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.

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Still a Hero

Cali, a golden retriever, smiles happily and wears a colorful bandanna after her grooming.

Cali’s annual exam takes place in late June every year, but she’s only recently completed this year’s visit. Cali is a “hero,” one of 3,000 golden retrievers in the Morris Animal Foundation’s Golden Retriever Lifetime Study.

Cali’s Montana doc is not part of the study, but, fortuitously, we were in California in late June. Her beloved Sonoma vet did the exam. Everything seemed to be fine. Cali’s nails were long, for a change. She also needed to have a large section of her dewclaw removed, which provided an additional large sample. Cali obligingly provided more than enough hair and other biological specimens.

Then the study people lost her samples. Not all of them, but the packet that included the nail clippings, those precious and rare clippings.

They told me that I had to send more samples within four weeks.

I told them that there were no toenails to be clipped.

They granted me two additional weeks.

We drove back to Montana. I got the sample collection kit in the mail. It said I needed to have my vet do the collection. Seriously? I pick up poop several times a day. I can’t be trusted to collect that, trim some fur … and clip nonexistent nails?

They agreed to let me do the collection.

The stern letter threatened to kick Cali out of the study if we missed the deadline. This was serious. Cali’s life’s work was hanging, literally, by a toenail.

I checked her nails daily, deadline looming ever closer.

With about a week to go, I walked Cali around the corner to meet the groomer in our new neighborhood. She got lots of cookies and attention. The groomer thought she could get some clippings. We made an appointment.

Cali wasn’t too sure about this, but the cookies helped.

The nice groomer agreed to save the nail clippings. I left Cali in her capable (I hoped) hands.

A couple of hours later, I retrieved Cali, freshly washed, trimmed, and bandannaed — and that all-important baggie of nail clippings.

I collected the remaining samples and dropped it all off at FedEx.

A couple of days later, I got confirmation. We’d made it. Cali is still a hero.

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

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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.

Join the Fight Against Canine Cancer

Cali’s superhero cape was at the cleaners …

If you read last week’s post, you’ll know that canine cancer is on my mind. Not only Alberta’s, though. Cali, as many readers know, is a Hero. That’s what the Morris Animal Foundation calls participants in its Golden Retriever Lifetime Study.

Cali does her bit to fight cancer by “enduring” a very thorough annual physical, which is coming up next month. She blogged about  last year’s visit. She pretends it is awful, but the nonstop tail (and butt) wagging gives her away. Anything that involves that many cookies can’t be all bad.

Cali’s one of 3,000 goldens in this study. Morris started signing dogs up a few months before she was born. Two of her brothers are also in the study. The oldest dogs accepted were two years old. The study will examine a huge amount of data and try to identify genetic and environmental factors that lead to canine cancer.

Why am I saying all of this? Some of the participants, none of whom could be older than six, have already gotten cancer. Some are in remission; a few have died. I don’t know how many. I follow the experiences of participants whose humans post on the group’s Facebook page; it’s a very unscientific sample. Some participants have older sibling-supporters (like Jana!) and some of them, too, have died of cancer in the three and a half years that I have been part of this group.

It’s too much!

What can you do? Funny you should ask that …

You can register your dog for the draft. The Morris Animal Foundation Canine Lifetime Health Project draft, that is. It is a registry of dogs /  humans willing to participate in future studies. Morris is not registering for a specific study right now, but the re-opening of the registry might mean that they soon will be. It’s a chance for your dog to be a hero too. And for you to help fight this killer disease that takes too many of our dogs too soon, and causes millions more to suffer. In fact, their research is not limited to cancer, so your dog might be able to help researchers understand other serious canine illnesses.

Think about it. Take a look at the website. Cali, Alberta, and thousands of other dogs will thank you.

The Price of Being a Hero

Cali had a terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad day.

It all started in the evening, when, as Cali sees it, her mom attacked her with a machete, leaving her paw a bloody stump. It’s true that, for the first time in her life, I nicked a nail, clipping a bit too short. I saw a total of three drops of blood. Cali ran outside and sulked, then came back in and put herself to bed. She soon fell asleep, holding paws with her now disarmed, and very sorry, mom.

Then, in the morning, I faced down the stares of two disbelieving goldens as I failed to serve breakfast on time. Unable to take the pressure, I fled to the relative safety of the gym. On the way home, I got confirmation that Cali’s annual appointment for the Morris Animal Foundation’s Golden Retriever Lifetime Study would take place as scheduled.

Cali’s day was going downhill, fast.

Cali was initially delighted by the impromptu ball game when I got home … until she realized that she was being played (with). While big-sis Jana was getting breakfast.

Then, in Cali’s mind, her mom truly went nuts. She started chasing poor, hungry Cali around the yard wielding a paper plate. Every time Cali squatted, Mom shoved that darn plate in places that really shouldn’t be mentioned in a family-friendly blog. No way was Cali going to pee on that thing! They then walked up and down the street, with Mom still carrying the plate, and Cali thoroughly sniffed everything. She even faked Mom out a few times. Cali sure showed Mom, though: No pee.

Finally, things started looking up. Cali was excited that she got to go in the car with me, and Jana had to stay home with her super-duper treat toy. Hey, wait a minute …

At the vet’s office, Cali danced in, eager to see all those nice people who would ply her with cookies and tell her what a good girl she is. She got her wish: lots of attention, but … no cookies. Instead, they stuck her with needles and drained some of her blood. They cut some of her hair. And they tried to suck out some pee with a syringe, but she fixed them, too. No pee. Then she got some cookies. Finally!

Next, we got to go out for lunch. At last; something fun for Cali! Cali finally got her breakfast and a big bowl of water, and she got to say HI! to about 20 people on that patio. They all told Cali that she was a good girl. Except the one lady who said she was a good boy. A boy? With those long blonde eyelashes?

Then … oh, no! Back to the vet! Poor Cali got poked and prodded some more; the vet techs scraped off the edges of her toenails (no blood this time), gave her a shot, and finally got some pee, and the vet looked into her eyes with a very uncomfortable bright light, examined her teeth and her ears, took her temperature (she didn’t like that part at all), filled out an endless questionnaire … and pronounced her perfect. And they all gave her cookies, of course. Lots of cookies. She didn’t plan to tell Jana that part.

When we left, we took two huge packages — which smelled very much like Cali — and raced to the FedEx dropoff. Just in time. Off the samples went, to join those of 2,999 other golden retrievers who go through this exhaustive exam every year as part of the study.

Cali, along with two of her brothers, is one of the Morris Foundation’s golden retriever “heroes,” hero #608, to be exact. They’ll each give up a day every year, throughout their entire lives, as well as copious amounts of samples, so that the study researchers can try to figure out what causes cancer in golden retrievers. And other dogs. And what can be done to prevent it. From there, who knows who else Cali and the other heroes will help.

Best of all, we got home in time for dinner (and a trip to the park)!

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.