How you and your dog can contribute to scientific knowledge from the comfort of your sofa
By Kim Campbell Thornton
Andrews McMeel Syndication
Whenever I’ve had a spare moment the past few days, I’ve been completing online questionnaires about my dog Harper. We signed up to be a part of the Dog Aging Project, a long-term study looking at how dogs age, how long they live, how their environment affects aging and much more.
Harper just turned 14 -- thanks to a couple of extraordinary medical interventions over the past four years -- and I’d love to see her have some more good years. The information collected by DAP researchers over the next few years could not only tell us much about ways we can improve healthspan -- the amount of time during their lives that dogs spend in generally good health -- but also increase what we know about aging and healthspan in humans.
Approximately 32,000 dogs hailing from every state are currently enrolled in the project, and the DAP is recruiting more. Co-director Daniel Promislow, Ph.D., hopes the number of participants will eventually grow to 100,000. Any dog of any size, breed, mix, sex or age can join what’s called “the Pack.”
“All they need to do is nominate their dog, create their personal portal and complete the long-form survey,” Promislow says. “We can do science with that.”
Categories covered by the long-form survey include behavior, environment, diet, medications, preventives, health history, owner background and more. Sections can be completed at any time in any order, and each one takes from 5 to 30 minutes. In total, the health and life experience survey, which has hundreds of questions, takes about two hours to complete.
About half of the Pack members have been able to have their veterinarians upload their dogs’ electronic medical records. Those provide deeper information than owners can typically provide about diagnosis and treatment, Promislow says. People who upload their dogs’ records are eligible to be assigned to one of the study’s “sampled cohorts”: groups of dogs that may be chosen for DNA sampling or other additional testing.
Pack members can also connect with each other at a private online site and join groups focused on their breed, where they live, different diseases their dogs have had or other interests. “Seeing the community that we’ve built with these tens of thousands of dog owners around the country has been really rewarding,” Promislow says.
The DAP team has almost 100 members, including scientists, students, postdoctoral fellows and research administrative staff. They are already working on papers based on the information collected during the first two years of the study.
“Many of those are about the basic kinds of things that happen as dogs age,” Promislow says. “I’m working with two students on a paper we’re about to submit on different measures of activity level -- owner-reported, intensity, duration, how many hours a day the dog is outside and so on -- and how those patterns are associated with dog size, dog age, owner age. Owner age is actually a really important factor influencing how active the dog is, or at least how active the owner reports the dog to be.”
In addition to studying canine aging, DAP researchers have received funding to study cancer and dementia in dogs. The grant for all of their work runs through the middle of 2023. That means they are already working on the grant renewal process, planning the next stage of five more years of research.
For those of us who love dogs, following this research is fascinating, but what’s in it for people who don’t have dogs?
For one thing, dogs can be sentinels for environmental risk factors for cancer and aging and humans.
“We’re going to learn a lot of things that will be relevant for humans,” Promislow says. “So what we learn about dogs in many cases will also be lessons for ourselves.”
Easy way to
Q: My cat bolts out the front door before we can stop her, then hides in the bushes. It’s really hard to find her. Is there something we can put on her to track her? What about a microchip?
A: Let’s answer the microchip question first. It’s not a tracker, but an identifier. If someone finds your pet and takes them to a shelter or a veterinary clinic, they can be scanned for a microchip. If they have one, and if you have listed the microchip with a registry, your contact information comes up, they’ll call you and bingo! You’re reunited with your cat or dog.
That’s why it’s so important to have your pet microchipped and to keep your contact information up to date with the registry. List more than one phone number so you can be reached quickly. Consider including the phone number of your pet’s veterinary clinic as well as your cell number.
Now, to track your runaway cat, there are smart collars that provide GPS location monitoring, safe place settings and escape alerts. They’re made for dogs 5 pounds and up, so depending on the size of your cat, it wouldn’t hurt to ask if a particular collar can be used on cats as well. We know one person who placed a Tile key fob tracker that connects to an app on the collar of her door-dashing cat. She poked a hole in a silicone rubber case and wove it onto the cat’s collar. “With the app, we can see roughly where the tag is, as well as making it ‘sings a song’ so we can find her by ear,” she says. “It has made our lives infinitely easier since this cat escapes about once a week and would do so more often if we weren’t vigilant.” -- Dr. Marty Becker
Do you have a pet question? Send it to email@example.com or visit Facebook.com/DrMartyBecker.
Tips on safe
-- Retractable leashes can seem like a good idea, but in the hands of an inattentive person or attached to an untrained dog, they can be an accident in the making. Dogs can run out in front of cars, pull people off their feet, cause handlers to fall and break bones, or injure themselves when they hit the end of the lead at full speed. It’s also difficult to teach dogs not to pull at a regular leash when they are used to the freedom of a retractable line. People who don’t have instant reflexes or who aren’t paying attention can only watch in dismay as their out-of-control dog chases after a cat, squirrel or other dog or walks in front of someone and trips them. For safer outings, work with a trainer to learn how to teach your dog to walk on a regular loose leash.
-- Adopting a cat? Consider a pair. Shelters often have difficulty placing a bonded pair of adult cats, but there are benefits to giving them a home together, like no stressful introductions and no kitten training. Plus, you'll be giving two deserving pets a second chance at a happy life together.
-- The Xoloitzcuintli (pronounced show-low-eetz-kweent-lee -- or take the easy route and just say show-low) originated in Mexico, where he was regarded as a guide to the underworld. The name is a combination of the words “Xolotl” -- an Aztec god -- and “itzcuintli,” the Aztec word for dog. These days, they enjoy being family members and are fond of snuggling with their people when they’re not playing, going for walks, or doing dog sports. The hairless dogs (they’re sometimes called the Mexican hairless) are sensitive to temperature extremes, so in winter keep them warm with a coat or sweater. Some aren’t hairless but have a short, smooth coat. -- Dr. Marty Becker, Kim Campbell Thornton and Mikkel Becker
ABOUT PET CONNECTION
Pet Connection is produced by a team of pet care experts headed by “The Dr. Oz Show” veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker, founder of the Fear Free organization and author of many best-selling pet care books, and award-winning journalist Kim Campbell Thornton. Joining them is behavior consultant and lead animal trainer for Fear Free Pets Mikkel Becker. Dr. Becker can be found at Facebook.com/DrMartyBecker or on Twitter at DrMartyBecker. Kim Campbell Thornton is at Facebook.com/KimCampbellThornton and on Twitter at kkcthornton. Mikkel Becker is at Facebook.com/MikkelBecker and on Twitter at MikkelBecker.