Canines, Canaries and Cancer

A few weeks ago, while preparing for a shiny new group of graduate students, I did some research on the history of the Maternal Child Health Bureau and came across an article written about the infant mortality rate (IMR) in the United States at the start of the 20th century. The United States ranked 18th out of thirty countries with an IMR of 135 deaths per thousand live births. Public health leaders launched a national campaign to reduce this statistic and as part of this effort, founded the US Children’s Bureau in 1912. Other efforts included improved data collection on infant births and deaths. I can hear you asking now, “What on earth does this have to do with dogs?” Be patient – I’m getting there.
While the infant mortality statistics were staggering, I was bothered much more to learn that young children died so often that their parents began to accept it as a natural part of life – survival of the fittest – and that there was nothing they could do about it. As I ponder my topic, I worry that perhaps a century later, we have become just as complacent about another important issue that is right before our eyes.
Each time a friend or acquaintance loses a dog to cancer, we agonize over it. We comment on how MANY dogs seem to fight and/or die from cancer these days and know that some breeds seem more inclined to get cancer than others. We’ve been told that as dogs get older, cancer becomes more likely… and so we accept these facts and life goes on.
A few weeks ago, I received a news magazine from The Morris Animal Foundation, an organization known for its research (including cancer research) on behalf of dogs and other animals. One of the articles stated that 60% of Golden Retrievers would get cancer during their lifetime. Sixty percent! Combing through several web sites I found this statistic repeated and a quote attributed to Patricia Olson, DVM, PhD and President/CEO of the Morris Animal Foundation that “1 out of 4 dogs will die from cancer.” These are mind-blowing statistics that make it hard to sit still!
Rewind to last summer when I lost my sixteen year old beagle boy, Alex. He had been slowing down for a few weeks and I had been warned that cancer was likely, because of his age. When he passed away at the end of July, his autopsy revealed massive, abdominal cancer. I was not surprised… I had been warned. I was surprised one month later when a friend’s nine year old black lab also died very suddenly from massive, abdominal cancer. Her family, too, had been warned about the possibility of cancer because of the dog’s age. And, last winter, another long-time client called to let me know he had recently adopted a new dog from the shelter, after unexpectedly losing his middle-aged lab mix last fall to “massive abdominal cancer.”
Although I’m not a researcher, I know that these three instances don’t create a significant statistic. At the same time, they caught my attention in the midst of all the other local stories of osteosarcomas, melanomas and lymphomas. I began to wonder about the canine cancer rates in other Iowa cities and whether Iowa has a higher or lower canine cancer rate than other states -- and was very disappointed to learn that local vets were not aware of any reporting mechanism in Iowa for canine cancer.
I have also started to wonder if our devoted companions have become our “canaries in a coal mine…” Is it possible their systems are more sensitive than ours, and do their early and increasing death rates result from a toxic environment that kills them faster than it kills us? Before we can answer these questions, I believe we need more and better data and look forward to learning more about what information is currently being collected and where. And, perhaps in the process of trying to save our friends, we will ultimately save ourselves.