When we think of the dog known as the Golden Retriever, we think of a lovable, large dog with tons of long, red gold fur, and an easy, friendly temperament. From movies like “Air Bud” and “The Incredible Journey” to the neighborhood back yard, Goldens are a popular family pet. What’s not to love about a Golden? Gulden’s are the third most popular dog in the United States, coming in close behind the Labrador Retriever and German Shepherd. As they are quite versatile and love the outdoors. Goldens are also excellent hunting dogs, do well in the water despite their thick coats, and are easily trainable. This breed makes an excellent service dog and emotional support animal. Golden Retrievers can run fast and are incredibly agile to boot. What some do not know is that their average life span is only about 11 to 12 years.
Yes, bigger dogs generally have shorter life spans than say, a Chihuahua, who can live up to 20 years. Many experts attribute that to the slower growth rate that somehow acts to curtail the onset of disease. Of course, good nutrition, timely vet visits and regular exercise, and good shelter can help a dog live if the breed’s genetic makeup allows. Dog breeds like humans have complex and individual DNA as well as shared characteristics according to classification. Great Danes, due to their massive size, are prone to skeletal problems as well as heart disease and blindness. Some breeds, like the Siberian Husky, are commonly treated for Hip Dysplasia and terrier type dogs, like Beagles commonly contract Crushing’s Syndrome. Dogs with floppy ears like Bassett Hounds, without due care, can suffer from ear infections. One awful disease, however, is also responsible for the premature, painful deaths of many canines of a certain breed.
One of the biggest threats to the lives of Golden Retrievers, that can take their lives early is cancer. Yes, like humans whose lives can be cruelly curtailed by the disease, dogs can also become ill and die from cancer. The most common type of canine cancers are bone cancer and lymphoma, also common in humans. Cancer is the leading cause of death in dogs over two years of age. It is the second most common cause of death in humans, right behind heart disease.
What makes this even more heartbreaking is that 60 percent of Golden Retrievers contract cancer in their lifetime. This statistic comes from The Morris Animal Foundation, an organization that is committed to studying diseases that threaten and shorten the lives of animals. The study is particularly aimed at understanding illness in Goldens, the Golden Retriever Lifetime Study, is currently underway to understand the causes and find a cure for cancer and other debilitating diseases. Dr. Rodney Page, Veterinarian Oncologist, a chief investigator on the Morris Animal Foundation Team, advises that genetics, lifestyle and environment all play a role. Not only is the data from the study important, but also the study itself, as a model for gathering patient data. As dogs have much shorter lives than humans, conducting a lifelong research study is quicker and may lead to sooner breakthroughs.
The Golden Retriever Lifetime Study, Or GRLS, as it’s called, is gaining some national attention. An article featured in The Washington Post, “How 3.000 Very Good Golden Retrievers Could Help All Dogs Live Longer,” details the painstaking biomedical testing, observation and date collection that goes into the 32-million-dollar research project. Take for example a Chicago Golden Retriever named Piper, whose trip to the vet lasts 3 full hours while she gets the usual look over that takes less than twenty minutes for other dogs. Her fur and nails are inspected, her bodily fluids are collected, and her owner is interviewed. Yes, dog owners are a very important piece of the study puzzle, as they report on feeding, bowel, bladder and exercise habits of the dogs they care for on a daily basis. Although Piper is four years old, she entered the study, like the other canine participants, before she was two years old. Environment is also a critical factor, such as where and when they travel and if their lawn or neighborhood walking area is treated with pesticides. The animals involved in these studies, are pampered and treated with the utmost care and nothing invasive or cruel is ever done to the dogs in the name of research. Just like a normal vet visit would include blood tests and urine and stool samples, these dogs give these test samples during routine visits to monitor their health and also to improve the lives of other animals now and in the future. It’s easier to monitor a dog than a person, as dogs are generally quite cooperative, don’t lie about their symptoms, don’t have bad habits such as smoking or drinking alcohol, and as most of their environment can be controlled by their owners or foster family, it is not unlikely that the study may yield some valuable results.
Piper is just one of 3, 000 dogs that are studied across their lifespan in real time. This is the first study of its kind and also the largest. Morris Animal Foundation has partnered with the animal research team at Colorado State University and, of course, local veterinarians to compile and analyze this data. Other canine research studies have led to new insights into preventing and curing disease. The money and time spent on this project may cause cynics to find this work excessive and a waste of resource; however, looking at the big picture and what it means for cancer research shows its money well spent. The funding comes from grants and private donations and lots and lots of volunteer hours. This extensive study that will last the lives of the dogs themselves, is not just important for the family pet and dog lovers. The information concerning prevention, early detection and treatment means progress for man’s best friend as well as humans. If a cure could be found for canine cancer, can a cure for human cancer be far behind?