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Veterinary Clinical Trials Explained

Posted January 23, 2015 in Dog Diseases & Conditions A-Z

Cat being examined

How I love my readers! I learn so much from them, and they are a constant source of fresh ideas for me. I recently published a blog post about Degenerative Myelopathy, a debilitating spinal cord disease in dogs. One of my readers named Linda has lots of experience with Degenerative Myelopathy. That’s because she’s been involved in Corgi rescue for more than 35 years, a breed particularly predisposed to this disease.

Linda turned me on to a clinical trial just getting started at the University of Missouri, College of Veterinary Medicine. This trial is soliciting dogs with Degenerative Myelopathy for purposes of testing a new drug that may be an effective treatment for this terminal disease. The same drug is also being tested to treat the parallel disease in humans called Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) or Lou Gehrig’s Disease. One of Linda’s dogs will be the first to receive this new medication. How cool is that!

What is a veterinary clinical trial?
Veterinary clinical trials are studies that investigate methods to improve the detection or treatment of animal illnesses. Many clinical trials enroll privately owned animals.

In some clinical trials a portion of the participants receive a placebo rather than the actual medication being tested. Such studies are “blinded,” meaning that no one directly involved in interpreting outcomes knows which animals are receiving the placebo and which ones are receiving the real McCoy.

Advantages of enrolling your pet in a clinical trial
Here are some reasons why enrolling a beloved pet in a clinical trial might make good sense:

  • The clinical trials offer hope in an otherwise hopeless situation. The clinical trial I mentioned above that is investigating a new treatment for DM is an example of this.
  • Expenses involved in monitoring the progress of an animal enrolled in a clinical trial are usually factored into the cost of the study. This means that services such as physical exams, blood testing and imaging studies are provided at no or very low charge. Even so, enrolled animals and their human companions are treated with the same compassion and expertise that are provided to paying customers. This situation may be appealing for people who have the desire to care for their pets in the best possible way, but also limited finances.
  • Clinical trials offer a means to acquire new knowledge that then has the potential to help many animals. This might be appealing to someone who has the desire to help more than their own pet.

The downside of clinical trials
Enrolling your four-legged family member in a clinical trial can feel like a risky proposition. After all, your pet will be subjected to something that has not been previously tested on oodles of other animals. Unanticipated complications can arise, which is one of the reasons animals involved in clinical trials are monitored so meticulously.

This being said, rest assured that clinical trials are a far cry from “experimenting on animals.” Most clinical trials involve a technique or medication with some sort of safety track record. Additionally, all clinical trials have an “out clause,” meaning the animal can be withdrawn from the study should anything go awry, whether stemming from the clinical trial itself or something completely unrelated.

Another downside to most clinical trials is the inconvenience factor. Multiple trips to and from the veterinary hospital are typically required, and rarely are they located close to home.

Things tend to move relatively slowly at university teaching hospitals (where most clinical trials are conducted), so something as simple as a blood test may be a half-day endeavor from start to finish. The flip side of the coin is that some clinical trials take place within privately-owned, specialty hospitals where things tend to proceed at a faster clip. Some clinical trials allow the convenience of having the family veterinarian participate in monitoring the patient.

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Nancy has more than 30 years of experience in the veterinary industry and is a board-certified veterinary specialist in internal medicine as well as a valued member of IDEXX’s Pet Health Network team since 2014.