COLLEGE STATION, Texas—At long last, veterinary researchers are setting out to tackle one of the least pleasant aspects of pet ownership: digestive disorders.
Alarmed that millions of dogs and cats around the world may be suffering from gastrointestinal ailments that aren't properly diagnosed and treated, the veterinary school at Texas A&M University here is ramping up a fundraising campaign to establish the world's first Institute of Companion Animal Gastroenterology.
Officials hope to collect at least $10 million to endow several research chairs and expand the operations of the university's 10-year-old Gastrointestinal Laboratory, which is already the largest lab of its kind devoted exclusively to the notoriously fickle stomachs of dogs and cats.
"Our goal is to provide affordable tests and treatments so no more owners decide to toss a dog by the side of the road because they are tired of diarrhea on the carpet every day," said Dr. Joerg Steiner, the director of the gastrointestinal lab. "I have a list right here of 80 things we truly need to explore, if only we had the money to do it."
Liver disease, colitis, irritable bowel syndrome -- dogs and cats are as susceptible to these and other gastric illnesses as their human owners.
Pet gastroenterologists few
But while there are nearly 12,000 gastroenterologists in the U.S. caring for humans, according the American Medical Association, there are just 150 animal gastroenterologists practicing worldwide, Steiner said. And only 20 of them engage in research.
"Unfortunately, there is little government funding available to study diseases in dogs and cats," the Texas A&M Web site explains. "While millions of dollars are spent every year to improve the gastrointestinal health of humans, our furry companions are left behind! This is why we are embarking on a major development campaign."
Clearly there is money out there that could balance the scales somewhat. Just a few floors above Steiner's basement lab is Texas A&M's nationally renowned small animal hospital, where the parking lot is filled with the luxury sedans and sports cars of well-heeled pet owners and the tab for treating Tabby's pancreatitis can run $600 a day. An extended stay at the hospital under the care of its specialists can cost $12,000 or more.
But Steiner says his dilemma is that gastrointestinal diseases, involving as they do some of the least appealing functions of an animal's digestive tract, just aren't as sexy to potential donors as, say, cancer.
"They've got a new animal cancer clinic at Colorado State named for some donors," Steiner said. "North Carolina State and Tufts, they've got new vet schools. But for GI diseases, you really have to make the case."
The Texas A&M lab has lined up two celebrity spokesmen so far. Country singer Lyle Lovett appears on the GI lab's Web site, and movie director Wolfgang Petersen is featured in a recent magazine appeal. When Petersen's cat, Ponki, developed chronic pancreatitis, a test developed by the GI lab helped a vet treat the problem.
But the donations have been slow in coming: Less than $40,000 has been contributed since the fundraising campaign began last May. What Steiner really needs is for some of the megawatt Hollywood stars and famous politicians whose pets' ailments have been diagnosed by the GI lab to step forward and lend their names to the cause of ending dog vomit and cat diarrhea.
So far, Steiner laments, those major celebrities have insisted on remaining anonymous.
Several tests invented
In the meantime, the lab is carrying on with its work in a warren of cramped rooms and narrow hallways lined with huge freezers that contain tens of thousands of blood and fecal samples from dyspeptic dogs and cats.
The lab has invented more than a dozen diagnostic tests for various intestinal diseases, and each week it processes about 1,400 new samples sent in by perplexed veterinarians around the world.
As in human biomedical research, some of those tests were developed using laboratory rabbits, which did not survive the process, Steiner conceded. But if that seems like sacrificing one furry household pet to benefit another, well, Steiner said, it was for a higher cause.
"For a test that can help millions of dogs and cats, a total of five rabbits had to die," he said. "So there's really no comparison."
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Current research at the Gastrointestinal Laboratory at Texas A&M University:
*What effects do pre- and pro-biotic agents have in the treatment of kittens and puppies with idiopathic chronic diarrhea?
*How prevalent is gastrointestinal disease among Norwegian lundehunds?
*Does a low-fat diet in conjunction with a nutritional supplement reduce the severity of chronic pancreatitis in miniature schnauzers?
*Why is cobalamin (vitamin B-12) deficiency frequent and severe in Chinese Shar-Pei dogs?