Golden retriever study confronts heartbreak of cancer with unparalleled veterinary research effort

Golden retriever study confronts heartbreak of cancer with unparalleled veterinary research effort

Recognizing a large hole in this area of veterinary medical knowledge, Morris Animal Foundation has pioneered the largest study of its kind—and given hope to veterinarians and pet owners alike.
May 01, 2014

"I need to make an appointment to euthanize my golden," says the hesitant voice on the other end of the phone line. "Lymphoma."

Dr. David Haworth, CEO of Morris Animal Foundation, with his own golden retriever, Bridger, a participant in the Golden Retriever Lifetime Study. Haworth hopes this cancer study will improve the health of all dogs. (PHOTOS COURTESY OF MORRIS ANIMAL FOUNDATION)
I express my condolences, the same way I did earlier in the day to the family of the golden with melanoma and the one last week with osteosarcoma. My sympathy is genuine. I have lost retrievers of my own to each one of these diseases. As a veterinarian working in a home hospice practice, I see the grim canine cancer statistics played out every day in goodbyes and tears.

"Why does this have to happen?" pet owners ask, and while I can say, "Genetics, probably," with some degree of confidence, no one knows exactly why certain breeds are more predisposed than others to neoplasia. We know even less about the influence of outside factors such as nutrition and environment. Given that cancer is the leading cause of death in dogs older than 2, our lack of understanding surrounding this disease process represents a large hole in our veterinary medical knowledge base.

What's missing from our database?

Haylee, a 10-week-old golden retriever, is examined by Dr. Julie McCormick for eligibility into the study.
Enter the Morris Animal Foundation, a nonprofit that has invested more than $70 million in veterinary research since its inception in 1948. Although it has about 240 studies it's funded going on at any given time, there's one that stands out. This latest project is unlike anything Morris has taken on before, according to Morris President and CEO David Haworth, DVM, PhD.

In 2009, at a meeting of veterinary oncologists, the question was asked: What's missing from our database? The answer, said the oncologists, was just too big to take on. "They said, there's this really big thing but nobody can do it, so Morris asked, why don't you give us a try?" recalls Haworth. After more than three years of intense planning, the Golden Retriever Lifetime Study was born.

While this has never been done in veterinary medicine, there is a precedent that has been set in human medicine: The Framingham Heart Study, which has been running continuously since 1948. "The Framingham study," Haworth says, "is the longest running longitudinal study in human medicine. It's now in its third generation, and there have been 2,400 publications out of it." The goal of the Golden Retriever Lifetime Study is similar: to create a comprehensive database of 3,000 purebred golden retrievers during the course of their lifetime.

The depth of detail covered in the study is ambitious. "We know 66 percent of those currently enrolled get their primary water from the municipal water supplies," Haworth says, and most of that obtained from one particular bowl per dog. "The U.S. Geological Survey has data on all heavy water contamination, and we can overlay this. That tells you the level of detail we're looking for."