The incidence of cancer in Golden Retrievers is one of the highest among all dog breeds. Given these dogs’ sweet and playful nature, the high probability that your beloved four-legged pal may develop the disease will undoubtedly cause you constant worry. But being aware of the increased risk can also help you better prepare so you know what to watch out for.
Golden Retrievers are among the most popular breeds for families because they are highly social and intelligent animals - this, despite the fact that the breed has one of the highest risks for cancer in dogs and are also among the most likely to die from it, with about 60% dying from cancer.
As with other breeds with a high predisposition for certain diseases, one of the most probable causes is the selective breeding process that the earliest generations went through to create the existing gene pools of pure-breed Golden Retrievers. The genetic refinements done for each generation actually involved inbreeding, which is a known cause of many genetic problems, including a genetic predisposition for cancer.
Golden Retrievers are highly prone to four types of cancer: hemangiosarcoma, osteosarcoma, lymphoma, and mast cell tumors. Goldens aged between 10 and 12 years have the highest risk, but their cancer risk begins to rise dramatically starting at age 6. While aging is a major contributing factor, Golden pups are also at risk of developing tumors.
Currently, there are several studies involving Golden Retrievers that are also looking at possible environmental factors that may contribute to the high incidence of cancer in the breed.
Hemangiosarcoma is a cancer of the cells that line the blood vessels and one that has a high fatality rate. The primary tumor typically develops in the spleen but can also occur anywhere in the body. The cancer is asymptomatic during its early stages; one of its complications is severe internal bleeding and most dogs are only diagnosed when they have already reached this critical and often fatal stage. Signs of anemia, particularly very pale or almost white gums, are a common warning sign.
Osteosarcoma, or bone cancer, is common among large breed dogs. The long bones of the legs are the most commonly affected, but the cancer can also affect the hips, pelvis, or jaws. When left untreated, the cancer often spreads to other organs, including the spleen, liver, kidneys, and lungs. Common symptoms of osteosarcoma include extreme pain, especially in the affected bone; a distinct swelling or lump; lameness or weakness; lethargy and unwillingness to walk, play, or exercise; loss of appetite; and weight loss.
Lymphoma, also known as lymphosarcoma, is another cancer that occurs more in Golden Retrievers than it does in other breeds, but it is highly treatable when found early. The cancer affects white blood cells and can show up practically anywhere in the body. Symptoms include swollen lymph nodes, difficulty breathing, and weight loss.
Mast cell tumors are a serious type of skin cancer that usually start as lumps or lesions on the skin. The growth/s can appear suddenly and increase in size very quickly, or remain unchanging for months; they may be red, ulcerated, or swollen.
For any type of cancer, early diagnosis increases the success of treatment and recovery. In addition to a thorough physical examination, regular blood tests are also critical for the early detection of cancer while it is still in its early stages. Knowing that your Golden Retriever has an increased risk for certain types of cancer, screenings for these cancers should be part of his routine check-ups.
Imaging tools, such as X-ray, CT scan, MRI scan, and ultrasound, may also be used to detect the presence, location, and size of a cancer.
Treatment and Prevention
As with humans, the best course of treatment usually involves a combination of surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and medications (for pain and other symptoms and side effects).
The stage of the cancer, as well as its size and location, will determine what combination of treatments will guarantee better chances of recovery. For osteosarcoma, surgical removal of the cancer may also require amputation of a limb; however, modern techniques may allow just the removal of certain parts that are affected by the cancer, instead of the entire limb.
Whether it’s bone cancer, skin cancer, lymphosarcoma, or hemangiosarcoma, if the tumor is located near a vital organ, surgical removal may not be an option. When a cancer is detected in its advanced stages, i.e. it has already spread to other organs, treatment usually only involves management of the symptoms to add weeks or months to the dog’s life and to make him as comfortable as possible. This is especially true with hemangiosarcoma; most Golden Retrievers diagnosed with this cancer die soon after.
In terms of prevention, limiting exposure to UV rays and known carcinogens (such as household chemicals and pesticides) can help reduce your Golden’s risk of developing skin cancer. The other types of cancer which are more of a genetic predisposition than environmentally-caused cannot be prevented, unfortunately. Keeping your beloved pet healthy and strong with a nutritious diet and regular exercise may not stop cancer from developing, but it will make his body more able to fight.