Winners of Europe’s most prestigious veterinary awards revealed

A leading veterinary dermatologist, a pioneering researcher specialising in canine tick-borne diseases, a devoted breed health coordinator, a PhD student researching pancreatic diseases and a veterinary student examining a life-altering parasite have each received one of the largest veterinary awards in the world for the role they are playing in transforming dog health.

The International Canine Health Awards, organised by the Kennel Club Charitable Trust, were held on Tuesday 22nd May at the Kennel Club in London.

This year’s awards were presented to Professor Yasuko Rikihisa from the Department of Veterinary Biosciences at the College of Veterinary Medicine, Ohio State University; Dr Danny Scott, James Law of Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine, New York; Royal Veterinary College PhD student, Alice Denyer; University of Liverpool third-year undergraduate student, Jennifer Palfreyman; and breed health co-ordinator for Basset Hounds, Tina Watkins.

The winners were given prize money to further their work in the field of canine research, underwritten by a major gift from Vernon and Shirley Hill of Metro Bank. Professor Yasuko Rikihisa was awarded £40,000 for the International Award, Dr Danny Scott was awarded £10,000 for the Lifetime Achievement Award, Alice Denyer was awarded £10,000 for the Postgraduate Student Inspiration Award, Jennifer Palfreyman received £5,000 for the Undergraduate Student Inspiration Award, and Tina Watkins received £1,000 for the Breed Health Co-ordinator Award. Nominations for the awards were judged by a panel of influential representatives from the veterinary profession and the world of scientific research.

Launched at Crufts in 2012, the International Canine Health Awards were developed to recognise and reward innovative researchers, veterinary scientists and students who are significantly impacting the health and well-being of dogs. The awards are judged by a panel of influential representatives from the veterinary profession and the world of scientific research. The winners have won awards for their work in the following areas:

Professor Yasuko Rikihisa – The 2018 recipient of the International Award was recognised for her ground breaking work into a number of tick-borne diseases that infect dogs, other companion animals and humans.

Prof Rikihisa has been a pioneer and prolific contributor to Rickettsial disease, which affects dogs, other companion animals and humans, transmitted by ticks. Ticks have been long known to be a source of infectious diseases in both animals and humans, and the results of her decades of research into this area have directly lead to the development of the diagnostic tests used in veterinary practices around the world to identify dogs infected with one particular Rickettsial disease called Ehrlichiosis (also known as canine typhus). This is a debilitating and often fatal condition caused by a parasite that infects and survives within the white blood cells of its host.

During the 1980s, Prof Rikihisa developed a method for growing the Ehrlichia organism in laboratory culture, a pre-requisite for carrying out research into how the parasite interacts with its host. This development supported her later research into diagnostic methods which have allowed fast and accurate diagnosis at an earlier stage of the disease, improving the prospects for effective treatment and reducing the risk of the infection being passed on to other dogs.

Prof Rikihisa is a highly respected author, responsible for 277 peer-reviewed papers in the scientific literature and 26 chapters in books and conference proceedings. In 2012 she was elected a member of the prestigious US National Academy of Science for her contributions in this area, where she became a sought-after expert and international contributor to knowledge base in tick-borne diseases. She has also been granted 18 patents in the US and abroad on the laboratory technologies developed through her work.

With the £40,000 she was awarded at the International Canine Health Awards, Prof Rikihisa hopes to continue to support a research project within her laboratories at the College of Veterinary Medicine at Ohio State University, which it is hoped will eventually lead to the first vaccine treatment for canine Ehrlichiosis. Although much of her research is focussed on developing methods for controlling human diseases, the funding she received for this award will be deployed to directly benefit canine health in the field of tick-borne infectious diseases.

After receiving her award, Yasuko said: “It’s a great honour to receive this award. We are currently working hard to develop a vaccine for canine Ehrlichiosis and the award money will really help towards this.”

Dr Danny Scott – The winner of the Lifetime Achievement Award received the award for his contribution to improving the health and wellbeing of dogs and other animals through both his original research on skin diseases and his teaching of successive generations of young veterinarians. His peers describe him as one of the best known and most respected veterinary dermatologists in the world.

Dr Scott underwent his initial training in his home state before crossing the States in 1971 to take up an internship in small animal medicine at Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine, New York, where he was then based throughout an illustrious career. During his 45 year career working on all species, with a particular focus on dogs, cats and horses, Dr Scott developed new methods for analysing skin lesions which have revolutionised the diagnosis of many different diseases by making the results of skin biopsies easier to interpret.

The James Law Professor of Dermatology (emeritus) was responsible for improving the recognition and treatment of generalised demodicosis in dogs, a distressing condition which previously would often have resulted in euthanasia. He also carried out crucial studies on the various autoimmune dermatoses of dogs, such as pemphigus erythematosus. His vast output of published research includes descriptions of 38 novel treatment regimens for various skin conditions and work on clinical trials of 26 different drug treatments.

His easy-going nature and passion for his subject have made Dr Scott a popular teacher and lecturer. He has guided the early professional careers of 26 veterinary residents and around 100 postgraduate students. He is also in demand as a speaker at meetings for fellow veterinarians, dog breeders and others. At the last count he had delivered more than 400 presentations at events across the globe. 

Speaking about his work, Danny said: “When I was a veterinary student and I started doing lectures in dermatology, there were only 35 recognised diseases in all species. Now there are approximately 4,000. As an early graduate, most diseases had no names but I knew they had to be something more than that. Over the years I described about 50 or so diseases which previously had never been recognised before in canine skin, also around 20 pathological conditions that had never been documented. So my dream has come true, I’ve helped push the frontier forward in disease recognition and skin pathology.

“Next to my own children, my residents are as close to children as I have – I’m not actively involved in the profession anymore, but I love picking up a journal, seeing their name on it and going wow I remember when they were a young resident, look at them now. It makes me think that maybe I did make a difference, that’s the one time you stop to think about your own achievements. Not for the things you’ve written or the talks you’ve given, but when one of your residents does something great – you go wow, there’s a little piece of me in there.”

Alice Denyer – Alice received the Postgraduate Student Inspiration Award to help further her research into the genetic differences between individual dog breeds that are susceptible to pancreatic diseases such as diabetes.

Alice’s project will investigate the differences between Samoyeds which have a high prevalence of diabetes, and Boxers which have a tendency to develop a specific type of tumour affecting the same cells as diabetes, with the hope that in the future she will also be able to look at the genes of other breeds including Tibetan and Cairn Terriers. It is hoped that in time, Alice’s project could also pave the way for similar studies to be carried out for other diseases in dogs, through the creation and development of techniques used to investigate canine genetics.

After graduating from the University of Cambridge in 2015, Alice spent two years working as a first opinion small animal vet at Dacre House Veterinary Clinic in Tunbridge Wells before a short spell working as a locum vet around her home county of Kent. It was during this time practicing as a vet that Alice developed a particular interest in management of endocrine diseases in her canine patients, and most notably diabetes in particular.

Alice successfully applied for a prestigious London Interdisciplinary Doctorate programme and in September 2017, began studying for her PhD at the Royal Veterinary College in Hertfordshire, under the supervision of professors Brian Catchpole and Lucy Davison.

Funding from the International Canine Health Awards will allow Alice to carry out a detailed analysis of the whole genome in her two selected dog breeds, the Samoyed and the Boxer. She hopes that one day she will be able to extend the study to look at the genes that determine the risk of developing pancreatic disease in two other common breeds, the Tibetan and Cairn Terriers. Understanding the genetic causes of different forms of diabetes and pancreatic tumours will have a profound impact on dog welfare by speeding up the development of new diagnostic and therapeutic methods

After winning the award, Alice commented: “It was very nerve-wracking receiving the award, but it was a great privilege to be up there accepting it. I’m in the early stages of my PhD at the moment but I’m really excited about the potential it has and am really enjoying it. The next step will be to analyse the genetic data, which will take a little bit of time, then depending on what we find we will be looking at some functional studies of those genes. It might be more lab work or collaborating with others, but it will depend on what we find.

“The funding from this award will allow us to include other breeds in the project – the genome sequencing which is involved in the project is quite expensive, so we have been quite limited in the number of dogs that can be involved in the study. Having the extra funding will enable more dog breeds to be included which is great.”

Jennifer Palfreyman – Jennifer received the Undergraduate Student Inspiration Award for her current work on the oriental eye worm Thelazia callipaeda, a parasitic infection in dogs, cats and humans which will cause blindness if left untreated.

Jennifer, who is also a professional saxophone player, won the Undergraduate award for her dedicated work into oriental eye worm Thelazia callipaeda, which she first developed an interest in after studying parasitology during her second year at university.

During summer 2017, Jennifer received funding from the Wellcome Trust to conduct a research project into the eye worm at the University of Liverpool's Institute of Infection and Global Health. As the parasite is spread by the fruit fly Phortica, Jennifer wanted to examine the distribution of the insect across six locations in the UK, to determine the risk of the parasite becoming established in the UK.

Recently, three cases of Thelazia callipaeda have been identified in dogs travelling to the UK from mainland Europe, and with the Government’s Pet Travel Scheme, many dogs are regularly travelling to and from countries in the European Union with no control measures to prevent importation of the parasite. Not only is the UK’s dog population, and other domestic animals, at risk of developing the infection but it is also a public health concern, as the disease can be transmitted to humans from animals.

With the £5,000 she was awarded at the International Canine Health Awards, Jennifer hopes to continue her research into the parasite, extending her work over a greater geographical area to assess further risks. Her grant has already supported her attending British Society of Parasitology conference in Aberystwyth where she met Professor Domenico Otranto from the University of Bari in Italy. Professor Otranto is among the foremost European experts on the Thelazia parasite and meeting him was a unique opportunity to discuss ideas for further collaborative work into the subject. Jennifer has also been able to expand her work in creating information sheets and other educational materials to alert vets in first opinion practices across Britain to the threat posed by the disease.

After winning the award, Jennifer said:"It’s fantastic to be awarded this – it came out of the blue really. I was contacted by the university asking for me to apply and I thought why not?

“I really enjoy parasitology, and when this project came up to study the fruit fly and eye worm, as a dog lover it made sense to pursue it.”

Tina Watkins – The recipient of the International Canine Health Award’s newest award, for Breed Health Coordinator of the Year, was Tina Watkins from Cross Keys, Gwent for her hard work educating breeders and owners about the health of the Basset Hound, after 27 years dedicated to the breed.

Tina, who was involved in the transport industry for many years before changing careers, has always been a dog lover and owner. She kept a number of different breeds before settling on the Basset Hound. After having her first Basset Hound litter in 1990, she went on to have an extremely successful dog showing and judging career, as well as being a very well respected Kennel Club Assured Breeder.

Since getting involved in the breed, Tina has become an ambassador for the health and welfare for Basset Hounds. She used talents and skills gain in her old career to help organise and run health screenings as well as training for fellow breeders.

Tina is one of the first points of contact for Basset breeders and owners when it comes to the health of the breed and she has gained a lot of respect for the time and effort she puts into her work. Not only does she run the health group meetings, she coordinates the eight separate clubs serving the breed in the UK as well as travelling around the country educating both new and old Basset Hound owners.

As a health coordinator for the Basset Hound club, her particular skill has been in encouraging others in the breed clubs to have their dogs tested for cherry eye, glaucoma and other eye diseases commonly inherited by Bassets.

Many people see Tina as a ‘true custodian’ of the breed and her passion, determination and energy have been acknowledged in the wider world of dog ownership through her membership of the Kennel Club and as a mentor for breed health coordinators across the UK.

After receiving the award, Tina said: “I’m so pleased, I can’t even begin to describe how delighted I am. It’s not just for me, it’s for all the Breed Health Coordinators out there who can see exactly what can be done when we work together.

“The funds are going into the Basset Hound health group, although I’m the Breed Health Coordinator, the group is made up of two representatives of each of the eight clubs. Although I’m the recipient of this award, I couldn’t do what I do without the other members. It’s my job to facilitate, to organise and synchronise and above all harmonise.”

Professor Steve Dean, chairman of trustees of the Kennel Club Charitable Trust, which runs the International Canine Health Awards, said: “We are very enthusiastic about recognising the incredible progress these five talented individuals have achieved through their hard work, passion and dedication into improving the health and welfare of dogs across the world. They lead an international field of high quality applicants who demonstrate, through their innovative research, the value of our talented veterinary research community worldwide.

“Our five outstanding winners each endeavour to increase our knowledge and understanding of canine disease and have dedicated their lives to helping man’s best friend.  We are very glad to be able to honour them through these awards and want to thank them for their contribution to improving the lives of so many dogs through their pioneering application of science and tireless work. We hope that their work and these awards inspire future generations of animal lovers and veterinary scientists for many years to come.”

Vernon Hill, Founder and Chairman of Metro Bank, and Shirley Hill, whose foundation underwrites the awards commented: “Congratulations to the 2018 International Canine Health Award winners. It is now the premier, global veterinary award. We are pleased to recognise such talented and inspirational individuals that work tirelessly to improve the health and welfare of canines and humans alike, all across the world.”

Professor Alan Kelly, Emeritus Dean, Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine and judge for last year’s awards, said: “The Kennel Club’s International Canine Health Awards are universally recognised as the premier global veterinary awards – very well done to all winners.”

Read more information on the International Canine Health Awards.