by Tammi Kaeberlein
This blog is for dog lovers by dog lovers, about all things relevant to healthy aging in dogs.
This is Betty, our unofficial mascot, She is a foster dog who came to live with my husband and I through Old Dog Haven, even though we definitely did not need another dog. We already had two, neither of them small, or quiet, or particularly well-behaved. But we could not resist those eyes, or the tail that wags with every kind word aimed remotely in her direction. Happy, active, elderly, opinionated, and also very vocal. We do not know how old Betty is, and neither does she.
How old would you be, if no one knew how old you were? The irony was too compelling. It was a sign, destiny, or disaster in the making. Kidding, just kidding. She is our new alpha dog, but that really isn’t saying much. It seems appropriate for her to share our spotlight, and to help us keep things in perspective. This is our first post, so a little more introduction may be useful.
Who we are. We are a group of scientists and dog lovers who have been studying the basic biology of aging for many years. What started out as just an idea a few years ago, has grown into a worldwide network of people focused on improving the lives of dogs through science. Veterinarians, scientists, citizen scientists, volunteers and sponsors. You can learn more about us here. Everyone has one thing in common – we are dog people. Which means that we are surrounded daily by people who have a firm grasp of what is really important in life.
What we are doing. The purpose of the Dog Aging Project is twofold. The first goal is to establish a baseline for normal aging in dogs, for pet owners, vets and scientists around the world. Why? When we first began our study, it became clear that there was no pre-existing standard for what normal aging means in dogs. SO frustrating. How common is heart disease in older dogs that don’t show symptoms; how long does it take to develop? A striking number of dogs we first looked at had minor heart valve defects. Was this normal in middle-aged, large sized dogs? The answer is not clear, because dogs do not usually receive an echocardiogram (heart ultrasound) unless there is an obvious pre-existing condition, a reason for it.
To obtain a better understanding of normal aging in dogs, we are initiating a Longitudinal Study of Aging that will follow the remaining life of a dog, of 10,000 dogs. Really a lot of dogs. There is no size, age or breed restriction and the study will involve the dogs’ own vets to monitor a variety of health parameters. They will lead their normal life, follow the directions and suggestions by their normal vet, take medications as prescribed in the normal course of aging. The only difference is that all of the information collected will contribute to a massive database that will eventually provide everyone with a more accurate picture of the natural aging process in dogs.
The second goal of the Dog Aging Project is to look at possible interventions for healthy aging in dogs. Decades of research into the basic biology of aging have identified specific compounds that extend the healthspan of laboratory animals. One such compound is Rapamycin.
The purpose of Phase 1 of the Rapamycin Intervention Trial, conducted in 2016, was to identify safe doses of rapamycin in pet dogs. Already tested in lab animals, including dogs, and used in people for a variety of conditions, we tested a much lower concentration and found that just 10 weeks of rapamycin improved age-related cardiac function and increased energy levels in volunteer dogs (Urfer et al., 2017).
Moving forward, Phase 2 will be conducted in collaboration with Texas A&M University and will involve a longer-term study at a lower dose. The reason for the lower dose is because the dogs will be receiving the drug for a longer period of time. At this point, we are waiting for paperwork and approval from the institutions involved and sincerely hope to begin enrolling dogs in January of 2018. This month, finally!
Why we are doing it. Despite the wealth of veterinary expertise in treating elderly companion animals, there has never been a comprehensive, detailed study of aging in dogs or cats. Dogs and people both experience a variety of age-related disease including cancer, heart disease, type2 diabetes, arthritis, osteoporosis, hypertension, and different forms of dementia.
Image citation: Pitt and Kaeberlein (2015)
Dogs have similar lifestyles as their people. Their basic biology is the same. A better understanding of aging in dogs will not only help dog owners, but will give us insight into how humans age, but on a much shorter time scale. We believe 100% in what we are doing. So much so that we were the first donors to this project and have been donating monthly ever since this project began.
Funding. A rather unique characteristic of the Dog Aging Project is our source of funding. While we are absolutely seeking grants through federal funding, we are unwilling to sit around and wait for that funding to go through. Honestly, it often feels like it takes forever. So in a wild departure from traditional science, we are also seeking crowd funding to move on with our research. This is one of the major reasons why we started the Dog Aging Project, to have a major impact on the health of our (and your) dogs in as short a period of time as possible. So far, it is slow going. But we remain hopeful. Foundations such as The Donner Foundation and The Irish Wolfhound Association of New England have made significant contributions so far.
We are seeking donations from people who believe that research to delay aging is important and that dogs deserve longer healthier lives. Funding for these projects directly supports recruiting pet dogs into the studies, veterinary costs to perform the exams and procedures, clinical and molecular assays, and bioinformatics analysis of the collected data. All donations go through the University of Washington, which means they are tax-deductible, and 100% of donated funds go directly to our research.
So many people have expressed interest in helping, in donating or in volunteering their dogs for our Project. It is a refreshing possibility, that the average person or dog could participate, could contribute to the health of generations of dogs to come, and the response has been tremendous. We are often overwhelmed by your kindness, your stories and your generosity. But it is not quite enough, not just yet, as you can probably imagine the costs are rather enormous.
Costs are high and science is slow, so to keep you informed and entertained along the way, we’ve decided to start this blog. Betty Barks will be composed of a variety of posts, all related to dogs, aging, scientific breakthroughs, updates on our project or people you should know who are dog champions. Sign up for email updates, donate here or visit our main webpage to learn more. Thank you!