Dogs May Help Us Better Understand Breast Cancer

Photo: Jessica Kourkounis/NYT

Photo: Jessica Kourkounis/NYT

Answers to some of the most puzzling questions about breast cancer might walk on four legs.

Veterinary oncologists working with a program at the University of Pennsylvania are treating mammary tumors in shelter dogs with the hope of learning about the progression of breast cancer in humans.

Mammary tumors are extremely common in female dogs, just as breast cancer is highly common in women. Mammary tumors in dogs also mimics breast cancer in humans in that both are fueled by estrogen. Dogs that are spayed at a young age have a much lower risk of contracting mammary tumors. Dogs that are left unspayed have a one in four chance of developing these tumors. Other risk factors include the age and breed of the dog.

Interestingly, every type of cancer that develops in dogs are also found in humans, so studying and treating dogs with cancer gives oncologists the opportunity to treat the cancer and also find answers to questions about human cancers at the same time.

The veterinary oncologists studying these dogs ultimately hope to be able to better understand, diagnose, and treat cancer in humans. By studying the progression and the various stages of tumors in dogs, doctors may be able to determine how to stop tumors from growing and spreading.

The other bright side to the program is the effect that it's having on the dogs. More than 100 homeless dogs have received free cancer treatment, and are now more appealing to potential adopters. Some of the dogs have even been adopted by cancer survivors.

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