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Could studying how dogs age help us understand the ways humans do?

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Dogs share so much of their lives with humans and can develop the same health conditions we do, like dementia or diabetes. Those similarities drove researchers to wonder if our medical science can help dogs live longer — and if maybe, our furry friends could tell us something about how we age, too.

But five years and 47,000 dogs later, an ambitious longitudinal study on dog aging is at risk of losing its funding.

The "Dog Aging Project" began in 2019 as a collaboration between researchers at the University of Washington and Texas A&M University. Their goal: get 10,000 volunteers to enroll their dogs for a study about how they aged. As a longitudinal study, the project would track health problems like dementia and cancer, and researchers were hopeful an ambitious catalog of data could tell them more about how dogs might live longer.

"Anyone who goes to a dog park immediately sees that dogs have got to be one of the most variable species on the planet," said Dr. Daniel Promislow, a biogerontologist at the University of Washington School of Medicine. "And not just in terms of their size, shape, color, and behavior. It turns out they're also incredibly variable in their patterns of aging."

Participants in the project fill out surveys every year about their environments, their dogs' health, and their dogs' diets. Around 7,000 dogs have provided genetic information, allowing the project to sequence their genetic code and understand the specific genes associated with healthy aging or risk factors. A subset of 1,000 dogs are sent a kit for blood, hair, fecal, and urine samples. An even smaller group — around 580 dogs — are enrolled in a clinical trial testing a drug called rapamycin, a kind of anti-aging drug.

That data is also shared publicly, inviting open data collaborations from outside of the project.

"[The study] allows us to identify the factors in the environment, diet, behavior, and so on, that actually cause or prevent future aging," Promislow said.

In the five years since the project began, the team has published more than 40 papers with initial findings. Some findings aren't surprising — for example, more active dogs are healthier dogs, and are less likely to develop canine cognitive dysfunction ("doggy dementia"). Dogs that live in more social environments — e.g., a household with other dogs — also trend healthier, and feeding your dog one meal a day may lead to fewer heart problems than multiple meals.

Promislow said that environmental factors are also important. For example, dogs may be more sedentary because of a lack of parks nearby, and that insight offers solutions not just for dogs' lifestyles, but the environments they live in, too. That information also offers a window into the ways human health and dog health are intertwined.

"So much of what happens as dogs age is really similar to what happens as we age, but unfortunately sped up," Promislow said. "They get many of the same diseases that we do. Their mortality increases. Similarly, as ours dogs age, we age. And importantly, they live in our environment, so the risk factors that we discover for aging in dogs are likely to apply to people."

The project is largely funded by the National Institute on Aging, an arm of the National Institutes of Health. It was first funded through a five-year grant cycle, and pending a renewal, the project faces possibly running out of funding in the next year. The initial application for funding renewal needed to be revised and resubmitted, which Promislow said is not uncommon. However, it does put pressure on the project and its current funds, which has it looking elsewhere for donations and funding through its nonprofit Dog Aging Institute.

"We're facing major financial challenges, but I'm confident we'll get through them," Promislow said. "All of this potential energy is now being realized. Now is not time to shut it off — now is the time to build it even more and that's where our fundraising initiatives come in."

Promislow said the project needs a few million dollars to keep the lights on and keep data collection flowing. To keep molecular biology work in university labs, $6 million to $7 million is needed.

"Our team is based nationwide at institutions around the country, and we want to make sure that we can keep the entire team intact," he said. "This is an incredible team of dedicated people who have been working for years on this project."

Listen to the full Soundside interview with Dr. Daniel Promislow by clicking the play icon at the top of this story.

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