Golden Retriever at vet's office

Veterinarians spend more time treating health problems than preventing them in the first place — just like our colleagues in human medicine do. But in both cases, catching health problems early or preventing them entirely is far easier on the patient and the pocketbook. For this reason, researchers and doctors in veterinary medicine and human medicine alike are working hard to shift their focus away from treating diseases and toward wellness care and prevention.

Replacing Treatment With Prevention

Accidents and illnesses happen, even to those people who work hard to prevent them. But too often as a doctor I find myself wishing I could have caught the cat with diabetes earlier, addressing his weight and his diet, or the dog whose skin is making her life miserable, a condition that may be significantly helped by more frequent bathing and cutting-edge flea control. Early intervention that prevents serious disease or illness is key to lifelong good health, in people and in pets.

But I also wonder: Why can’t we go even farther and start identifying the causes of significant health issues, such as cancer? I see this as the cutting edge in human medicine, and I am thrilled to see the research being done in this field of veterinary medicine, too. While the treatment of cancer is more promising than ever before — many pets with a cancer diagnosis live happy, full lives — the news is never welcome. Veterinarians would love to deliver that news far less often than we do.

A Golden Opportunity to Make a Difference

With any luck, veterinarians may eventually see a reduction in cancer cases, thanks to the Golden Retriever Lifetime Study, a landmark research project sponsored by the Morris Animal Foundation, the Flint Animal Cancer Center at Colorado State University and the Golden Retriever Club of America. This ambitious endeavor will follow 3,000 Goldens through their lifetime, recording their health status as they age and various environmental factors that may influence their health. Everything from their food and exercise to their exposure to pesticides and herbicides to the sources of the water they drink will be tracked. The Golden Retriever study is similar to two famous studies conducted by the American Cancer Society to track human patients (the third study in this series is in the early stages). Researchers are optimistic that this massive data collection will give them an insight into what dogs die of and why and enable them to improve health and longevity for pets and people alike.

Why Golden Retrievers? According to Dr. Rodney Page, the CSU cancer center’s director, the breed was carefully chosen. “We did give consideration to other breeds,” he told me. “But [Golden Retrievers] are so much more prevalent, we knew we could get a large number of Goldens in a short time." But that wasn't the only reason Goldens were chosen as the focus of this study. "They’re also at an increased risk for cancers," Dr. Page said, "and we already know there are some genetic areas in play."

The Everydog aspect of Goldens appealed to the researchers, too. “They are so varied,” Dr. Page said. “There are Goldens who are athletes, therapy dogs and couch potatoes.” Or Goldens like my Shakira, an active family pet who is everything people love in the breed — a beautiful, sweet dog who adores everyone she meets.

How to Get Your Golden Retriever Involved

What the project needs now are Goldens much younger than Shakira; specifically, the researchers are looking for dogs who are 2 years old or younger, with owners who are committed to the cause of healthier pets — and people — for the life of their dog. Committing to the study is fairly simple, considering the good the study dogs will be doing: The initial questionnaire takes about 90 minutes to fill out, and then participants will work with their veterinarians to get the samples needed — specifically blood, urine, hair and toenails.

Researchers will compile a massive database of information about participating dogs, which they will use in part to look for possible cancer triggers. “We can look at such things as water sources, if there are heavy metals in well water or municipal water," Dr. Page said. "We can look at pesticide use in the Corn Belt or the San Joaquin Valley of California. We can look at secondary conditions, exercise and more.”

If you suspect dogs aren’t the only ones possibly affected by these things, you’re right. The lifetime of a dog is much shorter than ours, which means that the study will move faster than a comparable human study. Because of this, the findings will have considerable significance to human medicine as well as to veterinary medicine. And that’s the other reason why I’m so proud to have veterinarians involved. We are, after all, the "other" family doctor for many people, and unlike most physicians, we care for our patients from birth to earth. But our commitment is not just to animal health. The veterinary oath, after all, dedicates our professional lives to the benefit of society through animal health and welfare.

For that reason, I will be following this study with keen interest and support, and I hope you will, too.

For information on how to sign up your Golden Retriever for the study, visit the Canine Lifetime Health Project website.

More on

* What Causes Cancer in Pets?

* 10 Questions to Ask Your Vet When Your Pet Gets the Big Cancer Diagnosis

* 18 Best Dog Breeds for New Pet Owners