Aging is a universal experience, shared by both humans and animals. But many mysteries still surround the aging process. Now, a collaborative project between the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences (CVM), the University of Washington, and other colleges and organizations is set to chip away at these mysteries to better understand how our canine companions age both physically and mentally.
The Dog Aging Project is an innovative proposal to study aging in pets, to benefit their health and longevity, according to Dr. Kate Creevy, chief veterinary officer on the Dog Aging Project and associate professor at the CVM.
“The things that we can learn about dogs to benefit them also can benefit people,” she said. “We hope that our interest in studying the dog for its own sake provides terrific benefit to people, as well.”
Starting with understanding and characterizing how dogs age, the project seeks to build upon what little information currently exists to describe normal aging in various sizes and breeds, Creevy said. This not only will help veterinarians better treat aging canines, but it will help researchers understand conditions such as diabetes and arthritis that affect both dogs and humans as they age.
Dogs of All Shapes and Sizes
Approximately 10,000 dogs of varying ages and breeds living throughout the United States will be enrolled in the project, accounting for a sample size that is representative enough to describe aging in a typical dog. The study will take a long-term look at the health of dogs in their natural environment over five to 10 years, making middle-aged dogs particularly valuable candidates for the study.
Enrolled dogs will live out their days as they normally would, seeing their regular veterinarians, which will allow dogs across the country to conveniently participate.
They will be divided into two subsets, a more closely monitored group and a less closely monitored group. Each group will contribute unique data to the project.
For the closely monitored group, local veterinarians will collect regular blood and urine samples that will be sent to Creevy and her team, who will also assess the dogs’ medical records and remain in close contact with the veterinarians. Researchers also will regularly communicate with owners about their dogs’ routines.
The less-closely monitored subset comprises dogs that will provide genetic samples, which will help the research team understand the genetic origins of age-related diseases. Researchers also will monitor the dogs’ medical records.
“It is our goal to make the portion of the dogs who are closely monitored a larger and larger group by continuing to obtain additional funding,” Creevy said.
Exercising Body and Mind
Because activity levels are known to influence health, the Dog Aging Project also will use monitors to measure levels of activity, heart rate, and other vital parameters in some dogs. Using accelerometers will provide the researchers with important health information about the dogs’ activity levels, which likely also will be of interest to owners, Creevy said.
“We will be interested in that data for research, but the owners also will have access to that data,” she said. “For example, if an owner wants to know how much her dog runs around the house when she’s not home, she can.”
Physical health is not the only thing that the researchers are investigating; the Dog Aging Project also aims to understand and characterize how dogs’ brains age. Through the project, owners will have access to a website that allows dogs and owners to play various games to assess different aspects of cognition.
“It’s not about whether your dog is smarter or dumber; it’s about how your dog thinks and if certain breeds and ages of dogs tend to think the same way,” said Creevy, adding that the tests will allow owners to bond with and understand their dogs.
The Big Picture
Creevy’s research is a first step in providing a foundation for future canine aging research. The field is so cutting-edge, many of its questions have yet to be discovered.
“We won’t really know what some of the data means at the time that we collect it,” she said. “We won’t know what it means until we’ve captured the information from a lot of dogs and have had time to see how their lives unfolded.
“(Likewise) Some of the information we’ll be giving back to owners won’t be of immediate use to them, but as the research progresses and some of that information develops new meanings, they’ll be able to use the information to better understand their dogs,” Creevy said.
By providing this fundamental knowledge, the Dog Aging Project has the potential to help support a new field in veterinary medicine-geriatrics.
“One of the things that’s true about veterinary medicine is we do not currently have a specialty in geriatrics the way they do in human health,” Creevy said. “Certainly as people age, you see a gerontologist. We do not currently have a specialty of veterinary gerontology. Defining what the typical or normal old dog looks like is our first challenge.”
Creevy also anticipates people becoming more aware of the Dog Aging Project and to have future collaborations with groups that want to further examine certain variables, such as diet, exercise, and even certain medications. These variables could impact canine aging and, in turn, affect human aging.
In many ways, dogs mirror their owners. By sharing the same habits, dogs can serve as a model for human conditions, such as obesity, cancer, and arthritis. But dogs are not only helping people; people are helping dogs, as well.
“We have chosen to use models from human medicine to identify some of the diseases we think are going to be the most important to healthful aging, because the diseases that dogs experience in aging are, in many ways, very similar to people,” Creevy said. “Obesity is a big problem for dogs, just as it is for people in this country. Cancer is a big problem for dogs, just as it is for people in this country. They get low thyroid function or hypothyroidism. We consider all of those to be very, very important diseases of dogs.”
Creevy said aging sometimes can be associated with dogs losing interest in daily life, becoming difficult to interact with, and losing normal control of food and bathroom times. These things can be a challenge for aging people, as well.
“Trying to understand dogs who end up experiencing those conditions, versus the dogs who don’t, may lead to some way we could interact with dogs younger in life to decrease the likelihood of these outcomes,” Creevy said.
Ultimately, it’s the love humans have for their dogs that helps push the research forward, Creevy said.
“We’re trying to be on the cutting edge, and I think we are inspired by the fact that dogs are so important to people,” she said. “There is no limit to the things owners would do to try to promote healthy, enjoyable lives for their dogs. Because that’s true, we’re capable of pushing the research envelope and asking questions that haven’t previously been asked because dog owners are willing and able to help us.”