Monday, September 27, 2010

Breeders Play God As The Epidemic of Golden Retriever Cancers Grow Worse

It's not hard to see why golden retrievers are among the most popular breeds in the U.S. year in and year out. They're cuddly cute as puppies and beautiful as adults. They're great around kids, energetic, intelligent, intensely loyal and easy to train. In fact, they often train their owners.

But American Golden Retrievers are also ticking time bombs. An extraordinary six of every 10 Goldens succumb to cancer before living to the once typical 12- to 16-year life expectancy. The mortality rate for other dog breeds, as well as for humans, is three in 10.

While any dog that has lived beyond its normal reproductive years is at increased risk for cancer and Goldens are not alone compared to other dog breeds in this regard, anecdotal evidence suggests that an inordinate number of Goldens are dying before they reach middle age.

The outlines of the golden epidemic have been clear for over 10 years, but organizations like the Golden Retriever Club of America (GRCA), while on the one hand funding studies on and supporting research into the cancers, have done little or nothing to rein in greedy member breeders who play God in knowingly selling interbred, cancer-prone puppies to unsuspecting buyers who end up heartbroken.

Their rationale, in so many words, is that it's not their job.

The GRCA has gone so far as to recommend that owners give their Goldens a regular regimen of a drug that has been shown to inhibit cancers, which is not unlike a car manufacturer recommending that drivers wear crash helmets when using vehicles that it knows cause an inordinate number of fatal accidents.

Meanwhile, it would seem to stand to reason that if breeders only bred Goldens whose parents were long-lived, progress could be made against the epidemic.

Alas, many breeders seem to be in the business only for the money and have little interest in improving the breed. No surprise there. Purebred Golden pups can fetch upwards of $2,500 and the alternative to selling dogs with shortened life expectancies is to stop selling them. Period.

And while the canine genome has been successfully sequenced, the fine print of the
genetics of Goldens and their cancers is still not understood well enough to hold out hope for Goldens less vulnerable to cancer in the foreseeable future.

* * * * *
I know of the Golden Retriever cancer epidemic all too well. I have lived with and been acquainted with a dozen or so goldens over the years. I have midwifed their births, taken them to the vets, helped breed them and cradled them in my arms as they drew their last breaths.

It's hard to name favorites, but Ruffie (Medford Ben's Ruffles was the snooty name on her pedigree papers) would have to be at the top of my list.

Ruffie was special from the time she opened her tiny eyes. While she played with her litter mates, there was an unpuppy-like serenity about her which grew deeper as she matured. She in turn seemed to impart a Zen-like quality on her own offspring, who included Cody, the companion of a good friend, and a sweetheart by the name of Luna.

But despite careful attention to their diets, plenty of exercise, regular visits to a terrific vet and the love and devotion of their owners, Ruffie departed this world well before her time, a victim of lymphoma (cancer of the lymphatic system) at age five, while Luna died at age three, also of lymphoma. Cody, meanwhile, lived to the relatively ripe old age of 11 before succumbing to hemangiosarcoma (cancer of the blood).

While hemangiosarcoma and lymphoma are the leading killers of Goldens, the breed also is at
increased risk for osteosarcoma (cancer of the bones) and immune system diseases -- primarily allergies and hypothyroidism -- that can comprise their ability to destroy abnormal cells before they can cause cancer.

In fact, it may be that the first litter of founder dog Goldens -- a cross between a registered Tweed Water Spaniel and unregistered yellow flat-coated retriever bred in 1865 by a Scottish land baron who was seeking a superior sporting dog -- carried genes that have led to widespread immune system dysfunction in the breed.

All purebred dogs are technically interbred, but as Rhonda Hovan, an Ohio breeder and health and genetics writer puts it, Goldens may have a very similar inherited "germ line" that put them at greater risk.

"One gets cancer, another becomes hypothyroid, another gets lots of hot spots, and another has food allergies -- but the underlying genes that put them at risk for cancer and which are passed on to the next generation, may be very similar," Hovan explains.

This situation is further complicated because cancers usually don't appear until after a Golden is no longer bred but has passed on its genes to multiple puppies.

* * * * *
There is little that Golden owners can do to detect cancers in their dogs and they often are too advanced to treat when discovered, although there have been strides in treating the cancers with Palladia, the first FDA-approved cancer drug for dogs, as well as some of the same chemotherapy drugs used in humans.

Such treatments can be quite expensive, $26,000 in the instance of one owner who managed to prolong her Golden's life by only a few months, while some pet health insurance policies have cancer riders that do not cover hereditary conditions.

There are some early warning signs. These include lumps or masses on or under the skin, vomiting, diarrhea, lethargy, difficulty in breathing and changes in eating habits, but many Goldens seem fine one minute and are deathly ill or dead the next.

Hovan had a Golden who had hiked 8,000 miles by her side and died of hemangiosarcoma.

"As experienced as I am," Hovan said, "I didn't know until 12 hours before she passed away."

As with humans, lifestyle can make a difference. Studies show that dogs that are lean and fit have a lower risk of cancer, as well as other health problems, but there is no evidence that exotic diets make a difference.

Not much of a defense in the face of an unrelenting epidemic without end.

"Pedigree Dogs Exposed," a BBC One documentary first aired on August 19, 2008; "When Cancer Comes With a Pedigree" by Melinda Beck, The Wall Street Journal (May 4, 2010); Winning Cancer Fight: No Longer Automatic Death Verdict Thanks To Advances" by Amy Sacks, New York Daily News (November 14, 2009); "Understanding Cancer In Golden Retrievers" by Rhonda Hovan; Email interview by the author with Hovan.


Jemima Harrison said...

Hi Shaun

Your blog came up on a Google Alert because you mentioned Pedigree Dogs Exposed. I talked to Rhonda Haven when we researching the film but we decided not to include canine cancer in PDE because it's complicated and clearly environment plays a role too, but it was the inspiration for the film because I have flatcoats - over 50 per cent of whom will develop cancer (mostly soft-tissue sarcomas but also lymphoma and bone cancers) by the age of 7/8. Of course, goldens descend from flatcoats (and the recessive yellow gene is still carried in some flatcoat lines).

The UK golden breeders claim cancer is not so much of a problem here - and point out that it's generally an older-age cancer in goldies and, hey, they've got to die of something! It's infuriating. And not least because since when was 10 old?

I now write a column for Dogs Today magazine here. Attached is a piece I wrote recently on the DLA diversity test being offered by Genoscoper in Finland, which may be of interest.


(Director, Pedigree Dogs Exposed)

Anonymous said...

Yes, us stoopid reg'lar citazens is just two dum two unnerstan' complekated stuffs.

Anonymous said...

When I acquired my first Golden in 1968, I was told that the average age I could expect was 10 or so. Unfortunately, today some are lost much sooner than that. Others live beyond 12 ... but 16 is a VERY old dog, whether it's a Golden or any other breed! Not even many mixed breeds live to 16.

And, no, it is not as simple as it appears. I had a female who had two litters. She lived to 13-1/2, though she eventually died of cancer without anyone even knowing she had it until the day she died. She was bred to a male who also lived to almost 14. Both parents came from ancestors who also lived to 12 or later. From the litter, 5 of the 6 male puppies died between ages 9 and 10 (4 of them from cancer). The other 4 siblings are alive and well.

I don't know where your Goldens came from, Shaun, but I know there are many breeders who have just two or three dogs they may breed. The pain of losing one of them, or one of the puppies they might have, at age 3 or 5 would rip their hearts as deeply as yours. These people would never ignore longevity if they breed their dog.

Please do not jump to the conclusion that these early deaths are because breeders don't value long lives for their dogs. There may be such people, but there are many, many more who struggle to make sense out of the misfortune of early cancer deaths.

Shaun Mullen said...

It certainly was not my intention to create the impression that breeders don't value long lives. Of course they do, and I heard from a commenter at a blog where I cross posted this piece about a deeply positive experience with a kennel in Texas who has taken great pains to keep its breeding stock as "fresh" as possible by importing Goldies from overseas, in some cases.

However, my bottom line remains the same: Breeders as a whole, as aided and abetted by the GRCA, are part of the problem and not doing nearly enough to be part of the solution.

Patricia Herschman said...

I have been a breeder of Goldens for over 35 years and while there are parts of this blog I agree with, I also know that many lines, my own included, are regularly producing dogs that are still living 13-16 years just as there are lines whose dogs have lifespans that are much shorter. I, however, disagree with the article's premise that the breeders (and GRCA) aren't trying to change things. As with any popular breed, there are breeders and there are breeders. Most backyard breeders do not know enough about their own dogs, let alone the dogs they breed their girls to, to know if they are adding to the problem of producing dogs that will die from cancer at a young age. Most knowledgable hobby breeders, although not all, research the pedigrees of their own dog and those dogs that they are introducing into their lines and will try to avoid dogs that are known to produce cancer at a young age. The GRCA, through the Golden Retriever Foundation, has contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars for cancer research in the Golden Retriever. But, like their counterparts in human cancer research, those investigating canine cancers, still don't have the answers we need to cure various cancers or better still eliminate them from our stock. Hopefully the day will come in the not so distant future that we will know the answers and can improve our breeding programs by employing the knowledge that science will provide us.

Patricia Herschman, Camelot Golden Retrievers

Carolyn Kinsler said...

To Ms Harrison,

Yep, the issue of cancer in dogs, especially Goldens, is very complicated. It makes sense that you would leave it out of PDE since including it would reveal that the world of purebred dogs itself is complicated and that not all breeders are only concerned with getting the blue ribbon. Breeders that I know, who have very competitive dogs in the breed and performance rings care even more about health and longevity of their Goldens than they do about winning. You would also have to have discussed how involved the GRCA is in finding cures to the cancer that so plagues our entire breed those bred by show breeders or puppy mills.

kate h. said...

Excellent post. Thank you for writing about this sad epidemic and keeping the dialogue going. I am sorry for your losses.

I too have had a lot of Golden Retrievers in my life. I grew up with Goldens. I am very familiar with the breed, but I still decided to research the breed extensively in 2003 when my husband and I decided to add a Golden Retriever into our family. I was familiar with dysplasia, hot spots, allergies and other common ailments of Goldens but I wanted to make sure I wasn’t missing anything else. In my research I never came across any metion of the high incidence of cancer in the breed - especially at such young ages.

So imagine our surprise when our precious Golden passed away at seven of hemangiosarcoma. We were shocked. At the emergency hospital where we brought our dog to be treated the vet said something to me that caused alarm bells to go off in my head – "My Golden passed away at six from cancer. This is why I will never get another Golden. I can’t tell you how many young Goldens I diagnose with cancer in the emergency room."

Wow. Who knew.

And that is the problem. After our devastating – and that is an understatement- loss, I started researching cancer in Goldens. If it wasn’t for these blog posts and a few other articles out there the extent and gravity of this problem still wouldn’t be public. We were well aware of the risks of dysplasia and eye and heart disease but cancer wasn’t even on our radar. Where is the GRCA and breeders’ leadership on this? They should be working tirelessly to inform and educate owners about this epidemic and the warning symptoms. Yet in their publication "An Intro to the Golden Retriever" cancer isn’t mentioned. It isn’t mentioned in the letter they send to new registered owners either. There is a small section where cancer is mentioned on their website but it’s hard to find and not under the main health area. Most breeders websites have no mention of cancer either.

Goldens give so much to their owners, they deserve owners who are well informed and educated about the cancer epidemic ruining so many of their lives.

Jessy said...

Chance of cancer in humans is 3 out o10, in goldens iti s 6 out of ten.

Jon Huttemier said...

Are any breders or Golden Retriever organizatin trying to deminish the incidence of cancer in goldens? I love the breed. Would it be possible to start over with dogs who do not carry the cancer gene?
Jon H.

Jon Huttemier said...

I realize that the spaniel that was part of the breeding no longer exists, but are there other crosses that could approximate the Golden breeding? Is there any way we can eliminate the bad genes with modern technology?
Jon Huttemier

Anonymous said...

I am 69 years old and had Goldens since the early seventies. The two females we had in the 70ies and 80ies died at 10 and 12 years of age.
Of the three dogs that two of our sons and we obtained from the same breeder who line breeds two died at six years and the third, who is four years old, just had a liposarcoma removed from her left rear hip.
In humans, incidences of genetic abnormalities increase the closer mating pairs are related to each other. Doesn't the same occur in animals?
Jon H.

Anonymous said...

Brian - just lost our 7 yr old golden to hemangiosarcoma. Keep wondering what we could have done to be more proactive. Reading the article gives me a little peace as we took him to the vet religiously, proper nutrition, exercise. Couldn't contemplate how the day we find out he has cancer, it's already too late. Still wonder if there is something we should have been doing that we missed. Like ruffie, our golden Boston was really special. Thanks for posting the article. The comments were helpful to review and I have become more educated on the subject in the past 2 weeks than I ever wanted to be.

Paula McAfee said...

Thank you so very much for your blog. I just lost my adorable and loving "Cudgie Bear" to a cancer tumor we had no idea existed until yesterday. We are feeling terrible because we had no idea. We are just devastated today. Your blog is helping me to understand this is a problem I didn't know about. Thank you and may God bless these wonderful animals. It was a gift to have him in our life. I miss him terribly.

Anonymous said...

My husband grew up with goldens, we got our first golden in 9/05 We found lumps in his neck on 1/25/12 and he was diagnosed with stage 4 lymphoma. We spent over 15,000 in 6 months and made the decision to euthanize him 7/25/12 We "bought" 6 months. I will never put another dog or us through this again. While he had a mostly great quality of life, and the side effects were mild when he had them, I just wouldn't go this route again. We are lost, beyond sad, it will be 2 weeks tomorrow. When I told our breeder he had lymphoma she said we over-vaccinated him and used Frontline too often, I cried when I hung up with her. I wrote to the AKC 5 months ago, no one ever responded to my letter.

Shaun Mullen said...

The cruelty of your breeder is astonishing but the reply is symptomatic of the deep denial among their ilk. There is no way that over-vaccinating and using Frontline would cause lymphoma in your dog. Breeding with no concern about what is happening to Goldens is.

Anonymous said...

I am a geneticist and claims by so-called reputable breeders, the GRCA and the AKC are nonsense. Irresponsible backyard breeders are not the cause of the statistically high incidence of cancers and health problems in goldens and other breeds; it is the breeding restrictions imposed by breeders and the AKC in the form of limited registration and purchase contracts that restrict the breeding of these breeds that are the cause. Those restrictions have placed severe restrictions on the genetic diversity of the available gene pool, which has, in turn, given rise to just the sort of problems one would expect from a too-narrowly defined gene pool. If you examine as I have done the rise in the incidence of cancer and other health problems and the fall in the average life expectancy of goldens for instance, what you will find is an astonishing correlation with the imposition of those breeding restrictions. What makes their behavior especially galling is their claims that those restrictions are an effort to save goldens and other breeds from the very issues their actions have caused.

Shaun Mullen said...

Dear Sir or Madame:

I am fascinated by your thoughts. If you would be so kind, please email me at

Thank you.

Anonymous said...

The post above is quite correct; it is lack of genetic diversity that is the likely cause of the statistically high incidence of cancer in goldens. However, it is important to understand the likely causal connection. A heathy immune system is the primary defense against cancer. One of the most prevalent and recognized effects of inbreeding is the devastating effect it can have on the immune system. Many breeders believe that occasionally out crossing solves the problem but it does not necessarily do so. Whether it does so or not depends on whether the out crossing introduces sufficient diversity into the immune system (what that means involves complications that are not relevant here) and whether it is likely to introduce that diversity depends on the genetic diversity of the pool of individuals from whom you are selecting for out crossing. The problem with limited registration and breeding restrictions in purchase contracts is that they lead to a very limited genetic pool from which to draw individuals for out crossing--a relatively small network of breeders who are all pursuing the same very limited set of characteristics. Over time, out crossing fails its purpose precisely because the pool lacks the required diversity.

Anonymous said...

I just lost two wonderful goldens in 6 months from same breeder and I have one left from same breeder.My boy Howdy was 8 1/2 lost him first.Than my sweet Megan at age 7/2.Both came on fast.Something needs to be done about this.The lost has been devasting to our family. Suzanne

Imogene Rollison said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

We are researching breeders and genetic anomalies carefully since losing our precious Golden in late May to hemangiosarcoma that manifested as a cancerous tumor in the spleen. He was only 8 and a half. We thought we'd done everything right: good breeder, exemplary exercise and nutrition; perfect home life. We are alternately devastated, but remain hopeful.

The information on this blog has been enlightening, however, as I follow the trail of information and data, I am curious why the integral and responsible breeding community isn't naming names. If there are breeders out there who are actively and knowingly breeding dogs who are testing positive for the cancer genes, why aren't they called out and stopped by their own community, the GRCA and the AKC? To look the other way, to stand by and not take mindful action is unintegral, irresponsible and ghastly. Is it a fear of a lawsuit? If that's the case (and and I'm no lawyer), but for irresponsible breeders to continue to breed genetic defects into their lines should, I would suggest that they also be aware of product liability laws that protect consumers. I am in no way trying to compare the precious life of a Golden Retriever, or any companion animal, to that of brakes on an automobile or baby crib, but if a breeder is knowingly and willingly selling a companion animal that has been set up for a heartbreaking, painful and expensive demise, they need to be stopped. NOW!! The long arm of the law works on both sides. Are there any organizations out there who are working to stop this ghoulish practice?

Shaun Mullen said...

Thank you for your most thoughtful observations. There is a companion blog post that has almost 200 comments that reflects, as this post does, the deep love owners have for their Goldens and their concern about the epidemic of cancers and other lift-shortening conditions:

The short and dirty answer to your question as to why names are not being named is greed. Alas, I am unaware of any organizations that are working to identify and call out breeders who knowingly sell "damaged" Golden pups. That, one would think, would be the responsibility of the breeder organizations that we sadly know pay lip service to high breeding standards but have allowed standards to become so corrupted as Golden became and continue to be so popular.

Sierra's Mom said...

My sweet Sierra died this week of Disseminated Histiocytic Sarcoma at 10 1/2. She was diagnosed 16 days ago after taking her to vet for a slight sniff when she exhaled. For a year I told my vet that she seemed a but disoriented at times. A thyroid test was done and came back normal. Four months ago I told my vet that she was leaving some kibble on her plate so my vet cleaned her teeth and removed a couple of far back molars for $700 dollars. Never once did vet look at other reasons. I had to mention eye looked odd - growth began detachment of retina. I gave my vet numerous red flags over past year that were ignored. Sierra had a mass size of her heart in lung that was producing chest fluid. CSU hospital drained 1500ml from chest cavity - my gentle uncomplaining girl only had slight sniff at exhale. I did not give Frontline or over vaccinate as some comments mentioned, but her DNA pool had a grandfather cancer and uncle cancer that were passed unawares. The breeder did send letters informing that grandfather Kiva would no longer breed due to lymphoma. I was given the information but ignored it since my pup Sierra was perfect. In hindsight, I would have tried immune boosting supplements over her lifetime or at least in past2 years when she began to show benign lipomas(vet said slim down 10 pounds and nothing about immunity). I am devastated and miss my Sierra more than words can describe. I live near Colorado State U that is studying Goldens in their Flint Cancer Center and I hope that they can find a cause fir shortened life spans and aggressive nature of cancer- in a month liver, spleen, lungs, eye, and brain showed cancer activity in my Sierra.

Sierra's Mom said...

I chose to give Sierra CCNU (lomustine) and prednisone treatment. It gave her 16 great days where she was able to roll in last snow of season on Mother's Day and bask in sun looking out over her yard. The treatment had no noticeable side affects and allowed me the opportunity to lavish love on my gentle Sierra. Every day was precious with knowing that it might be the last. I wish we had been one of the lucky 4-6 month survival with CCNU treatment, but the 16 days was greatly appreciated. A transfusion would have given her 3-4 more days and part of me regrets not pursuing it since death is so final. She had been at the hospital critical care unit for 24 hours and I know separation from me was harder than cancer. I miss her so very much and would give anything for one more day.

Shaun Mullen said...

Sierra's Mom:

Vets unfortunately are too often part of the problem. You have my condolences.