The Dog Aging Project checks in

Dogs share the human environment and have a sophisticated health care system, but they don’t live nearly as long. While that’s sad, it also means they offer a unique opportunity to identify the genetic, environmental, and lifestyle factors associated with a healthy lifespan in both species.

That’s the idea behind the Dog Aging Project (DAP), a first-of-its-kind joint venture by the University of Washington School of Medicine and the Texas A&M University College of Veterinary Medicine (TAMU).

Begun in 2018 and funded by a grant from the National Institute on Aging, the DAP is the most ambitious project tackling the question of canine longevity ever, enrolling and studying tens of thousands of dogs of all sizes, breeds, and backgrounds to develop a thorough understanding of canine aging.  To date, more than 32,000 dogs have joined the “DAP Pack,” as the researchers call their canine citizen scientists, and the work’s just getting underway: The DAP expects to run for at least 10 years.

The researchers published an update on how the project’s going in the current issue of the journal Nature.

Lead author Kate Creevy, DVM, MS, DACVIM, Chief Veterinary Officer for the Dog Aging Project and professor of small animal medicine at TAMU, told NEWStat that one major focus of the DAP is to more deeply describe and define the aging experience for companion dogs: “There is no specialty of geriatrics in veterinary medicine. Practitioners don’t have access to a large body of information about the aging experience of dogs—including frailty and multimorbidity, she said. “Better systems to describe and manage these two phenomena will help veterinarians provide better care for aging dogs and better information to support their owners.”

Implications for the future of veterinary medicine

The DAP’s open-source dataset will give veterinarians and scientists the tools to assess how well a specific dog is aging and will set the stage for further research into healthy aging in both dogs and people, Creevy said. “The size and diversity of the DAP participant group, and the comprehensive data we’ve gathered about them, is a new and powerful resource for veterinary medicine.”

The impact on human healthcare

“Dogs are an excellent model of human health and disease outcomes,” said Audrey Ruple, DVM, MS, PhD, (D)ACVPM, MRCVS, associate professor of population health sciences at the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine and one of the DAP’s leading researchers. “With the DAP, we hope to find both environmental factors and genetic mutations that are associated with healthy aging and disease outcomes that are shared in both species,” she added. “These insights will allow us to help both dogs and humans live longer, healthier lives together.”

How you and your clients can be part of it

Creevy said the DAP’s primary point of contact is the dog owner. “When participants sign up, we ask them to work with their primary care veterinarians to obtain their dogs’ medical records.  For dogs who are selected into the parts of our study that require blood and urine collection, we provide kits for them to have fulfilled by their primary care veterinarians.”

Creevy said this structure means that primary care veterinarians are essential to the DAP. “The most important things veterinarians can do to support the project include encouraging their clients to enroll their dogs and supporting those clients in completing study-related tasks.”

Veterinarians can also reach out to the DAP directly through the contact form on its website.

Ruple told NEWStat the DAP breaks the mold of traditional research projects in several ways: “The scope, the funding sources, the collaboration with the people who live with these dogs, are all novel.” She added that one of the most exciting findings they report in the paper is  “the fact this huge, transdisciplinary work can be done!”

“I have a particular interest in comparative oncology, and I think the DAP is positioned to help us take the next big leap in our understanding of cancers that occur in both dog and human populations,” Ruple added. Dogs and humans have similar genetic mutations that lead to cancer initiation and spontaneous development of tumors that are molecularly indistinguishable from human tumors.

With the knowledge gleaned from the DAP, Ruple said, “We’ll be able to identify both the genetic mutations that are associated with specific cancer outcomes and the environmental factors that might contribute to cancer occurrences. This can help us to find new ways to prevent cancers from occurring and may provide new targets for development of cancer therapies that we can use in both species.”

Find out more about how to help your patients live longer, healthier lives in the 2019 AAHA Canine Life Stage Guidelines and the 2021 AAHA/AAFP Feline Life Stage Guidelines.

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