The Morris Animal Foundation’s 75-year legacy of pioneering research

Mark Morris, Sr., DVM, the first president of AAHA, created the prototype for Hill’s K/D renal diet in his own kitchen. Today, the Morris Animal Foundation continues his legacy by funding pioneering research like the Golden Retriever Lifetime Study and the hemangiosarcoma initiative.

By Emily Singler

Mark Morris Sr., DVM, started practicing in the 1920s and founded one of the first small animal-exclusive practices on the east coast of the United States. He was a pioneer in many ways, including being among the first to run bloodwork and take radiographs as part of his diagnostic workup, said Kelly Diehl, DVM, MS, DACVIM, senior director of science and communications at the Morris Animal Foundation (MAF). 

As he saw other veterinarians venturing out of livestock-only practice, Morris felt a strong desire to raise the standards of practice for small animal medicine.  It was with this goal in mind that he helped create the American Animal Hospital Association in 1933 and served as its first president.  

After performing his own nutrition research, Morris started making a renal diet in his own kitchen which “was basically a prototype of Hill’s K/D” according to Diehl. He canned the food and later connected with Hill’s to manufacture and pack it. In 1948, he formed the Morris Animal Foundation with the royalties from its sale. 

The MAF’s mission of “bridging science and resources to advance the health of animals,” focuses its work on companion animals and wild species, including small animals, equids (horses, donkeys, and mules), exotic pet species, camelids, and other wildlife.  

Continuing the work of its founder, MAF currently gives out grants to fund research ranging from the treatment and prevention of diseases to nonsurgical feline sterilization techniques, improving equine husbandry, and the impacts of human activity on wildlife, to name just a few.  

One of the more well-known studies is the ongoing Golden Retriever Lifetime Study, run by MAF, which prospectively evaluates more than 3,000 golden retrievers for the incidence of cancer and other diseases.  

MAF’s hemangiosarcoma initiative  

MAF‘s hemangiosarcoma initiative, is a separate but related project—this multiyear, multimillion-dollar program funds studies aimed at combating and/or preventing this deadly cancer, which is currently the number one reported killer of golden retrievers in the lifetime study, said Diehl.  

Current areas of interest in the study of canine hemangiosarcoma include any potential effects of spaying or neutering in disease incidence, a proposed correlation with Bartonella infection, and a likelihood that hemangiosarcoma arises in the bone marrow. The “strong” evidence suggesting this to be the case would mean that what we previously would have assumed to be a primary tumor on the spleen or other organ is, in reality, a metastasis. Some researchers speculate that hemangiosarcoma likely spreads “everywhere” very early on, but that some sites become detectable sooner than others.  

Another important area of study is the differentiation of hemangiosarcomas into three subtypes (angiogenic, inflammatory, and adipogenic) with varying prognoses. The inflammatory subtype is said to carry the best prognosis and may be much more amenable to chemotherapeutic treatment.  

“When you have a bleeding spleen in the ER,” Diehl explains, you often have to help the dog owner make a decision quickly about whether to pursue treatment. Some research studies aim to create a point-of-care test that can determine a dog’s hemangiosarcoma subtype to aid in rapid decisionmaking about treatment options and prognosis.  

Diehl is very excited about some other hemangiosarcoma studies as well. One of them is examining the use of beta blockers in vitro to prevent doxorubicin resistance in hemangiosarcoma cells.  

Researchers at the University of Minnesota have treated dogs with a novel EGF bispecific ligand targeted angiotoxin (eBAT) to kill cancer cells and double survival times and survival rates in dogs diagnosed with hemangiosarcoma.   

Another promising use for eBAT is as a preventive therapy for dogs suspected to be at high risk for developing hemangiosarcoma in the future based on testing for early biomarkers. 

In order to encourage and support more of this high-quality research, MAF will hold multiple rounds of calls for proposals on hemangiosarcoma research over the next few years, said Diehl. They are encouraging researchers to use samples collected through the Golden Retriever Lifetime Study as well.   

To fund all of these grants, MAF puts a lot of effort into expanding their pool of donations, which, Diehl notes, come almost exclusively from individual donors. This includes veterinarians who donate in honor of their patients after their passing, as well as pet owners, breed clubs, philanthropists, and other organizations.  

The research funded by MAF is sure to bring many exciting and monumental discoveries to the field of animal health, and it all began with one veterinarian who had the courage and the creativity to do things that had never been done before. May this example serve as an inspiration to all of us as we continue to help our profession grow in new ways and help our patients live longer, happier lives.  

Further reading 


 Photo credit: smrm1977 © E+ via Getty Images Plus 

Disclaimer: The views expressed, and topics discussed, in any NEWStat column or article are intended to inform, educate, or entertain, and do not represent an official position by the American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) or its Board of Directors. 



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