FRESNO, CA --The life span of one of the country's most popular dog breeds is shrinking -- and cancer is to blame. Two women and their Golden Retrievers are part of a massive effort to stop a silent killer.
Pam Kennedy loves Golden Retrievers. You can tell from the decorations to the pictures in her house of the champions she's raised over the past 20 years.
"My dogs are part of my family and they are my family," said Kennedy.
Pam currently has two Golden Retrievers -- Friday, a young female full of energy, and Yankee -- a 6-year-old male. Pam knows the joy and the sadness of owning these magnificent dogs. Three of her previous Goldens died from three different types of cancer.
"It's a tragedy. All I can think of is God needs more angels," she said.
Yankee recently had surgery to remove part of his jawbone because of fast growing cancerous tumors in his mouth.
Pam said, "So I'm four for four and I have little Friday, and I look at her and I say, 'don't you have any cancer, you're going to be the exception'."
The facts are just shocking. More than half of all Goldens will die from some form of the disease.
Owners, breeders, and veterinarians don't know why it's happening. The Colorado-based Morris Animal Foundation is trying to get answers with a ground-breaking $32 million national study that will track more than 3,000 purebred Golden Retrievers during their entire lifetimes.
Dr. John Reddington is the CEO of the Morris Animal Foundation. Je said, "We're in the early days of something that has not really ever been seen globally in veterinary medicine."
Ten-percent of the dogs in the lifetime study are in California. Kennedy's dog Yankee is in it. So is Melinda Vinicor's Golden named Jasper, but her female Duchess is not. Cancer already claimed two of her dogs in the past.
"Cancer is so common in dogs, and especially Goldens, that I thought this was a great opportunity to try and get some answers. Its so heartbreaking to lose them," said Vinicor.
The owners track nearly every detail of their dogs' lives, from what they eat to their environment and their vets also collect blood, fur, and other samples during visits.
"So they ask about things like the flooring of the house, how many rooms have what kinds of flooring, what kinds of pipes do we have for water, treatment on the grass, what do they eat for snacks -- everything under the sun," said Vinicor.
The problem may already be inside the dogs. Researchers are closely examining the genetics of the Goldens.
"We may be able to find a genetic link, which, unlike the human population, you can breed that out of the population," said Dr. Reddington.
Kennedy and Vinicor are proud and happy knowing their dogs could help end the heartbreak of cancer for other families and their pets.
"It's so important to me that maybe the 3,000 of us participants can help find a cure or some answers at least -- at the very minimum," said Kennedy.
Those answers from the Golden Retriever study may end up benefiting all dogs and their masters as well.
"So, it has broad potential to improve animal and human health," said Dr. Reddington.
So it seems only fitting that Yankee -- that great Golden and cancer survivor -- also works as a therapy dog for human patients at the California Cancer Center.
Sadly cancer has already claimed 25 dogs in the study group.
If you would like more information about the Golden Retriever Lifetime Study or the Morris Animal Foundation click here.
Also, the Morris Animal Foundation holds a Greater Sacramento K9 Cancer Walk every year to raise funds for cancer research. This year it's on October 9 at Elk Grove Regional Park. Click here for registration.