Longevity scientist Dr. Daniel Promislow had a eureka moment in 2007 while looking at the cover of a magazine. It pictured a Great Dane next to a chihuahua and discussed how a single gene accounts for the huge variation in size.
Since it’s well-known that small breeds of dogs live much longer lives than large ones, Dr. Promislow wondered whether the gene is also important to canine lifespan. What he found not only reveals new information about extending the lives of man’s best friend, but could make a difference in our lifespan, too.
Human aging has been studied extensively but little is known about what constitutes “normal aging” for a dog. For example, to estimate canine age in human terms it’s common to multiply “dog years” by seven, although, depending on the size of the dog, this can vary between five and ten years.
In 2018, Dr. Promislow launched the Dog Aging Project (DAP) to investigate this variation and identify specific biomarkers of canine aging and how they may translate to humans. Dr, Promislow, now professor in the Departments of Pathology and Biology at the University of Washington, explains why dogs are valuable to longevity research.
Dogs are Like Humans in Many Ways
“Humans and dogs shared a common ancestor about 94 million years ago.”
More importantly, Dr. Promislow explains, “dogs share our environment, they share our homes and, to a certain extent, our lifestyles.
“Dogs age just like we do. They experience many of the same age-related diseases…just like we do…but there isn’t a science of gerontology for dogs, and we want to create that body of knowledge.
“And because dogs…live in similar conditions [to humans] we can greatly benefit from studying canine lifespans. Because…they live so much shorter [lives] than we do, we can learn about these risk factors much more quickly than if we were studying people.”
Another member of the project, pathologist Matt Kaeberlein, added, “DAP allows us to study aging outside of the laboratory, taking into account the importance of genetic and environmental diversity similar to that of humans.”
To date, over 32,000 dogs have entered the “DAP pack” for the decade-long project but the researchers want to increase this to 100,000, covering different sizes and breeds, to allow for a thorough understanding of how different dogs age.
Another DAP member, genome scientist Joshua Akey from Princeton University, comments on an aspect of the research he’s particularly keen to study.
“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 that live to the average age for their breed…it’s a clever way of trying to find genetic differences that contribute to exceptional longevity.”
For the project, pets are monitored in their own homes so the scientists can determine to what extent their environment, diet and lifestyle impacts aging and the diseases of aging.
Owners fill out annual surveys, take regular measurements, and some will be asked to take cheek swabs for DNA analysis. Veterinarians will also assist by submitting fur, fecal, urine and blood samples of selected dogs.
Dr. Promislow summed up his hopes by saying that DAP is “an opportunity to learn about how we – dogs and owners – can spend more time together in better health. The dogs in this project are sentinels – like the canary in the coal mine. They will help us learn how to avoid what might make us age quicker but also inform us how to age better.”
Is Your Canine Interested?
If you own a dog that’s excitedly wagging its tail at the prospect of volunteering for sentinel duties and becoming a canine citizen scientist, you and your four-legged friend can visit https://dogagingproject.org for further details.