Gimme Shelter!

Featured Blog by Denni O. Day

Everyone in Bart Harvey’s young family was distraught when Cisco, their 13- year-old Lab-Shepherd mix, was diagnosed with lymphosarcoma and died a few months later. Cisco had been Bart’s dog when he met his future wife, Jill, but he quickly became “our” dog, and then a guardian and playmate to Bart and Jill’s two daughters, Emily and Casey. After several lonely weeks without Cisco, Jill suggested adopting a new dog from the local shelter.

So, one Saturday, Bart, Jill, Emily, and Casey spent much of the morning on the floor of the shelter, playing with all of the dogs and trying to decide which one to adopt. Eventually, Bart and Jill noticed that one small puff of a dog kept jumping between Emily and Casey, making them laugh and squeal with delight. “Cotton” had chosen them.

After filling out all of the paperwork and making a donation to the shelter, Cotton and her new family drove off to meet Dr Chase, the veterinarian who always had cared for Cisco. “You got a good one,“ Dr Chase said after examining Cotton. “How old is she?” asked Emily. “I’m not quite sure, Dr Chase responded. “However, from her teeth, coat, eyes, and overall condition, I’d guess somewhere between six months and two years. In any case, you and Casey have a new friend for a long time!” Casey smiled at that thought and said, “Let’s make today Cotton’s birthday!”

As Bart checked out with the receptionist, Jill and Dr Chase reminisced about Cisco. Jill thanked Dr Chase for including Cisco in a clinical trial as a last-ditch effort to cure his cancer. The treatment had seemed to help Cisco for a while, and it certainly gave Emily and Casey a little more time with their beloved pet. “And I thank both of you for letting Cisco participate,” Dr Chase said, as he accompanied everyone to the door. “Clinical trials get us closer to a cure. And thank you as well for adopting Cotton from the shelter. You’ve given her another chance to live the life she deserves.”

According to the Humane Society of the United States1, animal shelters accept and care for between six and eight million new dogs and cats every year. Sadly, adoption efforts fail for nearly half of these animals and they are euthanized. The other three to four million are adopted or become permanent residents at no-kill shelters.

With such large populations of dogs and cats, ranging from young to old, healthy to afflicted, one wonders whether animal shelters are an untapped resource for pharmaceutical companies looking for study subjects for their clinical trials.

The study sponsors would benefit from more rapid enrollment. The animals would benefit from the regular exams and treatment. And the shelters would benefit through reduced treatment costs and owner honorariums. Win, win, win? In most cases, yes.

However, two potential obstacles do present in any study which requires that study subjects be within a specific age range or have a documented absence of prior conditions or treatments.

As you might expect, many shelter animals do not have a documented background. Some are unwanted pets or strays that have been “dropped off” at the shelter with little or nothing beyond the hair on their backs.

Others may have had multiple owners before coming to the shelter, and their information is usually incomplete. In either case, the animal’s date of birth is often unknown, as is most (if not all) of its medical history.

In situations where the study protocol requires a specific age range for safety evaluations, a shelter animal without a documented medical history would most likely be excluded from the study’s screening process. An estimation of age, based on an evaluation of teeth, eyes, and coat would not match the study’s protocol specifications.

However, if a study’s protocol does not specify an age range, or if a range is given only as a guide, then shelter animals could be potential study subjects. To be sure, all of the study’s other inclusion/ exclusion criteria would have to be satisfied, which could be a challenge when the animal’s full medical history is unavailable. In addition, the shelter’s management would have to consent to each animal’s study participation.

Clearly, there are many “ifs” to satisfy before shelter animals can be included in a clinical trial. However, in instances when those issues do meet the protocol’s requirements, shelter animals can provide a very humane boost to any study’s enrollment!

1 “Common Questions About Animal Shelters,” The Humane Society of the United States, 12/09/11.