Most people in East Anglia at least know someone whose pet was referred to the Animal Health Trust by a vet but, often, that is all they think the charity does.
Yet its scientists and vets at Kentford are world leaders in research into the health and welfare of ‘companion animals’, our dogs, cats and horses.
It bugs Dr Mark Vaudin, head of research and deputy chief executive at the AHT, who will take over from Dr Peter Webbon as chief executive in October.
“I still struggle with the fact that not enough people know locally what the Animal Health Trust does,” he said. “They’ll know there’s a dog clinic here but not that the main part of the charity’s work is the research.”
It was why the trust was founded in 1942. Reginald Wooldridge, president of the National Veterinary Medical Association, formed it as the Veterinary Educational Trust because he saw the progress being made in human treatment and wanted the same for animals.
In spite of its important work, it gets no Government funding. Its small animal and equine referal clinics bring in some income as do its diagnostic services, which include DNA testing of racehorses to ensure foals’ parents are who they are claimed to be.
For the rest of the £14 million a year turnover the trust relies on its own fund raisers and donations from charitable trusts.
For example, the Kennel Club has funded work on canine genetics and the mysterious disease seasonal canine illness.
The Horse Race Betting Levy Board and the Racing Foundation have financed a lot of equine research and generous individuals have donated the money for equipment like the linear accelerator used for radiotherapy in the cancer unit.
Dr Vaudin points out that pioneering work in using MRI scans and other imaging on animals was done here, often in consultation with human specialists.
“We specialise in companion animals, but a lot of the work we do is applicable to other animals,” he said. “More and more human research groups are keen to collaborate because, certainly with genetics and cancer work, there’s an overlap so it’s good to share.”
One example is the research the trust has done on bone cancer in large dogs which are prone to it because their bones grow so quickly, just as human teenagers are vulnerable because their bones are going through a growth spurt.
Dr Vaudin, who has a PhD in molecular genetics, points out that dogs reveal the influence of genetic changes down the generations far more quickly than humans.
He added: “One of the powerful things is that we have the clinics and the research facility side by side. So, if a sample is taken by a vet in the clinic, with the owner’s permission, you can use it in research.”
In a research lab next to a clinical diagnostic lab, chief scientist Dr Carl Robinson explained that it took 16,000 blood samples to verify a new blood test for the infectious horse disease strangles, which can lie dormant producing no symptoms.
Dr Vaudin said that if a dog breed society came to the trust saying a problem was showing up in that breed they would need a set of samples from dogs with the complaint and a set without.
Collecting those could be a lot of work, but the trust has 23,000 dog DNA samples.
He added: “Hopefully we’d find the gene mutation, then based on that develop a simple DNA test for it.
“That would mean before owners bred from their dog they could have it tested and the dog it would mate with tested so as not to pass it on.”
He continued: “We spend a lot of time writing papers, going to conferences and spreading the knowledge of our work to get it out there so it benefits the most animals.
We’re about welfare of the animals.”
Seasonal canine illness is a good example.
It is so called because it suddenly appeared in dogs walked on the Sandringham Estate at about this time of year, then disappeared in about November, only to reappear each August.
It has now been reported in Norfolk, Suffolk and Nottinghamshire The trust is still working on the causes of the illness which makes dogs lethargic, gives them bad diaorhea and they go downhill very quickly.
But by alerting vets and owners the death rate in reported cases has dropped from about 20 per cent in 2010 to less than two per cent in 2012.
When a trust meeting was held at Sandringham, its president Princess Anne unexpectedly took Dr Vaudin and Dr Webbon to the Queen be quizzed on progress.
Trust experts can also step in to help contain an infectious disease, as they did with and equine herpies outbreak in the south of England.
The highly infectious disease causes abortions in infected mares.
They are working on a vaccine.
They are also seeking funding to trial a vaccine for equine grass sickness, a disease that frighteningly quickly weakens and kills horses and may be a type of botulism.
Dr Vaudin said they do not fully understand it at the moment but have successfully run vaccine pilots.
Just as technology is helping in treatment, it is also helping research.
Sequencing genomes is an important part of understanding how bacteria work and evolve and in helping to develop vaccines.
In the labs Dr Robinson shows us a £500,000 Illumina MiSeq sequencing machine and explains that sequencing the streptococcus equi bacteria, which causes strangles, took eight years and cost £200,000.
“This machine does it for about £50 and can do 96 at a time,” he said.
It it takes little over a day.
But the trust is not only looking at disease and inherited conditions.
It works in welfare in the widest sense.
It did extensive research on the affects of heat and humidity on horses for the Atlanta Olympics and for last year’s worked with the British Olympic team on horse and rider fitness and on the surfaces for the show jumping and dressage arenas.
To find out more about the AHT and to donate, visit www.aht.org.uk
n Go to page 19 for an AHT warning to dog owners about seasonal canine illness.