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August 1, 2017

It started out as a casual conversation between a world-renowned researcher in canine cancer and a woman whose family name is synonymous with advancing veterinary medicine. They were discussing a large hurdle to improving canine health – there were no long-term, prospective studies that focused on understanding the genetic, environmental, nutritional and lifestyle risk factors that may be contributing to disease in our dogs – particularly cancer.

Bette Morris, wife of the late Dr. Mark Morris Jr., whose father and mother founded Morris Animal Foundation, and Dr. Rod Page, Director of Colorado State University's Flint Animal Cancer Center, had an idea – why not work together to make just such a study happen? And then, with input from others and support of the Foundation’s scientific board members and staff, that idea took form as the Golden Retriever Lifetime Study. 

The scientific team decided to structure the study on a concept created by the Framingham Heart Study, a long-term longitudinal study following a cohort of people to identify the important risk factors for heart disease, that began in 1948. In 1972, Framingham recruited the children of the original participant cohort, and in 2002 began following the third generation. Today more than 2,500 scientific publications describe the scientific findings of the 70-year study.

Golden Retrievers were selected as the canine population of interest for the Morris Animal Foundation study for several reasons:

  1. They are a popular breed in the United States which increased the likelihood of sufficient enrollment in reasonable time.
  2. Following a purebred cohort of golden retrievers reduces the genetic variability inherent in a mixed-breed dog population study.
  3. Golden retrievers are suspected of being at high risk for cancer development.

A pilot study launched in 2012 and the race was on to enroll 3,000 dogs across the country, in each of the 48 contiguous states, that would be followed throughout their lives. In February 2015, full enrollment was reached. Owners committed to documenting their pet’s life (including an extensive annual questionnaire), and their veterinarians signed on to conduct comprehensive annual exams; all in the name of understanding why dogs get the diseases they do. 

“Without the help and hard work of so many people, this study simply would not be possible,” said Barbara Wolfe, DVM, PhD, DACZM, Chief Scientific Officer at Morris Animal Foundation. “The sheer size of this study, and the effort it takes to keep this going every day, is remarkable. We are so appreciative of our golden retriever owners, our partner veterinarians, donors and volunteers who are making this study possible. What we learn will truly change veterinary medicine and, we hope, provide our companions longer, healthier lives.”

In 2017, the Golden Retriever Lifetime Study is celebrating its fifth year. Of our enrollees, 98 percent remain in the study (unheard of in similar human studies) and 85 percent are compliant with all study tasks. Congratulations to all participants in the Golden Retriever Lifetime Study and thank you – each one of you is incredibly important to the success of the study.