Veterinary Clinical Trials Explained

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.

Might a clinical trial be right for your pet?
Here are few reasons why you might consider enrolling your pet in a clinical trial:

  • Your pet has a disease with no proven treatment and the clinical trial offers something that may be effective. DM (see information above) is an example of such a disease.
  • Your pet has a disease, but is not a good candidate for the treatment usually prescribed. For example, amputation of the affected limb is commonly prescribed for dogs with osteosarcoma, a form of bone cancer. Asked to use three legs rather than four would cause some dogs to flounder, particularly those with orthopedic issues affecting their other legs. A clinical trial at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine offers an alternative. There, osteosarcoma patients (with or without amputation) are treated with “immunotherapy” in which the patient’s own immune system is triggered to target and kill the cancer cells.  
  • You are motivated to treat your pet’s disease, but your finances dictate otherwise. A clinical trial may be able to provide help, both therapeutically and financially.
  • Your pet’s personality is well suited to the rigors of the clinical trial which will likely involve lots of “hands on” time with veterinary professionals and many trips to and from the veterinary hospital.

Finding a clinical trial
Here are some helpful hints for locating a clinical trial that is close to home and/or pertains to a particular disease:

  • Most clinical trials are conducted at university veterinary teaching hospitals. If you want to know which trials are happening at the veterinary school closest to you, call the school’s veterinary hospital or Google “clinical trial” along with the name of the veterinary school. For example, if I lived in upstate New York, I would Google “clinical trials Cornell Veterinary School.” When I do so, the option that appears third from the top on my browser is a website that takes me to all of the school’s current clinical trials for dogs and cats. Way to go Cornell, my alma mater!
  • Some clinical trials are conducted in privately owned veterinary specialty hospitals. If interested in a particular hospital, I encourage you to call a knowledgeable staff person to learn about the clinical trials happening there.

If researching online for a clinical trial pertaining to a particular disease, Google the following three things in conjunction with one another:

  • “Clinical trial”
  • Species of animal  
  • Name of disease

For example, when I Google, “clinical trial feline lymphoma” I find a clinical trial for treatment of feline lymphoma at the University of Tennessee Veterinary Medical Center.

Listed below are some organizations that can help guide your search for veterinary clinical trials:

Would you ever consider enrolling your pet in a clinical trial?

If you have any questions or concerns, you should always visit or call your veterinarian -- they are your best resource to ensure the health and well-being of your pets.

Reviewed on: 
Friday, January 23, 2015