WXTX SPECIAL REPORT: Super Veterinarians at Auburn University

SPECIAL REPORT: Super Veterinarians at Auburn University

(WXTX) - A team of super vets and techs at Auburn University's Small Animal Teaching Hospital are helping animals live longer and have a better quality of life through cutting-edge treatment and research.

The goal is to not necessarily cure all diseases, but to limit the power cancer has to take a life.

Our Elizabeth White gives us an inside look.

A famous author once wrote, "A dog is the only thing on earth that loves you more than he loves himself."

For Maggie, and her human father, Peter Bruggink, the feeling is mutual.

"[I love Maggie] a whole bunch, she is our world, people who have children and pets can understand what it is like to have someone at the house that loves you unconditionally and that's what Maggie does for us....she's a good girl," said Bruggink.

A year and half ago, Maggie was diagnosed with Lymphoma.

"You have people who say well, there is not much hope," said Bruggink.

Devastated, Bruggink and his wife were referred to an oncologist at The Auburn University Teaching Hospital. Here, the family found hope and healing. Maggie is in clinical remission, after three rounds of chemotherapy.

"It has been wonderful for us and a good experience," said Bruggink. "We have been very fortunate with Maggie, in her care, yes she has responded beautifully, to have had her a year and a half longer than we anticipated."

Dr. Annett Smith oversees the Oncology Department at Auburn University Teaching Hospital and says they are very focused on quality of life. The hospital sees 2,500 cancer patients every year, and numbers are growing as treatment options expand.

"This is her chemo, we just put in her vein, draw blood, then draw back and it's done, and she gets a band-aid and can go home," said Dr. Annett Smith.

During chemo, 80 percent of animals like Maggie have no adverse reactions. Twenty percent may feel weak or not eat for a day or two, and five percent may need a hospital stay to help them recover. The treatment is altered or even stopped if the bad outweighs the good.

"Our goal is to keep them feeling the same or hopefully better than they were during their treatment," Dr. Smith said.

Dr. Annett Smith said many pet owners are skeptical at first, knowing how hard chemo can be on their human family and friends.

"Can't you tell she feels better?" asked Elizabeth White.

"There is much more life in her eyes," agreed Dr. Annett Smith.

WXTX's Elizabeth White admits to being one of those skeptics, when despair over her 11-year-old dog Lexi's osteosarcoma led them to meet with Dr. Smith for three hours on Christmas Eve. She recommended amputating Lexi's leg to rid her of the painful tumor, followed by chemo. The only other option was to say goodbye.

"It's just a question of educating our pet parents, and making sure they understand the pet is going to feel a lot better after surgery," Dr. Michael Tillson with Auburn University Teaching Hospital. "We can extend their life and make them a lot more comfortable when amputation is a part of surgical therapy."

Dr. Michael Tillson performed Lexi's surgery two days after Christmas.

With one chemo treatment down, and five to go, Lexi is happy and no longer in pain. Her vets are optimistic, the treatment can extend her life another year.

"Sometimes people hear that and they think well a year isn't that long, but if you compare it to the life span of a dog, it's actually a significant percentage," said Dr. Annett Smith.

Extending quality and quantity of life for all cancer patients, not just animals, is the goal of The Auburn University Cancer Research Initiative, or AURIC.

"Our goal is to advance cancer research on all fronts at Auburn University," said AURIC Director Dr. Bruce F. Smith.

AU has researched cancer for 30 plus years, targeting the "One Medicine" approach.

"One medicine is a concept where we are not talking about human medicine or vet medicine, but must medicine, where we are looking at cancer in a species like the dog and we can apply it to humans or human cancer where we can apply it to dogs," said Dr. Bruce Smith.

Dr. Bruce Smith is encouraged by recent developments in treating osteosarcomas in animals, a K9 trial is happening now with hopes of beginning human trials soon.

"This involves using an engineered virus that actually infects the tumor cells and actually kills the tumor cells," said Dr. Bruce Smith.

Another major study at AU has engineered a breast cancer vaccine.

"He is taking cells from a tumor and fusion them to the patient's own immune system and putting them back into the patient this is for breast cancer, and he is collecting the data now but it looks like in dogs with breast cancer the research is there to show substantial improvement in survival times," said Dr. Bruce Smith.

Patient rooms are decorated with pictures and words from grateful pet parents for the care their animals have received at The AU Small Animal Teaching Hospital. One letter reads "Thanks for giving me a chance to smell the flowers."

"It's seeing the patients get up and knowing we have done something positive for them and the students have learned something and the pets the animals go home happier," said Dr. Bruce Smith.

Will Rogers once said, "If there are no dogs in heaven, then when I die I want to go where they went."

We know Lexi's time with our family is a precious gift and we are thankful for every wag of her tail  and every golden smile she shares.

This spring, Auburn University will dedicate the new Wilford and Kate Bailey Small Animal Teaching Hospital, enhancing AU's ongoing efforts to train the best and brightest veterinarians while providing the most advanced care for sick or injured animals.

The $74 million project will replace the 43-year-old current facility that's outdated and overcrowded. The dedication is set for April 11, 2014.

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