Monday, October 1, 2018

Dwarfs, Miniatures, and Maxwell, Oh My!

 The recent addition of Max (now known as Maxwell Strong) to our SEVA GRREAT family makes the subject of dwarfism and miniatures a timely topic for a blog post. Some of you may be wondering why being a dwarf is a concern. Other dwarf dogs have been around for decades, some dogs are bred intentionally for those characteristics (Dachshunds and Corgis, for example), so why all the worry about a dwarf golden retriever? I would bet that many golden retriever owners have wished, if only just once, that there could be a smaller version of their beloved breed. How convenient it would be if we could sweep them up in our arms to get them out of harm’s way, help them down stairs when they are older, or maybe have enough room in the RV for a human occupant in addition to the golden retriever (or is that just my problem?). Some famous dogs have been dwarfs, for example, the much beloved Smiley who warmed hearts around the world for years.  Some breeders now produce “Miniature Golden Retrievers.” What a deal. Or is it? So with Maxwell being a focal point of our SEVA GRREAT family, it’s a good time to take a closer look at “Miniature Golden Retrievers” and also the medical condition known as dwarfism and the differences between the two.

Miniature Golden Retrievers (also known by some Trademarked names) are not small golden retrievers but are an intentional crossbreed for the purposes of producing a smaller dog with at least some golden retriever characteristics. The label “miniature golden retriever” may be applied to any mix of golden retriever with any smaller dog for the purpose of producing a dog that is smaller than the golden retriever breed standard but still has some characteristics of a golden retriever.  Most commonly this is done by breeding a golden retriever with either a small golden doodle, cocker spaniel, or poodle.  The result, in terms of size, temperament, energy level, and other characteristics, is variable depending on which breed and characteristics are most highly represented in the offspring.  Some will look and act more golden, some more cocker or poodle.  There is a misconception that such crossbreeds are healthier, a belief that overlooks the fact that many dogs share common genetic predispositions.  The same rigor in screening for health risks should be involved for crossbreeds as for purebreds.  

The term dwarfism is used with an array of unique growth patterns.  Note that being a "miniature" and being a "dwarf" dog are not related in any way.  Sometimes dwarfism involves only small stature and may even be an intentional genetic mutation as is the case with Dachsunds and Corgis. We know, however, that dogs bred for such characteristics often have significant skeletal problems and other health challenges.  There are other types of dwarfism that involve a variety of serious health concerns in addition to the small stature. Our guy Maxwell has a particularly dangerous form that poses a severe threat to his health, a form known as pituitary dwarfism. This is a genetic condition that occurs when both the male and female used in breeding are carriers, though they do not need to be dwarfs themselves.  Max's pituitary gland is not producing the growth hormone needed for him to grow and be healthy. This is not just a problem for bone growth but affects all the tissues in the body. Growth hormone is essential for life; many of the cells in our bodies are constantly growing and being replaced and, without growth hormone, those cells gradually die. It is as if Max's development arrested at a very young age. He has not produced adult teeth, still has his puppy fur, and is about the size of a 4 month old in spite of his age of 6 months. In addition, without growth hormone, as cells in the body die, they cannot be replaced which leads to progressive decline.

Pituitary dwarfism is quite rare.  The German Shepherd Dog (GSD) community is most familiar with this condition and one estimate is that as many as 30% of GSDs are carriers of this genetic mutation. Most of the research has been focused on development of screening tests to avoid breeding GSDs with this recessive trait. As Maxwell's situation makes us wonder, the incidence could be on the rise and it is showing up in more breeds beyond the original limited array of dogs.  Researchers have identified the gene mutation responsible for this condition in GSD, but it is not known whether the same genes are involved in other affected breeds. Little is known, also, about treatment and long term outcomes as the majority of these dogs are euthanized. This may not be necessary, however. There is treatment available in the form of medication to stimulate the release of growth hormone from other tissues in the body since the pituitary is not working. Although this is not the same as what the pituitary would produce if it were working properly, there are limited studies showing that after a few years of treatment the dogs did grow, achieved a normal coat of fur, and improved in a number of ways although they did remain smaller than normal for the breed. Dogs with malfunctioning pituitary glands often have inadequate amounts of other hormones produced by the pituitary, so supplementation of those may be needed as well over time, particularly hormones affecting the thyroid and the kidneys.  

Maxwell’s case seemed like a good time to write an entry on this unusual topic and also one I never expected to write. I hope people reading this find this helpful not only in understanding this beautiful little guy's challenges but also the emergence of "miniature golden retrievers." If you find yourself wishing for a small golden, be aware that small may involve other changes or possibly health challenges beyond just being a bit on the petite side.

Visit Max's Go Fund Me page for more information or if you can help support his treatment.

Sunday, August 5, 2018

Dilated Cardiomyopathy - heart disease and diet link?

Recent news about a possible link between diet and a particular form of heart disease has drawn more attention to a longstanding problem in our beloved goldens.  Social media has been loaded recently with mention of grain free diets being bad for the canine heart and warnings to stop feeding diets of that type. Whether or not grain free is beneficial or necessary is the subject for another post. For now, let's look at this current news.  The concern about diet and a form of heart disease referred to as dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) actually has a history dating back to the early 1980s with research ongoing since that time. Recognition of DCM occurring in some unique circumstances recently has led to new attention being given to this condition and a possible connection to diet. Golden retrievers are one of the breeds that may be predisposed to developing this dreadful condition. Let’s take a look at the heart disease part of this story and then the dietary component. 

In dilated cardiomyopathy, the heart enlarges (dilated) which makes the heart (cardio) muscles (myo) damaged or sick (pathy). A simple description of this condition is that the muscles of the heart enlarge which causes them to weaken. As a result, the heart does not pump properly. That leads to poor circulation of the blood throughout the body and the kind of damage you would expect with a poorly functioning heart. If you are familiar with heart failure in people, the process and outcome is the same in dogs. The heart has to work harder yet it continues to be less effective as it pumps.  Fluid builds up in the lungs and other body parts, and a dangerous process leading to heart failure ensues.  The valves in the heart may start to leak and the dog starts to show the same signs of congestive heart failure that we see in people. 

Early in this process there may be no symptoms, or the dog may seem to tire more easily, pant more, or not tolerate exercise as well. Your veterinarian may notice a heart murmur. As the disease progresses, there can be episodes of coughing, panting or heavier breathing, weakness or fainting. The dog becomes at risk of sudden death without treatment or if activity is not moderated. The heart may develop an abnormal rhythm which can lead to sudden death even without the other symptoms.  Proper diagnosis and early intervention are critical to at least slow progression to heart failure and minimize the risk of sudden death. Treatment is very similar to treatment of humans with heart failure and includes medication and activity restriction. The disease usually is progressive, meaning it will continue to get worse.  Medication can slow the progression, but it cannot restore a healthy heart.

A particular array of amino acids is critical to healthy heart muscle as well as to other body components and functions. Taurine is an amino acid that is especially important in cardiac function and is the amino acid of concern with the possible link between diet and DCM.  Dogs usually can create taurine from other amino acids so it is not typically added to prepared foods. Cats cannot, so it is common to see taurine on the list of ingredients on cat food labels.  Some dogs have problems synthesizing taurine, however, and there is evidence that golden retrievers, at least some of them, may be genetically predisposed to an inability to synthesize this important amino acid.  That means they need to get it through their diet or through supplements.

Over the last decade or so there has been some evidence of a possible link between DCM and diet especially for animals who cannot manufacture taurine. There are a couple of factors at play in this scenario. One is the use of “exotic” (uncommon) meats in diets with the meat sources possibly being deficient in the components that dogs need to manufacture taurine. The other factor is the substitution of protein sources in some diets with ingredients that do not provide the necessary amino acids. It is not the fact that a diet is grain free that is the problem but the ingredients overall that are included in many diets. Home prepared meals have been implicated in diets linked to DCM as well as some commercial preparations.  Foods that include peas, potatoes, lentils, and legumes as some of the first ingredients are thought to be particularly troublesome in regard to taurine deficiency whether the diet is grain free or not.  There is some early research showing that diets that are high in carbohydrates may displace amino acids or may interfere with taurine absorption. 

So, what do we do to protect our beloved companions? In time, research will give us better answers including dietary recommendations. In a future post, I will be writing about how to choose a good food for your dog. The good news in this situation is that DCM due solely to taurine deficiency might be reversible if caught early. There are some dogs with normal blood taurine levels, however, who still are at risk for DCM. What we know at present about golden retriever health tells us it is a good idea to do the following: If feeding a prepared food, make sure it is a high quality, balanced, AAFCO certified food from a reputable company and distributor. Read the ingredient label and make sure a quality protein is the first ingredient listed.  Typically this will be some form of meat, fish, or eggs. Keep up with visits to your veterinarian, annually at minimum.  As your dog ages, twice a year visits may be appropriate. Be observant for signs of activity intolerance such as your dog becoming tired more easily, a cough especially related to activity, or excess panting. Sometimes the cough will be more of a soft, throat-clearing sound than a harsh cough.  These can be early signs of many conditions with heart disease being among the possibilities.  See your vet as soon as you can if you notice any of these signs. During routine visits, talk with your vet and determine if any diagnostic tests are warranted for your dog related to DCM and other conditions common in golden retrievers.  If your veterinarian detects a murmur or has other concerns, be open to the additional diagnostic tests that may be recommended.  Since early detection is crucial, it is a good idea to have heart health, including DCM, on your “discuss with my vet” list for an upcoming visit. 

Want to

See the original FDA report here

Morris Animal Foundation has funded research in this area. See their news report

Friday, July 13, 2018


I want to introduce myself as the Medical Coordinator for SEVA-GRREAT. This is a new position for the organization, and I am absolutely thrilled to be serving in this role. In this capacity, I oversee the health and medical needs and services for the dogs in our care and work very closely with the other members of the team to ensure our dogs get the best we can provide for them.  This involves not only management of the dogs needs but support for the foster families who are a critical part of our work. We couldn't do it without them!
A little info about me:
My name is Beth and I have been a registered nurse for a long time and a dedicated lover of golden retrievers for even longer. I am a university professor, administrator, and researcher with a special emphasis on chronic illness and helping people live the best lives they can.  Early in my career I worked in intensive care settings, but over time realized I really wanted to try to keep people out of ICU rather than work with them once there. My clinical work and research, along with my own personal interests, incorporate a broad perspective of health and wellness. This emphasis translates very well to our golden retrievers who, as we know, are prone to a number of health challenges but who also deserve the opportunity to live the best life they can.
I fell in love with my first golden when I was about 8 years old and have had the pleasure of sharing my life with 5 now.  I have done obedience competitions and therapy work with my goldens and, sadly, have a lot of experience with their health issues, too.  Mostly, I just cherish that incredible golden spirit.  My idea of fun is sharing new experiences with my dog and watching him continue to bloom (he is a rescue who came with a lot of baggage) and, of course, reading research about veterinary and other health issues. 
It takes a dedicated team to help a golden in need, and SEVA-GRREAT has an absolutely amazing group of volunteers who make GRREAT things happen for our goldens.  I am honored to work with this incredible group of people to assist in managing the health needs of the dogs in our care. 
Please check out our website at

You can sign up to get email notices when there are new posts to this blog and also, as the entries increase in number, use the search feature to find information posted previously. Thanks for visiting and I hope you find this site useful in the care of your own golden retriever.

Sunday, July 8, 2018

Safety begins at home

In this blog about health and related issues about golden retrievers, it makes sense to have one of the first entries focused on safety. Safety provides the foundation for everything else we do to help our golden retrievers live long, healthy, and happy lives. There are lots of areas in which safety should be a concern: playing, going for a walk, play dates with other dogs, riding in the car. A safe environment free of dangerous things your dog might ingest, however, is crucial in the world of golden retrievers. I'll never forget taking one of my golden retrievers to a local emergency room when she developed a very large swelling on her nose subsequent to a wasp sting. Fearing a more exaggerated allergic reaction, and of course it was a Saturday night, I wanted to make sure things did not get worse and cause some real problems for her. So, off we went to the vet ER. Upon walking in the door, we were greeted with a chorus from the staff,  all saying in unison "and what did yours eat tonight?" The waiting room had no fewer than 4 golden retrievers in it, all of whom had ingested something they shouldn't have.

Golden retrievers are notorious for putting just about anything in their mouths and, more often than not, swallowing it.  This can lead to an array of consequences ranging from simple intestinal upset from eating "junk," a situation veterinarians refer to as "dietary indiscretion," to bowel obstruction or even accidental poisoning. If you are new to golden retrievers you will discover this soon enough. If you have lived with golden retrievers before, you will learn that each one is a unique individual. The fact that previous goldens never touched your socks on the floor does not mean the next one will display those same good manners.  One may carry around a stuffed toy for weeks, while another destroys it in a flash.  My boy loves paper and systematically and methodically removes (and destroys) books from any bookcase he can reach. I now have the bookcases in any room he can enter stacked high on top with books while the shelves remain empty.  I tell people it's a new trend in decorating.

Keeping a safe home for a golden is an important part of sharing life with these amazing dogs. I hope the ideas below will help you create a safe environment with fewer problems for your dog and fewer worries for you.

1. Put away, securely, anything that could be harmful. Think like a 2 year old, get down low, see what the dogs see at their level, what can they reach, what would harm them if they did chew on or ingest it, and secure those objects out of reach or in another location.  Then stand up and do the same. Eye the countertops. Goldens can be expert "counter-surfers," so what you think is high enough may not be really out of reach for them, especially as they grow. Look especially for some of the items listed further below.

2. The ASPCA Poison Control Center is a wonderful resource. Put their number in your phone, on speed dial, on the refrigerator. Keep a fresh bottle of hydrogen peroxide in your doggie first aid kit. In the event of ingestion of something potentially poisonous, the ASPCA may advise you to administer a specific dose to induce vomiting.  Vomiting is not always the right thing in a case of accidental ingestion, so let the poison control center staff tell you what to do. They are excellent.  More info here:

3. Poisonous plants: On the ASPCA site above, they also have a poisonous plant list that covers house and yard plants. Many very popular plants are quite toxic to dogs and need to be well out of reach. 

4. Common foods that can be very harmful to our goldens include 

a. Chocolate
b. Caffeine
c. Onions and their relatives, which includes garlic and chives. 
d. Grapes
e. Raisins
f. Macadamia Nuts
g. Alcohol
h. Artificial sweeteners, especially Xylitol - very common in items labeled "sugar free"

That is a just a starting list of some of the more dangerous foods. Of course other foods can cause gastric upset, diarrhea and vomiting, or the potentially life-threatening pancreatitis, especially foods with a high fat content. Check the ASPCA list for more info.

5. Human medications: use extra caution when storing or working with medications intended for humans. A dropped pill might be grabbed by your golden before you even know where it went. 

6. In the yard: be on the lookout for dangerous objects, chemicals and plants. Mulch is a very popular chew for goldens, especially puppies, and even the "natural" products can lead to significant dehydration or gastritis. Cocoa mulch is highly toxic. Insecticides and pesticides can be extremely dangerous. Eating grass with pesticide residue could cause problems also. Plants such as azalea, rhododendron and lillies are common in southern yards and can be dangerous if ingested as you will find on the ASPCA list. Be aware of small rocks and pebbles such as those used in landscaping which some young dogs find enjoyable.  At minimum, you could be looking at some expensive dental work. Things that run, slither, slime, croak, and scamper are fascinating, too, and some can be harmful. Be attentive to protecting the wildlife while also protecting your dog. 

7. Auto antifreeze: it has a sweet taste and dogs really go for it. Consumption of auto antifreeze has a high fatality rate. 

8. Other: here is a catch-all because, as noted above, goldens can and will eat anything. Some love plastic, some love paper, some love socks and other clothing items, any of which can cause gastritis or potentially life-threatening obstruction. 

This list might sound rather scary as if the world is full of things that will hurt our dogs. But unlike many risks we face in life, everything on this list is something we can manage or control. Keeping a safe environment for your golden in an important step in helping your companion live a long and healthy live. With a little effort, you won't have to hear the "what did yours eat?" question.