A pet health legacy

Rosie, a mini goldendoodle owned by the Holzman family — Jeff, Carissa, Jack & Beckett. Photo: Christina Weese.

In 1978, WCVM Dean Ole Nielsen and a group of faculty members met with pet owners to discuss creating a specific research fund supporting pet health research at the college.

There was a need for money to answer important questions about companion animal health, and they saw opportunity in creating the Companion Animal Health Fund (CAHF).

“Access to U.S.-based funding like the Morris Animal Foundation had always been difficult for Canadian researchers while local funds … typically could not provide enough funding for our needs. The CAHF was the solution to this problem,” says Dr. John Pharr, one of the fund’s founders.

Pharr received the CAHF’s first grant – a modest $302. It allowed him to travel to Yellowknife, N.W.T., to take X-rays of more than 50 semi-feral Eskimo dogs – a nearly extinct breed – and screen them for hip dysplasia. This small group of animals became the foundation stock for a reestablished breed.

The fund’s early goal was to raise $25,000 per year within five years. Now, the fund supports tens of thousands of dollars of research each year. In 2018-19, seven WCVM research teams and two graduate students received more than $84,000 from the CAHF toward research studies and the fund’s longstanding research fellowship program.

Throughout its 40-year history, the CAHF has sponsored companion animal health research and encouraged veterinarians to specialize in small animal health. Thanks to donor generosity, WCVM researchers have conducted hundreds of research studies while dozens of veterinary specialists and graduate students have received support for their training and research.

From the beginning, CAHF’s family of donors has included pet owners, kennel clubs and veterinary clinics across Western Canada. As part of the CAHF pet memorial donation program, veterinary practices donate on behalf of their deceased patients and clients. 

“Clients and veterinarians are contributing to it [the CAHF]. They see the need for research that answers important clinical questions that benefit pet animals. It’s showing that vets believe in it and contribute to it and clients do as well,” says Dr. Cindy Shmon, head of WCVM’s Department of Small Animal Clinical Sciences.  

Most recently, the CAHF received more than $800,000 from the estate of Dr. Michael Powell, a former WCVM clinical intern and a small animal veterinarian. The substantial size of Powell’s legacy gift has ensured the fund’s continued operations.

Funding the next generation

As a board-certified veterinary surgeon, Shmon has seen the CAHF’s first-hand impact on the college’s residents since she joined the WCVM in 1988. Without the fund’s support, residents wouldn’t be able to achieve their board certification since research projects are an essential component of the specialty training process.

“I would say it’s [the CAHF] critically important,” says Shmon.

The college’s pet health fund allows graduate students and residents to dive into research that they wouldn’t otherwise be able to do, adds Dr. Monique Mayer, a WCVM veterinary radiation oncologist.

“I think it’s an excellent system. It also supports a lot of our graduate students. As clinicians, we don’t have big labs with lots of funding for our master’s students,” says Mayer. “It gives them an opportunity to see that research can be a lot of fun. It’s not just all lab work: it’s actually working with our patients to give us information that will change how we treat them for the better.”

Dr. Sue Taylor, a professor emerita of the WCVM Department of Small Animal Clinical Sciences, says the CAHF provided some type of financial support for every single graduate student who worked with her from 1986 until her retirement in 2018.

“Having funding available for these students was very important for their programs as it allowed them to learn to design research projects, write grant proposals, obtain funding, complete their research and submit their research results for publication within the short, three-year timeline of their program,” she says. “Many went on to academic careers where research would play an important role.”

Part of the bigger picture

In addition to its importance as an in-house funding source for graduate student and resident research, the Companion Animal Health Fund provides support for longstanding research programs established by WCVM faculty.

One of the projects Taylor worked on with Shmon included developing a better understanding of exercise-induced collapse (EIC) in Labrador retrievers, and then later, a similar disease in border collies. Their team’s work with Labradors eventually led to the development of a pre-breeding genetic test that’s now routinely used by veterinarians around the world. 

While the fund supports the essential matters of meeting requirements for tenure and promotion, it’s about more than that, says Dr. Elisabeth Snead, the WCVM’s associate dean of research and graduate studies and a specialist in small animal internal medicine.

“It’s really that thirst for knowledge and that thirst for making a contribution,” she says.

Looking at the CAHF projects funded year after year across the specialties, it’s easy to track a steady progression in the pursuit of knowledge, building on information gained through previous CAHF-funded projects. While collaboration between animal and human medical research has occurred since the fund’s inception, the number and frequency of these One Health collaborations is on the rise.

Snead points to the antimicrobial surveillance work done by veterinary microbiologist Dr. Joe Rubin as just one example of research that provides vital knowledge to small animal veterinarians.

The results of CAHF-funded research have also helped to substantially improve treatment options available for small animal veterinarians, and that legacy is expected to continue.

“There is a sense of comfort knowing it’s there and that we have a good chance of being funded if our ideas are sound,” says Dr. Tanya Duke, a board-certified anesthesiologist and a WCVM professor. Throughout her research career, Duke has received CAHF funding to explore pain management methods and anesthesia techniques, including continued exploration of providing epidural pain relief to pets.

“I am very grateful for its support. Let it still be around for the next 40 years and beyond,” she says.


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