Pet Columns, Office of Public Engagement, College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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Hyperparathyroidism: A Condition on the Rise?

Pet Column for the week of October 2, 2006

Office of Public Engagement
2001 S. Lincoln Ave.
Urbana, Illinois 61802
Phone: 217/333-2907
Brookelyn Nitzkin
Information Specialist

Dr. Kathleen Ham, a surgery resident at the University of Illinois Veterinary Teaching Hospital in Urbana, is conducting a surgical study on dogs with hyperparathyroidism. Her research has drawn conclusions from advances in human medicine to develop solutions for our furry friends.

The parathyroid gland sits alongside of your dog or cat's, or even your own, trachea. It secretes a hormone called the parathyroid hormone (PTH). This hormone is in charge of regulating the amount of calcium in your pet's body. Lots of PTH causes the body to absorb calcium from the gut and kidney or even to mobilize it from the bones.

The body usually has a set thermostat for calcium, changing PTH secretion when the levels sink below normal. In patients with hyperparathyroidism the system has gone awry and secretes PTH irrespective of the calcium levels. While this may seem trivial, calcium is one of the ions responsible for making your pet's heart beat (or beat incorrectly). It forms your bones and teeth, and can potentially form harmful substances like bladder stones.

"I think it is important that if your veterinarian finds high levels of calcium in your pet to determine the underlying cause. If a pet stays with high levels of calcium for too long it can be very detrimental and cause recurrent clinical signs disturbing your pets normal lifestyle and comfort level," recommends Dr. Ham.

The overactive gland must be destroyed; one method is surgical. Dr. Hams new proposed surgical technique studies intra-operative efficacy of parathyroid gland removal. She has translated from human medicine to find a better, more efficient way to see if the surgery was successful. In fact, Ham's method provides immediate support that the surgery was successful before the patient is off the operating table.

As PTH is secreted by the parathyroid gland it rapidly disappears from the blood stream. By taking blood from each side of the neck, in the jugular vein, a surgeon like Dr. Ham can tell which side is causing the PTH disturbance. This technique allows her to localize the unregulated gland and remove it. A rapid intra-operative evaluation of the PTH in the blood will tell if the abnormal gland has been removed. If the PTH has gone down to normal levels, the surgery should have cured the animal.

"Like people, animals are living longer and people are identifying incidental clinical findings in regular geriatric check-ups," says Dr. Ham. She believes this new surgery technique will especially benefit geriatric patients by preventing the need for a second surgery if the disease is not cured. "Most patients are geriatric patients whose owners don't want to put through a big, long surgery. This will minimize the extent of surgery."

This is a disease that is very prevalent in human beings and may be more prevalent in our companion animals then previously thought. With animals living longer, Dr. Ham believes this disease will show up more commonly, and perfecting ways to localize the problem and fix it efficiently will minimize the seriousness of this disease.

Dr. Ham is currently seeking animal patients with primary hyperparathyroidism for a clinical trial investigating the use of an intra-operative parathyroid hormone assay. To learn more about this clinical trial, contact Dr. Ham at 217/265-0517 or Additional information can be learned by visiting

For more information about hyperparathyroidism, contact your local veterinarian.