Riddle: What do cats, dogs, llamas, gorillas, and your horse have in common?
Answer: Morris Animal Foundation.
That's right. The next time you pass your cat or dog, tell her thanks. For it was one man's passion for improving her world that helped lead to health innovations in your horse's (not to mention those of gorillas and llamas). These innovations include the discovery of the defective-gene marker and chromosomal location of Combined Immunodeficiency Disease (CID), a fatal genetic condition that affects Arabian horses . . . research that led to the late 1980s development of a vaccine for Potomac horse fever . . . studies focusing on acupuncture for pain management . . . and continuing efforts to understand-and control-such insidious equine-health problems as laminitis, colitis, and foal pneumonia.
With the slogan "A healthier tomorrow for animals" supporting its logo, Morris has big plans for the future. But it all sprouted from humble beginnings in one veterinarian's garage.
Food for Thought
Mark L. Morris, DVM, was frustrated. He was practicing small-animal medicine at a time when research for cats and dogs was nearly nil.
"In the years between 1930 and 1950, the need for canine and feline research was very obvious in our practice," he recalled at one Foundation meeting. "It was most difficult to have canine or feline research done at the veterinary colleges, as funds to support these institutions . . . were oriented toward livestock and agriculture. There was no one responsible for organizing or funding companion-animal research."
Then-it was the late 1940s-fate stepped in. Dr. Morris discovered that some canine kidney ailments could be successfully managed with a low-protein diet. So he developed a mix to feed affected dogs: a homemade blend of dry cereals, vitamins, minerals, and fresh cottage cheese. In the Morrises' New Jersey garage, his wife began canning the concoction for clients.
One of Dr. Morris's early kidney-food patients was Buddy, the first Seeing Eye, Inc., guide dog in the US. Buddy and his blind owner, Morris Frank, traveled the country on behalf of the program. In their wake, word of Dr. Morris's homemade miracle spread.
Soon demand for the food exceeded the family's ability to can it. Dr. Morris negotiated a production contract with Hill Packing Company. (His food formed the basis of today's Prescription Diet? pet foods by that company, now known as Hill's Pet Nutrition, Inc.) Sensing an opportunity for research money, Dr. Morris stipulated that a half cent per can sold would go to his newly formed Buddy Foundation, a nonprofit organization whose purpose was to fund companion-animal health studies. He named the foundation for the guide dog that helped put him on the map.
By 1959, the Foundation had its current name, Morris Animal Foundation, had a board of trustees, and was funding multiple canine and feline studies. Meanwhile, at his summer home in Denver, Colorado, Dr. Morris was becoming aware of the increase in recreational use of horses as part of the postwar economic boom. In 1960, the veterinarian joined a group of men called the Roundup Riders of the Rockies, who met for regular rides through the scenic mountain country-and before long, he came to see horses as companion animals, rather than livestock.
Through General Wayne O. Kester, DVM, a retired US Air Force veterinary chief and fellow Denver horseman, Dr. Morris also became keenly aware of the dearth of studies in equine medicine. The result? Another mission.
The two vets set about using the Foundation to improve veterinary medicine for horses, with General Kester serving as Director of Research. They were a powerful pair: Up until 1960, none of the veterinary schools in the US had offered equine-medicine programs. Today, thanks to Drs. Morris and Kester, every state-related vet school now has such a program, as do many private institutions.
The rest, as they say, is history-and history in the making.
Helping Your Horse
Fueled by money from individuals, corporations, clubs, associations, and other foundations, the Foundation has funded more than 190 equine studies to date, totaling just over $4 million. Each year, it approves an average of ten new horse projects, awarding individual grants that can total over $100,000. (The average grant across all species is $25,000.)
One new route the Foundation has taken is via the Equine Research Coordination Group, a newly formed consortium comprising Morris, the American Association of Equine Practitioners, the American Quarter Horse Foundation, and the Grayson/Jockey Club Research Foundation. Kristin Benjamin, grants manager at the Foundation's Englewood, Colorado, headquarters, explains: "About three years ago, these groups were approached by a panel of experts studying vesicular stomatitis (VS), a virus that causes blisters and sores on the lips and gums. They asked us to provide funds for research into this highly contagious disease. We as a group determined that it would be beneficial to pool our resources and go after a specific health issue." She adds, "The Group may fund other studies going forward."
"Without funding agencies such as Morris, we in the equine industry would be limited to doing very shallow research and small projects," says Jim Belknap, DVM, PhD, Associate Professor of Equine Surgery at Auburn University's College of Veterinary Medicine and a recently appointed member of the Foundation's Scientific Advisory Board. "In the past, the majority of veterinary projects were funded with a $5000 or $10,000 budget, which essentially limited our research to monitoring clinical signs or basic bloodwork to see if there was any improvement when using this drug or that surgery to treat a disease. With Morris's capacity to fund larger projects, we can study what's initiating these diseases, using cutting-edge techniques such as molecular biology. That, we hope, is going to lead to some novel-and effective-treatments."
Dr. Belknap's own Foundation-funded laminitis research underscores that point. "We're trying to identify what initial processes produce laminitis, which occurs when blood supply to the foot is altered, and which can result in crippling damage and the euthanizing of the affected horse," he says. "We know the condition typically results from other diseases; for instance, horses with any type of endotoxin-related disease process (such as acute diarrhea, colitis, colic, a gram-negative pneumonia, or uterine infection) are prone to founder. Usually, though, we don't see clinical signs of laminitis until approximately forty-eight hours after the initial disease strikes. By that time, there's commonly irreparable damage to the finger-like laminae that bind the coffin bone to the hoof wall.
"So our focus is on what happens in the forty-eight-hour period before signs appear. There are probably multiple toxins being absorbed by the horse's body, triggering the release of numerous mediators"-proteins that may trigger blood-vessel and other physiologic changes-"eventually leading to the pathologic changes we see in the foot. Our goal is to identify those initial mediators, using molecular-biology techniques. If we can block their effects, we may be able to stop the laminitic process before permanent damage occurs."
Dr. Belknap is quick to point out that his study is merely one of many funded by the Foundation, using the latest technology to make the world a better place for horses. For instance, "One of the Foundation's priorities right now is pain management. This is an area that's relatively new in the equine industry. In the past, our idea of pain management in the horse consisted mainly of giving phenylbutazone or Banamine? (flunixin meglumine). By making pain management a funding priority, Morris is making us pay attention to an important topic concerning humane treatment of horses that has received minimal attention up to now. The Foundation recently funded a study on the effects of acupuncture on pain. A lot of people think it's not a viable treatment in equine medicine, but it may be. The problem right now is that most of the information concerning acupuncture is anecdotal. This study will either validate its use or invalidate it."
Other studies shine a spotlight on genetics. "We're beginning to invest heavily in developing an equine genome (genetic map for horses), as was recently done for humans," says Morris's Kristin Benjamin. "Ernest Bailey, PhD, of the University of Kentucky, is heading up the Foundation's study, which involves multiple geneticists at several universities. This will enable us to better detect diseases, determine whether they're hereditary, and help with the development of vaccines and gene therapy."
A genetic link may be unearthed in a study on equine rhabdomyolysis (tying up), a condition that can result in muscle cramping and damage. "Findings are leading researchers to believe some forms of this disease are hereditary," Kristin Benjamin says. "We've just started a four-year study at the University of Minnesota to determine if there is a link between inheritance of a genetic marker and the disease. If that's the case, and a genetic test becomes available, people could use the test to manage their breeding programs."
Show Me the Money
Competition for Morris money can be tough. The Scientific Advisory Board, composed of eight volunteer veterinarians recognized as leaders in their fields, reviews all proposals for companion-animal research. (A separate board reviews wildlife research projects-more on those below.) Every year, the first waves arrive in the form of "pre-proposals": two-page pitches outlining research programs and requesting funding. (In November 2000, the Foundation received 393 such proposals, of which fifty-three were for equine research.)
Board members evaluate each proposal using such criteria as scientific merit and relevance-meaning the research is relevant to a condition that's fairly common in veterinary medicine, not something that's going to affect only a few animals. They also evaluate the track record of researchers performing each study (known as "investigators"), and whether the research can be accomplished in a timely manner.
Those whose pre-proposals pass the first review get a request for in-depth proposals. Another Board evaluation winnows those proposals down to a final selection that will be recommended for grant money.
Of the fifty-three equine pre-proposals received last November, twenty-seven were selected to submit full proposals. Judging by normal trends, Kristin Benjamin says, "Chances are, Morris will fund about half of those."
You can bet those will be dollars well spent.
Of Gorillas, Llamas, and Horses
Dr. Morris's vision was to find a way to provide better health care for animals-all animals. To that end, the Foundation has expanded to include health research on a variety of critters, including marine mammals, cheetahs, and elephants. Its current programs include the Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project, which provides health care and non-invasive studies for the endangered mountain gorillas in east central Africa. Research into llama and alpaca care is also ongoing.
But Dr. Morris's love of horses was what brought so much good to the equine world. Following the veterinarian's death in 1993, his fellow horsemen showed their gratitude: His beloved Roundup Riders of the Rockies held an empty-saddle ceremony, leading a riderless horse to symbolize the loss of their friend.
The Foundation's successes have been impressive, but there are still diseases to battle. New scientific discoveries can make past findings obsolete, sparking the need for additional research-and for raising money to fund these efforts. Dr. Morris's son, Mark L. Morris, Jr., DVM, PhD, sits on the Foundation's Board of Trustees, working with the dedicated staff and volunteers to continue his father's vision.
He has big stirrups to fill.
This article first appeared in the May, 2001 issue of Practical Horseman magazine.