Pets: Studying dogs’ lifespans

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Pets: Studying dogs’ lifespans
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By Kim Gilliam

The American Kennel Club recently posted a call for more dogs to participate in a project that aims to help improve dogs’ lifespans. This piqued my interest as many dogs that I work with are entering their golden years and their owners would do anything to contribute to a long and happy life for their pups as well as future generations.

The Dog Aging Project is a national study with the goal of understanding how genes, lifestyle and environment influence aging. Funded in 2018 by the National Institute on Aging, part of the National Institutes of Health, it brings together academics from 28 universities around the world with a community of dogs, owners, veterinarians, researchers and volunteers.

The project’s work is centered on two goals: understanding how biology, lifestyle and environment influence aging and intervening to increase healthspan – that golden period of well-being when dogs can leap, dive, fetch and snuggle free from pain or disability.

As of mid-March, there were 35,000 volunteers reporting regularly on their dogs’ health, lifestyle and care, but more dogs are needed. They are particularly looking for intact dogs, large dogs and dogs that live in central and southern United States.

“All dogs are welcome: Any size, any breed, any age, and any health condition. However, we can learn the most from dogs enrolled as puppies, ideally before they are spayed or neutered,” Dr. Audrey Ruple DVM, MS, PhD, an associate professor at Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine, Virginia Tech, said.

No one has ever investigated such a large number of dogs over such a long period of time, especially at the level of detail these researchers envision. One branch of the study is sequencing the genomes of at least 10,000 dogs. Another zeros in on the oldest dogs in the pack – the “supercentenarians” – to look for keys to their longevity.

It’s long been clear that big dogs have shorter lifespans than small dogs and that different breeds are predisposed to different ailments. The hope is the Dog Aging Project will help reveal more about the mechanisms behind those links. The researchers also hope to gain insights into normal aging, along with the entire spectrum of ailments that plague older dogs, from arthritis and hearing loss to cataracts and cognitive decline.

You can nominate your dog by going to DogAgingProject.org to complete a brief questionnaire. Within two to eight weeks they will send an invitation to set up your personal portal on their secure research platform where you will be able to complete the Health and Life Experience Survey, which is in-depth and covers many topics, including demographics, environment, behavior, diet and medicines. The survey is lengthy, but you can take your time and complete it in sections, as long as it is submitted within six weeks. Participants are also asked to upload their dogs’ veterinary records.

Upon completion of the survey, your dog will become an official member of the Dog Aging Project Pack. Participating in the project lets you connect with other dog lovers around the country via an area on their website called the Dog Park where members can interact with one another and share about their dogs.

As the years pass, they will ask you to provide updates and share opportunities to participate in other aspects of the research with a goal of maintaining a relationship with pack members for the entirety of the dog’s life. And when it’s time, the End of Life Survey collects information about the circumstances surrounding a dog’s death. By combining that data with the information from the earlier surveys, it will help inform understanding of the aging process and identify key targets to improve the quality and length of life for future generations of dogs.

The writer co-owns Frolick Dogs, an indoor dog gym in Alexandria, with her husband, Kevin Gilliam.

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