Gastrointestinal disease in dogs and cats is relatively common. And when your pet is suffering from chronic vomiting or diarrhea, the path to a diagnosis can be quite involved. Typically, your veterinarian will run a number of tests to rule out specific issues including parasites, infectious causes, and tumor growth, among others. The next step would be a tissue biopsy. This procedure requires general anesthesia. If your pet is vomiting or has diarrhea, your veterinarian would typically perform a pinch biopsy using an endoscope. Alternatively, exploratory surgery is done if a more thorough approach is considered necessary. Both those options are costly and surgery is invasive. So, in some cases, pet owners and their veterinarians may opt to address the symptoms without a concrete diagnosis. That may work. But it also may mask the real problem. 

The veterinarians at VCA Animal Hospitals are always looking for new insights and better treatment options, and they regularly participate in cutting-edge medical research. They recently worked on an exciting study focused on a new diagnostic tool for chronic gastrointestinal disorders. 

The VCA team was approached by Juan Estruch, CEO and Director of Vetica Labs Inc. in San Diego, Calif., to undertake a study in dogs that could lead to a less-invasive option for diagnosis. He had conducted pilot studies with local veterinarians that used three specific findings from a blood serum test to identify specific disease processes, an approach that’s used to diagnose inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) in humans. He asked the VCA team to conduct a study including many more dogs and using biopsy findings to confirm the accuracy of the test results. Ideally, the test results would indicate whether the dog tested had IBD and, if so, which type of IBD. 

To conduct the study, the network of VCA hospitals enrolled 157 dogs with IBD, 24 dogs with other types of gastrointestinal disorders and 33 normal dogs. The veterinary teams collected blood samples when each dog enrolled in the study and additional samples for up to three months during treatment and follow-up. 
To obtain the necessary serum for the diagnostic test, a blood sample is allowed to clot. Then the veterinary team puts the sample in a centrifuge to remove the clot and blood cells. The resulting liquid is serum, which includes proteins, electrolytes, antibodies, antigens and hormones. They tested the serum to measure three specific proteins that previous studies suggested would accurately identify specific gastrointestinal disease processes. The results of the research were recently published in the Journal of Veterinary Internal Medicine, which publishes authoritative scientific articles about the latest developments in large and small animal internal medicine, cardiology, neurology, and oncology.

The study results show that the dogs with IBD had significantly more of the specific proteins than normal dogs. They also found that differing levels of the proteins on the test accurately classified the dogs who had IBD compared with dogs who had other gastrointestinal issues and the normal dogs. When they treated the sick dogs, the protein markers moved closer to the results seen in the normal dogs as their symptoms improved. 

“Mother nature is crazy smart. So, looking at just three biomarkers is only the first step,” says Dr. Phil Bergman, Director of Clinical Studies for VCA. “We know there’s a lot more going on there. That’s part of why completing a biopsy is still important. As we learn more, we may find we need to expand and test for other things.” 

Still, this first step is very exciting. This simple blood test lets veterinarians be more precise about the diagnosis and treatment of chronic gastrointestinal issues, particularly in cases where pet owners can’t afford to move ahead with more invasive options. 

Using this diagnostic approach gives the veterinarian confidence that the dog is experiencing IBD—and he or she can proceed to treatment. If the test shows it’s not IBD, the veterinarian knows he or she needs to be looking for something else and can factor that into the decision about whether to pursue more aggressive diagnostics.

“We did validate the findings of the pilot studies, and the new serum diagnostic tool is already available to veterinarians,” says Dr. Bergman. “It’s exciting to forge such a fast path from new knowledge to new practice.”  

While more research is needed, the study findings suggest that the test also may be useful as a tool to tell veterinarians whether a patient is responding well to treatment before they see the change in the dog’s health. “Non-invasive and minimally invasive diagnostics like this one are the wave of the future, and I’m sure this new diagnostic is one of many to come,” says Dr. Bergman.

Philip J. Bergman, DVM, MS, PhD, Diplomate ACVIM (Oncology) is the Director of Clinical Studies for VCA. He’s an adjunct faculty member of the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, which serves two-legged patients, and he was the principal veterinary investigator for the canine melanoma vaccine (Oncept), which was fully licensed in 2009. Before joining VCA, Dr. Bergman served as the Chief Medical Officer for BrightHeart Veterinary Centers from 2007 to 2011—a career move he jokingly describes as his “transition to the dark side,” away from academia and into private practice. He also served as both the Chair of the ACVIM Board of Regents and as President of the Veterinary Cancer Society. Passionate about international travel, Dr. Bergman has visited more than 30 countries. (Best trip ever? Thailand.) And if you gave him his choice of anything to do next weekend, you’d find him listening to a live blues act. 
““We did validate the findings of the pilot studies, and the new serum diagnostic tool is already available to veterinarians. It’s exciting to forge such a fast path from new knowledge to new practice.” ”