Dogs are great models for aging biology

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Brennen McKenzie, MA, MSc, VMD
by Brennen McKenzie, MA, MSc, VMD

Dogs and humans are uniquely connected as species. Studies have found that dogs are even much better than chimpanzees, our closest evolutionary relatives, at understanding human gestures and communication. For tens of thousands of years, dogs have lived symbiotically with humans, and for at least several hundred years we have intensively bred and shaped dogs to participate in human society. As hunting companions, protectors, and increasingly as members of our close family, dogs are bonded to us and integrated into our lives unlike any other animal.

One consequence of this relationship is that dogs are well-suited to help us understand and manage aging, a biological process with a multitude of factors, many of which are tied to lifestyle and habits. Unlike laboratory animal models, such as rats and mice, dogs share our environments, routines, and the same potential risk factors for death and disease. This makes dogs a more relevant model of natural aging than animals in controlled research settings.

Dogs also share many of the diseases and causes of death as humans. While they grow and age faster than us, they do so in similar ways. Injury and infections, for example, are more common in young dogs as they are in young people, whereas older humans and dogs are more likely to experience cancer or degenerative diseases. These similarities allow research data from dogs to be more readily applied to human health than data from lab animal species. The shorter lifespan of dogs also allows us to study aging and longevity therapies on a more practical timescale than similar studies with humans.

Comparing how dogs and humans age. From 1. Wang T, Ma J, Hogan AN, et al. Quantitative Translation of Dog-to-Human Aging by Conserved Remodeling of the DNA Methylome. Cell Syst. 2020;11(2):176-185.

Another advantage of studying our faithful companions is the fact that intensive breeding in dogs has produced perhaps the greatest degree of variation within any species. This includes physical differences, such as the huge variation in size from the toy breeds such as the Yorkshire Terrier to giants like the Great Dane or Irish Wolfhound, and of course, variation in how dogs age. Large breeds age faster and live shorter lives than smaller breeds. Investigating these differences can give us unique insights into the underlying mechanisms of aging that are harder to identify in other species with less intraspecific variation.

There is also a comprehensive scientific healthcare system in place for dogs as well as humans, which allows not only medical testing and treatment for individual dogs but widespread research on aging and age-associated health problems. There is also ample demand and resources for this research because so many of us love dogs and are willing to contribute time, effort, and money to improving canine health. 

While there are, of course, important biological differences between humans and dogs, our canine companions are uniquely suited to help us understand our own aging. Helping us to understand and alter our own aging is just one more of the many gifts our canine best friends bring into our lives.

Jumbo, miniature american shepherd whispers in human's ear
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