Can New Science Help Your Dog Live Longer?

PetMD Editorial
Published: February 23, 2016
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by Stacia Friedman

Have you ever wished your dog could live longer? The Dog Aging Project at the University of Washington in Seattle is doing something about it.

Led by Dr. Daniel Promislow, professor of pathology and biology, and Dr. Matt Kaeberlien, associate professor of pathology, a new study marks the first nation-wide effort to determine why some dogs die of cancer, kidney failure, and dementia, while others live to old age without these problems.

“Our goal is to extend the period of life in which dogs are healthy by two to four years, not prolong the already difficult older years,” says Dr. Kaeberlien, who also serves as the founding director of the Healthy Aging and Longevity Research Institute. “As far as I know, we are the first and only group currently working to increase healthy longevity in dogs by targeting the biological aging process, rather than by focusing on individual specific diseases.”

Dr. Kaeberlein shares his home with Dobby, a four-year-old German Shepherd, and Chloe, a ten-year-old Keeshond.  

Rapamycin for Aging Dogs

The Aging Dog Project will treat middle-aged dogs with the FDA-approved drug rapamycin, a natural product discovered on Easter Island in the southeastern Pacific Ocean. In mice, rapamycin in low doses has been shown to increase lifespan and improve the function of the brain, heart, immune system and muscles, in addition to protecting against most forms of cancer.  

In higher doses, rapamycin is currently used in humans to prevent rejection in kidney transplants and to fight cancer. The goal of the study is to determine if a low dose of rapamycin will increase longevity and delay the onset of diseases in dogs.

Dog Aging Clinical Trials

The first phase of the Dog Aging Project is already in progress. Dr. Kaeberlein’s team has enrolled over 30 dogs in the study so far.

“For ten weeks, they will receive a low-dose of rapamycin and we will follow changes in their blood chemistry and microrganisms,” he says. “Before, during, and after the treatment period we will look at their cognitive function, heart function, immunity, and cancer incidence.” 

This first phase will be completed by April, 2016. 

Although they are just starting the project, researchers have already made a few surprising findings.

“One unexpected discovery is that about one in five middle-aged dogs is walking around with asymptomatic heart disease. These animals were excluded from our study, but it suggests that cardiac dysfunction is a greater contributing factor to age-associated death in dogs than previously understood,” says Dr. Kaeberlein.

How to Enroll Your Dog in the Aging Project

Is your dog ready to become a “Citizen Scientist”? You don’t need to live in Seattle to enroll your dog in the second phase of the rapamyscin study, which hopes to study 600 middle-aged dogs at designated veterinary medical centers across the United States. Fifty percent of these dogs will receive rapamycin and the other half will receive a placebo. Dogs getting the placebo are equally important because without this "control group" the study would not be scientifically valid.

The Dog Aging Project is also accepting pre-enrollment for a study which will follow dogs over a longer period of time.

“We intend to start with 1,000 dogs and hope to expand this to 10,000 dogs within a couple of years. Ultimately, we would like to track the health status of 100,000 dogs,” says Dr. Kaeberlein.

Dogs in the longitudinal study will not receive rapamycin. Instead, they will be monitored through a series of regular veterinary exams and non-invasive tests throughout their lives. Dogs of all breeds and ages are welcome to apply for enrollment in this study.   

How to Support the Dog Aging Project

Prolonging the life of dogs is not the kind of project federal agencies like the National Institutes of Health, which focuses on human diseases, are likely to fund. Scientists are pinning their hopes on support from fellow dog lovers.

“Given how I feel about my pets, I see this as a unique project where there’s a real potential for citizen science,” Dr. Kaeberlein says. “I think it would be great if pet owners who are really interested in improving the health of their animals would help fund this work.”

To submit your pet for consideration in the study or to make a donation, visit The Dog Aging Project

Image: Annette Shaff via Shutterstock