Mike Fitzgerald with someone’s best friend.

Ageing in dogs bears many similarities to ageing in humans. They start to lose hearing, vision, mobility, can get cancer, arthritis, heart disease, renal failure and brain ageing (doggy dementia). The differences in the way dogs age may be illuminating for our human species as well.

For example: why do smaller breeds of dogs tend to have longer lifespans (up to 16 years or more) compared to larger and giant breed dogs who may only live 8 to 10 years?

The Dog Ageing Project is a longitudinal observational study being conducted by University of Washington and Texas A&M, funded jointly by a grant from the US National Institute on Ageing as part of the National Institutes of Health and private donations.

In developed nations, the most important risk factor for every major cause of death is age. Most of the research into the ageing process has been conducted using laboratory studies on fruit-flies, yeasts, worms and laboratory mice.The days-to months lifespan of these species allows for more rapid progress and many ageing relevant genetic pathways and environmental factors have been identified using these methods, but a sterile controlled laboratory environment has its limitations as a model for human ageing.

No other species allows us to study the impact of environment and lifestyle on health in all its detail and complexity”.

Companion dogs on the other hand, provide an opportunity to investigate more closely how genetic background and life-experiences affect ageing. Think about it! Your dog shares the same environment, including variation in climate, toxin exposure, infectious disease exposure and even mealtimes and exercise in many cases.

Dogs acquire diseases in this natural and diverse environment and are treated as individuals over a long period of time. Dogs have a sophisticated health care system, including lifelong relationships with veterinary general practitioners, and have access to 40 different veterinary specialists. In fact, no other species allows us to study the impact of environment and lifestyle on health in all its detail and complexity.

This citizen science project aims to follow 10,000 dogs throughout their lifespan. Like other longitudinal observational studies, e.g. the Framingham Heart Study, the Baltimore Longitudinal Study of Ageing and the Women’s Health Initiative, the power of the Dog Ageing Study comes from following a large sample of 10,000 dogs, measuring many different variables (physical, genetic, behavioural, lifestyle and environmental data), and evaluating how these variables change over time.

Insights drawn from this research will be used to find ways to increase health-span (the period of life spent free from disease), hopefully leading to increased quality of life for dogs and their owners.

The Dog Ageing Project is an open data study which means anyone can collect and analyse the data. About 100 terabytes of data will be collected each year! This will include all kinds of information about each dog and its environment. In addition to all the usual stuff about breed, size, age, postcode, medical records, number of humans and other animals in the house, diet and exercise etc, they will sequence each dog’s genome, measure hundreds of different molecular markers in the blood, levels of pollutants in the dog’s neighbourhood, the diversity of the gut biome and accelerometer measurements of activity and rest.

There is also a small interventional study run in parallel on a subset of 500 dogs within the larger study. This is a double-blind, placebo-controlled study of pharmaceutical Rapamycin (aka Sirolimus), a drug which has shown to increase lifespan and health in mice. Somewhat surprising for an immune suppressive drug which interestingly was isolated from a soil Streptomyces on Easter Island of all places!

It will be fascinating to follow this study and discover what we can learn from our canine companions.