elderly dog in field


Research shows similarities between dogs and humans as they age

Understanding how dogs age can help veterinarians and owners imporve their senior pets' quality of life and give them the best possible care

From this day to the next, one thing is guaranteed, we are getting older. We are all familiar with the characteristic signs; greying hair, wrinkled skin plus a few more aches and pains. You may also have seen similar changes in a family pet. The ageing process in humans has been intensely studied, but very little research has been done into how our pets age. Visibly they are older and more infirm, but the internal mechanisms are not well understood. That presents a challenge to owners and veterinarians who want to find the best ways to prolong healthy life and offer the best possible care to senior pets.

Part of the problem has been the challenge of tracking changes in animals over long periods of time. But now research teams from Waltham, UK and Pet Health and Nutrition Centre, USA have just published the results of a study that has followed the biochemical health of dogs over a 10 year period.

The research team monitored specific proteins in the blood and immune systems of the dogs that are known to be markers of ageing in humans. Samples were taken twice a year and analysed in the laboratory.

This started when the dogs were young adults and continued to the end of their life.

Markers of ageing

The most dramatic results were for proteins associated with oxidative stress. As we age, cells become more prone to damage. The body has developed mechanisms to counteract this, but with ageing, the proteins that undertake these protective duties diminish. So any measurement of the decline in these proteins can be used as a marker of ageing. In this study the concentration of one particular protein (HSP70), that serves to protect cells from injury, reduced by 86% from six years old to the penultimate year of life. Other findings included a rise in low level or chronic, inflammation and change in the immune system.

But what does this mean for our pets?

“We now know that dogs suffer from low-level inflammation and cellular damage through oxidative stress as they get older,” says Dr Janet Alexander, Senior Research Scientist from Waltham. “The study identified multiple possible targets for therapeutic intervention to defend against or delay the impact of ageing. The new insights also help us to provide more effective life stage support.”

Better care for senior pets

By understanding how our pets’ age, we will be better able to provide the most appropriate veterinary and nutritional support for them. Combined with regular veterinary check-ups, improved diets for seniors could potentially deliver many more healthy active years for older dogs. However, more long-term research will be needed before optimum nutrition for every life stage can be fully understood

The study was published in the Journal of Gerontology: Biological Sciences on 6 November 2017.

Alexander, J., Colyer, A., Haydock, R.M., Hayek, M.G., Park, J.S. 2017. Understanding how dogs age: longitudinal analysis of markers of inflammation, immune function and oxidative stress. Journal of Gerontology: Biological Sciences