding was for feline and canine research, at the urging of donors who realized cancer was probably the leading cause of death for their pets,” said Dr. Rod Page, Principal Investigator on the Foundation’s Golden Retriever Lifetime Study. 

That focus was rewarded with significant progress. For example, the Foundation supported key research to develop the first vaccine for feline leukemia, an important cause of cancer in cats. Since the vaccine was created in 1986, the number of associated cancers has dropped significantly.

These types of successes are important – they show we can make progress and save lives. They encourage us to continue to fight against cancers that still need to be conquered, such as oral squamous cell carcinoma, which accounts for 75 percent of all feline oral cancers. Morris Animal Foundation has funded several studies in this cancer.

The Foundation’s cancer fight doesn’t stop with dogs and cats, though. In horses, we are funding studies looking at squamous cell carcinoma, the most common eye-related cancer in horses, and equine melanoma. In wildlife, we are fighting cancers that are potentially threatening species’ existence, including contagious cancers in Tasmanian devils, causing drastic population declines. 

Looking ahead, Dr. Page believes new cancer research will examine the genetic basis for cancers to better diagnose and handle them, and will focus on the development of immunotherapies – where attributes of the body’s immune system are used to fight cancer. In dogs, he said, hemangiosarcoma will continue to draw special attention. 

“The wish list for every veterinary oncologist starts with trying to find some way to deal with hemangiosarcoma. It’s a tumor that’s relatively unique to dogs and has completely evaded all attempts to understand what’s going on in a way that’s able to be modified in the patient,” said Dr. Page. “It’s a rapidly fatal cancer and one that desperately needs better diagnostic tools and treatments.”

But just as the level of understanding of cancer has increased, so too has the cost for the average cancer grant. It’s 25 times more expensive now than in 1962 to fund the average cancer study, increasing from $8,000 to $197,255. That is why donor support is so crucial. From prevention to treatment, each gift we receive to support cancer research means more years for the animals we hold dear.