Forget the idea of the solitary researcher toiling away in his lab. At the College of Veterinary Medicine and Biological Sciences (CVMBS) at Colorado State University, they decided long ago that cooperation beats isolation, and that inspiration and innovation can come from many different places.
Indeed, what truly sets CSU’s vet college apart is its collaborative spirit, its mission to work with other scientists and practitioners to develop and deliver the best possible care to its animal patients. With more than a century under its metaphorical belt—CVMBS celebrated its 100th birthday last year—the college is consistently ranked among the nation’s top vet schools. It also operates the first — and largest — animal cancer center in the world.
“We really started the idea that you could treat dogs with cancer instead of just throwing up your hands,” says Robert Ullrich, PhD, director of oncology research at the Animal Cancer Center. “We’ve also been at the forefront of researching and treating spontaneous tumors in dogs, and translating that knowledge to human medicine.”
Here, then, are the most exciting goings-on at CSU.
“We have grown in many ways and directions,” Robinson says, “but we’re still unique. Several other vet schools have added acupuncture or herbal medicine, but none have an approach committed to scientific and evidence-based explorations and scrutiny. And to my knowledge, no other schools have a dedicated faculty position for scientifically based complementary and alternative medicine.”
This is a big deal, she says, because more and more dog owners are looking into CAM for their pets. In fact, in 2006, CVMBS did a study of owners whose pets were being treated at its Animal Cancer Center and found that more than half were using complementary and alternative medical approaches, including herbs, supplements and acupuncture. Owners said they were looking for ways to improve their pets’ overall wellbeing, as well as to improve immune function and reduce pain. Unfortunately, the study also found that many owners didn’t tell their veterinarians that they were utilizing these remedies and didn’t ask veterinary experts for advice. This lack of communication creates the potential for serious problems, such as drug interactions or overdose.
That’s where CVMBS’s program comes in. By conducting rigorous, science-based research and training vets in the proper use of alternative remedies, Robinson and her colleagues hope to expand the knowledge base regarding these therapies, and spread that knowledge to practicing veterinarians. “There has been a lot of interest in the program, and it’s growing,” Robinson says. “Over a third of each veterinary medicine class takes our overview class, and many go on to take the ‘Medical Acupuncture for Veterinarians’ course.”
Late last year, Robinson spearheaded a joint effort with CSU electrical engineering students to build “SimPooch,” a simulated Labrador Retriever designed to help students learn correct acupuncture techniques. The life-size model, based on MRI data gathered from a real dog, reproduces bone, muscle, skin and fat in all their respective densities so that students can get realistic feedback as they practice the various techniques. In the next few months, the engineering students will create computer software that will reproduce the head in a virtual reality environment and interface with the physical model. It’s all part of Robinson’s science-based approach. “Anatomy is the foundation of medicine and of acupuncture,” she says. “We need to move away from the notion that acupuncture works by stimulating invisible energy systems and recognize its anatomical basis.”
Looking ahead, Robinson says she anticipates an expansion into more research, “from nutraceuticals to herbs to acupuncture, laser therapy and more.” And what does she say to skeptics? People who dismiss complementary and alternative therapies as nothing but hocus-pocus? “I tell them that I am as skeptical as they are. We are not here to promote CAM, but to study its effectiveness and measure its safety.”
High-Tech Meets High-Touch
“This truly is a state-of-the-art facility,” LaRue says. “We’ve been doing radiation therapy with dogs since 1957.” The latest innovation: a Trilogy Linear Accelerator, which is the first of its kind in any veterinary clinic or college in the world. The Trilogy has the capacity to target tumors with a precise dose of radiation, one that is custom-fit to the tumor’s depth, shape and size, thus sparing healthy cells. It also has a built-in CT scanner and digital X-ray machine that allow doctors to monitor a tumor’s changing shape and position with each treatment.
The Trilogy can even be programmed to deliver radiation timed to the dog’s breathing pattern in order to prevent misfires if the tumor moves as the dog breathes. “One type of cancer we’ve really struggled with in dogs is nasal tumors,” says LaRue. “Think about the shape of the dog’s head: You might have a tumor wrapping around the eyes or brain, or going all the way from the dog’s nose to the top of his head. These tumors can have a very complex anatomy.” Before now, she says, treating them was more than tricky, in part because doctors couldn’t administer a big enough dose of radiation for fear of damaging the all-too-important structures nearby. “Now we can get the dose high enough to get the tumor control we need,” she says. “We don’t want to put dogs through this if we’re not going to get cures.”
But while the treatments are space-age, dogs visiting the center are treated to an old-fashioned welcome and plenty of personal attention. “We think that the patients who come in should be happy,” says LaRue. So instead of a standard hospital setting, the center’s waiting area looks more like a doggy day care, with a safe area for dogs to play and relax while waiting for their treatments. “They really like it, and they’re a lot less stressed than the owners,” she says. Most dogs get lots of attention from LaRue’s staff as well. “They get very bonded to my staff and follow them around,” she says. Unlike human oncology patients, she says, dogs really can enjoy the treatment experience, and keeping it as low-stress as possible is one of the group’s goals.
The Supercluster essentially takes the business model of an economic cluster—Silicon Valley tech companies, for example, aggregated hubs of brainpower and marketing muscle—and applies it to biomedical research and veterinary medicine. Economic clusters create a kind of critical mass, where technology and production facilities attract other businesses and thus create a powerful momentum that benefits everybody. CSU’s Superclusters generate a critical mass of research talent, which serves as a magnet for businesses that can quickly take those innovations to the marketplace. The traditional model, in which universities conduct their research, patent their discoveries and then look for companies willing to license their fledgling product—is not nearly as agile.The Cancer Supercluster includes the College of Veterinary Medicine, plus four others: the Colleges of Natural Sciences, Applied Human Sciences, Agricultural Sciences and Engineering. The program employs 65 faculty members from 12 departments who conduct research in all aspects of cancer treatment and prevention, including risk assessment, diagnosis, therapeutics and genomics (the study of the relationship between genetic structure and biological function).
Much of the Supercluster, however, is based on the work of the Animal Cancer Center. For example, research from the center is being applied to a new product that will be used in human medicine. “Often, in cancer, if you can identify specific changes in the chromosomes, you can help diagnose problems,” explains Ullrich, who has studied cancer and its genetic components for more than 30 years. “Sometimes, cancers involve taking part of one chromosome and moving it to another, something called translocation. In other cases, part of the chromosome becomes inverted—this happens in some cancers and also in certain birth defects.” Until now, he says, scientists couldn’t identify these changes. But, using 15 years of research at the Animal Cancer Center, a new Supercluster company is developing a method of identifying these chromosomal inversions, and plans to launch a new birth defect–screening product for humans. “The next thing is to identify these inversions in cancer, which will help us create new markers for diagnosis and new targets for therapy, both in dogs and in people,” he says.
Applying an innovation in veterinary medicine to human patients is a fairly novel idea; most often, the protocols go the other way, says Ullrich. “Typically, we take things that have been used in humans and try them with dogs. The difference here is that we’re developing things that are so cutting edge that they’re being moved into the human arena.”
This, perhaps, is the most compelling aspect of the work that’s being done at CVMBS, in the Animal Cancer Center as well as the Supercluster program: Developing treatments that can help today’s animal patients as well as the animals — and people — of tomorrow. “We are absolutely a research facility,” says LaRue. “Realistically, we couldn’t have invested in all of this equipment solely for the purpose of treating animals. But our translational research is invaluable. We can evaluate how these patients respond to treatment and this information can go directly into the human clinic — or back to our own practice, where we can use it to help more animals down the road.”
Curled up on his cushion, Dare, an 18-month-old Shetland Sheepdog, might look like any other Sheltie: bright-eyed, silky-coated, ready for a good game of fetch or a nice snuggle by the fire. But when he stands up, it’s a different story. Dare’s missing two legs — both on his left side — and has a tiny metal post protruding from the nub that was once his left foreleg. He looks a little battered as his fur grows back following his most recent surgery, but he’s halfway through a radical new process that should give him — and possibly thousands of other crippled dogs — a happy, normal life.
Dare is the most recent patient of Robert Taylor, DVM, founder of Denver’s Alameda East Veterinary Hospital and pioneer of a surgical procedure that’s revolutionized veterinary orthopedics. Over the past two years, Dr. Taylor and his staff have performed it on four dogs. And it’s also getting attention as a possible treatment for human amputees in the future. “This operation really looks promising for people as well as dogs,” says Ron Hugate, MD, an orthopedic surgeon (the human kind) at The Denver Clinic who participated in Dare’s implant surgery.
This is, of course, great news for canine amputees, who until now had a fairly limited slate of options. “People do alright with artificial arms and legs,” Dr. Taylor says. “But dogs won’t tolerate them.” The solution: not a crutch or wooden leg, but an implanted prosthetic, which delivers a combination Long John Silver/Bionic Man effect.
But to get there, Dr. Taylor and his team needed to do some serious innovation. The device he’d need must be a useful limb that’s also securely — and permanently — attached to the dog’s existing leg bone. While doctors have known for years how to handle implants (which by definition are entirely inside the patient’s body) and prosthetics (which stay on the outside), no one had yet discovered how to marry the two. “That was one very big challenge,” Dr. Taylor says.
To ensure the implant’s stability, he needed to foster a biological mechanism called osseointegration, in which hard tissue (i.e., bone) merges with a foreign object. This is the process by which bone grows around — and thus anchors — a surgical implant (think bone grafts or dental implants). But far more challenging was the need for a germ-proof implant site. After all, these prosthetic legs would be running through fields and streams and dog parks, hardly the most sterile conditions. To do that, the device would need to create something called biointegration, in which the body’s soft tissue grows into another material. With biointegration, the dog’s skin could effectively seal off the protruding portion of the implant, just as grass might grow over a hole in your backyard.
The answer lay in an obscure element called tantalum (look it up on your Periodic Table: It’s number 73, right there between hafnium and tungsten). Tantalum is porous, non-irritating and virtually immune to body fluids, meaning it won’t denigrate after being inside an animal’s body. Its honeycomb-like structure closely resembles bone, and tantalum has the unique ability to form a direct bond to both hard and soft tissue, meaning the dog’s bone, muscle and other cells will meld into it. (Interestingly, tantalum was named after the mythical Greek character Tantalus, doomed by the gods to eternally reach for fruit that hung just beyond his reach. Tantalus’ name also gave us the word “tantalizing.”)
The engineers at BioMedtrix, which holds the rights to veterinary applications of tantalum, came up with a spool-like device, which consists of a titanium rod that passes through a cap of tantalum, explains Chris Sidebotham, president of Biomedtrix. The top portion of the rod is inserted into the dog’s remaining leg bone (surgeons first hollow out the bone and shape it to fit the implant precisely). To close the wound following the implantation, the surgeon pulls the skin over the tantalum cap, leaving a titanium tip that extends an inch or so (and will eventually be connected to the prosthetic leg or foot).
“The whole thing works because of the skin interface,” Sidebotham explains. As it heals, the dog’s soft tissue attaches itself to the tantalum cap to form a cuticle-like seal. And because the bone does the same, the cap creates a rock-solid (and germ-proof) foundation to which the new leg can be attached.
Each dog must be custom fitted for his implant and prosthesis, says Dr. Taylor. He works with a Denver imaging company called ProtoMed, which uses the dog’s CT scan image data to create a 3D computer model of his leg, then build a life-size plastic version. That model then goes to BioMedtrix, which creates a device that will match the model perfectly.
One Dog at a Time
Last year, Dr. Taylor also worked on Soldier, a yellow Labrador retriever who’d been found tied to a tree at a shooting range — and missing one of his front legs. This year, he’s also operated on Scout, another Lab who lost a hind leg after being hit by a car.
Dr. Taylor’s latest patient is Dare, the Sheltie, who came into his examination room in last June on just two legs. Surrendered by a breeder in Kansas a few months earlier, Dare was missing his left hind leg; his left foreleg was dislocated and broken in two places and contorted into a 90-degree angle. (It has since been amputated; veterinarians who tried to repair the leg found that the bones were too fragile to save.)
The vets at Alameda East cite “multiple traumas” as the cause of Dare’s troubles. Jenni McKerman, director of Colorado Sheltie Rescue and Dare’s foster owner, guesses that the puppy’s mother or another dog at the breeding facility probably chewed the hind leg off and bit and twisted the front leg, as the problems in both legs appear to be injuries, not congenital deformities.
“When we first got Dare, we hoped to be able to straighten his front leg so that he could have a more mobile life with a loving family,” says McKerman. When it became clear that the foreleg would have to be amputated, McKerman spoke with Dr. Taylor about a permanent prosthesis. And while he was waiting for it to be manufactured (a process that typically takes three to four months), Dare got a cart to support his hindquarters, allowing him to interact with other dogs and go with McKerman to every Sheltie Rescue event they could find.
“Dare is tiny—he was only about 3 pounds when we got him—but he’s friendly and outgoing and just loves everybody,” McKerman says. “And he is such a strong tough dog that he seems unaffected by all of these changes. He still thinks he ought to be allowed to run around and get into puppy trouble.”
In July, Dare got his implant, the only sign of which is a tiny titanium post sticking out of a fresh pink scar on the tip of the stump of his left foreleg. (When the leg was amputated, Dr. Taylor removed some older scar tissue from Dare’s left hind leg but otherwise left that leg alone. Dogs generally do fine on three legs, he says, and Dare should be perfectly mobile with his new front leg.)
“Dare is doing very well with his recovery,” says McKerman. “He was a little unsteady on his feet at first, because the leg with the implant was bandaged to his body and he’s used to moving it to keep his balance. But now that the bandages are off, he’s feeling much better.”
And as soon as he’s completely healed from the procedure, he’ll be fitted for his new leg. Unlike Triumph, who still had most of her legs and so could walk, right away, on simple rubber “feet” that fit directly onto her implants, Dare will need a longer, more elaborate prosthetic leg. He’ll also need lots of strengthening and physical therapy to get his shoulder ready to carry him again. “It's been a long road for our little man,” says McKerman, “but he’s almost there.”
Dr. Taylor and Alameda East have assumed much of the cost of the implanted prosthesis procedures performed so far—an average of $20,000 per dog—and have several more dogs in line to receive permanent prosthetic legs. To cover the cost of those procedures, they’ll be looking to private donors and organizations like Colorado's Helping Hands Foundation, a national charity founded by the hospital to serve as a last resort for pet owners facing emergency or specialist treatment they can’t afford. For more information or to make a donation, please visit www.chhf.org.
Every pet owner is used to some basic chores: feeding, walking, scooping the poop. But visit any pet store and you’ll see signs of a new must-do: There on the shelves are little toothbrushes for your dog or cat, along with toothpaste in flavors only a pet could love. Which raises the question: Are you kidding?
You may have enough trouble finding time to brush your own teeth, but vets are serious about the importance of oral hygiene. Talk about deadly dog breath: Your pet can get gum disease just like you can—and if the bacteria at fault get into his bloodstream, his organs may even be damaged. “Brushing really is the best way to keep a dog’s or cat’s mouth healthy,” says Greg Hammer, DVM, president of the American Veterinary Medical Association. “But most owners don’t do it.”
It’s not that hard to keep your pet out of the periodontist’s office. Special food and a few choice toys can help, especially if coupled with regular checkups that include an inspection of his mouth. Here, a no-fuss guide to keeping your canine’s canines gleaming (and your cat’s, too).
Serve tooth-friendly food
Dole out chews that fight plaque
Spike their food and water
Want to Brush? Here's How:
You can train any dog to run at your side, but unless you do nothing but run (or plan to deposit Rover in a kennel during all his non-running hours), you ought to consider more than your mileage when choosing your dog. “Look at your lifestyle,” says Matthew Margolis, an animal behaviorist and author of several books on dog training (he’s the famous “Uncle Matty” from the PBS TV series Woof! It’s a Dog’s Life). “There’s no one best breed to run with, so your best bet is to consider what the dog was bred to do and then decide if that fits into your plans.”
For example, many hunting breeds (Pointers, Weimaraners) are very active; they were bred to search for birds for hours on end, often at a jog or run. Likewise, herding breeds (Australian and German Shepherds, Border Collies) dash after sheep for hours on end. Terriers, which were bred to hunt burrowing animals, are also tireless, as are working dogs like Huskies. Some scent hounds (like Beagles) and sight hounds (Greyhounds, Whippets) are also high-energy, using their noses or eyes to track other animals. Not the best choice: Breeds with short legs and/or heavy bodies, like Corgis or Basset Hounds, or flat-faced dogs like Boxers or Pugs, which can have trouble breathing.
But there’s also temperament to consider: Terriers can be scrappy, for example—the traits that make them fearless in the face of an angry badger can make them stubborn. Scent hounds can be obsessive about sniffing (not an asset while running), and sight hounds often bolt after anything that catches their eye (they’re also sprinters, better suited to short distances). And a sled dog is genetically programmed to pull, whether it’s fully loaded sled or you at the end of the lead. Of course, any dog can be trained to trot beside you, but you’ll make the whole exercise easier on yourself (and the dog) if you think about the dog’s heritage first.
can make great running buddies, if they don't cut you off or stop
to sniff every tree trunk. Jay Livingston, a Boston-area dog behaviorist,
offers these tips for training your four-legged running
Make sure your dog is up to the challenge. Spot should be at
least a year old and have an enthusiastic go-ahead from your veterinarian before you start your running program.
To train Spot NOT to trip you, give your dog a good
shove with your leg if he or she cuts in front of you. If Spot tries
pull ahead or lead you in the wrong direction (or stops to sniff), correct
your dog with a
quick snap on the leash.
Use a leather leash. It's easier to hold and doesn't tear up your hands
like nylon. Once your dog learns to run without pulling, try a hands-free
leash that you wear on your waist, such as the Buddy System ($20; call
Start out running on grass so your dog's paws have a chance to toughen
up. For snowy or icy conditions, apply Vaseline to your dog's paws to protect
them from salt. Or buy Spot some special booties: Ruff Wear makes rip-stop
nylon models ($34; call 888-783-3932).
Don't forget the H2O. On long
runs your dog needs water as much as you do. Carry
one in advance along your route or run by a stream.
heavy-coated breeds are especially vulnerable to overheating
and dehydration. Offer water frequently and watch for signs of trouble:
a tongue that starts
to dry out, excessive panting or slowing down. On very
hot days, soak your dog with a garden hose after your run.
If you're running in the dark, fit your dog with reflective apparel. GlowDog
makes illumiNiTE collars, leashes, jackets and bandannas ($12 and up; call
Bring extra plastic bags. Running can speed up nature’s call—for both of you. Your normally one-stop-per-outing dog might surprise you with two or three stops and you’ll want to dispose of the stuff as easily as possible.