Saving Pets, Saving People: Dogs Defeating Breast Cancer

FRESNO, Calif.

A one-of-its-kind program at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine is matching sick shelter dogs with willing owners and advancing our knowledge of human breast cancer at the same time.

When Millie Edmonds wanted to adopt last year, she scoured the Internet looking for dogs that needed a good home.

That's when she found Cali. Cali was rescued from a puppy mill. She spent her first year locked with other dogs in a wire cage.

"Their feet spread. They looked like web feet. Now, she's got little paws," Edmonds told Ivanhoe.

For Edmonds, it was love at first sight, even after she got sobering news -- Cali had 12 tumors in her mammary glands. You could say the two were destined to be together. Edmonds is a two-time cancer survivor.

"Dogs with mammary gland tumors who live in shelters really belong to the most vulnerable population," Dr. Karin Sorenmo, an oncologist at the University of Pennsylvania Veterinary School of Medicine, told Ivanhoe.

Tumor-ridden dogs have usually not been spayed or neutered. They're older, expensive to treat, and much harder to find homes for.

"It's very difficult. People think, 'Oh, my gosh. A mammary tumor. Cancer. The dog's going to die in a few months,'" Lori McCutcheon, of Last Chance Ranch Animal Rescue, told Ivanhoe.

But like breast cancer in women, early detection can save a dog's life. Turns out, that's not the only similarity. Last year, Dr. Sorenmo created the Shelter Canine Mammary Tumor Program. She and her veterinary students provide free care to shelter dogs with tumors. They collect the canine tissue samples for scientists to compare with human ones

"Some of the preliminary studies show that yes, it's actually very similar at the genetic molecular level," Dr. Sorenmo told Ivanhoe.

Unlike humans, dogs have five pairs of mammary glands. Most dogs that have tumors in one gland will develop others. Researchers can study the tumors in all stages of development.

"So, if we can figure out what happens when a tumor becomes malignant, what are the most important genetic alterations, maybe there will be a target that can be drugged," Dr. Sorenmo said.

That could potentially stop the spread of the cancer cells.

Edmonds says Cali is part of the family -- a family with a history of cancer that she hopes will stop before her granddaughters come of age.

The dogs used in the trial all came from shelters at one point or another. Only 10-percent of animals received in shelters have been spayed or neutered. Dogs that are not spayed are at least four-times more likely to get mammary tumors. A female dog spayed before she comes into her first heat cycle has only a .5 percent chance of developing one.

If this story or any other Ivanhoe story has impacted your life or prompted you or someone you know to seek or change treatments, please let us know by contacting Marsha Hitchcock at

Kelly Stratton
Director of Communication, University of Pennsylvania
(215) 898-1475

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