UW School of Veterinary Medicine is paving the way for healthier animals, people and the planet

The vet school sees 30,000 patients each year, but that's far from all the veterinary medical hospital does for the community and beyond.
two vet students holding a dog
Photo by Patrick Stutz

Last spring, my sweet Labrador mix, Sully, became only the third patient ever treated by the University of Wisconsin School of Veterinary Medicine’s new Radixact machine. The cutting-edge radiation machine had only begun treating patients that week, and UW was the only veterinary medical hospital in the world that offered this new technology. “That can’t be right,” I’d texted my husband when he informed me of this news after dropping Sully off for radiation that day. It’s my job to be skeptical, so I researched — and verified — this claim.

It wouldn’t be the last time I’d be surprised by the remarkable work coming out of the vet school in our backyard, a discovery that continues to this day. Sully returned later that year to participate in a clinical trial that was aimed at helping both dogs and humans — all of which was paid for by the school — and he loved every visit. One of his caregivers there turned out to be a researcher whose other work was being funded by Czar’s Promise, the local nonprofit that had helped my family pay for Sully’s cancer treatments along the way. (Czar’s Promise also funds pediatric cancer research at the American Family Children’s Hospital, where my 13-year-old cousin was undergoing treatment at the same time.) As it turned out, Sully was just one of the 30,000 patient visits the vet school sees each year. It seemed like every time we brought him in, I learned something new about the school’s reach. And despite all this, I still didn’t know the half of it.

“We do about three-quarters of all the infectious disease research on the UW–Madison campus,” says Mark Markel, who has served as dean of the school for the last 10 of his 31 years on campus. When I asked him what else people might not realize, he told me it was vet school faculty (along with faculty from the School of Medicine and Public Health) that led the way in understanding how COVID-19 variants were cropping up, morphing and transmitting among Wisconsin communities. It was faculty member Yoshihiro Kawaoka’s team that was tapped by the National Institutes of Health to develop a new pan-coronavirus vaccine with $7 million in funding, and it was the Wisconsin Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory that was responsible for getting much of the campus’ human population tested over the last two years since the pandemic began. Beyond COVID-19, he says, the school is a worldwide leader in tickborne and tropical diseases, particularly Zika virus, and, along with the College of Agricultural & Life Sciences, serves as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s designated Midwest Center of Excellence for Vector-Borne Diseases.

doctor looking at a petri dish

The School of Veterinary Medicine’s $150 million construction project will modernize and expand lab space for researchers such as Adel Talaat to continue studying infectious diseases.(Courtesy of UW School of Veterinary Medicine)

Was I the only one who hadn’t understood all that was going on here, and just how much advancements in pet health affected human health?

“That’s one piece I think people really don’t have a true understanding of,” Markel confirmed — but that awareness is changing, particularly since the pandemic.

“I think COVID has really brought out this idea of one health, this intersection between humans and animals and the environment and that they are all interconnected,” Markel says. “That’s where veterinary medicine serves an important and critical role.”

The fact that Sully was able to benefit from cutting-edge technology is not unusual for the vet school, either. Radixact was developed by Accuray, the company that bought TomoTherapy, a Madison startup co-founded by UW–Madison Professor Thomas Rockwell “Rock” Mackie, who developed what is now the most widely used radiation technology for humans in the world. Dogs with nasal tumors who were patients of the vet school helped develop tomotherapy technology in the first place through clinical trials, and then UW became the first veterinary hospital to get a TomoTherapy machine. Mackie then teamed up with Markel and other faculty members to develop orthopedic surgeon Peter Muir’s idea for a standing CT scan that allows horses and other large animals to walk in — the first of its kind. And in 2021, after winning funding from the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation’s Varsity Venture Studio, current vet student (and Team USA women’s hockey player) Annie Pankowski and her sister, Ali, developed and launched the Transfur app, which helps veterinarians digitize and connect pets’ electronic health records.

“We have an array of people that are very entrepreneurial on this campus, as well as in the school, that are really here to serve veterinary medicine to a greater extent,” Markel says.

computer generated space of the UW Vet School

Rendering of the School of Veterinary Medicine’s $150 million construction project (Courtesy of UW School of Veterinary Medicine)

There are also charitable initiatives I knew next to nothing about, such as the Wisconsin Companion Animal Resources, Education and Social Services clinic, or WisCARES, which provides no- or low-cost veterinary care and foster support for pet owners experiencing homelessness or housing insecurity. Co-founded by current director Ruthanne Chun, the clinic started in a vehicle and then moved to a Quonset hut. It has since evolved into a stand-alone facility and a collaboration with the schools of social work and pharmacy to provide housing support and other social services to those pet owners.

“It’s a significant learning opportunity for our students … and I think it’s a great way to understand what each other are doing, back to that [idea of] one health,” Markel says. “We’re treating the animals, somebody else is helping with the animal’s owner, and in an environment [in which] they feel safe and supported. So it’s been, I think, a tremendous resource for the Madison community and something that I think all of us are really proud of.”

All of these advancements, plus an initiative to educate more veterinarians in the face of a global shortage, have caused the school to outgrow its current facility. Opened in 1983 and designed to see fewer than half the patients it currently does, the school is undergoing a $150 million construction project, about $60 million of which will be raised from donations. It will double the size of the small animal hospital, significantly improve the large animal hospital, expand labs for studying naturally occurring animal and human diseases, and modernize and increase the size of the infectious disease research laboratories.

I had no idea the UW Vet School has more specialties and specialists than any other hospital in the state, or that it brought in a total of $32.1 million in research dollars last year alone. It always felt like a small vet clinic to me, despite all these big initiatives going on within those walls. I only knew that Sully loved his vet friends at the hospital and that they loved him right back. He died in March, a full 18 months after a diagnosis that would have taken him much earlier without their care. They used to text me photos of him loving up on the radiation techs, and when he “graduated” they sent him home with a bandana they’d all signed. I’ve got that bandana hanging with his collar now as a reminder of the people behind the efforts — and of the fact that we all really do share “one health.”

Maggie Ginsberg is an associate editor of Madison Magazine.

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