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Study to Gather Lifetime Data on 3,000 Golden Retrievers

In years to come, researchers wanting to study any aspect of Golden Retriever health will have a plethora of data, as well as blood and other samples to work from. The first study in the Morris Animal Foundation Canine Lifetime Health Project will gather information about 3,000 young Goldens over their lifetimes.

“We’re going to learn so much from this study,” says MAF study director Michael Guy, D.V.M., M.S., Ph.D.

He says that in the future, it will be the canine equivalent of the Framingham Heart Study that followed the cardiac health of adults in one town in Massachusetts, starting in 1948, then their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. The results of that research revealed much of what we know about cholesterol, exercise and smoking, and their relationship to heart disease.

The focus of Morris Animal Foundation’s first study under the Canine Lifetime Health Project is cancer in Golden Retrievers. Photo © Can Stock Photo.

The database that will be created from owner- and veterinarian-provided information about each dog, along with blood, urine, fecal, thyroid and heartworm test results, is also akin to the long-term Women’s Health Initiative that provided a massive amount of data on women’s health, including the danger of certain types of hormone replacement therapy. Biological samples, including hair and nails, will be stored at minus 80 degrees Celsius indefinitely. Whenever the dog goes to the veterinarian, the owner will go online and provide the date of the appointment. The dog’s vet will then file a brief report on the visit.

Eventually, the plan is for the Canine Lifetime Health Project database to include information about dogs of all breeds whose owners are willing to be part of a future study.

The current Golden Retriever study is observational only. It doesn’t introduce anything that isn’t already part of a dog’s life, except an in-depth annual veterinary examination, Guy explains, and a detailed questionnaire updated annually by the dog’s owner. In addition, any developments in the dog’s health, including tests done to diagnose illness, are reported to the study.

That annual owner questionnaire covers many details of each dog’s life – its pedigree, diet, environment, exercise regimen, reproductive history and travel history – along with its owners’ demographic data. The information gathered goes as deep as the recipe for homemade food if that’s what the dog eats and what kind of water it drinks, any place it’s stayed for more than two weeks over its lifetime, and whether anyone smokes in the house where the dog lives.

Forty dogs have completely enrolled in the study since its launch in August; the screening process is extensive, requiring that the dog be purebred with a verifiable three-generation pedigree, healthy, at least 6 months old, under 2 years old and have owners at least 18 years old who are willing to stick with the project for the dog’s entire life. Another 450 dogs are in the process of becoming enrolled. Ultimately, 3,000 study dogs, evenly divided amongst male, female, intact, neutered and spayed, will live equally throughout five regions of the United States, Guy says. The dogs can be show dogs, field dogs or pet dogs. “Our goal is to get a wide variety of participants and collect as much information on the lifestyle of these dogs as possible,” Guy says.

The many variables being tracked will – hopefully – point to some long-sought causes of canine cancer. That’s one of the Morris Animal Foundation’s main interests in the study. Guy says the targeted cancers are hemangiosarcoma, osteosarcoma, lymphosarcoma and mast cell tumors. The database will also track “any other disease with an incidence of over 4 percent, such as epilepsy, heart disease, hypothyroidism and arthritis.” The diseases being closely tracked may change over time as the data indicates trends, he adds.

If a dog enrolled in the study develops a tumor, and if the owner chooses to have it removed, a sample of the tumor tissue will be shipped for cold storage, along with the dog’s annual samples of blood, urine and feces.

Guy stresses that all health care decisions are up to the dogs’ owners and the dogs’ veterinarians. However, enrolled dogs that develop tumors can have them analyzed at Antech laboratories, which is donating $2 million worth of biologic testing to the study. Rodney Page, D.V.M., M.S., of Colorado State University’s Animal Cancer Center, is the principal investigator for the Golden Retriever Lifetime Study.

One beauty of the database design is that subsets of data can be extracted at any time, Guy explains. So, if a researcher is interested in, for example, incontinence in bitches spayed at different ages, that information can be gathered quickly and simply on all 1,500 females that will ultimately be part of the study. “We anticipate parallel or spinoff studies coming from the GR Lifetime Study. Within a year or two, we’re going to have researchers knowing what we’re doing and proposing studies based on the data and the biological samples that are available.”

Three thousand Golden Retrievers between the age of 6 months and two years will help create the largest, longest observational study ever designed to improve dogs’ health. Photo © Can Stock Photo.

A pilot study in May kicked off the project, and Guy says the Golden study will give his team a thorough test of the questionnaire. “We want to make sure this is working well before we make any forays into other studies,” he says. However, some breed clubs have already expressed interest in creating similar databases on their breeds. “We picked Golden Retrievers because we wanted to do a very, very large study. In the future, we won’t have to have 3,000 dogs to do meaningful studies.”For example, he says data on fewer Bernese Mountain Dogs would be meaningful once the large study in Goldens is under way.

Nonetheless, Guy expects it to be at least four years before MAF will add another study to the Canine Lifetime Health Project. “There are a lot of things that we’re doing that are new, ground-breaking kinds of things,” he says. “There’s never been a study of this kind before. So we don’t know yet what works and what doesn’t work with a study like this.”

The first release of data is scheduled for the end of this year. It will be given first to the platinum sponsors – the Morris family, the Blue Buffalo Foundation for Cancer Research, Hill’s Pet Nutrition, Petco, Pfizer Animal Health and VCA Antech, all of which have pledged $2 million in cash or in-kind donations. Two other sponsors are the Hadley & Marion Stuart Foundation and Mars Veterinary.

A “large data release” is set for the end of 2013, Guy says. MAF has commitments for $18 million of the expected $25 million cost of the GR study. Guy says that future studies likely won’t be as costly as some of the work done setting up this one can be replicated for another breed.

After the data release at the end of 2013, new data will be released every six months, Guy says.

“I can see a very interesting article coming out each year in the veterinary journals,” he adds. “The veterinary community is going to look forward to these annual updates.”

Morris Animal Foundation calls the Golden Retriever Lifetime Study “the largest and longest observational study ever undertaken to improve the health of dogs.”

To learn more about participating in the study with your purebred Golden Retriever, visit www.caninelifetimehealthproject.org.

Written by

Susan Chaney has been on the editorial side of publishing since 1990, starting her career as a newspaper features writer and editor. A lifelong lover of dogs, Susan has lived with German Shepherds, Labs, Yorkies, an Irish Setter, a Great Dane-Bloodhound mix, a Sheltie and currently a Chihuahua mix of unknown pedigree. She was the editor of Dog Fancy magazine, content editor of DogChannel.com and group editor of Dog World, Dogs USA, Puppies USA, Natural Dog, Cat Fancy, Cats USA and Kittens USA from March 2005 to December 2009 when she left her position to work at home, part-time. Susan lives in Long Beach, Calif., with her artist husband, Tim, that Chi mix and two big cats. As an editor and writer for Best In Show Daily, she is reveling in the amalgam of three loves: writing, editing and dogs.