Q&A With the Dog Aging Project

Dr. Matt Kaeberlein, co-director of the Dog Aging Project, talks with Petful about the tantalizing possibility of extending pets’ lives by YEARS.

Matt Kaeberlein, Ph.D., co-director of the Dog Aging Project, with his 2 senior dogs.

At Petful, we’re always looking for ways to give our pets a longer, happier life. Simply put, the time we get with our companions is far too short.

The fantastic goal of the Dog Aging Project is to harness recent advances in science to extend the lifespans of pets. Research — actual scientific research — demonstrates that it is possible to extend life expectancy in middle-aged mice by 50% or more.

What?!

And the Dog Aging Project’s goal is to do this in pets. If they’re successful, we could very well extend the healthy lives of dogs and cats by 3 years, 5 years, even a full decade. Seriously.

Dave Baker, publisher of Petful, recently sat down with Matt Kaeberlein, Ph.D., who is co-director of the Dog Aging Project. What follows is their exchange.

Dave: Hey, Matt! Thanks so much for talking with us today. Please tell us a little about the Dog Aging Project.

Matt: Sure. So, this is an academic research project at the University of Washington. We want to understand the genetic and environmental determinants of healthy aging and longevity in pet dogs. This part of the project is a Canine Longitudinal Study of Aging, where we follow, hopefully, at least 10,000 dogs throughout their lives and get high-resolution genetic information.

We want to try to collect all of this data to correlate what are the factors that are associated with dogs that live a long time and maintain health throughout life versus those that, unfortunately, get sick early and die early.

Another part of the project is more focused on “translational medicine” — taking some of the things that we’ve already learned in the basic biology of aging, and asking whether or not we can impact the aging process in pet dogs.

The first study that we’re performing is on a drug called rapamycin. Lower doses of rapamycin seem to target the aging process directly and increase lifespan — delay the onset and progression of multiple age-related diseases in every laboratory system where this has been studied, including in small animals, mice and rats. So, the question is, will lower doses of rapamycin have similar effects on promoting healthy longevity in dogs?

We started a first-phase veterinary clinical trial of rapamycin. We’ve completed that, actually.

Dave: And did the results from the first phase look promising?

Matt: They looked really promising, yeah. Two things were important:

  1. We didn’t see any difference in owner-reported side effects between placebo and treatment groups. This was a double-blind placebo control study. There were no detectable side effects; no changes in blood chemistry.
  2. Also, we saw improvements in the 3 measures of heart function that had been previously shown to improve in mice.

So, I’d say it was a very encouraging study, though obviously we need to replicate it.

Dave: So now, Phase 2.

Matt: The plan for Phase 2 is 60 dogs. The first phase was 24 dogs. In Phase 2, in addition to heart function we’re also going to look at cognitive function and spontaneous activity, so the dogs can each get a GPS tracker in their collar. That’ll be a 1-year study.

After that, we have an NIH grant that’s being renewed in July that will — if funded — fund the long-term study, which is a 5-year study. We’ll be looking for 450 dogs for the rapamycin part of the study and then, as I mentioned, 10,000 dogs around the United States.

As soon as we have word that the grant is going to get funded, we’ll start actively enrolling into both of those studies. Right now, people can go to dogagingproject.com and nominate their dog to participate.

Dave: That’s great. So, Matt, last week at an event in NYC you teamed up with Purina Pro Plan and supermodel Christie Brinkley to talk about healthy aging in both pets and people.

Matt: Right.

Dave: I was looking at Christie’s Instagram today, and she had some photos from the event. She’s now 63 years old and looks amazing, of course.

Matt: Of course!

Dave: So, what was it like meeting her?

Matt: Christie’s a really, really nice person, so it was fun to meet her. She looked fantastic, you know. I have a picture of me standing next to her and I’m like, God, you know it just makes me look even worse than I normally do. (laughing)

It was also interesting to get her take on healthy longevity, and clearly she has done everything in her power to be as healthy as possible. The kinds of things that she’s done — particularly with nutrition and diet and eating healthy — those are the things that we know work. If you have a nutritious diet, you eat healthy, you exercise regularly, those are things that help maintain health span. What I mean by “health span” is the length of life that’s free from disease and disability.

That’s what I try to focus on. We’re not so much interested in how long people or dogs live — although obviously we all want our pets to live as long as possible. What we really want to do is maximize the period of life that’s spent in good health.

And I think that’s part of the reason why I decided to work with Purina — to raise awareness about this and to actually talk to them about what we know, particularly in pets, we can do now in terms of diet and optimal nutrition to maximize health span.

One of the things I like about the Pro Plan line for Purina — both the Bright Mind Adult 7+ for dogs and Prime Plus Adult 7+ for cats — is that they are based on peer-reviewed scientific research about the kinds of optimal diets that have been shown, scientifically, to have beneficial effects for dogs and cats.

Dave: Let’s face it — there are a lot of choices of pet foods out there. And there’s a lot of noise, too. As a dog owner yourself, what are the types of things that you look at personally, that you think are the most important things, when choosing a dog food for your dogs?

Matt: I have 2 senior dogs. As a scientist, one of the things I look at is the information that’s out there. And you’re right — there’s a ton of noise out there. You can find people on the internet who are almost evangelical about their diets. I mean, you can find people who will support anything, and so it’s really hard to know what is backed up by actual data. And, as a scientist, I like data.

I know something about the biology behind how, as dogs get older, their metabolism changes. Their brain, just like in people, isn’t able to utilize glucose as efficiently. You can give alternative fuel sources — medium-chain triglycerides, in this case — that can help make up for that loss of efficiency and glucose utilization. So, that makes sense to me.

When you look at a lot of the recommended diets out there — I’m not so much talking about other dog food manufacturers, but you can find people who say you should only feed your dog raw food, or you should only feed your dog X, Y and Z — a lot of that is not really based on …

Dave: Research.

Matt: Right. So, I’m not saying that it’s wrong, but there’s not a lot of high-quality data to back it up. As somebody who’s scientifically minded, that’s what I’d look for.

Dave: Sure. I get that.

Matt: I would like to know that this has been tested in a rigorous way. I think that’s a real challenge in both veterinary nutrition and, in some cases, veterinary medicine: In many cases, there aren’t a lot of well-controlled, scientific studies that have been done.

People often don’t recognize that middle age in pets sets in earlier than they think. By: Bonzami Emmanuelle

Dave: As someone with a older cat, I was wondering about Prime Plus for senior cats. I see Purina Pro Plan launched it this year.

Matt: Sure. I can take you through some of the background on that. There was a study published several years ago where peer scientists at Purina looked at 3 different diets:

  • One was sort of a standard cat food.
  • Another was a standard cat food supplemented with antioxidants.
  • And the other was the same food plus antioxidants with a probiotic as well as omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. This was known as the Longevis diet.

They looked at this over several years, and I think it was started in middle-aged cats. Some of them were as old as 7; some were even older.

What they found was that the antioxidant diet had benefits, but in the Longevis diet that had all of them — the antioxidants, the probiotic, and the omega-3 and -6 fatty acids — not only did the cats have reduced levels of the variety of age-related diseases and functional changes, but they also lived about 1 year longer on average, which is pretty exciting.

That’s a pretty significant effect on lifespan when you’re talking about an animal that might typically live 14 or 15 years.

Dave: Absolutely.

Matt: So, that is what makes up the basis for Purina Pro Plan Prime Plus Adult 7+ for cats. This is what I liked — taking what was found in this scientific study and applying that to a product that’s available for cat owners. It’s really the only case I know of where a pet food has been formulated based on a peer-reviewed scientific study where there were positive outcomes for healthy aging and for lifespan.

Dave: OK, one last question. Besides nutrition, what do you think are the biggest tips for keeping a pet healthy into old age?

Matt: Right now, there’s nothing super profound. In some ways it’s very much similar to what we know works in humans. No matter what diet you’re feeding your pet, obesity is a problem just as it is in people, and it is a risk for a variety of age-related diseases and disabilities. So that’s a big one.

Regular exercise is important both for maintaining general health and for preventing obesity. And one of the great things about our pets, especially dogs, is that taking your dog for a walk is good for both you and your dog.

Dave: Right.

Matt: I think one of the things that people don’t necessarily appreciate is the emotional and social benefit that we get from our pets. There’s data clearly showing that just interacting with your pet can have a beneficial effect on blood pressure and anxiety for both you and your pet. So, I think it’s important to recognize that there are health benefits that come from just being with and interacting with your dog or your cat.

Dave: Mutual benefits!

Matt: Yeah, and it has real physiological effects on both the person and the pet. Many of us consider our pets to be part of our family, and I think that can have a real positive impact.

Another thing is that a lot of times people don’t recognize that middle age sets in earlier than they think about. Seven is about the age where, in a typical dog, you start to see these physiological changes at the metabolic level. And so, I think that recognizing that the aging process may be setting in is important. A lot of times you don’t notice — dogs, in particular, are very good at hiding pain. So, for example, if they have arthritis setting in, the owner won’t always notice that. They’ll just think their dog is slowing down.

I think that paying attention to these changes in your dog’s physical activity and noticing when it’s starting can be important because if it is arthritis, for example, in many cases your veterinarian can help with that — which will then have the effect of keeping the dog active longer, which is obviously good for the long term.

Dave: Right, and no one knows your pet quite like you do. The vet doesn’t know your pet quite like you do because you’re observing that pet for years and you can pick up on the little things that are just a bit out the norm, and you should bring that up to your vet.

Matt: That’s right.

Dave: Thank you so much for your time, and thanks as well to Purina Pro Plan for setting this up.

Matt: Yeah, it was great talking to you!

* * *

This interview has been condensed and edited.

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