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What Dogs Tell Us About Longevity

UW scientists investigate how to slow down the aging process

Jan 28, 2018, 1:04 p.m.
Drs. Daniel Promislow and Matt Kaeberlein, with Frisbee, Chloe and Dobby, are professors at the University of Washington and directors of the Dog Aging Project, which is dedicated to improving healthy longevity in dogs (and humans). Photo by Tammi Kaeberlein

Drs. Daniel Promislow and Matt Kaeberlein are professors at the University of Washington involved in the study of aging. They also happen to share a love of dogs.

These serious scientists have a lot in common, including the fact that it’s easy to get them talking about dogs— especially the UW’s Dog Aging Project. The project’s motto is “Longer, Healthier Lives for All Dogs.”

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Promislow's interest in using dogs as a model of aging was sparked when he saw a photo of a tiny Chihuahua with a giant Great Dane

You could say it started with a photo of a tiny Chihuahua walking with a gigantic Great Dane fifty times its size. Promislow remembers seeing the photo on the cover of the journal Science back in 2007. Promislow had already started working on size and lifespan. “In mammals, it’s the larger species that are longer lived, except dogs are the opposite,” he says. Very small dogs tend to live much longer than very large dogs. “When I saw that photo, I wondered why dogs did things backward in terms of size.”

Promislow witnessed this phenomenon in his own dogs. “We have one dog, Frisbee. Our other dog, Silver, died about a year-and-a half ago. Silver was a 70-pound Weimaraner; Frisbee is a 40-pound mutt.” At 12, Frisbee is still lively. He used to go running with both dogs, but by age seven or eight, Silver had slowed down considerably. “In a way, the differences between the two of them illustrate what we are learning in our own research,” explains Promislow. “Pure bred dogs and larger dogs tend to be shorter lived.”

A lifelong love of dogs is influencing Dr. Matt Kaeberlein’s work, as well. “I’ve always been a dog person,” says Kaeberlein. He and his wife, Dr. Tammi Kaeberlein (also a research scientist and active on the project), have three dogs (Dobby, a German Shepherd, Chloe, a Keeshond and Betty, a mutt rescued through Old Dog Haven). “They are part of the family. Along with our human children, two boys, we have a houseful,” he remarks.

Promislow and Kaeberlein co-direct the Dog Aging Project. They and a network of pet owners, veterinarians, scientific partners and sponsors are working to understand and increase the healthy lifespan of pet dogs.

So far, the results are encouraging; the implications offer a tantalizing glimpse into increasing longevity in humans.

“It’s pretty reasonable to expect a potential increase in the healthy lifespan of dogs by 30 per cent or more,” says Kaeberlein. As any dog lover will tell you, they’ll take whatever extra healthy time with their dog they can get. “Four to five more years is significant,” he adds. Promislow and Kaeberlein believe adding these extra years is within reach today.

“Since grad school, my scientific research has focused on the biology of aging and trying to understand the biological mechanism of aging,” explains Kaeberlein. His research shows that low doses of the FDA approved drug rapamycin, used to help prevent rejection in transplant patients and to fight cancer, slows aging and extends lifespan in several organisms with few or no side effects. Kaeberlein reasoned that rapamycin could also work on other animals, including dogs.

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