Your team will spend a decade tracking as many as 100,000 pet dogs. Why?
Dogs are a great model for human aging. They get many of the same diseases that we do. They live in the same environment as we do, get more or less the same physical activity and face issues of overweight and obesity like we do. And what would take many, many decades to learn in humans, we can learn from dogs more quickly.
What's in it for us people?
We might find genes associated with risk for a disease that also occurs in humans, for example. There also might be risk factors in our own environment that dogs could point to. A lot of what we know already about the biology of human aging comes from studying yeast, worms, fruit flies and mice. Dogs’ lives can tell us so much more.
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What's in it for the dogs?
While veterinary health care has many specialties just like human health care, including orthopedics and oncology, it doesn't have geriatrics as a specialty. The project will allow us to teach the veterinary community what to expect for every dog as it ages.
What have dogs already revealed about human aging that is useful?
We already know that certain diseases, like cancer, increase in frequency as dogs age. But old dogs also can suffer from serious cognitive decline. We are working on the question of whether dogs that suffer cognitive decline have similarities at the molecular level with Alzheimer's disease in humans.
How does the health of a pet reflect on the health of its human partner?
Numerous studies have found that psychological and social well-being is improved through pet ownership. Research suggests dog ownership could be associated with lower risk of high blood pressure and lower rates of cardiovascular disease. We believe that dogs can provide a powerful sentinel for environmental risk factors, like Lyme disease and others, that impact older individuals.
Are you looking for certain breeds?
We welcome all dogs — readers can nominate their dogs at DogAgingProject.org. We want to capture the variation out there, from the smallest to the largest breeds, from purebreds to all-American mutts and from puppies to the oldest of old dogs. We have dogs as old as 23 and 24 in the study.
Why the focus on personal pets?
There's tremendous power in tracking individuals over time, which dog owners can do. We're trying to collect as much information as broadly as possible, because we don't know what will turn out to be important.
What's happening this fall?
We'll invite people who nominated their dogs to fill out the “Health and Life Experience” survey about their pets. We also expect to send kits to a subset of dog owners to do cheek swabs of their dogs for DNA testing, so that we can sequence the genome of 10,000 dogs. And we'll invite 1,000 owners to bring their dogs to their veterinarian for blood, urine and fecal samples. This is for detailed molecular biology, including all the bacteria in their gut microbiome, that can tell us a lot about the health of individual dogs. The tests are all free of charge for dog owners.
You're testing a drug, too?
Yes. Five hundred dogs will be monitored in a double-blind study. Half will receive rapamycin, a drug commonly used in human transplant patients, and half will receive a placebo. It's been shown at lower doses in animal studies to increase life span and health span.
I assume you have a dog?
Frisbee is a mixed breed with a bit of chow, a bit of shepherd, a bit of cocker spaniel, and we don't know what else. One of the striking things about Frisbee is that she is now 15 but looks like a puppy, and she moves around like a puppy. She certainly has inspired me to try to understand what it is about dogs that might make an old dog act like she's still a pup.
Members of our dog pack — the dogs and their owners in the study — will fill out our surveys over the next 10 years and may be asked to do fun activities with their dogs.
Will you ever study the dog owners, too?
That would be a separate study. But one of the really striking, delightful and unexpected parts of the study is the way that participants share their stories. One veteran wrote to us and said how in the darkest moments of his PTSD, his dog was there to literally save his life. Others write to us about the quirky personalities of their dogs, or they share stories of how dogs make their lives better.
What can dog owners do now to help their pets live long and prosper?
Make sure you're giving your dog a healthy diet that maintains good body condition. Which food is the best is actually something that we will be studying. Make sure that your dog gets a good amount of exercise. Keep in mind that if we are exercising our dogs, that usually means that we are exercising ourselves — and that's a good thing.