How long will your dog live? New genetic study hopes to crack the code of canine longevity

PRINCETON, N.J. — The general rule of thumb is that “dog years” equate to about seven human years. However, a new study finds a dog’s lifespan is a lot more complicated than that. Researchers from Princeton University are conducting a massive genetic investigation that they hope will reveal the actual lifespans of man’s best friend.

For pet owners, the math behind “dog years” is the easiest way to roughly gauge where their furry friend is in their life cycle. A one-year-old puppy is about the equivalent of a seven-year-old child. Meanwhile, an 11-year-old senior dog is roughly the same age health-wise as a 77-year-old adult. The new report notes, however, this math can vary depending on the size of your dog.

Study authors explain that big dogs tend to age much faster — up to 10 times faster than humans. Conversely, “dog years” for smaller breeds may only be about five human years, and some tiny dogs can even live to see their 20th birthday.

Cracking the code of dog aging

Over the next decade, The Dog Aging Project (founded in 2018) is enrolling tens of thousands of dogs of all sizes and breeds to finally gain a clearer picture of canine aging.

“We are sequencing the genomes of 10,000 dogs,” says Professor Joshua Akey, co-leader of the genetic analyses, in a university release. “This will be one of the largest genetics datasets ever produced for dogs, and it will be a powerful resource not only to understand the role of genetics in aging, but also to answer more fundamental questions about the evolutionary history and domestication of dogs.”

So far, there are more than 32,000 dogs in The Dog Aging Project “Pack” (or “DAP Pack”). The team is specifically focusing on exceptionally long-lived dogs to see how their DNA differs from other pups who don’t reach “super-centenarian” status.

“We are still recruiting dogs of all ages, all breeds — purebred or mixed breeds, all sizes, all across the United States,” adds William Thistlethwaite, a graduate student who works with Akey in Princeton’s Lewis-Sigler Institute. “Especially puppies and young dogs up to 3 years old.”

When dogs join the study, their owners fill out an annual survey and take certain measurements of their pets throughout their lives. This can include cheek swabs to gather DNA, as well as fur, fecal, urine, and blood samples.

Understanding dog aging may lead to better health for humans

Researchers are hoping all of this will identify specific biomarkers in a dog’s body that link to how they age. Along with understanding how long man’s best friend will live, scientists may also be able to translate this data into better health for people.

The team explains that humans and dogs actually live very similar lives when you really think about it. Dogs can experience nearly every type of ailment and illness that people do. At the same time, they also share the same living environments their owners do, which can play a major role in the aging process and is a factor scientists can’t replicate in a lab.

“Given that dogs share the human environment and have a sophisticated health care system but are much shorter-lived than people, they offer a unique opportunity to identify the genetic, environmental and lifestyle factors associated with healthy lifespan,” says Dr. Daniel Promislow, the principal investigator for the National Institute on Aging grant funding the project.

With this in mind, the team is specifically looking at the 300 oldest dogs in the DAP Pack in their quest to understand longevity.

“One part of the project that I am super excited about is a ‘super-centenarian’ study, comparing the DNA of exceptionally long-lived dogs to dogs that live to the average age for their breed,” adds Akey. “This is the first study of its kind in dogs (to my knowledge), and I think it’s a clever way of trying to find genetic differences that contribute to exceptional longevity.”

The study’s details are published in the journal Nature.

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