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HomePet InsuranceExtending Your Dog's Life: Insights from the Dog Aging Project

Extending Your Dog’s Life: Insights from the Dog Aging Project

Key Takeaways

  • A long-term study involving 50,000 dogs aims to identify the causes of aging in canines, and ways to improve their longevity.
  • The lessons learned could also be applied to humans.
  • The study has already made some key discoveries – such as dogs with friends may live longer and purebred and mixed-breed dogs have roughly the same lifespan overall.

Just about every dog parent wishes their pooch could live forever, or at least for as long as possible. Some 120 researchers who care about the well-being and happiness of dogs share this desire. They started the Dog Aging Project four years ago to discover the secrets of healthy aging for canines. It is the world’s largest and most ambitious dog study to date, and any older dog can participate.

They hope the long-term research project’s findings will also translate into medical advances for people. They have already made some fundamental discoveries in our understanding of how dogs age and what influences their longevity.

About the Dog Aging Project

At the Dog Aging Project – a partnership between the University of Washington and Texas A&M University – researchers conduct “rigorous scientific research designed to define, explain, and ameliorate the effects of aging.” The project has built a community of volunteers, veterinarians and researchers united by a shared love for dogs. As of March 1, 2024, the study had 50,000 canine participants, and they are hoping to get to 100,000 dogs. Information provided by dog owners and their veterinarians fuels the research. Pet parents will fill out a survey annually about their dog’s health. Anyone who knows their dog’s approximate age can enroll them in the study on the website.

The Dog Aging Project focuses on healthy aging with a high quality of life, not just extending lifespans. They want to understand the biological and environmental factors that influence aging and intervene to prevent debilitating decline.

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Why study dogs’ longevity?

Studying aging in humans is challenging and expensive, but because dogs age more rapidly than humans, experience the same diseases of aging, are genetically diverse, and share our environment, they make ideal research subjects, according to the project website.

“We are studying the dog really for a variety of reasons, but mainly because the domestic dog is the most variable in how they look and act and in terms of age-related diseases,” says Brianah McCoy, a researcher and Ph.D. candidate at Arizona State University. “Dogs are one species, yet Chihuahuas are really distinct from Great Danes. We see the same thing in humans. You and your next-door neighbor look very different.”

Older black dog

Testing a new longevity drug

One of the tasks within the project is the testing of a drug, rapamycin, an immune-suppressing drug, which, at low doses, has been shown to increase lifespan and delay or reverse many age-related disorders in mice. The drug has been used for years for treating people to prevent organ rejection in transplants. The Dog Aging Project is conducting the third and most extensive trial of rapamycin on dogs.

Pet owners can enroll their dogs in the trial if they are healthy, at least seven years of age, and at least 44 pounds in weight. Those owners bring their dogs to a participating clinic regularly for check-ups and testing. They designed the study to test if rapamycin treatment leads to benefits such as better heart health, improved mobility, prolonged cognitive function, and an increased lifespan.

Among other findings of the Dog Aging Project, so far:

Ad for dogs to join dog aging project
  • A dog’s size is a significant factor in the risk of various diseases, with large dogs generally experiencing a shorter life span. While small size dogs tend to live longer, some diseases are more prevalent among small dogs.
  • Sterilization (spay/neutering) improves life expectancy by 13.8% in male dogs and 26.3% in female dogs. It also decreases the chance of death from infections. On the other hand, sterilization increases the risk of some cancers. They continue to study this effect.
  • Purebred dogs do not show a higher prevalence of medical conditions than mixed-breed dogs. However, some individual breeds do tend to develop specific medical conditions. Controlling for sex, purebred vs. mixed-breed status, and geographic region made little difference in all disease categories, they said.
  • Environmental factors and economics play a large part in determining a dog’s health. Dogs in lower-income houses or areas with more residential turnover had poorer health and less physical mobility. The researchers attribute this in part to less dog-walking in poorer neighborhoods. On the other hand, social support, such as living with other dogs or frequent socialization, was associated with better health outcomes for the dogs. This suggests that having companionship and interaction with other dogs can greatly contribute to a dog’s overall well-being, the researchers concluded.
  • Some dogs experience canine cognitive decline, similar to Alzheimer’s disease, as they age. The project studies whether more physically active dogs are less prone to mental decline. While physical activity was robustly associated with better cognitive outcomes in dogs, they are still looking to determine if exercise was the reason for the improved mental fitness.
  • Intermittent fasting is all the rage, with humans looking to lose weight and improve their health. Researchers found that time-restricted feeding of dogs may also have benefits. One study found that dogs who were only fed once a day had less cognitive decline and lower odds of having gastrointestinal, dental, orthopedic, kidney/urinary, and liver/pancreas disorders.

Dog Aging Project shares its data

Dog at bottom of stairs

The researchers take an “open science” approach, meaning they share all their data with other scientists and the public. They house biological samples collected from dogs in the studies at the Cornell University Veterinary Biobank and any researcher can request access. The group hopes this sharing will advance science because it allows testing new hypotheses as new research tools become available.