Jul 272012

Molly - Mason Bone Cancer StudyMolly, the second dog in the Mason Bone Cancer Study, just finished her stay at UPenn with Dr. Mason.  Her owner, Jenn, says that Molly was fairly comfortable during her stay at the hospital.  She received the L. Monocytogenes vaccine on Tuesday, July 24.  Molly’s temperature increased two degrees above normal as a result of the bacteria floating around in her system.  Jenn also said that Molly’s white blood cell count doubled, but her liver values remained normal.

Molly heads home to New Jersey today, but should return to Philadelphia in about three weeks for her second round of the vaccine. Thanks to Molly’s owner, Jenn, and Rebecca, Molly’s aunt, for the updates.  Here’s to hoping that Molly, and all the dogs in the Mason Bone Cancer Study, continue to do well and live long and happy lives!

Make sure you come back to read about Dolly, the third dog in the UPenn clinical trial!

Jul 222012

About a week has passed since we returned to Raleigh from Philadelphia, where Sasha received her first treatment in the Mason Bone Cancer Study.  She is doing extremely well!  Take a look at this video:

We took Sasha to our local vet on Wednesday to have blood drawn and sent to Dr. Mason at UPenn.  During her stay in Philadelphia, Sasha’s liver enzymes rose to above normal levels.  Click here to read about Sasha’s first treatment at UPenn.  Dr. Mason was not too concerned about the elevated enzymes, as this reaction to the vaccine was reasonably expected.

Christina, a wonderful veterinary technician at Brentwood Animal Hospital, our local vet’s office, was tasked with drawing Sasha’s blood.  She is a bit of a phlebotomy hotshot with a knack for finding good veins quickly.  Unfortunately, this time Christina did have some difficulty guiding a syringe into Sasha’s vein.  She switched from Sasha’s leg to her arm and quickly found her mark.  Sasha was ready to leave after being poked, and Christina had all the blood she needed to send to Dr. Mason.

Sasha’s blood arrived at UPenn the next day.  Tests were run, and Dr. Mason let us know that all of Sasha’s numbers looked good.  Her red and white blood cells were normal, as were her platelets, and her liver enzymes were falling nicely, too.  Dr. Mason even sent us a graph where she plotted Sasha’s liver enzyme values so that we could see the downward trend, visually.

Liver Enzymes Graph, Mason Bone Cancer Study

Dr. Mason explained that the probable cause for Christina’s difficulty in finding a good vein to draw blood from in Sasha was that she may have been dehydrated.  She said that the sample of blood showed that her proteins were within normal parameters but at the top end of normal.  She also said that Sasha’s sodium level was a little high.  High blood proteins and high sodium levels are indicators of possible dehydration.  Another possibility is that sometimes the vessels where chemotherapy drugs are administered can become damaged, and are difficult to draw blood from.

Dr. Mason told us that the article on the study in the Philadelphia Inquirer brought several more dogs forward, and her team is currently screening their tumors for the Her2/neu expression.  There are currently 7 recruits and 3 or 4 being screened.  We hope these dogs make it into the study, and that they all do as well as Sasha has done so far!  Good luck to all!

Jul 152012

History was made on July, 10, 2012, when Sasha underwent her first round of treatment in the Mason Bone Cancer Study at the University of Pennsylvania School Of Veterinary Medicine.  The study takes a novel approach to fighting cancer using a recombinant L. monocytogenes vaccine to, hopefully,   cause anti-tumor activity of the body’s immune system.  Liliana and I drove to Pennsylvania with Sasha, Argus and Alli (the Three Musketeers) on Monday.  We are lucky that my parents still live in PA, so we had a place to lay our heads for the duration of Sasha’s stay at UPenn.

We met with Dr. Nicola Mason Tuesday morning.  I cannot say enough good things about Dr. Mason.  Entering Sasha into the first phase of a clinical trial was not an easy decision to make.  Allowing her to be exposed (intravenously) to Listeria monocytogenes bacterium and leaving her in the care of people that we do not know at a large University did not make the decision any easier, but Dr. Mason put our worries to rest and our minds at ease.  Whenever Liliana and I speak with Dr. Mason, we always feel that she genuinely cares about Sasha, and she makes a great effort to ensure that we understand everything that will happen during the trial.  She also called us several times each day while Sasha was in her care to give us updates about how our girl was doing.  We feel very fortunate to have been able to enroll Sasha in this innovative approach to treating bone cancer in dogs, humans, and other animals.

Administration of the Listeria monocytogenes vaccine began at about 2:00 PM on Tuesday and lasted approximately one hour.  The first sign of evidence that Sasha had been exposed to the ‘bug’ came a few hours later.  She developed a mild-to-moderate fever which peaked at 103.8 (normal temperature for dogs is 101.5) at around midnight.  The fever was easily kept under control with IV liquids and a fan blowing on Sasha.  The fever was a good sign, as it indicated that Sasha’s immune system recognized the Listeria, and was actively fighting it.

The idea behind the Mason Bone Cancer Study is to train Sasha’s immune system to find and attack cancer cells.   Normal cells divide by a process called mitosis.  Mitosis occurs at a regular rate, and each cell produces two identical daughter cells.  Cancer cells are essentially bad copies of parent cells.  The DNA of the parent cell is not replicated perfectly during mitosis, and mutant cells are born.  These mutant cells do not behave normally.  They do not die when they are supposed to – a process genetically hardwired into each normal cell called apoptosis.  Instead, cancer cells multiply, often at accelerated rates, and can form tumors.  Note: not all tumors are cancerous, and not all cancer cells form tumors, i.e. leukemia.  Unfortunately, the mutant cancer cells are not so different from normal cells that the body’s immune system recognizes them as a threat.

The Listeria bug used in the Mason Bone Cancer Study has been genetically modified to express a protein called, Her2/neu.  Sasha’s cancer cells also produce this same protein.  By injecting the Listeria into Sasha, the hope is to elicit an immune response.  Since the listeria used expresses the Her2/neu protein, Sasha’s immune system will become programmed to recognize the protein as a dangerous invader and attack it.  The hope is that her immune system will now also recognize any cancer cells in her body as dangerous invaders and attack them, as well.

The day after Sasha’s vaccination, bloodwork showed that she was mildly anemic and that her platelet count was lower than normal.  These counts returned to normal the following day.  Dr. Mason explained that the likely cause for the low platelet count was the vaccination caused her platelets to adhere to the lining of her blood vessels, thus removing them from the bloodstream, and causing the low reading from the collected blood.  The temporary low count of Sasha’s red blood cells (anemia) was probably due to her blood being diluted as a result of the intravenous fluids she received to keep her temperature in check the prior day.

More bloodwork was performed on July 12th.  The results showed that Sasha’s liver enzymes were on the rise.  Her elevated liver enzymes, ALT (Alanine transaminase) and AST (Aspartate transaminase), are likely elevated due to inflammation caused by the vaccine.  Similar findings were documented in human patients that received a comparable Listeria vaccination.  Dr. Mason told us that Sasha’s elevated liver enzymes were not something to be alarmed about but that they should be monitored.  She asked that we schedule an appointment with Sasha’s regular veterinarian, Dr. Neuenschwander, to do follow up bloodwork on Wednesday or Thursday of this week.

Dr. Mason said that Sasha was a trooper throughout her whole stay at UPenn, and took all of the poking and prodding in stride and without complaint.  The only sign that Sasha may have been feeling under the weather is that she did not seem to have much of an appetite.  Dr. Mason made several attempts to get Sasha to eat, including hand feeding her, but Sasha was not interested until she was presented with some yummy canned food.  Again, our gratitude to Dr. Mason for taking such good care of Sasha.

We are back home in Raleigh, NC now, and Sasha is doing great.  She is still being a little picky with her food; however, we believe that her appetite is fine.  Sasha is a smart girl, and she learned quickly that by turning her nose up to her regular kibble, she would be offered something tastier.   She retrieved her Kong flying disc several times this morning and was as fast as ever!  We hope to take her swimming sometime before the return trip to Philadelphia.

Thanks to everyone for reading about Sasha’s battle against cancer, and Dr. Mason’s innovative work.  Thanks to Dr. Mason and her team at UPenn School of Veterinary Medicine.  Thanks to my parents for providing me and  Liliana with food to eat and a place to sleep.  Thanks to Greg Goldberg (basically my brother-in-law) for staying at our home in Raleigh and taking care of our other dogs while we were away.

I will continue to chronicle Sasha’s progress here on Lili’s Notes.  Please come back to see how she’s doing!

PS.  I’m famous!  Check out this article about me and the Mason Bone Cancer Study in the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Jun 262012

A couple of days ago, Liliana sent me a link to one of her favorite blogs: Love & a six-foot leash.  I had visited this site before and enjoyed looking at the photos of Aleksandra’s dogs, and the dogs that she fosters.  Aleksandra and her family help a few unlucky pit bull-type dogs by taking the unloved and often mistreated dogs into their home, caring for and loving them, and then ultimately, finding them their perfect family and forever home.  Aleksandra’s mission, however, is much larger than rescuing and placing some dogs in new homes with loving families.

Pit bulls and pit bull-type dogs suffer the misfortune of a maligned reputation.  Evening news reports of vicious attacks on innocent people ring in the ears of moms, dads and children.  I will never forget the time when Lili and I were walking our two American bulldogs on the small, shop-lined streets of Cape May, NJ, and a young child, about six or seven years old, pointed at our dogs and cried out, “Devil dogs! Those are devil dogs!!” The parents were obviously embarrassed as they shushed the boy and quickly disappeared into the crowd of vacationers, but it was too late; the damage had been done.  From that day forward, I always wondered what people were thinking about my muscular, blocky headed dogs as they watched them at the end of their six-foot leashes.  Aleksandra’s greatest mission is to affect change in the way people see and think of pit bulls and pit bull-type dogs.  As with every other person who has ever had the privilege of knowing these wonderful, loving companions, she understands that the harsh, discriminatory views of these dogs is a product purely of misinformation and ignorance.

In a post titled, “One of these dogs is (or is not) like the other: Defining a “pit bull” dog”, Aleksandra presents her readers with a pop quiz.  Above a photograph of her two blocky headed dogs, Aleksandra asks one question: Which of her two dogs is a “pit bull” dog? The multiple choice answers are:

A) Both
B) Neither
C) Chick only
D) Doodlebug only

Photo: Juliana Willems. Site: Love & a six-foot leash.

Yes, her dog’s names are Chick and Doodlebug.  She refers to the pair of them as, Chickerdoodle

Aleksandra recently had a DNA test done on Doodlebug, and I guess, previously had one done on Chick.  The quiz poses an interesting question: What is a pit bull?  We must be able to define exactly what a pit bull is if we want to have any success on this quiz!

If a pit bull is any dog with a muscular physique, then the answer is A) Both.  If a pit bull is any dog with a blocky head, then the answer is A) Both.  If a pit bull is any dog with large jaw muscles, then the answer is A) Both.  If a pit bull is any dog with a stocky body and short fur, then the answer is A) Both.  If a pit bull is any athletically built dog with almond shaped eyes, then the answer is A) Both.

At this point, it looks like I’m going to Ace this quiz.  For all the criteria that describe what a pit bull is, the answer is always A) Both.  Is it really that simple though?  Is there something in the breed name that can help us decipher what a pit bull is?  To follow up on that question, is “pit bull” a breed of dog?  In my mind, No.  Pit bull is not a breed of dog.  Pit bull was a descriptive title given to dogs that were used for a specific type of entertainment – dog fighting.  The fights were often held in rings, rooms, yards and actual pits.  Dog fighting grew in popularity in Europe during the seventeenth century, but as we all know, the roots of these blood sports go back much further.  Tournaments ‘pitting’ beast against beast, beast against man, and man against man were popular in ancient Egypt, Greece, Rome, and no doubt, have a longer history than we are aware of.

Let’s look at the etymology of the name, “pit bull terrier”.  When most people think of ‘working animals’, images of draft horses, mules, oxen, and even elephants are probably what go through most people’s minds; however, before dogs became the most popular, beloved companion animals that they are today, they also performed work for their human masters (some still do).  The work ranged from guard and attack duty, to herding grazing animals and mushing sleds through ice and snow.

In medieval England the sport of baiting was very popular and drew large crowds who were enthralled by the excitement, blood and gore of the events.  Baiting consisted of the unleashing of one or more trained dogs to attack and bring to submission another animal, most commonly a bull; hence the name, bulldog.  Baiting was more than just a sport, however.  The baiting of bulls was a practice used to render the meat of the bull more tender and nutritious, and in many towns, butchers were required by law to bait bulls before slaughter or face a penalty.

The story goes that after a few particularly bloody and gory baiting events – more than one at which a dog was slowly dismembered by his master while the dog held steadfastly to the bull to show off his dog’s unrelenting tenacity – people began to condemn the sport of baiting.  After some time, baiting was outlawed.  The illegalization of baiting lead to the rise in popularity of dog fighting.  Some historians believe that in order to create better, and perhaps, smaller fighting dogs, some type of game terrier dogs were bred with bulldogs.  Whether this is true or not, no one can say with one hundred percent certainty, but it does explain the ‘terrier’ in pit bull terrier.

Now that we’ve dissected the name, “pit bull terrier”, it appears that the moniker describes a dog with a certain job.  This is similar to when we refer to a person by his job or professional title, such as, doctor or janitor.  It’s not a DNA thing; it’s a job title thing.  Concerning pit bulls and DNA, that brings up another Question – What exactly is a pit bull terrier?

It seems that there is no definitive answer to what a pit bull is.  The genetic makeup of pit bulls is a mystery.  There are some people who claim to know the genetic pieces of the true, original pit bull, but of all those people who claim to know, no two agree.  Are today’s true American pit bull terriers direct and untainted descendants of the original bulldogs of old England?  Or are American pit bull terriers the product of a cross between the original bulldogs of England and some unknown terrier dogs?

In my opinion, it is very unlikely that the original bulldogs of the early nineteenth century and earlier England survive in pure form as today’s American pit bull terrier.  The likely-hood that a working dog breed whose job he was displaced from almost two hundred years ago, remains genetically unchanged, is extremely slim.  As previously stated, once bull baiting was outlawed by parliament in 1835, the popularity of dog fighting exploded.  Some records indicate that game terrier dogs were introduced to the bulldog gene pool for the purpose of increasing tenacity and endurance.  Breeders guarded their pit fighting dog’s pedigrees in secrecy for competitive reasons.  This secrecy of breeders suggests that crossbreeding did occur, and was probably quite common.  When one looks at artist’s renditions and photographs of fighting dogs during the sport’s heyday, it becomes apparent that there is no clear and consistent phenotype.  I think that the evidence, along with common sense, suggests that the original bulldog and today’s American pit bull terrier are two distinct breeds.  To go a step further, I do not believe that pit bulls exist as a genotype.

So then, back to Aleksandra’s Chick and Doodlebug.  Are they pit bulls?  Is either one a pit bull?  Since neither Chick nor Doodlebug are involved in dog fighting, I do not believe that either of them are pit bulls.  Not in the strictest sense anyway.  That’s not to say that I don’t refer to my sweet, lovable and super social, Tommy, as a pit bull.

Society has come to associate certain physical characteristics in dogs as identity markers of pit bulls.  I guess this is where the term, pit bull-type dogs comes from.  Chick and Doodlebug look like what most people think of as pit bulls, but they are not pit fighters, and their DNA proves conclusively that they are, as units (that sounds funny), completely different breeds.

To reiterate an earlier point, I do not feel that a specific DNA sequence determines whether or not a dog is a pit bull.  The sole determiner for pit bull identification is the job that a dog performs.  If a dog is toted around in a Gucci purse and wears designer doggy attire, then it isn’t a pit bull.  If a dog spends his days watching television on the couch with his master and enjoys the occasional dropped potato chip, then that dog is not a pit bull.  If the dog is trained to be animal-aggressive and participates in organized dog fights once a month, then that dog is a pit bull.

To answer three of Aleksandra’s questions:

•    Is Chick less of a pit bull after his DNA test, which revealed no SBT or AST?  No, Chick is no more or less of a pit bull now than before.  He was not a pit bull before the DNA test, and he isn’t one now.
•    And is Doodlebug more of one?  Doodlebug isn’t a pit bull either.  The fact that he shares some DNA with breeds that have been identified as pit bull-type dogs really has no significance.
•    And can two mixed-breed dogs that share zero common breeds both be “pit bull” dogs?  The answer to this one is yes.  Again, pit bulls are defined by the job that they perform.

And the answer to the pop quiz: is B) Neither.

I am glad that Aleksandra created her pop quiz, because it motivated me to write this post.  I enjoyed learning the results of Chickerdoodle’s DNA tests, and I’ll always happily give in to any excuse to look at photos of dogs.  Unfortunately, it also makes clear a growing problem and a threat to anyone who loves pit bulls and pit bull-type dogs: breed specific legislation is a flawed concept that can take your beloved pet away from you.

People in government wield the power to take your pet away from you by force, as occurred in Denver, CO in 1989, Winnipeg, Canada in 1990, and other places around the world.  Pit bulls and pit bull-type dogs are classified as dangerous breeds, but they are so loosely defined by the various governing bodies that almost any dog can be labeled a pit bull or pit bull-type dog, and consequently taken from your possession.  It’s scary to think that under different circumstances, both Chick and Doodlebug could be removed from their home by force because they look a certain way.  They could be classified as a dangerous breed even though they share no common DNA, as evidenced by their Wisdom Panel Insights DNA test.  How could two dogs with no common DNA be considered the same dangerous breed?  I guess we know which answer from Aleksandra’s pop quiz proponents of breed specific legislation would choose.  What a shame – fear from ignorance.  I think we as a people have seen this phenomenon before.

Jun 182012

  Carli Davidson does a beautiful job at capturing the strange and distorted faces of dogs shaking.  Her stop-action photographs of dogs (and one cat) show what happens to the loose skin and fur of our four legged best friend’s faces when they shake their heads from side-to-side, as they do when they get wet.  The images are funny, with stretched skin, flying ears and lips, droplets of water in the air and an occasional stream of drool.  But these images are more than just comical – they are art.  Some are color, but most are black and white.  I will not guess which techniques Carli uses, nor which equipment, but the quality of the images looks to be superb.  The dogs are frozen in place with every detail in complete clarity.  If you are like me, you will find it difficult to allow your eye to wander away from these fantastically distorted portraits.

Please visit Carli Davidson’s website to see more of her beautiful photography.  There you will find more shaking dogs, and various other images of animals including her collection of zoo animal images.

Click on the “snaps” tab at the top of lilisnotes.com to see photographs that Lili and I have taken.

Mar 272012

Sasha has continued to improve.  She gets around just fine now, and is even able to jump up onto, and down from the sofa.  The pain around the surgery site is minimal.  She often chooses to lay on her right side now, and Liliana and I are able to pet her near, and even on the healing incision.  We are getting ready take Sasha in to get her staples removed.  I’ll make a 2nd part to this post in a few hours to let you all know how she does at the vet’s.

Mar 192012

Sasha continues to do well.  We brought her back from the vet’s office on Thursday after having her right arm amputated due to a tumor on her humerus caused by osteosarcoma.  Her pain seems to have diminished greatly even though we have begun to ween her off of her pain meds.  She wags her tail more often, and she seems to be more comfortable when the other dogs approach her.  Now we are waiting to hear back about the results of the bone biopsy.  Once we get those results, Liliana and I will determine, along with our vet and the oncologist, what course of action will be taken to help Sasha beat the cancer.  I have been researching chemotherapy for canines so that I will be prepared with a good knowledge base when I speak with Dr. N..  My understanding so far is that chemotherapy is not nearly as traumatizing for dogs as it is for people.  I am glad about that, but I am fearful that Liliana and I may not be able to afford the cost of treatment.  I’ll keep you posted.

Mar 192012

Sasha is doing so much better.  She is no longer whimpering, and she is getting around well.  She can even get up and down the three steps of our deck when she needs to go outside to do her business.  She hasn’t needed help to lay down for two days, and she is beginning to perk up at the mention of certain key words: park, walk, go and kitty cat.  Spirits our up in the Ruano house!

Mar 192012

Sasha’s first night home after amputation of her right arm was very difficult on all of us.  She was in a lot of pain, and dysphoric.  Her eyes were wide open the entire night, and she was doing something that she never did – whimper.  Sasha has been through some serious stuff in her life, including having a fishing lure with two treble hooks hanging from her lips when she was a puppy, and she never whimpered for a second.

Liliana and I stayed with Sasha through the night in our living room.  We were both scared to leave her alone on a dog bed while we slept on our bed.  She was not used to having only three legs, and I feared that she may fall onto her right side if she tried to stand up.  Besides, I couldn’t bear to leave her alone whimpering in pain, and confused about the whole situation.  I love my girl, and I’m not ashamed of being a doting dad.

I layed with Sasha’s head in my arms for most of the night.  She whimpered the entire time, but she seemed to go through episodes of increased discomfort about every hour or so.  Liliana and I thought that she might have to go outside, and that her need to relieve herself might have caused her increased discomfort.  Every time that the whimpering increased, we took her out.  Sasha always seemed to feel a little better after coming back in from the back yard.  Overall though, she seemed to be in excruciating pain, and Liliana and I felt helpless.  Besides holding Sasha’s head, which did seem to comfort her a little, there didn’t seem to be any way of alleviating her pain.  It got so bad that we called the local twenty-four hour emergency clinic twice to see if we could start Sasha on her pain meds ahead of schedule.  The answer was yes.

When the additional pain medication did not have the affect that we had hoped for, Liliana called the clinic again.  She explained to the Nurse that Sasha had not shown any improvement despite being given the pain medication.  The nurse offered the suggestion that Sasha may be suffering from dysphoria, and that we should not give her any more medication until her originally scheduled dose time.  It was one of the hardest things that I have had to do – watch and listen to Sasha suffer so much.  If I am to be completely honset, there laying with Sasha, holding her head and speaking in a soothing voice, I questioned whether Liliana and I had made the right decision.  Did we make a mistake in amputating her arm?  Sasha is a healthy and spunky eleven year old American bulldog, who still loves to go for walks, hikes, catch Frisbees and go swimming.  In future posts I will look at the moral and ethical issues surrounding euthanasia vs preservation of life by medical or surgical means.

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