At not quite 9 months of age, Cali has accomplished a lot. She knows her basic commands — that includes offering a soft yellow paw in both the standard shake, and an enthusiastic high five. She turns any occasion into a party, as I discovered Monday when we met at Partridge Animal Hospital in St. Petersburg.
And she may help unlock a mystery that has baffled many a veterinarian and grief-stricken family: Why do so many golden retrievers get cancer?
Cali is a healthy participant in the Morris Animal Foundation's Golden Retriever Lifetime Study. It aims to recruit at least 3,000 dogs between ages 6 months and 2 years for an observational study planned to go on for 10 years at a cost of $25 million. Goldens all over the United States are needed for the project, which requires owners to bring their dogs to their own vet every year for a thorough exam and complete detailed questionnaires about diet and lifestyle.
Once she saw how happy Cali was to visit her vet, Dr. David Landers, Pamela Hogle felt comfortable committing to the study. Landers will be doing a lot of the work — and is happy to, being a big fan of the breed himself.
Hogle's inspiration was another beloved golden, Oriel, who died of cancer two years ago at age 13.
"When you think about why people love their dogs, Oriel was the embodiment of all of those reasons,'' said Hogle, a St. Petersburg freelance editor who works with a service dog organization in California. "She was sweet, gentle, calm, but always up for an adventure.''
Canine cancer is the leading disease cause of death in dogs over age 10. Goldens appear to be among the most susceptible, but no breed is immune. The study aims to establish whether cancer disproportionately afflicts certain dogs — and why.
Dr. David Haworth, a veterinarian who is president and CEO of Denver-based Morris Animal Foundation, described the golden study as the canine equivalent of the famous Framingham Heart Study. Morris (you may have seen the group promoted by its most famous board member, actor Betty White) has funded scientific research for 65 years. But this, Haworth said, is the largest veterinary study ever.
It could reveal information valuable to human health, too. Two cancers common in goldens — lymphoma and osteosarcoma — have so many molecular similarities to the human diseases that they're considered models for studying the conditions in people.
But the primary purpose is to help dogs by examining the genetic, environmental and lifestyle factors that may contribute to cancer and other disorders. With that kind of information, in the future vets and pet owners might be able to find a cancer early enough to cure it — or even prevent it altogether.
"Wouldn't it be great if we could tell someone like Cali's owner whether her dog has a high predisposition to a certain cancer so we can catch it really early?'' Haworth said. "Or if we know what a cancer's pathway is, our drug partners can find a way to intervene.''
Goldens are one of America's most popular breeds. But Haworth (whose puppy Bridger is in the study) explained the main reason they're using purebreds is because they are so genetically similar, it's easier to detect differences that might be connected to disease.
Which prompted me to ask: Are mixed-breed dogs and cats healthier than purebreds?
He paused. "That's controversial. There have been conflicting studies. For the most part, purebred dogs that are responsibly bred — by which I mean breeders are paying attention to health conditions — are as healthy as mixed breeds.''
It will be a while until results start coming out of the Golden Retriever Lifetime Study. Meanwhile, we can do a lot to protect the furriest members of our families. Do your homework before you get a pet, and if you want a purebred, ask your vet how to find a reputable breeder. Look for changes in your dog or cat that might be a signal of trouble; as in people, some canine cancers can be successfully treated if caught early. Keep current on checkups (even if, unlike Cali, yours doesn't adore the vet).
And if you have a healthy young golden, consider joining the study (get details at morrisanimalfoundation.org). You both could be doing a lot for your four-legged and two-legged friends.