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Why are Golden Retrievers so Cancer Prone?

“Once someone has had the good fortune to share a true love affair with a golden retriever, one’s life and…

“Once someone has had the good fortune to share a true love affair with a golden retriever, one’s life and one’s outlook is never quite the same.” Betty White

Charming, the life of the party, gentle, outgoing, smiling, intelligent, affectionate, hopelessly devoted, tolerant, loyal, fun-loving, caring, cuddly, eager to please, pretty much “perfect angels”, always up for a good time, friendly, easy going, adaptable, kind disposition, simply irresistible… These are some of the many descriptions of golden retrievers by their loving owners. And I have to admit, over all the years of working at Holiday Barn Pet Resorts, I have never met a golden retriever that was anything but wonderful.

So big are the hearts of a golden retriever, but so short are their years. Our pets’ lives are too short to begin with, but for a golden retriever, lifespans are actually decreasing. Back in the 1970s, golden retrievers routinely lived until 16 and 17 years of age. Golden retrievers are now only living 10 to 14 years old. One large study from 2018 published by the NCBI (National Center for Biotechnology Information) found the median age of death for a golden retriever is 9.15. That’s just so sad.

In 2017, we talked about the increase in canine cancer. At that time, Emily Clanton, Programming Manager for FETCH a Cure, said “In Virginia, there are three million dogs with loving owners. Half will develop cancer; a quarter will have tumors.” What is interesting (and distressing), is that a high incidence of dogs with cancer are golden retrievers. Sadly, it is estimated that more than half of all golden retrievers will die of cancer.

Golden retriever owners everywhere are searching for answers. We don’t want to say goodbye to that which brings so much joy to our lives.

Again, we reached out to FETCH a Cure, our local heroes in the battle for pet cancer awareness, education, and treatment, for answers. Amanda Brzostowski, Director of Programs and Marketing was happy to help.

Holiday Barn:

What is the probability that a golden retriever will get cancer?

FETCH a Cure:

According to Morris Animal Foundation Golden Retriever Lifetime Study, it is estimated that 60% of golden retrievers are impacted by cancer.

Holiday Barn:

Is there a specific type of cancer that golden retrievers are afflicted with?

FETCH a Cure:

According to the same study, the following are four of the most common malignant cancers in golden retrievers: Hemangiosarcoma, Lymphoma, Mast cell tumor, and Osteosarcoma.

What is Hemangiosarcoma?

This aggressive cancer originates from the cells of the circulatory system. It is a bleeding tumor that is found most frequently in the heart and spleen but can be found in other organs. The danger occurs when the tumor breaks open and the dog bleeds internally. It happens quickly, appearing to strike with very little warning.

What is Lymphoma?

One in eight golden retrievers will develop dog lymphoma. This is a cancer of the lymphocytes, which are a type of white blood cell that helps the immune system fight off infection. There are 4 different types of lymphoma, with different grades of severity. Some are aggressive, progressing rapidly, and becoming fatal within a couple of months. Some progress slowly over months or even years.

What is a mast cell tumor?

This is a very common form of skin cancer and can take many different forms: from a fatty-looking mass to a nasty lesion. These types of tumors are sometimes referred to as “the great pretender” because they can deceive us into thinking it is only a bug bite or some kind of pimple on our dog’s skin. Sometimes they even fluctuate in size. In many cases, low-grade mast cell tumors can be treated and cured if caught early.


Osteosarcoma is an aggressive bone cancer that frequently affects large-breed dogs. It usually forms in the bones of the limbs but can develop in the skull, spine or ribcage. There are rare cases of this tumor arising in non-boney tissues like mammary glands and muscle. It is very painful and spreads rapidly.

Holiday Barn:

Is there a reason why golden retrievers are so prone to cancer?

FETCH a Cure:

A definitive reason has not yet been determined. Studies are ongoing to identify possible nutritional, environmental, lifestyle and genetic factors that may be involved. Dr. Jerry Klein, Chief Veterinary Officer of The American Kennel Club, suggests a possible link of the likelihood of cancer to breeding practices.

Prevailing health problems found in purebred dogs depends on the breed’s gene pool. The genes would, obviously, come from the breed’s ancestors. Somewhere along the line, the breed’s ancestors have possessed genes that increase the risk of getting cancer. Therefore, the cancer-causing gene just keeps getting passed down. So, you can say that cancer is trapped in the gene pool of the golden retriever. Finding the cancer-causing gene sounds like a solution, right?

Dr. Kerstin Lindblad-Toh, Broad Institute and Uppsala University; Dr. Jaime Modiano, University of Minnesota; and Dr. Matthew Breen, North Carolina State University are moving in that direction. They have uncovered two specific gene regions that predispose golden retrievers to both hemangiosarcoma and lymphoma. That’s great news. Could it mean that a cure is possible?

We want to say that a cure is near. We want to say that the future eradication or control of cancer for these precious dogs is very real. Hope leads us to state that maybe it is. But unfortunately, we can’t say that conclusively. What we can say is that there is a lot of active scientific research underway. The problem is not being ignored. The Golden Retriever Club of America encourages you to support the numerous research studies investigating cancer in the breed.

Holiday Barn:

What kind of reassurance can we give our readers to give them comfort if their own golden retriever has cancer?

FETCH a Cure:

Luckily, advances in cancer treatment for dogs have extended the quality of life of pets with cancer by months, sometimes even years if the cancer is caught early and the dog does not have any other comorbidities. Some cancers, such as mast cell tumors, can be cured if the tumor is low-grade and clean margins are achieved with surgery. Other cancers, such as lymphoma, require chemotherapy. Since the chemotherapy doses are much lower for dogs than people, the side effects are usually minimal, meaning our four-legged friends can go on to live longer, healthier lives post diagnosis.

As Amanda says, a cancer diagnosis is not as bleak as it has been in the past. In fact, 50% of cancers are curable if caught early enough. As a golden retriever owner, regular veterinarian checkups are imperative. In fact, rather than just the yearly checkup, we suggest a semi-annual checkup from age and upwards, which is the age that cancer begins to rise in golden retrievers. If you notice any changes in your dog: gait, eating and drinking, activity level, lumps or bumps, unusual smells, anything out of the ordinary, see your veterinarian immediately. Early diagnosis is key to a positive outcome.

MANY THANKS TO Amanda Brzostowski and Joanne Silverman of FETCH a Cure. FETCH a Cure is a 501 ©(3) non-profit organization focused on improving the quality of life for our pets. Working with pet owners and the veterinary community, FETCH is furthering pet cancer awareness, education, and treatment. Their vision is simple: A community where no one is denied a choice for their pet’s health due to lack of options, education or funding. Please contact to learn more.

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