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."