Studying Dogs

Do UW–Madison scientists study dogs?

The important scientific questions UW–Madison researchers study often require a specific animal model in order to obtain valid answers. Sometimes, those animals are dogs, though studies of dogs typically make up a very small proportion of the animal research conducted at UW–Madison. At times, the only studies with dogs are those in which owners enroll their pets during visits to the university’s animal hospital and veterinary clinic.

In 2023, the non-client dogs in UW–Madison studies represented about one-thousandth of 1% of the animals on campus.

Why study dogs? 

UW–Madison scientists study animals only when there is no other way to answer questions vital to the research. Many studies looking into complex biological questions, like how to prevent Alzheimer’s disease or how to effectively detect and treat cancer, cannot be done on computers or in cells in a dish. These studies require studying the complex systems at work in living organisms.

Whether or not to use any particular animal model in research is a question guided by a number of considerations, including the urgency of and knowledge necessary to confront a public health challenge, like COVID-19; the appropriateness of the animal model to answer important questions about human and animal biology; whether meaningful results can be gained by studying that animal model; whether a study can be conducted in an animal model humanely and with animal welfare as a top priority.

When animals are necessary, species are chosen based on their similarity to aspects of human biology (when human health is the focus of the research) and suitability for the research methods planned for the study. Dogs have lived close to humans for millennia, which means they have been exposed to similar environments and — in more recent history — received similar medical attention. For instance, many dog breeds are prone to types of cancer that are common in people, as well as joint and bone injuries and other disorders familiar to human patients.

What sort of research has benefited from studies of dogs?

UW–Madison researchers studying dogs helped develop technology called TomoTherapy to precisely deliver radiation therapy to cancerous tumors. Many of their early patients were dogs, and their successful treatment led to the technology’s use in human and veterinary cancer clinics around the world.

UW–Madison research to improve organ transplants included studies of dogs and other animals, including non-human primates. Today, UW Solution, also known as Belzer UW or Viaspan, extends the time organs can be safely preserved and transported from donors to recipients for life-saving transplants.

Like people, dogs are often administered vaccines or other injections to prevent communicable canine diseases like rabies, kennel cough, parvovirus, distemper and heartworm. Many UW–Madison studies of dogs have helped determine the effectiveness of these preventative measures and determine the best schedule for their administration.

Clinical trials with client-owned dogs at UW–Madison are also testing a vaccine to prevent cancer in dogs. This work could pave the way for cancer vaccines for people. Additionally, researchers are working with dogs to develop methods to detect early bone cancer tumors in children and in pets.

Where do dogs in UW–Madison studies come from?

When animals for UW–Madison studies come from off-campus, the university relies on suppliers licensed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Those suppliers are subject to USDA inspections and enforcement of federal laws governing animal welfare. All dogs UW–Madison receives from suppliers are screened to ensure they are healthy prior to inclusion in any research. If animals showed signs of poor condition or mistreatment, the university would take issue with that and find another supplier.