1 of 3 | Daniel Promislow, shown with his late dog, Frisbee, is a professor in the Department of Laboratory Medicine & Pathology and the Department of Biology at the University of Washington in Seattle and principal investigator of the Dog Aging Project. Photo by Tammi Kaeberlein
NEW YORK, Oct. 11 (UPI) -- A large study aims to follow pet dogs for 10 years or longer to track how genes, diet, exercise and the environment affect aging -- and the findings may shed light on human health.
The Dog Aging Project seeks to recruit mixed breed and purebred pets of every age.
"Dogs age very much like people do," Daniel Promislow principal investigator of the project, told UPI in a telephone interview.
Promislow is a professor in the Department of Laboratory Medicine & Pathology and the Department of Biology at the University of Washington in Seattle. His research focuses on the genetic variation of aging patterns in fruit flies, dogs and humans.
The Dog Aging Project, funded by the National Institutes of Health, is a partnership between the University of Washington, Texas A&M University School of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences in College Station and more than two dozen other institutions.
"As people age, the risk of most diseases increases quite dramatically," Promislow said. "Dogs get many of the same diseases as we do. They share our environment and they have a sophisticated health care system like we do."
But dogs age much faster than humans. So, what researchers learn about how their biology and environment influence aging is likely to help them understand the role those factors play in human aging.
So far, the study has collected survey data from about 46,000 dog owners and blood, hair and other samples from about 7,500 dogs.
The findings, such as the contribution of exercise to healthy cognitive ability, have been illuminating, Promislow said.
As dogs age, they can suffer from canine cognitive dysfunction syndrome, which is similar to dementia in the elderly. Dogs with this condition "become lost in familiar spaces, seem to fail to recognize familiar people and lose their normal sleep-wake cycle," Dr. Kate Creevy told UPI via email.
Creevy is the chief veterinary officer of the Dog Aging Project and a professor of small animal internal medicine at Texas A&M University School of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences.
The researchers hope to better understand biological or environmental factors that may slow or prevent cognitive decline. They also may find similarities between dogs and humans that affect arthritis and heart function.
"Dogs can teach us a lot not only about dogs, but also about ourselves," Promislow said. "We're really just at the beginning of this study, and we continue to welcome dogs of all ages to enroll in our study."
Dogs develop the same cancers as humans, so it's important to identify genes that increase susceptibility, Elaine Ostrander, of the National Human Genome Research Institute in Bethesda, Md., told UPI via email.
Ostrander, who is not involved in the Dog Aging Project, is the distinguished senior investigator and chief of the institute's Cancer Genetics and Comparative Genomics Branch.
"We find that genes which are relevant for canine cancer are inevitably important for human cancers as well," she said. "The advantage of studying cancer in dogs, however, is that some breeds have a huge excess of particular types of cancer, while in other breeds, it might be absent.
"For example, one in four Bernese mountain dogs will get histiocytic sarcoma, a typically lethal cancer. But it is unheard of the toy breeds. This makes the genetics much easier than when studying humans.
Cancer also is a disease of aging in dogs and humans, and by studying cancer, we continue to contribute to the body of knowledge regarding aging."
Participants in the Dog Aging Project complete an online survey and share stories about their dogs' lifestyle and health. Some owners receive a kit for their veterinarian to collect blood and hair samples and a cheek swab, Promislow said.
Researchers use the samples to sequence the dogs' genome. Some genes are associated with variation in dogs' size and shape, while others determine whether their hair is curly or straight, long or short.
But the researchers' focus is on finding genes that influence changes that occur with aging, such as the increasing risk of certain diseases, or changes in behaviors.
"The owners become participants in science," Promislow said. "We find that people really enjoy that. As we collect more health-related data in the coming years, we will be able to identify genes that are risk factors for health problems and that information could eventually help us with treatment and prevention of disease."
By studying the genetic and environmental factors in all dogs whose owners choose to volunteer, researchers can ensure that what they find is applicable to all canines. In the past, most veterinary studies -- and human ones-- only included participants who frequented particular research hospitals or had specific conditions, Creevy said.
They hope to identify lifestyle factors -- such as components of dogs' diets, physical activity or social interactions -- that promote healthier aging for longer periods of time.
"Such findings would enable us to keep dogs healthier into their senior years, and delay or reduce the need for treatment of disease and disability," Creevy said.
So far, the team has begun to describe the rates of disease occurrence in aging dogs and the most common causes of death reported by their owners.
Researchers also have evaluated factors that affect owners' end-of-life decisions for their pets, as well as identified some of the most frequent signs of old age that they recognize in their dogs.
The information obtained through this research has the potential to benefit humans, too.
"Because dogs are social animals who share human homes, food, water and habits, many things we learn about aging in dogs translate directly to people," Creevy said. "Dogs are exposed to the same pathogens, air pollutants and water quality as their owners.
"Dogs often exercise with their owners -- and don't exercise if their owners don't. The ability to study a dog's entire life over a period of 10 to 15 years means that discoveries about healthy aging in dogs could be rapidly investigated in humans."