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Professor Collaborates With Largest Known Study of Dog Health To Increase K-9 Life Spans

Audrey Ruple’s dream is to help dogs live to be 30 someday. But the relatively short life spans of dogs that grieve their owners so much also enable a more complete study of canine health that could shed light on how to increase longevity and quality of life for dogs and humans alike.

Ruple, the Metcalf Professor of Veterinary Medical Informatics in the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine, serves on the executive leadership team of the Dog Aging Project, believed to be the largest study ever conducted of dog health and living environment.

“At the Dog Aging Project, we conduct rigorous scientific research designed to define, explain, and ameliorate the effects of aging,” according to the study’s website. “To achieve this mission, we have built a community of volunteers and researchers united by a shared love for dogs and committed to helping dogs and humans live longer, healthier lives — together.”

“It’s a longitudinal study looking at dogs’ health and welfare over their entire lifespan,” said Ruple, associate professor of quantitative epidemiology in the Department of Population Health Sciences. “We’re collecting information on these dogs annually, getting a data set that spans their entire lifespan so we can examine the factors that are affecting health in this large population of dogs.”

“It’s one of the most ambitious studies ever undertaken in dog populations, and so it is also one that is intensely collaborative.”

Over 40 educational, research, and clinical institutions have partnered on the project, which is supported primarily by a grant from the National Institute on Aging, a part of the National Institutes of Health, with additional support from nonprofits and private firms.

Kate Creevy, professor of small animal clinical sciences at Texas A&M University and chief veterinary officer for the Dog Aging Project, worked with Daniel Promislow, a University of Washington geneticist and the Dog Aging Project’s co-director and principal investigator, when both were at the University of Georgia. They embarked on a study of canine aging from abstracted medical records at veterinary teaching hospitals.

“Pretty quickly we began to realize that we would do better if we had our own dogs, and prospectively, over time gathered this data rather than relying on stuff that had been collected at the teaching hospitals,” said Creevy, who visited Virginia Tech to work with Ruple on Dog Aging Project research in the fall. “And from that point, I started to look for like-minded collaborators and other people that we could share this idea with, got some funding to start to build a team that could do a Dog Aging Project, ultimately built that team and got more funding. And the rest is history.”

Audrey Ruple – photo by Andrew Mann for VA Tech

Ruple, previously at Purdue University before joining Virginia Tech in 2021, was recruited to join the project when its organizers realized they needed someone with her combined experience in clinical trials, epidemiology, and cancer research – plus a healthy love of dogs and cutting-edge work in applying data science to veterinary medicine.

The original hope when the call for owners to register their dogs was launched during the early pandemic in 2020 was that 10,000 volunteer scientists would eventually sign up. So far, in early 2024, over 47,000 have, with more being added continually.

“My experience of veterinary medicine, my experience of innovative people, my experience of the commitment of dog owners to their dogs, showed me that this is something that could be done,” Creevy said. ”We can certainly do it. We are doing it right now.”

With humans and dogs sharing a common environment and possessing far more genetic similarity than most people realize, one chief aim of the Dog Aging Project is to not only learn more about how dogs age, but about human aging and health as well.

“Dogs live a short lifespan,” Ruple said. “So we can get whole-life environmental information, all of their genetic information, we can know everything that they’ve had to eat during their entire lives. Importantly, we will have outcome data in a decade, which is really different than trying to conduct this type of study in human populations.

“A lot of the environmental factors that influence the health of dogs also affect humans in a very similar way, because our genetic structure is so similar.”

For most dog owners, participation in the project is a matter of filling out information online about diet, lifestyle, habits, environment, and some vital statistics. Some dog owners participate in more intensive studies involving direct sampling of their dog’s environment through use of silicone tags on dog collars or regular sampling of dogs’ drinking water.

“I’m the director of the environment core,” Ruple said. “We look at all of the environmental factors, which we consider to be everything outside of the dogs. That includes diet and exercise, but also the built environment, chemical environment, natural environment, and drinking water.”

In one collaboration with Heather Stapleton, an environmental sciences professor at Duke University, dogs wear silicone collar tags that absorb chemicals for spectrometry analysis, measuring common environmental exposures.

“We’re doing all of this really cool and rich data set building in the dog population,” Ruple said, “in hopes of not just studying the dogs and their environment and genetic influences, but translating that to the human population, because they share our genes as well as our environment. Dogs are, in many ways, the perfect sentinel species.”

The project produces an open data set, curated with volunteers’ names and locations made anonymous, which scientists of many different disciplines can utilize for research after a one-year embargo.

“We’ve got researchers all over the world that are now using this data set to interrogate and answer questions that are important to their research,” Ruple said. “We’ve created so much data, we could stop data collection right now, and I could publish for the rest of my life on the data set that we have. But we’re not stopping, and we plan to continue data collection for an entire generation of dogs.”

Courtney Sexton, who recently gave a TEDx talk on the intertwining of human and canine evolutionary development over the past 30,000 years, joined the Department of Population Health Sciences as a postdoctoral researcher last year to work with Ruple.

“I’m primarily working on the Dog Aging Project, looking at examples of dogs as sentinels of human health, well-being and aging,” Sexton said. “We’re looking at what we can study about dogs’ responses to our shared environment.”

One of Sexton’s focuses presently is analyzing samples of dogs’ drinking water collected from hundreds of Dog Aging Project participants for heavy metal contamination.

“We try to be very careful in selecting participants living in different geographic areas, as different altitudes, land composition, climates, and other environmental variables affect water quality,” Sexton said. “In these studies, we’re especially interested in participants who rely on well water, as it is not subject to the same monitoring as municipal sources. Of course, we’re limited by where participants live, but there are potentially thousands of them, all over the country.”

All research is only as good as its data set, and in this case, the Dog Aging Project is supported by an army of tens of thousands of dedicated dog lovers

“The dog owners are our greatest resource in the project,” Ruple said. “We are getting lots of rich information from direct sampling including the genomic information and data about the chemical environment from silicone tags, movement information from actigraphy collars, and water contaminant information, too. But the vast majority of information we have collected is information we’re getting directly from the dog owners.”

Dog owners can register their dogs for the study at dogagingproject.org.

By Kevin Myatt

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