Sniffing out cancer is going to the dogs

by Kay Lazar

Boston Sunday Herald

Sunday June 29, 2003.

Could your dog or cat be warning you about toxins around your house or neighborhood that might cause cancer? A growing group of animal lovers and environmentalists from Greater Boston are banding together, hoping to find some answers.

"Like canaries in the coal mine, our little friends may be trying to tell us something about our environment, but we just have to make sure we are listening,'' said Lori Ehrlich, a Marblehead mom with two daughters, two dogs and a strong suspicion that pesticides and other common pollutants may be making pets and their human companions sick.

Ehrlich, a founding member of the North Shore environmental group HealthLink, is joining forces with advocates from across the state to organize a mass teach-in on the issue in September, with kick-off meetings in July.

At the same time, cutting-edge research at Cornell University in New York is focusing on a pets and people connection through a first-of-its kind animal cancer registry.

Investigators are tracking tumors among the 500,000 dogs and cats on Long Island, N.Y., an area where elevated rates of human cancers have been mapped for the past 10 years and cross-referenced with toxic waste sites, pesticide use and socioeconomic data.

While experts have pinpointed areas of high human cancer rates on Long Island, they still don't know what's causing the illnesses. By comparing cancer clusters among people with clusters among their pets - who walk the same land, breathe the same air and drink the same water - researchers hope to unlock the mystery.

"Since a dog's lifespan is only 10 to 15 years and they have similar rates and incidents of cancer as humans, the whole process is condensed,'' said Cornell's Dr. Rodney Page, a veterinary oncologist.

Page said humans often don't develop cancer until decades after being exposed to a toxic substance, making it hard for experts to link cause and effect. But pet cancers often progress more quickly, he said.

Another key point: Dogs and cats don't drink or smoke. ``Many scientists who study cancer in humans . . . can't sort out whether it's the tobacco smoke or pesticide causing the cancer,'' Page said.

For Cheryl Smith, the answers couldn't come too soon.

Thirty years ago, her toy poodle died suddenly after a family trip where crowds were lathering their legs with bug spray - inadvertently applied inches from the dog's face.

The memory of her dog dying in the back seat on the ride home is so seared in Smith's mind that the Marblehead mom of two children and one beloved 140-pound Saint Bernard is adamant: No pesticides.

"They think, I want a green lawn so they call (a lawn service),'' Smith said. "And they don't even think about the effects, not only to birds or wildlife, but to their children and pets who play on the lawn.''