Above: Dr. Daniel Promislow and his dog Frisbee are involved in the Dog Aging Project. Photo by Tammi Kaeberlein.

Researchers learning from dogs

What if we could improve our understanding of human aging with the help of our dogs? Perhaps our four-legged friends can lead us to discover what influences the aging process.

Researchers are working to prove that what takes decades to learn from humans, might be learned much faster with canines. Perhaps as much as seven times faster.

Dr. Matt Kaeberlein
Dr. Matt Kaeberlein (SPECIAL)

Dogs suffer from major diseases, such as cancer and heart problems, just like people. Canine diseases “[even] include cognitive decline,” said Dr. Matt Kaeberlein, professor of pathology at the University of Washington (UW) School of Medicine, one of two collaborating universities. (Texas A&M’s College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences is the other major research lab.)

“Dogs also share our living environment and [like humans] have a diverse genetic makeup,” Kaeberlein said.

The National Institutes of Health believes a $23 million Dog Aging Project now underway is going to make a valuable contribution to science over the next decade. Although the project has been in its preliminary stages for a while, its full-throttle launch was announced this past November at the annual Gerontological Society of America meeting in Austin, Texas.

The hope is to “… create a national community of dogs, owners, veterinarians, researchers, and other volunteers,” according to Texas A&M and UW media, who are putting the word out for canine volunteers and their owners.

“Working together to advance knowledge about how genes, habits and the environment influence of dog aging, we can improve the lives of humans,” says a Texas A&M media statement.

Become a dog aging project citizen

All owners whose dogs are accepted at the end of the nomination process will become Dog Aging Project citizen scientists. Their dogs will become members of the Dog Aging Project ‘pack,’ according to the study.

All kinds of dogs are invited to be nominated, according to the study. That includes canines of every age, from puppies to seniors; all sizes, from miniature to huge; males and females; neutered or not; and dogs living in all types of locations.

Healthy dogs, as well as those with chronic illnesses, will be considered for this project.

Over the next 10 years, scientists will gather information on about 10,000 enrolled dogs in a collaborative, open-data platform. That means the massive amount of data collected can be analyzed by scientists around the world in a variety of ways.

Vet JoAnna Pendergrass
Dr. JoAnna Pendergrass, DVM (SPECIAL)

Dr. JoAnna Pendergrass, a Sandy Springs veterinarian and freelance medical writer, suggested this project will “benefit dog owners as much as the project’s researchers.”

“Understanding the ‘why’ and ‘how’ of dog aging will help owners not only recognize the signs of aging in their dogs, but also be proactive about keeping their dogs healthy and happy during each life stage, from puppy to old soul,” said Pendergrass.

The study will include a survey of the effectiveness of an FDA-approved drug called rapamycin. Based on scientific studies, researchers anticipate that the drug will improve cardiac function, boost immune function, reduce or delay the risk of cancer and increase healthy lifespan of middle-aged dogs by two to five years, according to UW research.

In the first phase of this study, Dr. Kaeberlein and his team will enroll middle-aged pet dogs (6-9 years old, depending on the breed) in a three-month, low-dose rapamycin trial.

In the second phase, they will enroll middle-aged pet dogs in a longer-term, low-dose regimen. In addition to improved cardiac and immune function, they expect that cancer rates will be significantly reduced, overall health (including cognitive function and activity) will be improved and life expectancy will be increased.

More than 40 other researchers from a variety of fields and institutions will join in this endeavor. For this study—the largest of its kind ever undertaken—the dogs will be followed throughout their lifetimes.

How to nominate Fido

“Only dogs need apply,” can be found in several articles about this unique project. But, according to dogagingproject.org, dogs will likely need human help with their forms.

“The applications, with its impending information, will allow important research on aging in dogs,” said one of the project’s trio of directors, biology of aging expert Dr. Daniel Promislow. He is a professor of pathology UW’s School of Medicine and professor of biology.

Dog Aging Project presentation slide
Press briefing at the Gerontological Society of America Conference in Austin, Texas. Photo courtesy of TGA Communications, LLC.

The project administrators will ask owners to fill out surveys about their dog’s health and life experience. Following that, they will provide owners with a kit to swab the dog’s saliva for genetic testing.

They may also ask owners to complete special activities with their dogs and report back on their performances. As dog owners themselves, they plan to make the experience easy and fun for all participants.

To nominate your dog, please visit DogAgingProject.org.

This article was written with the support of a journalism fellowship from the Gerontological Society of America, Journalists Network on Generations and the Silver Century Foundation.


Some FAQs from the Dog Aging Project

Where does this study take place?

The study takes place in the United States. Since the researchers want to study your dog in their natural environment, it will take place in your home or wherever you and your dog normally live and play.

If I am selected to participate, do I have to take my dogs into a lab or a research location?

No. Dogs enrolled in studies within the Dog Aging Project will continue to live and play in their home environments and continue to see their regular veterinarians. However, owners of some dogs will also be asked to visit nearby veterinary specialists for certain tests.

What is rapamycin?

Rapamycin, also called sirolimus, is a drug that has been used in people for decades for cancer chemotherapy or organ transplant anti-rejection. However, when used at much lower doses in mice, it seems to change the way their bodies age. Mice treated with rapamycin seem to live longer and age more healthfully. The researchers are interested in discovering whether these benefits could be seen in dogs as well.

Judi Kanne

Judi Kanne is a public health communications consultant and contributing writer to Atlanta Senior Life.