Why dogs may live longer in the future
Why do dogs age faster than humans? Science may have an answer.
Audrey Ruple may be on the cusp of a scientific breakthrough that could forever change — or extend — the life of man’s best friend.
Ruple is part of the Dog Aging Project. The Dog Aging Project wants to accelerate medical breakthroughs — and for dogs to live healthier lives.
“We are working on lots of different things with the Dog Aging Project — all with the goal of increasing the lifespan of our favorite companion,” Ruple tells Inverse.
The Dog Aging Project brings together canine researchers from various universities, united by the same goal: demystifying the curious, little-understood science underlying dog aging. Ruple, for her part, is an assistant professor at Purdue University. The Dog Aging Project is currently enrolling dogs and encourages pet owners around the United States to participate.
“We do anticipate that it is a combination of genetics, environment, and lifestyle that influences the aging process on an individual level,” Ruple says. “However, we do not yet know all the details about which combination of these factors will lead to healthier, longer lifespans for our dogs.”
In this article, Ruple and Adam Boyko, an associate professor at Cornell University’s College of Veterinary Medicine, break down what we currently know about dog longevity, what we may be able to achieve in the future, and how this information can be used to possibly extend human lives too.
What is the average life expectancy of dogs and why?
Dogs live fairly short lives when compared to humans. A 2014 study in the journal of Canine Medicine and Genetics found that dogs, on average, make it to 10-years-old. They also don’t age exactly like other mammals — the why is a conundrum the Dog Aging Project wants to unravel.
“Dogs break the mold in terms of longevity in that the patterns of aging are reversed within dogs,” Ruple says. “In general, the rule is that the larger the mammal, the longer its lifespan should be.”
Despite popular misconceptions, each year of a dog’s life does not translate to seven years of human living. This is because dogs age much more rapidly than humans in the early stages of development. A 2019 report found that a 7-week-old puppy is the equivalent of a 9-month-old human baby.
Instead, here’s a more helpful breakdown of how dog years translate to human aging, according to the American Medical Veterinary Association.
- The first year of a dog’s life is equal to 15 human years
- By year two, dogs have aged approximately 24 human years
- After that, each human year totals roughly 4 to 5 dog years
However, we still don’t fully understand the mechanisms behind aging in dogs.
“We hope that part of the outcome of this project will be that we will more fully understand why it is the case that dogs do not fit the traditional pattern of aging we expect to see,” Ruple says.
What dogs live the longest? What dogs live the shortest?
In general, dogs live up to anywhere between 7 to 13 years depending on the breed, though some dogs may live a few years more or less than that. For example, Yorkshire Terriers often live between 14 to 16 years old, while the mastiff Dogue de Bourdeaux may only live to be 5 years old.
Dogs with larger bodies tend to live shorter lives than smaller dogs, according to Ruple, though we don’t fully understand the science behind this.
Although dogs are generally considered “geriatric” at 7 years of age, larger dog breeds can become senior citizens at only 5 to 6-years-old, according to the American Medical Veterinary Association. The Sunset Vet Clinic notes that dogs under 20 pounds live 11 years on average, compared to eight years for dogs over 90 pounds.
According to Ruple, these smaller dogs often live longer lives:
- Yorkshire Terrier
- Jack Russell Terrier
By contrast, these bigger dogs tend to live for a shorter period of time:
- Great Danes
- Golden retrievers
- Labrador retrievers
How can you help your dog live a long, healthy life?
You can typically spot when your pup is getting older if you notice graying fur or a general slowing in their pace.
Like humans, dogs may lose their sight and hearing as they get older. The American Medical Veterinary suggests using simple gestures such as “stop” or “come” to help direct your dog as they age.
Older dogs may also develop arthritis and other mobility issues. The American Kennel Club recommends a few strategies to keep your aging pup in good health.
- Bring your dog to the vet for annual, preventative screenings to suss out any health issues as they age.
- Keep the calorie count of their food in check to prevent weight gain and mobility issues. Older dogs are less active and typically require fewer calories.
Research also suggests dogs that are more anxiety-prone can have more health complications and shorter lifespans. Certain techniques may ease your dog’s stress, such as music therapy, calming T-shirts, and massages.
How can dogs help humans live long lives?
In helping our pups live better, longer lives, we might well be extending our own. Researchers have long known about the mental health benefits of dogs — if your dog could live longer while staying healthy, it’s fair to reason you would be happier.
“... dogs and humans share 84 percent of their DNA.”
But physical health could also be boosted. In canine studies, dogs are used as models to improve human health. For example, certain rare cancers that manifest in humans also appear in dogs.
“Because dogs and humans share 84 percent of their DNA and the set of 23,000 'mammalian' genes, they suffer from many of the same health conditions,” Boyko explains. “Dogs’ shorter lifespans mean it’s much easier to study disease progression in dogs than humans.”
Dog Aging Project researchers believe their work can benefit people in a similar way — the data they gather on dog health could inform future research on human health.
“By studying aging in dogs, we can collect data relevant to human health in a shorter amount of time because their lifespans are shorter than ours,” Ruple says.
“The Dog Aging Project was designed to collect information about all of these areas so that we can really determine what we can do to help all dogs – and humans – live better lives.”
What’s the future of dog aging research?
Preventative dog DNA testing of dogs could possibly also help canine longevity. This is the aim of Boyko’s dog DNA testing company, Embark.
“Embark tests for over 350 breeds and over 200 genetic health risks, which can help owners get ahead of canine diseases that occur later in life, including glaucoma, degenerative myelopathy, and dilated cardiomyopathy — three of the most common adult-onset diseases in dogs,” Boyko says.
If you know which diseases your dog may be predisposed to acquire, then you can take preventive action and set up a plan to improve your dog’s health in advance, helping them live longer.
“If, for example, you know your dog is genetically programmed to overeat, you can work with your vet to create a specific nutrition and activity plan to prevent obesity, diabetes, or heart disease,” Boyko says.
“If you know your dog has a drug sensitivity or bleeding disorder, you can avoid certain drugs and properly monitor your dog during surgery or after trauma.”
Boyko also hopes his research will help breeders tailor their methods to help dogs live longer lives.
“If we knew the genetics and enriched environment associated with long-lived dogs, we could give breeders the tools to directly select for longevity in their lines,” Boyko says.