Osteosarcoma is typically a very aggressive bone cancer that starts in a leg bone and quickly spreads to the lungs. Early detection and treatment can add years to a pet’s life.

Canine osteosarcoma is the most commonly diagnosed bone cancer, and is often very aggressive in spreading to the lungs and other areas. Once the tumor metastasizes, dogs only live, on average, a couple of months, even with chemotherapy.

The best case scenario for saving a pet with osteosarcoma is to catch it early, before it spreads, and remove the tumor. This can add years to a dog’s life.

The current method of diagnosing canine osteosarcoma is done with a CT scan, followed by a biopsy to determine if the tumor is benign or malignant, a procedure that is invasive and costly.

Dr. Shay Bracha, a canine oncologist at the OSU Veterinary Teaching Hospital (VTH), is working on a less invasive, more effective screening for osteosarcoma.

Cancer spreads by compromising the immune system. Dr. Bracha’s research team has been investigating the role of exosomes in immunosuppression. Exosomes are tiny structures made in the body’s cells that are thought to be involved in signaling between cells.

The Bracha team exposed healthy T-cells to exosomes from malignant cancer cells and examined the impact. They found that malignant exosomes negatively inhibited the function of healthy cells, and caused early die-off and reduced normal cell increase.

Most importantly, the study also found that malignant exosomes, compared to healthy cell exosomes, have a high concentration of unique proteins. This opened the door for Bracha to develop a potential diagnostic tool. His team is now focused on using malignant exosomes as a biological marker to screen for canine osteosarcoma with a simple blood test. The hope is that this could lead to routine screening by primary care veterinarians that would reveal the presence of osteosarcoma early enough to remove the tumor before it spreads.

The oncology service at the VTH is a member of the Comparative Oncology Trials Consortium which is organized by the National Cancer Institute. This allows pet owners the option of choosing cutting-edge treatment while helping to gather important data on cancer treatment that may benefit both animals and human.

The VTH oncology service is currently enrolling patients in six clinical trials. The hospital also enrolls pets in clinical trials in cardiology, radiology, and other areas of veterinary medicine. To learn more, visit vetmed.oregonstate.edu/clinical-trials.

Joan and Terry Ferguson have a small desk in the waiting room of the Small Animal Hospital at OSU, but they don’t spend much time sitting there. Terry can often be found out in the parking lot, rain or shine, handing out parking passes and helping clients unload a sick pet. Joan dispenses dog biscuits and tips on where to eat, but more importantly, spends a lot of time sitting with clients, providing company during a long wait, or listening with a sympathetic ear; that is especially helpful when a pet is seriously ill or injured and a client is upset.

“I enjoy visiting with people,” says Joan. “I just ask, ‘What are you here for?’ and that’s all it takes . . . they let it all out. Then they say, ‘Thank you so much for listening, it really helped.’”

The Fergusons drive for more than an hour every week to volunteer at the hospital. “We are so lucky to have them,” says Client Advocate, Tammy Barr, who supervises seven hospital volunteers and manages the Grateful Client Program. The program was organized after many former clients expressed a desire to give back in return for the excellent care their pet received at the hospital.

Former clients contribute in many ways to the success of the hospital, from buying pizza for the students working overnight in the large animal hospital, to sewing blankets for ICU, to purchasing a much-needed piece of equipment, but the hospital volunteers form the heart of the program.

Like the other volunteers, Janet and Dave Perry were introduced to the VTH when they brought their dog, Connor, in for a check up. On the day of their appointment, they were met in the lobby by Joan and Terry Ferguson. “They were both so kind and chatted with us while we waited with Connor,” says Dave Perry. “Janet and I decided that if the program needed more volunteers, we should try it. We were looking for something we could do as a team . . . and we have a soft spot for animals so we felt it would be a good fit for us.”

The Client Advocate position and the Grateful Client Program have been so successful at OSU, other colleges have contacted Barr about duplicating it in their hospitals, and the OSU Large Animal Hospital recently added a Client Advocate as well. Grateful clients, Caroline Ajootian and Joan Campf, support both positions.

“Janet and I receive satisfaction in trying to make the hospital visit, for both animals and their caregivers, as easy as possible,” says Dave Perry.

Barr adds: “I try to listen and be a friend. I really care about the clients and their pets.”

Dogs bring us a great bounty of love, enthusiasm, loyalty, and laughter. Really, their only fault is that they die too soon. Like many of us, Nancy Wolske knows how tough that is.

Nancy’s dog Schooner was not just her furry child, but also a contributing member of the community. First as a guide dog, then after retirement as a Guide Dog Ambassador helping to promote the service dog mission. Schooner was also a therapy dog for Dove Lewis hospitals.

When lung cancer took Schooner at eight years old, Nancy was devastated. Soon after, her sister-in-law asked her to adopt a 3-month-old Red Setter puppy named Cara, but she was reluctant. “My mother-in-law rescued the mom, and my sister-in-law had the other puppy,” says Nancy, who finally agreed to foster the puppy for the weekend. “She arrived in our home while our hearts ached terribly, but it didn’t take but a few hours to find laughter through the tears.” The Wolke’s fell in love and wound up adopting Cara. “It was one of the best decisions, ever,” says Nancy.

Cara is now nine-years-old and Nancy describes her as “our child”. She is a very smart dog and Nancy has taught her many hand signals. She also knows all the individuals in her stuffed animal zoo, and will retrieve them by name as requested. When asked to ‘do the dishes’, Cara picks up a spoon or small dish and carries it into the kitchen. “She is very proud of this ability,” says Nancy.

Last fall, Nancy found a lump on Cara’s neck. She immediately took her to Dr. Beth Nguyen at Woodburn Pet Hospital, who ordered a needle sample; the test result indicated thyroid cancer. She referred them to the Lois Bates Acheson Veterinary Teaching Hospital (VTH) at OSU.

At the VTH, an oncology team examined Cara and ordered a CT scan which confirmed the mass on her thyroid gland. Surgery was recommended, however a blood test revealed Cara had an abnormally low platelet count. The oncology team consulted with the internal medicine team who diagnosed immune-mediated thrombocytopenia (IMTP), an auto-immune disease that attacks platelets in the blood stream and can slow blood clotting.  Unfortunately, Cara could not undergo surgery in that condition.

The internal medicine team prescribed a drug treatment plan to bring Cara’s platelet count up, and Nancy took her home. “It was very stressful to think about the cancer growing while we waited for the treatment to work,” she says. “The communication between Dr. Nguyen and OSU was frequent and timely. I cannot emphasize enough how important, and good, this component was.”

Finally, Cara was able to have the tumor removed. The surgery went well with no sign that the cancer had spread. “We were very fortunate and able to take her home earlier than expected,” says Nancy.

Cara is now six months post-surgery and back to her old self, with a good prognosis for a normal lifespan. “She is likely to do very well,” says OSU oncologist Dr. Katie Curran. “The average survival for dogs with this type of cancer, when surgery is possible, is between 2-3 years from diagnosis.” Dr. Curran adds: “It was important that Cara was brought to her veterinarian when the mass was first noted.  This allowed us to initiate treatment for Cara as soon as possible.”

Nancy is now an enthusiastic ambassador for the OSU Veterinary Teaching Hospital. “We are so grateful for the entire team there at OSU, from the amazing volunteers, the reception staff, the Saturday staff — every person there went above and beyond for us.  It genuinely eased our worries from the first moment we arrived.”

Catching cancer early is often key to a good outcome. In addition to regular veterinary check-ups, pet owners should stay aware of their dog’s condition, and keep an eye out for lumps or other changes. For more information on signs of cancer in dogs, visit http://vetspecialists.com/category/oncology/.