One of the first logical questions for a good skeptic to ask when thinking about canine aging biology is whether it is plausible that we can extend lifespan (years lived) and healthspan (healthy years lived) in dogs. Is there reliable evidence that aging is not something immutable and inevitable but something we can actively alter? If so, how strong is that evidence, what does it suggest we should try, and what do we still need to learn?
The good news is that there are decades worth of research showing that lifespan can be extended and age-associated disease reduced in a variety of species. Much of this research has involved lab animals, such as roundworms, fruit flies, and mice. Such studies are useful for understanding basic principles in bilogy, and they suggest hypotheses to test in other species, but they aren’t sufficient to prove a given treatment or preventative intervention will work. There are even some laboratory studies in dogs that strengthen the basic understanding of aging and how we might influence it, but again this only gets us so far.
Fortunately, we have more than this. While we can’t predict whether specific drugs or many other treatments will work until we’ve done the science to test them, we know that healthspan and lifespan can be extended in dogs because it’s been done! The one method that has been shown effective in many different animals, including dogs, is dietary restriction.
Dietary restriction is defined as a reduction in calorie and nutrient intake without malnutrition. The specific details vary among studies, but in general the key appears to be reducing total calorie intake significantly (perhaps 20-40%) without inducing micronutrient deficiencies. There are some other strategies that have proven effective or appear promising (e.g. changes in protein intake, intermittent fasting), but overall the best evidence is for total calorie reduction.
The good news is that there is strong evidence for the benefits of calorie restriction in dogs. One long-term study in Labrador retrievers paired littermates by sex and weight and then randomly assigned one to unrestricted feeding and the other to a calorie intake 25% less than it’s paired littermate. In order to avoid obesity in the control dogs, at about 3 years of age the protocol was changed so these dogs were fed to maintain an optimal body condition rather than ad libitum, but the calorie-restricted dogs were still fed 25% less than their paired littermates ate. The study ran until the last dogs died.
The calorie restricted dogs had a medium lifespan of 13 years, 16% longer than the 11.2 years in the control group. Calorie restricted dogs also developed arthritis 1.5 years later on average than the control dogs. Some dogs developed cancer in both groups, but the average age of death from this cause was 2 years later in the restricted calorie group (11.6 years vs 9,7 years).
There is, unfortunately, also bad news. Dramatic, lifelong caloric restriction is not a practical method of extending lifespan and healthspan in dogs, primarily because it is too difficult for dog owners to control their feeding practices appropriately. Obesity is a tremendous and growing problem in companion dogs. We seem unable to feed our dogs appropriately even to maintain a healthy weight, so the chances that we will succeed in restricting their calorie intake sufficiently to obtain significant lifespan and health benefits seem low. Food is part of how we express love for our animal companions, and rational feeding practices are surprisingly tough to implement.
Fortunately, there may be alternatives. Studies of dietary restriction have taught us a lot about the fundamental biology of aging, and there are many potential means to achieve some of the benefits of caloric restriction other than feeding dramatically less food to our dogs. The composition of diets, the timing of feeding, and medicines which mimic aspects of the physiologic response to dietary restriction are all promising avenues of research.
While no clearly effective anti-aging therapy is yet available, we have already proven that aging can be influenced. There are many different ongoing research efforts aiming to translate the decades of knowledge concerning aging biology into more, healthier years for our dogs. Science will ultimately tell us which, if any, will work and what the relative risks and benefits will be, as is always the case, but having a plausible hypothesis and established potential mechanisms is a good first step.
I don’t exactly understand. I can’t know what my dog’s littermates, or even other dogs of her breed, would eat if left to free feed. When I got her from the pound 15 years ago, the vet said to not let her get over-weight since chihuahuas tend to do that and it causes heart problems. So I have kept her weight at 3 kg for years. Then she developed pancreatitis and when she gets an episode, she stops eating so the vet advised letting her get up to 3.1 or 3.2 kg so she has a bit of cushion. When I need to change her diet, I take her in for weight checks every 2 weeks until I know she is on track. Are you saying I should be aiming for 25% less food that she currently eats? Or 25% less than other dogs of her size eat? Or 25% less than the food label says to feed? I suppose she is too old, at 16 or 17 years of age for it to make much difference but how does this apply to younger dogs with no history?
The point is not to repeat this study with our pets, which of course we can’t do. The point is simply that reducing calories causes changes in physiology that retard aging, and we can learn from those changes to achieve the same goals in different ways.
As for our individual pets, the best we can do is maintain a healthy body condition. How much for is required to do this will vary a lot between individual dogs, and with different foods, so general rules of thumb are almost always wrong. I recommend using a body condition and muscle condition chart to target the optimal condition for your dog and then aiming for the lowest quantity of food that keeps your dog at that optimal condition. A “cushion” isn’t really a good thing if it consists of extra body fat, but as dogs age they do tend to lose weight and muscle mass, and we may have to adjust our feeding to account for this (more calories or higher proportion of protein are the two most common adjustments needed).
Going from overweight to a healthy body condition has benefits at any age, but it is easier and more beneficial to prevent overweight or obesity in the first place in young dogs.
Those lifetime feeding studíes are impressive, but can they be extrapolated to dogs in general?
Many Labradors are genetically predisposed to fat accumulation. (Reference easily found…recent and got some publicity). It would be interesting to know if these findings apply to breeds that aren’t gutsers. Eg, after many decades owning Labs, I’ve gotten a Springer. I’m amazed that she’s a delicate eater and leaves food in her dish.
It seems likely that many diet-health questions are influenced by genetic predisposition, and will vary between breeds. Too bad lifetime feeding experiments are so expensive.
The effect of dietary restriction on health and longevity have been remarkably consist in every animal studies so far, from test and fruit flies to mice and monkeys as well as dogs, so I doubt that breed differences would be that significant. The mechanisms involved are highly conserved evolutionarily, so the within-species variability is pretty minimal.