Human Medicine is Going to the Dogs!

April 19, 2014

My alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine, is known for pioneering innovative medical and surgical techniques that benefit dogs, cats, horses and many other species. They are also known for medical breakthroughs that benefit humans! The physiologic similarities between dogs and humans are innumerable. One of my former oncology professors, Dr. Karin Sorenmo, was just featured in The New York Times for her research on mammary tumors in shelter dogs, and her findings are likely to benefit women battling breast cancer.

Many dog owners do not realize that there is a firmly established link between mammary tumor development and estrogen; estrogen levels are higher in unspayed dogs than spayed dogs. By spaying a dog early, before her first heat cycle, we can keep estrogen levels low to a point where mammary tumors can be prevented altogether. Dr. Sorenmo’s study utilizes shelter dogs because this population is often unspayed, or spayed later in life, and thus has a much higher incidence of mammary tumor development. Breast cancer in women is also estrogen-dependent; thus, understanding the mechanism for tumor development in canines will shed light on the disease process in humans.

One obvious difference between canine and human anatomy is that dogs have ten mammary glands (versus only two in humans); having five times the number of mammary glands provides that many more opportunities to learn from the dogs enrolled in Dr. Sorenmo’s study.

There are many compelling reasons to spay your dog: preventing pet overpopulation and unwanted pregnancies, eliminating the risk for pyometra (a life-threatening uterine infection) and preventing mammary cancer are just a few. In the Philadelphia area, pet owners are fortunate to have Penn Vet as a resource for Fluffy and Fido. Veterinarians are fortunate to have Penn Vet as a leading researcher in canine, feline and equine medicine. Women, and human oncologists, are now also fortunate to benefit from the amazing brains hard at work at my alma mater.