Observing Old Dogs Helps Scientists Look Happening Inside

July 22, 2023

Many domestic dogs are contributing to a citizen scientific study aimed at better understanding how memory and cognition change with age.

Studying dogs

Hana passed her memory test well. Three-year-old Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, after examining the contents of each, had to remember which of the three identical boxes contained a reward, which she quickly mastered after only a few attempts.

Scientists are learning something different thanks to Hana and her human partner Masami Shimizu-Albergine from Bainbridge Island, Washington: when the intelligence of dogs reaches its peak and how it decreases with age.

Hana is a member of the Dog Aging Project, a citizen science project launched in 2014 that already involves nearly 40,000 domestic dogs. One of the two main objectives of the project is to understand the Biology of aging in companion dogs, according to co-founder and co-director Matt Kaeberlein, a pathologist at the University of Washington in Seattle, specializing in aging. The Alternative is to take action.

The efforts of the University of Washington and Texas A&M University will monitor different facets of the dogs’ lives over time through veterinary records, DNA samples, health surveys and cognitive assessments such as Hana’s task of finding treats. Hana will participate in fewer more targeted studies and in-depth evaluations than other dogs. Based on all this information, researchers are trying to identify trends and establish links between lifestyle habits and health, from early development to old age.

Family Dog Project

The family dog project was launched in the 1990s at the Eötvös Loránd University (ELTE) in Budapest to study “the behavioral and cognitive elements of dog -human interaction”, and tens of thousands of dogs have participated during the project’s existence.

Scientists believe that working with such a large combined group of dogs would allow them to elucidate the genetic and environmental variables that affect the lifespan of dogs and the amount of time spent in good health. The two teams started working together across continents.

Since hundreds of millions of dogs are probably kept as pets around the world, it is important to understand how they age to improve their quality of life and the care they receive. However, following the lives of some of these canine partners can offer insights into healthier aging, as well as information about our aging brains.

Biology of aging

Studying the Biology of human aging is difficult because the process takes several decades. It’s about keeping an eye on people in their 50s, 60s, 70s or even older, which can be time consuming and expensive. Dogs, on the other hand, age quickly.

It’s terrible for those who love their pets, says Kaeberlein, a dog lover. However, this makes dogs an excellent model system for aging research. (Although Bernese mountain dogs have an average lifespan of seven years and Chihuahuas are almost double their age at 13, we can say that a 70-year study on humans resembles a canine decade.)

The study of dogs also has other uses. Due to their genetic variability, they are superior animal models to the inbred mouse strains commonly used in aging studies.

And while researchers prefer to study their subjects in a controlled laboratory environment, the fact that humans and their pets share homes with a variety of conditions is beneficial when trying to infer human aging. A complicated human world cannot be duplicated in a laboratory environment. However, according to Kaeberlein, this is not necessary if you are studying domestic dogs.

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