For Human Cancer Research, Cats' Tumors Are Less Useful Than Dogs'

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Turkish Van cats eat in their dining room at the Van Cat Research Center on February 8, 2018 in Van, Turkey. Cats aren't used as often to create mouse models of cancer research; these cats are part of a research project to protect their breed from dying out. Chris McGrath/Getty Images

It's nothing personal, cat people. But feline tumors aren't used nearly as often as those in dogs to study human cancer, Purdue University's Dr. Christopher Fulkerson says.

Cats tend to have a type of skin cancer in their heads and mouths that some researchers are using as a model for human head and neck cancers. But dogs seem to be diagnosed more frequently with tumors that overlap with human cancer, Fulkerson explains. "It's been a little bit easier to find diseases that really match up," he says. Basically, scientists could put a cat's tumor in a mouse used for human cancer research—but why would drug companies focused on human cancer want them?

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Feline tumors also many not be caught as frequently as canine tumors. Owners who permit their cats to roam freely outside also tend to take them to the veterinarian's office less often than dog owners take their pets. That means cats are less likely to be diagnosed with cancer, simply because it's less likely to be caught. So what dogs lack in unrestricted outdoors access they make up for in access to sophisticated cancer care. As a result, scientists looking to other mammalian tumors to better understand human cancer have more dog samples than cat samples.

Researchers, however, stress they are still trying to improve treatment for felines. "Cats may not get top billing for the comparative research," he says, "but there definitely are people out there that care about cats with cancer."