The death of a dog can be as devastating as losing a member of the family, causing grief, mourning, and an incalculable sense of loss.
Yet there is hope for owners who dread bereavement. Dogs may not rival the nine lives of cats, but advances in pharmacology might prolong their lifespans by several years.
Researchers in the US believe a drug called rapamycin may be able to elongate the average lifespan by as much as a third.
Previous experiments in smaller animals such as mice have found rapamycin can extend maximum lifespan by anything between nine and 30 per cent.
Now, a first-of-its-kind trial at the University of Washington will try rapamycin on dogs in a long-lasting, double-blind clinical trial.
Able to detect life span
“We don’t know if those effects will be similar in absolute or relative magnitude in dogs, but I think it’s possible,” Matt Kaeberlein, a professor of pathology involved in the project, told the Telegraph.
“Our study is powered to be able to detect lifespan extension nine per cent or greater.”
Smaller dogs live longer than older dogs, with Great Danes living less than 10 years on average. Toy poodles and chihuahuas, however, typically live for more than 15 years.
The project, called Triad (test of rapamycin in aging dogs), forms part of the larger Dog Aging Project (DAP) that will investigate all the nuances and quirks of dog lifespan.
Prof Daniel Promislow, principal investigator and co-director of DAP, says the study is focusing on large breed, middle-aged dogs and aims to recruit 500 pets. Eligible dogs will be of similar size to a labrador and aged seven to 10 years.
“These dogs might have a life expectancy of 10 to 12 years,” he said.
“If it’s successful, I would say that a life extension of one to two years for a dog of that size would be really meaningful for both the dog and the owner.”
The project might throw a bone to humans too. While Triad will investigate extending lifespan, DAP is looking at what aspects influence dog health, aging and lifespan and how that may translate to humans.
“Dogs age just like we do, they experience many of the same age-related diseases and they have a sophisticated healthcare system, just like we do, with general practitioner clinics and specialists,” Prof Promislow said.
“But one of the specialties that doesn’t exist in veterinary medicine is geriatrics; there isn’t a science of gerontology for dogs and we want to create that body of knowledge.”
Enthusiasm for walkies
And because dogs and humans are not only biologically alike but live in similar conditions – though we might do well to learn from their enthusiasm for walkies – we can greatly benefit from studying canine lifespans.
“Because they die so much more quickly, they live so much shorter than we do, we can learn about these risk factors so much more quickly than if we were studying people,” Prof Promislow said.
Prof Kaeberlein added: “DAP allows us to study aging outside of the laboratory, taking into account the importance of genetic and environmental diversity similar to that of humans.
“This is something that is simply not possible in other animals at this time. Dogs age very much like humans, but they do it at an accelerated rate. So we expect that much of what we learn about aging from dogs will apply to humans.
“Of course this is about more than just human ageing. People love their dog, and most people consider their companion animals to be part of their family.
“Even if we are only successful at eventually increasing lifespan and healthspan in companion dogs, that is hugely important to the humans who love their dogs.”
And if nothing else, the concept of “a dog’s life” might finally become a desirable one.