He’s one in 3,044. And one day he could hold the key to curing canine cancer.

With a budget of $32 million, and more than three thousand exuberant, tail-wagging test subjects, the Golden Retriever Lifetime Study is the largest and most comprehensive observational study ever attempted in veterinary medicine in the Unites States.

Sponsored by the Morris Animal Foundation and conducted by researchers from both Morris and Colorado State University, the study kicked off in 2012, when researchers recruited the first wave of goldens. Research began in earnest in March of 2015, once the number of dogs enrolled topped 3,000—the minimum number researchers determined they needed for optimum results.

All the dogs were enrolled before they turned two, and all will be closely tracked for their entire lives. And each golden retriever’s individual veterinarian is playing an important role, by giving the dogs regular physical examinations and collecting biological specimens (including whole blood and DNA, serum, urine, feces, hair, and toenail clippings) for the researchers to study.

But the veterinarians are collecting more than just biological samples. Because the researchers are doing more than just analyzing biological samples. They’re also compiling exhaustive data—data they’re relying on both veterinarians and owners to record.

The data is reported each year and covers almost every conceivable aspect of the dog’s lives: what they eat, how often they get baths, and whether or not the owners’ lawns are treated with pesticides. Researchers are drilling deep—they even want to know if the dogs sleep in their owners’ beds.

Longitudinal studies like this, where information is gathered in real time over many years, help researchers discover causes and effects that could be missed in other kinds of studies. Researchers hope that this study will uncover links between golden retrievers’ health and their diets, lifestyles, environments, and, most importantly, their genetics.

“Some of these things seem kind of silly,” principle investigator Rodney Page said, “but you never know what you’re going to identify as a significant risk factor with an outcome you could easily change.” Page is a veterinary oncologist who directs Colorado State’s Flint Animal Cancer Center.

Page’s interest is understandable: the study, at its heart, is about cancer. Page calls it “the number one concern among dog owners.”

Cancer is the leading cause of death in dogs over age two, and it’s diagnosed in half of all dogs older than ten. The incidence of cancer is thought to be slightly higher in golden retrievers, particularly cancers like mast cell tumors, bone cancer, lymphoma, and hemangiosarcoma.

Those four cancers are the researchers’ primary focus.

Golden retrievers have a slightly higher susceptibility to cancer than other breeds—about 60 percent of all golden retrievers will die of cancer—and it’s one reason they were picked for the study. Another is their popularity. As the third-most popular dog in the United States, behind German shepherds and Labrador retrievers, their sheer numbers made it was easier for researchers to find 3,000 research subjects.

Another plus: owners of golden retrievers tend to have owners who make their pets’ health a priority. And that’s a criterion that’s critical in a project that demands years of commitment by the owner.

Given that the study only started in 2012, it’s no great surprise that it hasn’t produced any earth-shaking revelations yet; the oldest participants are only seven and still relatively healthy—cancer hasn’t been a major factor as of yet.

In fact, the study was designed to operate until 500 combined cases of the four primary outcomes (high grade mast cell tumor, bone cancer, lymphoma, and hemangiosarcoma) occur. Researchers estimated that this number of cases will take about ten to twelve years to develop. 

Clearly, there’s still a long way to go. As of November, 51 subjects had died of various conditions.

Including, sadly, cancer.

Photo credit © iStock/ericlefrancais

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