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Want Your Dog to Live Longer?

Seriously, though. The Dog Aging Project is looking for participants.

by Liz Fuller-Wright
April 11, 2022
A woman hugging her dog.
Vertikala / Stocksy

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It’s been generally accepted that “dog years” are roughly human years times seven. But determining a dog’s age is actually much more complicated than that. Part of the problem is that while humans have clear metrics for healthy aging, little is known about “normal aging” for dogs. Big dogs tend to age the fastest — maybe 10 times faster than humans — while small dogs only half that.

The Dog Aging Project (DAP) was formed to better understand the complexities of aging in dogs and what contributes to a long and healthy life. Launched in 2018, the project set out to become the largest research data-gathering program of its kind, seeking to enroll and study tens of thousands of dogs from all backgrounds. Their open-source dataset will give veterinarians and scientists tools to assess how well a specific dog is aging and will set the stage for further research into healthy aging — in both dogs and people.

One-of-a-Kind Study

More than 32,000 dogs have joined as canine citizen scientists in the nationwide study since it began. “We know from previous work done with dog owners that they are motivated to help their dogs live longer, healthier lives. The response has been positively overwhelming,” says Dr. Audrey Ruple, a veterinary epidemiologist and assistant professor at Purdue University College. Ruple is one of the more than 40 experts from a variety of fields and institutions who use the information submitted by DAP participants to investigate many aspects of canine health and longevity. Contributing experts come from disciplines ranging from genetics and microbiology to canine cognition and cardiology.

The project will look at dogs from all breeds and mixes from across the nation and is expected to run for at least 10 years. Researchers hope to learn how factors like a dog’s genome, proteome, microbiome, demographics, and environmental factors such as chemical exposures and noise pollution impact health.

To accomplish these goals, scientists are working with pet parents who periodically fill out surveys and take measurements of their dogs for the duration of the project; some also may be asked to collect cheek swabs for DNA sampling. The research team is also working with veterinarians across the country who assist by submitting fur, fecal, urine, and blood samples for some enrolled participants.

Prescription for Longevity

One aim of the project is to identify biomarkers of canine aging to glean clues on how genetic, environmental, and lifestyle variation influence aging. Researchers will also use genomic sequencing to analyze the genetic architecture of age-related traits in dogs. “Given that dogs share the human environment and have a sophisticated health care system but are much shorter-lived than people, they offer a unique opportunity to identify the genetic, environmental and lifestyle factors associated with a healthy lifespan,” said Dr. Daniel Promislow, principal investigator for the National Institute on Aging grant that funds the project, and a professor of laboratory medicine and pathology at the UW School of Medicine.

Researchers want to look at the 300 oldest dogs in the DAP Pack to see if they can identify the keys to their longevity. “One part of the project that I am super excited about is a ‘super-centenarian’ study, comparing the DNA of exceptionally long-lived dogs to dogs who live to the average age for their breed,” says noted canine and archaic human genome science researcher Dr. Joshua Akey, of Princeton University. “This is the first study of its kind in dogs (to my knowledge), and I think it’s a clever way of trying to find genetic differences that contribute to exceptional longevity.”

A vital component of the project is a clinical trial of a drug called rapamycin, an immunosuppressive medication that has been used in humans for decades. At lower doses, rapamycin has been shown to increase lifespan, improve heart and cognitive function, and reduce age-related disease incidence in laboratory species.

The Dog Aging Project team believes rapamycin may provide similar benefits to middle-aged, large-breed dogs and is collaborating with veterinarians at universities across the country to evaluate the drug’s effectiveness on hundreds of clinical trial participants. Ultimately, the varied, rich and complex data collected will allow the team to define aging in dogs, metrics for which do not currently exist.

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Dogs Health Parallels Human Health

The study goes beyond trying to improve the health and longevity of dogs but also seeks to extend those findings to improve human health. Researchers are excited because studying dogs allows them to learn about healthy aging in a relatively short time (compared to a similar study in humans) and in a way that is still directly applicable to humans.

“Dogs are good models for humans,” says Dr. Ruple. “They have similar genetics, share our environment, and they also have similar diseases and health issues. We will be asking, ‘How do dogs age healthfully?’ in order to help better understand how we can age healthfully, too.”

Because the project is an open-data study, scientists around the world will have the opportunity to contribute to the study in a variety of ways, based on their interests. Researchers detailed the methodology of their project and its potential implications on both human and veterinary medicine in the journal Nature.

The researchers anticipate that their findings will translate to human aging, for several reasons: Dogs experience nearly every functional decline and disease of aging that people do; the extent of veterinary care parallels human healthcare in many ways; and our dogs share our lived environments, a major determinant of aging and one that cannot be replicated in any lab setting.

See How Your Dog Compares

Curious about what others in the world of dogs are feeding their pups? Wondering about the most common canine behavior problems? Or maybe how much time dogs and their people spend outside, where they go, or what they do?

To find out, go to the Dog Aging Project’s data dashboard and click on one of the topics in the list of links on the left. The database, constructed from information collected by researchers from tens of thousands of dog-loving participants, is mind-boggling in its depth of detail and stats.

Ready to Participate? Join the Study!

To participate in the Dog Aging Project, pet parents may nominate one dog per household at the project website, DogAgingProject.org. Participants will be asked to complete an annual health survey about their dog, which takes two to three hours, and other, shorter surveys (estimated at 10-30 minutes each) throughout the year. The dog may become eligible for various research activities, all of which are voluntary; these could include genetic analyses, the collection of biological samples, or even participation in a clinical trial.

“We are still recruiting dogs of all ages, all breeds — purebred or mixed breeds, all sizes, all across the United States,” said William Thistlethwaite, a graduate student who works with Dr. Akey at the Lewis-Sigler Institute. “Especially puppies and young dogs up to three years old.” As a 10-year study, puppies are especially beneficial to the project because enrolled puppies can participate throughout their entire lives, including through the process of spaying or neutering, providing researchers a lot of data about how these changes influence healthy aging. It’s not too late to enroll your pup (but only one per household).

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Liz Fuller-Wright

Liz Fuller-Wright is a writer for Princeton University. Republished with permission under the CC BY 4.0 license. May be edited for style and length.