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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Animal Tumors

Air Date: Week of

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Cats and dogs share our environment and its effects on our health. Researchers at Cornell University are compiling a database of pet cancers in two New York counties. They hope to focus in on environmental influences on the disease. Host Diane Toomey talks with veterinary professor Rodney Page who is leading the project.


TOOMEY: When it comes to advances in human medicine, we owe a lot to animals. Most of our drugs and surgical procedures were first tested on laboratory animals. Now, a new medical study seeks to benefit both people and pets.

Researchers at Cornell School of Veterinary Medicine are beginning to compile a pet tumor registry. Their goal is to determine if environmental factors influence the development of cancer in both animals and humans.

Researchers are focusing on two areas in New York State: Tompkins County, where Cornell is located, and Nassau County on Long Island, where breast cancer rates have been of concern for a number of years. Cornell Veterinary Professor Rodney Page is heading up the study. Dr. Page, why look to cats and dogs for clues about the causes of human cancer?

PAGE: Well, they are animals that share our environment and, as such, are exposed to the same sorts of potential problems that we are also exposed to. But in some cases, they’re even more highly exposed because they don’t wear protective clothing. They are not prone to drinking bottled water, and things like that, although I know some dogs that do.

TOOMEY: My cats get filtered water, actually.

PAGE: But, for the majority of pets, they’re out there in the environment, very intimately rolling on the grass, or drinking things that we’d rather not know about. Or, because they end up licking themselves to groom, they may be exposed at higher levels than humans actually are. And, as such, they might actually be a little bit more influenced, in regard to development of cancer.

Also, pets are useful because they do not usually engage in real risky lifestyle behaviors, such as smoking and excessive eating or alcohol consumption. And that really can create some confounding problems when it comes to assessing what the true cause of cancer might be in human studies.

TOOMEY: Dogs and cats may not smoke. But still, there are confounding factors in animal cancer. Its owner may smoke, for instance. And there are other issues such as whether the cat goes outside, or whether an animal has been spayed or neutered, or even what chemicals are used in the house. So, how will this study take those variables into account?

PAGE: Well, it is true that secondhand smoke has been shown to be an influence in the development of respiratory problems in dogs and cats. And those will be accounted for through survey evaluations of the owner’s household, the other issues related to movement of the pet indoors or outdoors, what type of environment they live in. Even, as you mentioned, the indoor potential for contamination or exposure to potential pollutants is strong. So, those are all sorts of issues that both species of animals have to deal with, both humans and companion animals.

TOOMEY: What kind of environmental contaminants are you concerned about in the study? What could be the possible culprits?

PAGE: Well, the types of things that we’re most often looking at, in terms of exposures that develop cancers, are things like pesticides or insecticides, airborne pollutants. Sometimes, heavy metals are associated with increased risk of cancer development. So, there’s a wide range of chemicals that, some of them, we are more clear about in terms of their potential cause of cancer. And some of them are not really known well or characterized well. But the list of suspects is quite long.

TOOMEY: Doctor, how will you be able to tell if this study is successful?

PAGE: Well, in the Long Island area, there are sections that are known to have an increased risk of breast cancer, for instance, or prostate cancer, or lung cancer. And, if we are able to show that in the same region, the incidence of comparable cancers in pets seems to be increased relative to other areas where we know that both species might have reduced cancer rates, I think it would go a long way to validate the concept that our pets can help us in more ways than we think.

TOOMEY: The converse might be true. There may not be an environmental link.

PAGE: True.

TOOMEY: And, this study may confirm that as well.

PAGE: Yeah, you’re absolutely right. It could be that although we suspect that the increase in breast cancer risk in people might be due to a particular environmental cause, proving that is very difficult. And, it’s hopeful that this will add some power in either direction to making those conclusions more strong.

TOOMEY: Dr. Rodney Page is a professor at Cornell’s College of Veterinary Medicine and directs the Comparative Cancer Program there. Doctor, thanks so much.

PAGE: Thank you.




Cornell University Program on Breast Cancer and Environmental Risk Factors">


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