March 19, 2019 – Participants in the Golden Retriever Lifetime Study ask their questions of Dr. Janet Patterson-Kane, from the animals in her life to the decisions guiding her career to what she does for fun when she isn’t busy as Morris Animal Foundation’s Chief Scientific Officer.
Personal Relationships with Animals
Did you have a dog when you were growing up?
We had an Afghan hound called Jess. Afghans were, of course, very popular in the 70s and not very obedient. When you have a dog that runs as fast as a greyhound, loves to escape, and does not respond to any commands at all, a lot of embarrassing things happen!
What other pets have you had and how did you come up with their names?
All told I have had, as an adult, two border collies, one whippet, one corgi-Pomeranian cross, and my current pets. I do spend some time with a golden retriever that belongs to a friend of mine – her name is Gilda Rose and she is 16 years old!
My first dog was called Bandit. He was a tricolor border collie and had coloring that looked like a black mask around his eyes. Another border collie I rescued was called Kes, short for Keswick, a town in the Lake District National Park in England where I enjoyed spending some time. I had a whippet called Otto, who came with that name from the breeder. And I rescued a corgi-Pomeranian cross who I called Pee Wee from a veterinary school that I worked in in Australia. I don’t know where I got that from, but it certainly did not describe his very large personality!
I currently have a 14-year-old whippet-border collie cross called Satu – I got him as a 6-month-old puppy at the Battersea Dogs Home in London. Satu came with his name. I quite liked it, so kept it. He has lived all over the world with me, including Australia; I am not sure he really knows this.
I also have a 20-year old tortoiseshell cat called Lotte, named after a Swiss relative. She is doing well and most definitely does not look her age! With two elderly pets, there is a lot of responsibility at home.
What do you do for fun with your animals?
I used to walk and hike a lot with Satu, but he is quite old now and not able to any more. Sometimes we chill out together on the front step in the sun. We always celebrate National Dog Day with friends – have a bit of a party for them. When you have rescue animals you often don’t know when their birthdays are. Lotte enjoys waking us up at 5 o’clock in the morning – that is fun – for her.
What has been your greatest fear when it comes to your companion animals?
Cancer. I am a veterinary pathologist, and you see a lot of it in that job. I had to diagnose my dog Satu with osteosarcoma. I had to look at the slides from his leg myself. It was an extremely traumatic experience, and I do have a very deep understanding of what other dog owners go through and the hard decisions that need to be made.
I lost my first border collie, Bandit, to lymphoma. Using chemotherapy was not such a common thing then. I often wonder if we could have had some more time with him. He is still greatly missed.
What has been the most surprising lesson taught to you by animals?
When my dog Satu had his leg amputated due to osteosarcoma. It was his left front leg. I had to be talked into going through with it, as the osteosarcoma has often already spread to the lungs at the time it is found in the leg. I was worried he would go through a lot for very little extra time. The oncologist said she thought he would do well, and she was right. Satu was walking on day 2. I have a photo on my computer desktop of him running, about 2 months later. His back leg has a little shaved patch on it in the photo as he was still going through chemotherapy. I found his resilience inspiring. He just got on with his life. Even a few months later I realized that the extra time had been so special and so worth it for both of us. Satu had a rare subtype of osteosarcoma and is still alive three and a half years later – we were unbelievably lucky.
Who was the first golden retriever you ever met?
I can’t remember the first golden retriever I met, but the first one I got to know well was a dog called Fionn. He belonged to an Irish veterinarian I worked with in practice in England. Fionn means fair-haired in Irish Gaelic. He was good at running off. I once chased him down the street for many blocks from our practice because he slipped the leash. It wasn’t a great look for a local vet.
When did you know you wanted your career to be in animal research?
I knew very early – I was probably about 3 years old. We lived on the edge of Sydney in Australia at that time and I set “traps” for bandicoots (little marsupials with stripes). Those traps were more like abstract art pieces made of paper, so no worries about actually catching any for study.
Who or what influenced you to pursue a veterinary science-related field?
I knew I wanted to work with animals. Then I read the series of autobiographical books by James Herriot (a British veterinarian), starting with “All Creatures Great and Small.” They were adapted into films and a television series, and I think those books and TV programs were an inspiration for many veterinarians in my generation. I practiced in the UK as a new graduate and had many of the same experiences he did.
Why did you want to be the Chief Scientific Officer for Morris Animal Foundation?
This far into my research career, I have really got a sense of the bigger picture. For example, what can we do about these huge rates of cancer in our pets? We can try and prevent cancer in the first place, we can work out ways of finding it as early as possible, and we can try and improve treatments. All of these things are obviously a huge focus for humans, too, but medical researchers have much greater resources to tap into.
I was working on canine mast cell tumors in my research laboratory in 2013-2014, and we found a marker – a protein that seems to show when there is greater malignancy (chance of spreading to other parts of the body). We realized that to generate a useful test based on the marker with which we were working, we would need a lot of samples linked to clinical information. We can get lots of cancer samples from animals with owner permission, but often not the information on what happened with that dog before or after the diagnosis. It is a huge problem in veterinary research.
I decided to leave academia to find a way of making a difference to this issue. I worked in a large diagnostic laboratory, and then moved to the Denver area, spending two and a half years working with human samples in a biotechnology company. That allowed me to learn about how cancer tests are developed and how clinical trials are run. The Golden Retriever Lifetime Study is a unique opportunity to bring that expertise back to animals - to be involved in getting the right samples and the right information from a certain very popular dog breed, and in making the most out of that. I think it is a very special opportunity. I find the commitment of the participants to do this over such a long time frame to be inspiring.
What brought you to the United States?
I left academia in 2014 and came to the States to work for a veterinary diagnostic laboratory. I had lived here before – I trained as a pathologist at the University of Florida and passed my examinations while working in a diagnostic laboratory at the University of Kentucky.
How did you get to where you are?
That is a big question! Being committed to veterinary research has really driven the choices I have made. I have tried to stay with my core values in terms of improving the health of companion animals and wildlife. When opportunities came, I took them. This has meant moving around the world perhaps a little more than I would have wanted, and there have been big ups and downs, but it has been an exciting life.
What do you like to do for fun?
As I spend a lot of time on scientific work, the arts are very prominent in my life outside of that. I have always enjoyed playing video games – being old enough to remember when they started! I am a film buff – Denver has a great film festival every year. I read very widely and dabble in photography. I spend quite a lot of time with my pets, as they are definitely in the geriatric category now.
If you could travel anywhere in the world where would it be and why?
I have always wanted to see the Galapagos Islands. The unusual wildlife and the whole story about Darwin’s studies there have always fascinated me.
If you had to choose between doing what is right or doing what is popular, which would you choose and why?
Always right. My moral compass is strong! I don’t want to look back and feel ashamed of myself.
What is your favorite holiday and why?
Definitely Christmas. It was always an important one for my family in New Zealand. I have a very large collection of Christmas tree decorations – still expanding! I particularly enjoy it in the Northern Hemisphere. In New Zealand of course, Christmas is in the middle of summer. It seems more like Christmas if there is snow. I am going to sneak Halloween in here as number two, as I like dressing up. My dog does not.
What is your guilty pleasure?
Dark chocolate. I don’t limit myself. This is, of course, kept somewhere inaccessible to dogs!