How 3,000 very good golden retrievers could help all dogs live longer

 Most dogs get poked and prodded at the veterinarian’s office. Piper, a 4-year-old golden retriever in Chicago, gets far more scrutiny than that.

Her annual checkup this month took three hours. Her flaxen hair was trimmed and bagged, her toenails clipped and kept, her bodily fluids collected. Everything was destined for a biorepository in the Washington suburbs that holds similar samples from more than 3,000 other purebred golden retrievers from across the country. The dogs, though they do not know it, are participating in an ambitious, $32 million research project that researchers hope will yield insights into the causes of cancers and other diseases common to goldens, other breeds and maybe even humans.

All the dogs were enrolled in the Golden Retriever Lifetime Study before they turned 2, and all will be closely tracked for their entire lives. The researchers, from Colorado State University and the Morris Animal Foundation, are not just analyzing biological matter. They’re also compiling exhaustive data, recorded and reported each year by the dogs’ owners, on every aspect of the pooches’ lives: what they eat, where they sleep, whether their lawns are treated with pesticides, whether their teeth get brushed and more.

Longitudinal studies like this — with information gathered in real time — help researchers detect causes and effects that might be missed in other kinds of studies. Some focused on humans who have tracked thousands of babies born in the United Kingdom during one week in 1970 and monitored the cardiovascular health of residents of Framingham, Mass. But this is the first and largest lifetime longitudinal study of pets, and the hope is that it will shed light on links between golden retrievers’ health and their genetics, diets, environments and lifestyles.

Some of “these dogs will get cancer as they age . . . but in the meantime, they are doing everything that dogs do,” said principal investigator Rodney Page, a veterinary oncologist who directs Colorado State’s Flint Animal Cancer Center. As for tracking the minutiae of participants’ lives, “some of these things seem kind of silly, but you never know what you’re going to identify as a significant risk factor with an outcome that you could easily change.”

That information, by extension, could be useful for other breeds, as well as people, who develop cancer and respond to treatments in similar ways to dogs.

At its core, the study is about cancer — what Page calls “the No. 1 concern among dog owners.” The disease is the leading cause of death in dogs over age 2 and something diagnosed in half of dogs older than 10. The prevalence is believed to be slightly higher in golden retrievers, which most often succumb to mast cell tumors, bone cancer, lymphoma or hemangiosarcoma (originating in the lining of blood vessels).

 

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