The power of big datasets

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Jess Graves, MS
by Jess Graves, MS

As part of our research to understand canine aging, Loyal has collaborated with Banfield Pet Hospital, the leading provider of preventive veterinary care in the United States, to analyze the electronic health records (EHRs) of 131,140 dogs spanning 20 years of care.

The power of large, longitudinal datasets

Banfield’s dataset is remarkably valuable to our aging research both in its breadth and its depth. It spans a very large and diverse set of dogs — 2,665,589 veterinary visits from more than 130,000 dogs across its more than 1,000 hospitals in the United States. It also contains real-time information about a dog’s diagnoses, medications, treatment plans, surgical history, lab results, and more.

Using large datasets like this helps us to identify trends that may be too subtle to detect in smaller datasets. 

Moreover, it’s a longitudinal dataset — the medical data for each dog extends over time, spanning multiple visits over the course of the dog’s life. Longitudinal datasets allow us to establish a link between earlier events and later health outcomes. They also help us explore dynamic and changing relationships — for example, how lifestyle changes may increase or decrease the risk of a disease.

Health is a multidimensional construct with many interrelated factors, and expansive, longitudinal datasets like these allow us to consider how various characteristics may work together to amplify or reduce risks of disease. And this can offer insight into how we can prevent these diseases from occurring.

Our paper on osteoarthritis

The first of many projects using this dataset examined variables that may prevent or delay the development of osteoarthritis (OA) — a progressive, incurable musculoskeletal disease and the most common joint disease in dogs. 

OA is an age-related degenerative joint disease that causes affected dogs significant pain and stiffness. OA can make it difficult or even impossible for dogs to go on walks and participate in other normal, everyday activities, drastically compromising their quality of life. Because OA is currently incurable once developed, our analysis focused on actionable features of a dog’s health that might predispose dogs to developing OA.

At a high level, we learned that older age, higher adult body weight, gonadectomy status (whether the dog was spayed or neutered), and younger age at gonadectomy were significantly associated with higher risk of OA. We also saw these effects in a subset of representative breeds.

You can read the full results in the paper we co-authored with Banfield.

Looking forward

Aging is a complex and multifactorial process, and OA is one of numerous diseases that negatively impacts the life of aging dogs. Using large datasets like Banfield’s to understand OA can help dogs everywhere, and demonstrates how we can do the same with the full range of diseases associated with aging.

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