Morris Animal Foundation -- Golden Retriever Lifetime Study

What 3,000 Golden Retrievers can tell us about cancer.

As most practitioners know, cancer is a top health concern among dog owners, and for good reason. Cancer is the most common cause of disease-related death in dogs over ten years old, and statistics suggest one in four dogs will develop cancer in their lifetimes.

Despite significant advances made in the diagnosis and treatment of canine cancer, long-term survival has plateaued for many of the most important and deadly forms of the disease, including lymphoma, hemangiosarcoma and osteosarcoma. Identifying the risk factors for cancer development would help in the struggle against the disease, but finding these factors is challenging due to the complexity of the disease process and its typically prolonged clinical course. It can take weeks or months for cancers to be detected in our veterinary patients. Retrospective studies can help guide us toward risk factors, but they are often skewed due to recall and selection bias.

Longitudinal studies that follow subjects over time, with the intention of gaining insight into the development of disease outcomes, are particularly useful for investigating chronic diseases since exposures are collected before the condition manifests. The Morris Animal Foundation Golden Retriever Lifetime Study was launched in 2012 to investigate the incidence of and risk factors for cancer. Owners of 3,044 golden retrievers in the US have volunteered their dogs for this observational cohort. Both owners and their family veterinarians complete annual online questionnaires about the health status and lifestyle of each dog. Participants must undergo a yearly physical examination and collection of biological samples.

We determined that at least 500 cancer diagnoses are required to make valid associations between an environmental risk factor and cancer. Based on current estimates, it will take approximately five more years to reach this goal.

Almost half a million biological specimens have been collected and banked, and we have thousands of owner- and veterinarian-reported data points, documenting everything from diet to environment. By the study’s completion, based on our current accumulation of data, we’ll have more than five million data points and biological samples, all catalogued and stored for current and future research.

In 2017, we opened our data and samples to the research community. We have three active studies in progress, ranging from characterizing the gut microbiome in obese and lean dogs to evaluating the genetics behind litter size. These projects are nearing completion and we expect publications out within the next year.

Closer to home, our staff epidemiologist, Dr. Missy Simpson, has also started to analyze the data. Dr. Simpson’s current project looks at how age at spay/neuter affects the development of non-traumatic orthopedic injury. Her results are scheduled for publication in July of this year.

The Golden Retriever Lifetime Study, with an estimated budget of $32 million, is a one-of-a-kind project that will provide data and samples, as well as guide cancer research funding, for generations to come. It will lead to advances in understanding the risk factors for cancer and other diseases, and help all dogs lead happier healthier lives.