According to the American Kennel Club, golden retrievers are the third most popular breed of dogs in the United States. (Labrador retrievers and German shepherds are the first two.) And it’s no surprise as to why. Golden retrievers are good family dogs with their gentle, outgoing, and loving demeanor. They are easier to train than other breeds because of their intelligence and loyalty to their owners. It’s hard not to fall in love with their puppy-like playfulness and signature smiles. So it’s heart-breaking to learn that they are prone to cancer. In fact, research shows that golden retrievers develop cancer at higher rates than most other breeds. And a lifetime study of over 3,000 goldens is going to figure out why.
Golden Retrievers and Cancer
“I think what attracts most people to goldens is their sweet personality,” said Alysson MacKenna, executive director of Yankee Golden Retriever Rescue in Hudson. “They just really, really want to make that connection with people. In my opinion, there is no sweeter breed.”
However, golden retrievers are also genetically disposed to a much less desirable trait. “Goldens are one of the breeds that we see that get a lot of cancer,” said Dr. Cheryl London, a veterinary oncologist and director of the clinical trials office at Tufts University’s Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine in Grafton. “For a period of time, there was a lot of interbreeding to create the golden retriever and all the other breeds. When you do that you create issues in the genes that predispose you to a variety of different things and one of them is cancer.” 
London explains that golden retrievers are prone to four types of cancer in particular: osteosarcoma (bone cancer), lymphoma (cancer of the lymph nodes), mast cell tumors, and hemangiosarcoma (malignancy of the lining of blood vessels). “The incidence of cancer begins to rise at six years of age and peaks at 10 to 12 then starts to fall off,” she said. She added that sometimes the cancer can be treated, especially if the tumors can be surgically removed. But when it’s not that simple, London tells pet owners to get several opinions. “I think the world of cancer therapy in veterinary medicine is constantly evolving. And there are new options out there all the time.”
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The Golden Retriever Lifetime Study
But while researchers try to find these new treatments, one large study set out to uncover why goldens are predisposed to cancer. In 2012, the Morris Animal Foundation started the first ever lifetime study involving over 3000 purebred golden retrievers as they track their health, lifestyle, and environmental conditions. The foundation believes that this information can eventually help other dog breeds, and even people since they have 95% of the same DNA.
“Canine cancer has become a dog owner’s greatest fear,” said Dr. David Haworth, president and CEO of the foundation. “You don’t see dogs running loose that much anymore, we don’t see a lot of infectious diseases, and the vaccines we have today are very good, so our concerns are warranted.” 
Pet owners involved in the study keep track of everything that could affect the dogs. This includes the foods they eat, behavioral changes, moving houses, new babies at home, a change in climate, etc. They also take note of little incidents, such as if the dog eats a spider or gets a splinter. Then they visit their vets once a year for an intensive checkup. This involves collecting samples of the golden retrievers’ nails, hair, waste, and blood to test for early warning signs of illnesses. They also look for external signs of illness such as changes in energy, diet, blood pressure, sleep routines, temperature, etc.
Being a lifetime study, it is far from completion but the researchers are already making some discoveries. For one, of the 3,044 golden retrievers initially enrolled, 60% are impacted by cancer. As of May 2021, 352 have died and 441 have become inactive. So far, hemangiosarcoma has been the most common cause of death, followed by lymphoma. 
And in 2022, the foundation celebrated a decade of gathering this research. “We’re proud of the Golden Retriever Lifetime Study and how it is advancing canine health,” said Tiffany Grunert, President/CEO. “It’s taken an incredible amount of commitment from our Study families, partner veterinarians and, of course, our hero dogs. Without their dedication, this study simply would not be possible.”
She added, “The Golden Retriever Lifetime Study is such a rich source of scientific data. We’re encouraged by what we have accomplished thus far but know it’s the tip of the iceberg in terms of what we can learn.” 
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- “Heartbreak for dog owners: Popular breed more prone now to cancer.” Boston 25 News. Jim Morelli. February 18, 2020
- “Why is cancer killing so many golden retrievers?” Miami Herald. Sue Manning. April 25, 2023
- “Cohort profile: The Golden Retriever Lifetime Study (GRLS).” PLOS ONE. Julia Labadie. June 9, 2022
- “Morris Animal Foundation Golden Retriever Lifetime Study Celebrates 10 Years.” PR Newswire. Morris Animal Foundation. August 29, 2022