From Matilda, clues about cancer

By Linda Weiford, WSU News

Matilda-80PULLMAN, WASH. – A sweet, loyal golden retriever named Matilda has become a key player in fighting cancer among dogs and humans alike. To combat the disease, she goes on walks, naps, plays with the family’s pet bird and enthusiastically thumps her tail.

Enrolled in one of the nation’s largest veterinary studies, 3-year-old Matilda is contributing to science while leading a normal life at home with her owners, both veterinary scientists at Washington State University.

Michael Court and Matilda, age 3. (Photos by Linda Weiford, WSU News)

“It is literally the study of a lifetime,” said Michael Court, a specialist in pharmacology and genomics who with his wife, Gretchen Kaufman, was eager to sign up their dog.

Never mind that, each year, they’ll have to complete a detailed questionnaire regarding Matilda’s diet, travel, living environment, exercise and behavior.

“We consider it a privilege,” said Court.

That’s because lurking within Matilda and other golden retrievers are clues to cancer and other diseases that afflict both dogs and people, he said. The Golden Retriever Lifetime Study is tracking her and 2,999 other purebred goldens throughout their lives, assessing genetic, dietary and environmental risk factors. (See

“We’re talking about 3,000 dogs, many of whom will eventually develop naturally occurring diseases that also occur in people. I think we’ll see connections between canine and human health that haven’t been systematically verified before,” said Court.

Following Matilda

The nonprofit Morris Animal Foundation in Denver, Colo., is conducting the study, but Matilda won’t have to travel there to provide data. Instead, she’ll be examined at WSU’s Veterinary Teaching Hospital by veterinarian Raelynn Farnsworth, one of three specialists there who will perform annual exams on dog volunteers in the region.

After collecting samples of Matilda’s blood, urine, hair and nail clippings, Farnsworth will ship them to laboratories for analysis. Morris Foundation researchers will then catalogue the data.

The nationwide project will take a serious look at cancer, the number one cause of death in all dog breeds, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association.  It will also examine ailments such as arthritis, obesity, epilepsy and skin disorders—all maladies that surface in humans as well.

“As data are collected and analyzed over the years, we think that patterns will ultimately emerge, enabling scientists to identify certain risk factors,” said veterinarian Michael Guy, the study’s director at the Morris Foundation.

Study researchers won’t intervene in the canines’ health care or recommend treatments, he said: “We’ll be tracking factors throughout a dog’s life span, not influencing what those factors are.”

Golden opportunity

With more than 300 dog breeds in the world, why limit the study to golden retrievers?  Why not boxers and border collies?

For one reason, as goldens age, they develop cancer at higher rates than most other purebred dogs, said Guy. Plus, they’re very popular dogs and thus provide a large recruitment pool for researchers.

What’s more, because they’re so people-oriented, “our home environment is their home environment. They’re exposed to many of the same things that we are,” he said.

Bear, whose life and death inspired Court to enter Matilda in the golden retriever study. (Photo courtesy of Michael Court)

Two cancers common in aging golden retrievers that also develop in humans are lymphoma and osteosarcoma, or bone cancer. The latter took the life of Court’s first golden – a patient and kind dog named Bear—four years ago. What appeared as a small bump on his head turned out to be a malignant tumor that had spread to the brain.

“My wife, daughter and I were devastated by the news,” Court said. “For 10 years, Bear had been a member of our family, a true companion. He was very special to us.”

More than a year later, the family bought a new doe-eyed puppy and named her Matilda. Spirited and sweet, she’s special to them as well. Which is why, Court said, placing her in the study was as much about love as it was about science.


Michael Court, WSU veterinary scientist,
Linda Weiford, WSU News, 509-335-7209,
Golden Retriever Lifetime Study,