In the early 1970s, Michael Lappin fell in love with a dog Americans had steadily embraced over the 20th century: the golden retriever. As a young veterinarian working in small-town Massachusetts, he saw many of the fair-coated dogs come through the practice, and like so many others, he couldn’t resist them. There’s a reason they’re now one of the most popular breeds in the country.
“They’re always in love mode; they always do things to please you,” Lappin told me. In his early days as a vet, golden retrievers were also, he remembered, notably long-lived for large dogs: He’d see them thrive well into their teens, up to 17 years of age. They could be with families for nearly a generation at a time.
But somewhere along Lappin’s long career, he said something changed: Goldens were not living as long. He started seeing many of his golden retriever patients die of cancer before they hit 13. Many succumbed to the disease when they were even younger.
Years of anecdotal reports from other golden lovers as well as scattershot studies seemed to support the idea that something was wrong: Were the big, sweet dogs now perishing earlier than their forebears? Why?
Today, there is a consensus among veterinarians that golden retrievers have some of the highest rates of cancer of any dog breed. Perhaps, according to data spanning from the ’80s into the 2000s, the highest. But Lappin’s other observation—that golden retrievers’ lifespans have collectively and perhaps dramatically dipped—remains more contentious, years after he first started voicing his belief on a bigger stage. Across the country, veterinarians and researchers are puzzling over the question of how long these dogs live and why they die the way they do. Multiple long-term and retrospective research studies are now devoted to finding answers, including one led by the owner of a golden retriever who lived into her late teens. Lappin, now known to many as “the golden retriever guy,” has entered his own goldens into one study that has invested millions into the cause.
At stake in understanding if—and why—these dogs are dying younger is more than the health of just one beloved breed. It turns out researching the lifespan of golden retrievers can tell us a lot about our complicated relationship with dogs in general. What’s really happening may unlock a different future in how we think about our canine partners and their lives.
The first golden retrievers weren’t “fur babies.” They were hunting dogs, bred to fetch ducks and other waterfowl for the British social elite of the late 1800s. An affinity for water and enthusiasm for pleasing their owners made them particularly good at such tasks. Then, after the first World War and its border-crossing influence, the dogs began booming in popularity, and their mellow, sweet disposition was written into the “breed standard”—a set of criteria upon which judges at dog shows evaluate contestants. Later in the century, movies and shows like Homeward Bound, Air Bud, and Full House encouraged their popularity. Golden retrievers assumed their status as a member of the family.
Quality of life improved for dogs in general, said Audrey Ruple, a canine epidemiologist at the Virginia–Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine at Virginia Tech. Dogs moved from dog houses, where they were vulnerable to the elements, to the indoors. Preventative veterinary care, from vaccines to flea-and-tick medication, became the norm. Diagnostic care improved. “We now use the same equipment at veterinary hospitals as human hospitals,” Ruple said, which would have been unthinkable even a few decades ago. Today, you can buy your pooch health insurance, microchip them so they don’t get lost, or even outfit them with a doggy Fitbit. (It is unclear, let’s say, whether that last one provides measurable health benefits.)
Given these changes, Ruple is skeptical that golden retrievers are dying younger than they once were, though she has heard the claim time and again. “I say, ‘Show me the money, because I don’t believe that one tiny, eensy, little bit,’ ” she said.
Indeed, scant data exists on how long most dogs live. “There’s no canine census,” said Adam Boyko, a canine population geneticist at Cornell University. One study, published in the American Journal of Veterinary Research in 1982, does seem to suggest that Lappin is looking at the past with rose-colored glasses. Its authors analyzed the lifespans of 2,002 dogs treated between 1962 and 1976 in Boston at a referral hospital, which is where a vet sends a dog that needs additional or specialized care. Out of 33 golden retrievers in the study population, the average age at which death occurred was a mere 6.7 years of age. There’s a caveat: Referral hospitals, which are where most of the longevity data on dogs comes from, tend to treat the sickest of pets.
But unlike Ruple, Boyko does think it’s possible that golden retrievers are living shorter lives—even if those lives are comparatively plush in contrast to those of the dogs of yore. No study that he’s aware of has compared changes in the breed’s longevity over time, but declines have been documented in other breeds, like Irish wolfhounds and Doberman pinschers. According to one biologist’s analysis of owner-reported data on Doberman longevity in Russia, this breed appears to have dropped in lifespan since the early 1980s, from an average of 14 years to less than 10 years. And Boyko has an idea of what might be going on with those dogs, and by extension, golden retrievers.
Golden retrievers emerged around the same time as the practice of modern dog breeding took hold. Humans had been shaping dog genetics since the first wolves joined us by the fireside—by raising and breeding only the most formidable pups, or those with the keenest intellect, or simply the cutest faces, we’d created different general dispositions of dogs: guard dogs, hunting dogs, lap dogs. Then, in the mid-19th century, Darwin’s On the Origin of Species was published in Victorian England, where preoccupation with social class and “good breeding” was already a societal fixture among humans. The tome inspired the idea that breeds of dogs could be “perfected.”
Dog breeding became a fashionable hobby among Britain’s aristocracy, with dog enthusiasts gathering at shows to have their progeny evaluated for their looks, skills, and temperament. (At the same time, the dog owners were tacitly evaluated for their own social standing.) Kennel clubs formed to establish rules and regulations for these dog shows, including breed standards.
For golden retrievers, the defining characteristic was their beautiful coats (which went with the gorgeous ensembles worn by the hunting elite). The first litter of golden puppies was born after a wealthy banker’s son, Dudley Coutts Marjoribanks, First Baron Tweedmouth, came across a mutt with long, yellow fur. He bred the dog, named Nous, with his own russet-colored spaniel, Belle. He gifted the puppies to other members of the aristocracy, who continued tinkering with the new line of golden dogs. One dog was bred to an Irish setter, and its pups were bred to their canine aunts, uncles, and cousins. Later, a few dogs were sent over to Canada and the United States, and those dogs were, once again, bred with one another. This process, called line-breeding (which is really a nice way of saying “inbreeding”), ensured that the future generations of puppies all had the same distinctive characteristics.
Line-breeding dogs is very common, and it carries hazards. All living beings carry genes with harmful mutations, which they pass to their offspring. Most of the time, the descendant will inherit a working copy of the same gene from the other parent; that working gene takes over so that the harmful mutation never presents itself. But when two closely related individuals are bred together, their offspring are likelier to inherit two copies of the same mutation—say, a mutation that predisposes them to cancer—leaving them with no functional gene to step in. With selective breeding, in which dogs sharing desirable features are paired up, genetics gets even more complicated. Some genes come attached to one another, even though they code for completely different systems in the body. A boxy head, big brown eyes, or a long golden coat may be sneakily attached to a gene that regulates some aspect of cell growth. If two dogs that share the same physical trait mate, they may each be sending the same harmful mutation along for the ride in a process known as genetic hitchhiking.