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Feeling Their Pain: STAR Program Puts Student in the Clinic to Assess Pain Medications in Cats

StudentCats don't react as other species do to certain pain medications. This uncertainty makes some veterinarians reluctant to prescribe pain-killing opiates before or after surgery. Newer synthetic drugs in this category, however, show promise for preventing suffering in feline surgical patients.

Typically, faculty members evaluate the safety and effectiveness of these drugs. However, the Students Training in Advanced Research (STAR) program encourages veterinary students to participate in studies while still in veterinary school.

Ryan Garcia, Class of 2008, has worked as an animal health technician since the age of 16. He was looking for a change of pace in summer employment and wanted to explore anesthesiology as a specialty of small animal medicine while studying for his veterinary degree.

Garcia combined his goals by applying to the STAR program, a summer program that introduces veterinary students to scientific research by providing paid training and hands-on research opportunities with faculty mentors.

As his mentor, Garcia sought out Peter Pascoe, a small animal anesthesiologist specializing in pain management. Together they crafted a two-part study. First, Garcia was to assess and compare the effectiveness of two synthetic opiates in calming cats during surgical preparation. Secondly, he would evaluate how well the drugs worked to manage feline pain after spay surgery. 

The proposal, "The Efficacy of Methadone and Hydromorphone in Preoperative and Postoperative Analgesia for Ovariohysterectomy (OVH) in the Cat," was selected as one of 44 STAR research projects funded in 2005.

"It was my first time to do research and design such a proposal," Garcia recalls. "It was hard--and rewarding." Felines tend to appear stoical, Garcia explains, so it was a challenge to classify if and how a painkiller reduced symptoms of pain and distress. The assessments would be based on observable behavior.

Working with cases at the Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital, Garcia observed cats before and after they were sedated. He recorded how the animals responded to touching, restraint, the sound of hair clippers (used to shave areas where needles will be inserted), and light pressure. Other signs such as pupil size, sleepiness, posture and meows also indicated how the cats were reacting.

By the end of summer, Garcia noted, "I started to see some apparent differences between the two drugs we used. Even if results show that there's not a lot of difference, the study may show that the higher cost of one of them may not be worth it."

New knowledge emerging from Garcia's study may be of interest to small animal practitioners. "The study outcome may help a veterinarian decide what would be better for a patient. I like that direct effect that clinical research can have," he says.

STAR administrators hope that the research projects will lead to a greater interest in veterinary research careers. "Research is clearly an area where we need lots of expertise," states program coordinator Kent Lloyd, associate dean for the school's Office of Research and Graduate Education. "The STAR initiative offers an important strategy for recruitment of veterinarians considering the research path."

Students and mentors agree that the training experience has an intrinsic value regardless of veterinary career path selected. 
The problem-solving approach to research stands to help veterinarians become better diagnosticians. Also, with a clear understanding of the underpinnings of research, graduates will appreciate more fully the science behind new tests and veterinary  treatments. 

Garcia continues to explore anesthesia as a veterinary specialty. After completing veterinary school, "I see myself continuing clinical research in five or so years," Garcia says. Whether he ultimately chooses clinical practice or academia, he explains, "It's all for the benefit of the animals."