When a valve defect caused the heart of Bowie, a 4-month-old Vizsla, to fail, his future looked bleak. But then, Dr. Theresa W. Fossum, a professor of small animal medicine and the Tom and Joan Read Chair in Veterinary Surgery at Texas A&M University, stepped in and performed open-heart bypass surgery on Bowie.
The technique Dr. Fossum used on Bowie was developed through animal research and then applied to humans. It has since come full circle, as Dr. Fossum and other researchers work with physicians to learn heart surgery techniques and treatments they can use to help dogs.
"It's kind of the next frontier (for veterinary medicine)," said Dr. Fossum, who is the official spokeswoman for the Foundation for Biomedical Research's Survivors campaign, which promotes animal research for the sake of animals. Dr. Fossum, who also serves on the FBR board of governors, has seen firsthand how animal research can help animals such as Bowie, and she's working to get that message out to the public and to other veterinarians.
Getting the message out
The FBR, an organization that promotes public support for the humane and responsible use of animals in medical and scientific research, launched the Survivors campaign on Valentine's Day 2003. Campaign posters, public service announcements, and postcards feature animals that have survived diseases such as diabetes, cancer, heart disease, and kidney disease with the help of medical procedures developed through animal research. The campaign's Web site, www.researchfacts.org, presents fact sheets on pet ownership and biomedical research, ways to donate to the campaign, free screensaver downloads, and other campaign materials.
The idea for the campaign came from public opinion surveys conducted by the FBR that found people were more likely to support biomedical research on animals, if it helped animals.
"We live in an urbanized society, so our relationship with animals is largely our relationship with our pets," said Frankie L. Trull, the president of FBR. "When our pets, who we view as members of our family, get sick, we become reliant on veterinary medicine to provide very sophisticated treatments, like they do on people."
Despite this desire for advanced medical treatments for pets, not all owners are as savvy about the role animal research plays in developing new medical techniques and treatments as Bowie's owner, Lu Hart.
Hart, a dog breeder and regional Vizsla rescue organizer, said she agreed to the experimental surgery, knowing that there was a small chance he'd survive, but believing that even if the procedure could not save him, it would contribute to scientific knowledge and maybe help some human or animal in the future.
Even some veterinarians have told Dr. Fossum they don't often think about the role animal research has played in developing the treatments they use every day.
Dr. B. Taylor Bennett, the president of the American Society of Laboratory Animal Practitioners and chairman of the board of the National Association for Biomedical Research—the sister organization of the FBR—said that some veterinarians shy away from the issue of animal research to avoid confrontations with the animal rights movement.
"There are veterinarians who recognize the importance of animal research to improving their practice," Dr. Bennett said. "There are other veterinarians who would like to avoid it altogether."
Dr. Bennett said the animal rights movement is increasing the costs of doing biomedical research and that if the trend continues, veterinary medicine will suffer.
"The more costly it gets to do research, the less that goes from lab bench to bedside, and even less spins off to animals," he said. "I think the Survivors campaign will help."
Dr. Fossum said she's had a mostly positive response from people who she's spoken to about the campaign. "I think it helps that people understand I'm a veterinarian and I'm trying to help save animal lives, and that research is a part of that."
Though Trull and Dr. Fossum said, overall, the campaign has been well-received, there has been some backlash from animal rights groups.
The Humane Society of the United States posted a press release on its Web site that attacks the campaign, saying that most animal research is directed at helping humans and disputing some Department of Agriculture statistics cited in the campaign about pain and distress among research animals. A few shopping malls have refused to post the campaign's posters, fearing protests from animal rights activists. The posters have appeared in at least 27 shopping centers in nine states.
According to Trull, the biggest hurdle for the campaign has been financial. So far, the campaign hasn't reached as large an audience as the foundation would like because it has not been able to afford paid advertising.
The foundation has sought support from a variety of animal health organizations and companies. Some have pledged financial support; others have issued letters of support.
The AVMA sent a letter of support to the foundation, at the recommendation of the AVMA Council on Research. The council has also requested that the AVMA Council on Public Relations, Animal Welfare Committee, and Legislative Advisory Committee review the Survivors campaign to advise whether the AVMA should partner with the FBR on future phases of the campaign.
Dr. Bennett said ASLAP supports the campaign and that he is personally urging ASLAP members to contribute funds to the campaign.
Additionally, the foundation is urging veterinarians and other individuals to share their ideas and suggestions on how the campaign can be improved.
Meanwhile, Bowie is now an active 2-year-old who recently won first place in a hunting field trial. He also is in training to be a therapy dog for children with heart problems.
"We're just very excited at how well he's doing," Hart said.