My Dog is a Research Subject

Cali 6 mos
Cali at 6 months. (Photo by Chaz)

Usually, when I hear about dogs being used as research subjects, I get very upset. I imagine rows of caged dogs, suffering and lonely. But not this time.

This time, we volunteered our new golden retriever puppy to be a research subject: We’ve signed Cali up to participate in the Morris Animal Foundation’s Golden Retriever Lifetime Study. This study is an effort to learn how to prevent cancer and other diseases in dogs.

Half of all golden retrievers die of cancer. According to the Morris Animal Foundation, cancer is the leading cause of death for all dogs over age 2.

This study will look at genetics, diet, lifestyle, and environment in an attempt to identify risk factors or causes of cancer. It could identify risk factors for other diseases as well. It could help researchers learn how to prevent or treat cancer in dogs. Ultimately, some of what is learned might even lead to better understanding of cancer prevention and treatment in humans.

Each participating golden must have a three-generation pedigree and be at least six months old but less than 2 years old at the time of the intake exam.

All of this comes at a cost, of course. And poor Cali is the one paying. Us, too. Anyone who would like to participate must complete a fairly rigorous application process. The annual questionnaire is long and comprehensive. The questionnaire asks for a detailed description of the dog’s diet — primary and secondary foods, treats, supplements. It asks about exercise habits, medications, illnesses or diseases. Temperament and behavior. Cleaning products and pesticides used in the home. Even whether a member of the household is a smoker.

Oh, yeah, then comes the intake exam. Cali, who turned 6 months old a few weeks ago, had her intake exam last week. We’d prepared her carefully to meet her new doctor. We’d brushed her, trimmed the fuzz on her feet — and filed her nails. Oops. Among myriad other samples, the veterinary nurse had to collect ten nail clippings! A hair sample, too. And large quantities of blood and other bodily fluids, etc. The vet took a detailed family medical history—of Cali’s canine family.

The exam took more than an hour. Poor Cali was poked, prodded, and drained. She was quite a trouper, though, not only bravely enduring the needles, but quite cheerfully allowing the veterinary nurses to handle, move, restrain, and otherwise manipulate her as needed.

Our best guess is that the hair and nail clippings will be analyzed for chemicals — anything Cali is exposed to, whether from her diet or her environment, is likely to show up in hair and nails. In fact, one of the nurses said it was like  doing a drug test.

Participating vets must also register with the Foundation. The annual visit generates quite a bit of work for them, but our vet team was eager to participate and learn more about the study.

Cali will submit to this thorough exam once a year, throughout her life. The Foundation sent us a sample collection kit ahead of the visit, and I expect that this, too will be an annual ritual. The owner questionnaire is to be filled out each year as well. This way, the researchers can collect volumes of data over the lifetime of each participant. Up to 3,000 goldens will be accepted into the study.

If you are fortunate enough to share your life with a golden who meets the criteria — under age 2 and with a three-generation pedigree — consider participating. The annual visit and questionnaire are comprehensive, but certainly doable. The Foundation will reimburse part of the cost of the visit and testing. As someone who has seen too many wonderful dogs die of cancer, I am happy that Cali is such a cheerful participant in a study that could make a huge difference for future dogs. Click here for more information.

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