Cancer is not a new disease. In fact, cancer in animals has been around since the era of the dinosaurs. Using a portable X-ray machine, Bruce Rothschild of the Northeastern Ohio Universities College of Medicine scanned 10,000 dinosaur vertebrae from more than 700 museum specimens and found evidence of cancer in duck-billed dinosaurs that roamed the earth seven million years ago.1

Ancient civilizations, dating back thousands of years, identified and documented cancer in both people and animals, including written recognition of cancer in animals in Egypt in 1600 B.C. In 400 B.C., Hippocrates, the father of medicine, applied the term karkinos, meaning crab, to describe tumors and is the origin of the word cancer.2

Since the earliest days, discoveries in veterinary oncology have generally paralleled human findings. A major breakthrough in cancer study came with the development of the microscope in 1590. Using this tool, pathologists could describe specific cancers and start to document relative frequencies. Even then, progress in treating cancer remained slow.

Evolution of Treatment Options

Surgery, the earliest and still most common treatment, dates back to ancient periods. For hundreds of year, practitioners understood that cancer would generally return after surgery and had to outweigh the risks, including bleeding and infection, over the benefits. The discovery of anesthesia in 1846 propelled surgery in the modern times.3

The next treatment to emerge was radiation. A German physician and veterinarian named Richard Eberlein, was likely the first to use radiation to treat animals and reported his results in 1906.4Advances in treating both people and animals were slow for more than twenty years. With funding from the Rockefeller Foundation in 1927, Alois Pommer of the Vienna Veterinary High School, began an extensive study of radiation therapy in animals which led to a publication in 1958 that greatly influenced radiation therapy in veterinary medicine.

During the Second World War, the US Army discovered that nitrogen mustard was effective in treating cancer of the lymph nodes (lymphoma).5 The compound was the prototype for a series of drugs developed to kill cancer cells by damaging their DNA. These findings led to the use of drugs as a common cancer therapy.

Over the last 20 years in both veterinary and human medicine, immunotherapy, a strategy to boost the body’s natural mechanisms to fight cancer, has established itself as a major player in cancer treatment.

Origins of Veterinary Oncology

Starting in the mid-20th Century, the acceptance of “pets as family” and the human animal bond prompted veterinarians to push the boundaries of clinical diagnosis and treatment for companion animals. In the 1960s a handful of veterinarians led the way in developing the field of clinical veterinary oncology. As specialties emerged at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine, Dr. Robert Brodey advanced the study of veterinary oncology.6 At the same time, Dr. Gordon Theilen at University of California Davis wrote the first veterinary clinical oncology textbook. In 1961, Dr. Ed Gillette assumed leadership of the radiology training program at Colorado State University and through vision and dedication emerged as the father of veterinary radiation oncology. Another contemporary, Dr. E. Gregory MacEwen of the University of Wisconsin, led discovery of more effective cancer therapies for both pets and people.

In 1976, the Veterinary Cancer Society provided a space for like-minded clinicians and scientists to share ideas around the discipline of oncology. Soon after, board certifications in medical oncology, radiation oncology, and surgical oncology brought standardized training to the forefront. Oncology training in the almost 40 professional veterinary medical school curricula is now routine.

As the field of veterinary oncology has grown over the last 40 years, comprehensive veterinary cancer centers like the Flint Animal Cancer Center have emerged, first in academic centers and now in private practice. Veterinary oncology has come of age with robust education, research and wide-ranging clinical service offering curing and caring to our pet animals and their caretakers. Cancer in pet animals is now recognized by various funding agencies and the human oncology community as not only a relevant, but powerful model to study cancer in all creatures’ great and small.

Advances in genetic, molecular, and cell pathway strategies offer hope to achieve the Holy Grail of prevention for a disease that has plagued us since the beginning of time.

Photo Credit: Copyright Linda Evans/Australian Center for Egyptology, Macquarie University, Sydney

4 Gillette, E.L. (1997). History of Veterinary Radiation Oncology. Veterinary Clinics of North America: Small Animal Practice, 27 (1), pages 1-6.
6 Smith, D.F., Hagtrom, M.R. (2015). Changing the Face of Veterinary Medicine: Research and Clinical Developments at AAVMC Institutions. Journal of Veterinary Medical Education, 42(5), pages 441-558.