The Golden Retriever Lifetime Study (more than just a Golden Retriever beach party)

The Golden Retriever Lifetime Study  (more than just a Golden Retriever beach party)

You can probably guess from the ever-present strands of yellow fuzz on my scrubs that I share my life with two Golden Retrievers. My obsession with Golden Retrievers was sparked by my first Golden, Milo, who is my competition obedience dog and pet therapy partner. A few years later, my agility fanatic Mochi joined the family. These two bundles of golden sunshine are a major reason why I chose to enter the veterinary profession: While Milo and Mochi are young, athletic dogs right now with no significant health issues, odds are they will one day battle cancer.

The Golden Retriever is a popular pet in the United States, and for good reason. The breed is characterized by an intense desire to please, which translates to a truly versatile dog that can be successful in everything from high drive performance venues (such as field trials and hunt tests) to therapy work. However, in 1999, the Golden Retriever Club of America’s National Health Survey revealed sobering statistics: 60% of Golden Retrievers die of cancer, and it is likely that this statistic has only risen in the past 20 years.

In 2012, the Morris Animal Foundation launched the Golden Retriever Lifetime Study (GRLS), a groundbreaking long-term prospective study to identify risk factors associated with canine cancer. It is likely that this dataset will be the foundation of lifestyle recommendations (age of spay/neuter, diet, vaccination, etc.) that we as future veterinarians will make for our patients, as well as inform human cancer research. The Golden Retriever community of breeders, exhibitors, and pet owners rallied behind the study, raising awareness at dog shows and community events and recruiting new puppy owners to enroll their pets as GRLS “hero dogs”.

The GRLS reached full enrollment of 3000 Golden Retrievers by 2015, and I am proud to say that my own Milo is Hero #419. We track every aspect of Milo’s life, from the caloric breakdown of his meals and snacks to the number of minutes per day spent on various activities, and even the surfaces he prefers to rest on at home (for those interested, his favorites are my bed and the tile floor next to the AC vent). Once per year, Milo receives a full examination and samples of his fur, nails, urine, stool, and blood are submitted for laboratory analysis and preservation. He is the best sport and trots in to his study appointments with a goofy smile and tail going a mile a minute, because of course there’s nothing more fun for a Golden than to have 100% of the attention of a room full of people focused on you.

Yet the truly amazing part of the GRLS is the dedication of pet owners to seeing this study through. Morris recently released the statistic that on the 5th anniversary of the study, 98% of the original hero dogs remain actively enrolled. Supporters of the GRLS have become a family, staying in touch through an active Facebook group and sharing goofy photos of our heroes, the joys of new puppies, and the sorrows of losing our beloved friends too soon. We meet up regularly for beach parties, which are basically doggy heaven with over 30 Golden Retrievers frolicking happily together in the waves and retrieving bumpers to their hearts’ content. Thanks to the GRLS community, I even had the opportunity this summer to spend time with Dr. Mike Lappin, a Massachusetts veterinarian with 19 patients in the study, and experience the process of completing study appointments and sample collection from the other side of the exam room table.

My experience with this inspiring group of owners, veterinarians, and dogs has solidified my interest in canine oncology, and my current plan is to pursue a small animal rotating internship and eventually an oncology residency. I am excited to one day apply the knowledge gained from the GRLS in clinical practice, but I selfishly hope that day will not come for a great many years as Milo and his cohort’s lives will hopefully be very long ones!