Most dogs get poked and prodded at the veterinarian's office. Piper, a 4-year-old golden retriever in Chicago, gets far more scrutiny than that.
Her annual checkup last month took three hours. Her flaxen hair was trimmed and bagged, her toenails clipped and kept, her bodily fluids collected. Everything was destined for a biorepository that holds similar samples from more than 3,000 other purebred golden retrievers across the country. The dogs are in an ambitious, $32 million project that researchers hope will yield insights into the causes of cancers and other diseases common to goldens, other breeds and maybe even human beings.
All the dogs were enrolled in the Golden Retriever Lifetime Study before they turned 2, and all will be closely tracked for their entire lives. The researchers, from Colorado State University and the Morris Animal Foundation, are not only analyzing biological matter. They're also compiling exhaustive data, recorded and reported by the dogs' owners, on every aspect of the pooches' lives: what they eat, where they sleep, whether their lawns are treated with pesticides, whether their teeth get brushed and more.
Such longitudinal studies, with information gathered in real time, help researchers detect causes and effects that might be missed in other kinds of studies. Some focused on people have tracked thousands of babies born in the United Kingdom during one week in 1970 and monitored the cardiovascular health of residents of Framingham, Mass. But this is the first and largest lifetime longitudinal study of pets, intended to shed light on links between golden retrievers' health and their genetics, diets, environments and lifestyles.
Some of "these dogs will get cancer as they age . but in the meantime, they are doing everything that dogs do," said principal investigator Rodney Page, a veterinary oncologist who directs CSU's Flint Animal Cancer Center. As for tracking the minutiae of participants' lives, "some of these things seem kind of silly, but you never know what you're going to identify as a significant risk factor with an outcome that you could easily change."
That information also could be useful for other breeds and people, who develop cancer and respond to treatments in similar ways to dogs.
At its core, the study is about cancer, what Page calls "the No. 1 concern among dog owners." The disease is the leading cause of death in dogs over age 2 and something diagnosed in half of dogs older than 10. The prevalence is believed to be slightly higher in golden retrievers, which most often succumb to mast cell tumors, bone cancer, lymphoma or hemangiosarcoma, originating in the lining of blood vessels.
But that's not the only reason the bouncy, amiable breed is the focus. Goldens are the third-most popular dogs in the U.S., which made it easier for researchers to find 3,000 subjects. They also tend to have besotted owners who pay close attention to their health - an important criteria for a project that demands years of owner commitment.
Golden retrievers "are right beside us when we're running, when we're having dinner, when we're out traveling. They basically reflect a lot of the same exposures and activities that we have," Page said.
The study began in 2012 and has produced no major revelations. Its oldest participants are 7 and not widely afflicted with cancer or other ills. But annual surveys have yielded interesting tidbits about the dogs' lives. One in five sleeps with its owner. Forty percent swim at least once a week. Twenty-two percent drink or eat from a plastic bowl, and about one in four eats grass.
And the researchers' prediction that the breed's owners would be enthusiastic has been validated. They have an incredibly active private Facebook group, plus local meetings with their "hero" pets.
"We have a really passionate cohort, is the best way to describe it," study veterinarian Sharon Albright said.
Although cancer rates may be higher among golden retrievers, they're not necessarily increasing. Cancer is a disease of older age, and today's dogs, which mostly stay indoors and see vets more often than their ancestors, are living longer. Experts say the prevalence in goldens may be partly explained by their sheer abundance.
"Do you see a lot of goldens that have skin diseases? Do you see a lot of goldens that have flea allergies? Yes," said Jaime Modiano, a canine cancer researcher at the University of Minnesota's College of Veterinary Medicine who is not involved in the study. "Golden owners as a group tend to be very attentive and attached to their dogs," so they seek out care when they suspect a problem.
The project's focus on goldens might be an inherent limitation, said Modiano, whose lab has done multi-breed studies that found certain genetic markers create a higher risk in some kinds of dogs. "If you look at a single breed, you're going to lose part of the picture," he said. Still, the study's large sample size and systematic, controlled approach will yield data that could fuel research on questions that go well beyond cancer, he said, such as whether goldens in some regions or with certain traits, such as size or coat color, are more or less likely to have particular conditions.
"Being able to discriminate random chance becomes a lot easier when you have large numbers," he said. "It really is ambitious, and the treasure trove of material that they are going to get will be remarkable."