It’s That Time of Year …

Can I please have a cookie?

Cali knows the drill by now. No breakfast. People at the vet’s office making a big fuss over her but not offering cookies, no matter how many times she helpfully points out the cookie jar that is right there under their noses. And her own nose and rumbling tummy.

They poke and prod her, take about a gallon of blood, clip her nails, and try to make her pee into a cup. She sure shows them, though. They chase her around with that huge black stick with the cup for hours. She has to stay at the vet’s office nearly all day … oh, wait.

It’s her annual physical for the Morris Foundation’s Golden Retriever Lifetime Study.

Cali would rather be in this other study her mom just read about. The one testing a vaccine for cancer. It just started and the 800 dogs are getting shots. Half will get the experimental vaccine; half will get placebos.

This 5-year study is uses a vaccine developed at Arizona State University to target lymphoma, osteosarcoma, hemangiosarcoma,  mastocytomas — common canine cancers — and four other types of cancer. The idea is to inject abnormal proteins that occur on the surface of cancer cells, along with a substance to stimulate an immune response. If it works, “researchers believe the vaccine could serve as a universal defender against cancer by ‘turning on’ the immune system to recognize and defeat cancer,” according to a press release from ASU.

Those dogs only have to get four shots over a few weeks, then get regular checkups. They don’t have to pee in a stupid cup on a stick.

The Morris Study looks at dogs’ diet, exposures, lifestyle, and genetics to attempt to determine causes of cancer.

Both hope to find information that could reduce cancer in dogs, and, ultimately, other animals — including humans.

Cali doesn’t really understand the big picture. She knows the routine though. The day starts off pretty badly, but after the blood draw, she tends to get lots of treats. Who knows … she might even get some ice cream.

So Cute in that T-shirt

Cute in her post-op T-shirt

“Your dog looks cute in that T-shirt,” Cali’s little friend said. We walk past a school-bus stop every morning, and some days, we beat the bus there. Two young children, themselves owned by a handsome male golden retriever, often ask to pet Cali. “But why is she wearing it?”

The little girl who asks a lot of questions is probably around 7, her quieter brother even younger.

“She had a tiny lump on her side,” I said. “It was removed, and she has stitches, but she’s fine.”

“So the shirt protects it?”

“Yes, it keeps the stitches clean and keeps her from licking it.”

“Oh.” My questioner nodded knowingly. Her dog has had stitches too.

We chatted for another minute, until the bus pulled up.

Deni and I talk about Cali’s “quarterly de-lumping” in resigned tones. Lots of golden retrievers are little lump factories. So far, Cali’s have all been benign fatty cysts, but … she’s a golden. She’s over 6 years old. I know the statistics.

That’s why Cali is in the Morris Foundation’s Golden Retriever Lifetime Study. Cali’s personal physician, Dr. Jani Zirbel, also has a golden in the study. He’s about Cali’s age, a tall, gorgeous boy. She always says that I can leave the lumps and see if they grow, but I like to know that they’re benign.

I know it will only be a matter of weeks until I find the next little bump. But so far, Cali is fine.

She came home from her minor outpatient surgery a little groggy from the sedative and with a tummy ache. She had not fasted and did not have anesthesia, but after her procedure, the vet techs fed her. (Cali does a very convincing impersonation of a starving dog.) Whatever they fed her did not agree with her tummy …

Other than that, she recovered quickly and was delighted to run outside in her beloved yard the next day. And she does look cute in that T-shirt.

 

Just Stop It.

Cali, a golden retriever, licks her lips in anticipation of a treat.
No robot could replace this face

Stop. Just stop saying that soon ____ will replace dogs. Nothing and I mean nothing will replace dogs.

Here’s the latest, a “robot bloodhound.”

I have no idea how much money is poured into efforts to replace dog noses with machines that detect:

  • Cancer (multiple kinds)
  • Low blood sugar
  • Other medical conditions
  • Narcotics
  • Bombs
  • Contraband, including veggies in a traveler’s suitcase
  • Contraband, including smuggled animals, plants, or anything else in shipping containers
  • Scent trails on land
  • Scent trails on water
  • Cadavers (on land or under water)
  • Identify human cremains
  • Endangered / rare wildlife
  • Endangered / rare plants
  • Insects
  • Rats
  • Other pests and parasites
  • Truffles

I could literally list millions of things that dogs can be taught to identify and find by scent. Sometimes, humans don’t even know what the dog is scenting. But dogs are so smart and capable that we can teach them to reliably find it anyhow.

To replace the dogs, a machine would need to be able to identify the exact chemical combination that creates the scent. The machines, so far, are less accurate than dogs. This might be because identifying a scent is not a cut-and-dried, easily reproduced, often repeated set of identical steps.

It’s a process that requires thinking and intuition and understanding of the goal. Dogs can do all of that. They do it all the time, every, in their interactions with us — even without training. The machine does exactly what the human programmed it to do. It might be able to “get better” with practice, but only within parameters determined by the humans who programmed the algorithm. Regardless of what you might hear about how smart computers are, they are not thinking on their own.

Dogs are.

And, dogs can go into all kinds of situations, flexibly adjust to different working conditions, offer feedback on what’s happening, and learn from their successes and their failures. They can work in any kind of terrain and in weather that would defeat many mechanical imposters, uh, substitutes.

Additional dog teams can be trained far less expensively than fancy schmancy robots can be built and moved around to world to anyplace they might be needed. Dogs can hop onto a plane with their handlers and go help — at a disaster site, in a large-scale search-and-rescue operation, at a field hospital.

Remember, scenting is only one of dozens, maybe hundreds of ways dogs assist people. Or make our lives better without a specific task — just by being dogs.

So just stop it. Stop pouring millions of dollars into machines to “replace” dogs. Focus that money and effort on training dog-and-handler teams. That could prevent things like what I heard on the radio this morning: In a story on the return of remains from North Korea, which are likely to include the remains of many American servicemen who died there more than 60 years ago, a comment was made about how difficult it is to find human remains because there’s no technology that can detect them. Maybe there’s no technology, but trained cadaver dog teams could certainly find them. They wouldn’t falsely alert on bones from nonhuman mammals, either, preventing the “return” of nonhuman remains (which has happened).

And remember, each of those expensive robots does only one task. A different robot is needed for each task. The dog team? That dog can be trained to do multiple related (or unrelated) tasks. Besides, who wants to cuddle up with the robot bloodhound at the end of a tiring day of searching?

 

Hero for a Day

No breakfast is always a bad sign.

Cali pokes me hopefully with her nose. Remember me? I’m hungry. I hug her and apologize. It’s your Morris Study Day, I tell her. I promise her a really good breakfast after the exam.

We head to the vet. For once, everything goes smoothly. No traffic (!). They take Cali immediately. No emergency comes in to delay taking the endless samples — the usual stuff, plus blood, fur, toenails. I assure the vet that I have not touched Cali’s nails since her March grooming. Her nails are always so short that it’s hard to get a sample. This year, at least her dewclaws are long.

As we’re talking, I realize that I completely forgot to collect samples on our morning walk. Not a problem, the tech reassures me. We’ll get them. I tell Cali she’d better poop for them. You can’t get out of here until you do, I tell her. That means no breakfast until you poop. She poops. She eats lots of treats. In fact, she’s done in an hour. Hooray!

Cali has breakfast. We play ball for a few minutes. She’s fully recovered. She also gets a special treat at dinner (sardines). Definitely recovered.

But every year, I wonder: Is this process OK with her? She’s happy but also a little nervous at the vet clinic. She’s been clingy since Jana died several months ago, and at the vet’s office, she “ups” on my lap and snuggles in. Sweet, but also a sign that she’s not comfortable, mildly stressed. At this vet office, the techs collect samples “in the back,” — away from my sight. I trust them; I know they are not hurting Cali any more than necessary to get a blood sample or clip her nails. But she’s nervous; she hesitates for a second before running after the tech who’s leading her away.

Every year I go over and over this in my head. It’s not that different from a regular exam, which I would do every year even if Cali were not in the study. The study is collecting a huge amount of data that might point to ways to reduce canine cancer. That is a big deal. I believe in what they are doing. I trust the vet and techs at this clinic. Is all of that enough? I decide it is.

But what does Cali think? She’s so easygoing and forgiving that she seems to just shake it off. She enjoys the extra attention and treats both at the clinic and once we get home. But her nervousness haunts me.

The Morris Animal Foundation Golden Retriever Lifetime Study started enrolling dogs shortly before Cali was born (she’s four and a half). The oldest dogs who were eligible were two. That means that none of the 3,000 “heroes” are older than seven. Some have already had cancer; some have already died. This study matters. I know too many golden retrievers and other dogs who have had cancer, including some very young dogs. The study looks at genetics, exposure, diet, lifestyle. We (the human participants) fill out a very detailed questionnaire every year. What we feed our dogs, including occasional treats and supplements. How much exercise they get. What they’re exposed to: Pesticide? Secondhand smoke? It’s all in there.

The research team will have an enormous amount of data. I am looking forward to seeing what they find. I hope they look at other things besides cancer and that they release information about what they’re seeing already, about five years in.

But so far, after Cali’s fourth visit, I find myself wondering more than ever what she thinks of it all.

Morris Study Visit: It’s Hard to Be a Hero

IMG_0155
No pee for you!

It was that time of year again: Cali’s annual Morris Animal Foundation Cancer Study visit. Since she is a very healthy young golden retriever, and since we’ve been very lucky this year, she hadn’t been to the vet since her last checkup a year ago.

The day got off to a rough start and went downhill from there. If I were tweeting it, I would hashtag it #PeeFail and #NailFail. Cali would tag it #NoBreakfast.

She knew what was coming when I got up early and followed her outside carrying a paper plate. Uh oh. Cali’s worried look said that she remembered: When Mom chases her around the yard with a paper plate, the next thing that happens is … no breakfast.

Cali hates the whole paper plate thing. She warily assumed the position. I put the plate in place. As soon as the plate came out, the pee stopped. I held tightly to the plate. Cali got up, giving me a disgusted look. Then, for good measure, she gave the plate a firm kick. “Take that, Mom. No pee for you.” The little I had managed to catch on the plate drained away. #PeeFail.

After #NoBreakfast, I bundled Cali into the car and off we went. She was less-than-eager to follow her friend the vet tech to the exam room, though she brightened immediately when  showered with attention and promises of cookies … after the blood sample was taken.

Well. She hadn’t been there for 10 minutes when an emergency came in. Cali’s exam would have to wait. I left her with the clinic staff and made arrangements to pick her up in a couple of hours.

The vet techs had better luck than I did in getting a urine sample, and the hair and blood samples were not at all challenging. They even remembered to give her a little snack. But the nails … this was a real problem. I don’t trim Cali’s nails very often. She hates it, as many dogs do. She also hardly ever needs it. She runs around  and goes for multiple daily walks on concrete sidewalks that act as natural emery boards. I thought that maybe her dewclaws would be long enough to provide decent clippings, but even they were pretty short. Epic #NailFail.

Cali and the Morris Animal Foundation were not having a good day.

Finally, after a long, hungry morning at the vet, Cali was delighted to come home and play ball. After a late breakfast, of course. And a good, long pee.

Why do we go through this every year? Cancer is a top killer of dogs, particularly golden retrievers. The study is following 3,000 golden retrievers throughout their lives, collecting the annual samples as well as large amounts of data. The annual questionnaire that I fill out documents everything that Cali eats and everyplace she spends more than a week. It tracks exposure to anything from secondhand smoke to cleaning products to pesticides. Each participant provides a three-generation pedigree as well. The study is examining genetics, environment and lifestyle to search for causes and triggers of cancer.

This was Cali’s fourth checkup. I hope she has many, many more to come. And … maybe I just won’t trim her nails at all until the next one.

Because You’re a Golden Retriever

“Come with me,” the vet said to Jana. “I want to take a look around with the ultrasound. Because you are a 13-year-old golden retriever.”

Jana’s having surgery. By the time this gets posted, she’ll be well into her recovery, demanding that treats be brought to her in bed, thumping her tail imperiously as her army waits on her.

As a dog of a certain age who takes Rimadyl, Jana needs regular checkups. Her very thorough vet likes to get that “look around,” and has been tracking what turned out to be a small mass on Jana’s spleen. Luckily, Jana can live just fine without her spleen. Even more fortunate — additional tests show no sign of cancer anywhere else.

You see, because she’s a golden retriever, the most likely kind of cancer is hemangiosarcoma, which can spread quickly to the lungs, the heart, throughout the body. If the mass is cancer and if the had spread, the prognosis is very poor. So, no sign of spreading is very good news. The mass could also be benign. The problem with spleens, I am told, is that they are very delicate. Rupture can be fatal. A mass, an attempt to biopsy a mass, or an attempt to remove part of the spleen can all cause massive internal bleeding. So out it came in its entirety.

If it’s not cancer, or it is cancer that hasn’t spread, Jana will be just fine. She’s enjoying the pampering that comes after the surgery; she enjoyed the beach day that came before the surgery even more!

Jana’s recovery has been surprisingly smooth. She’s taking some pretty good pain drugs, but she’s not taking that many pills. She has been leaving her stitches alone, and was eager to go for a (very short) walk a couple of days post-op. She’s one tough cookie!

 

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.