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Chasing the ‘forever’ pet

For now, grey-muzzled canines still have a bright side to look forward to. With their pet parents, they can help humans understand the process of ageing by signing up for the Ageing Dog Project.
Last Updated : 06 April 2024, 23:30 IST

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For how long would you love to have your pet? Ask any pet parent, and the answer mostly is an instant, screaming FOREVER. Although it defies reality — the lifespan of most pets isn’t as long as ours — we leave no stone unturned to have our furry companions lead their best life with us as long as possible. A case in point is the ballooning market for pet supplements — probiotics for gut health, omega-3 and multivitamins for better immunity and glucosamine for ageing joints —  you name it. Zillions of products in the pet store aisles promise to improve our pets’ health and well-being, and pet parents don’t seem to mind splurging on them. 

The desire to have our companion animals forever in our lives is as old as humanity.  Today, advances in veterinary medicine have brought our desire for forever pets closer to reality. Vets now perform life-saving surgical procedures on our pets, previously only available for humans. Powerful antibiotics, therapeutic drugs and vaccines treat most maladies that were often fatal a century ago. As a result, most domesticated animals now have a far longer lifespan than they once did and age graciously as we all do. 

Stretching lifespans

The longevity of our pets is a topic with peaking interest. Last year, a book by two veterinarians on the subject became a bestseller — a first for books in that genre. Some pet trainers and behaviourists are dishing out advice on prolonging your pet’s life by feeding them diets that are high in antioxidants which apparently slow down ageing. While it is unclear how much of this advice is evidence-based, there clearly is an audience interested in trying it out. The question, however, is how far we can stretch our pets’ lifespans.

On average, today’s dogs live anywhere between 10 and 14 years, depending on their size and breed, and felines clock anywhere between 12 and 18 years. Recent studies have shown that smaller dogs tend to outlive larger dogs, and canines with longer noses have a longer lifespan than those with stubbed noses (brachycephalic). Of course, there are exceptions.

Although no dog immortality elixir is available just yet, veterinarians have designed an anti-ageing drug for canines that’s on the verge of being approved by authorities for use. The injectable drug, given once every three months, lowers the levels of the IGF-1 hormone, which is involved in growth and metabolism, thus slowing down ageing. The company developing the drug says it holds enormous promise for large dogs and their human companions. 

For now, grey-muzzled canines still have a bright side to look forward to. With their pet parents, they can help humans understand the process of ageing by signing up for the Ageing Dog Project — a first-of-its-kind long-term study on the biological changes related to ageing. The project, with data from over 50,000 dogs, has revealed key insights into how dogs age, the most common diseases seen in aged dogs and the risks of different cancers in large and small dogs.

These findings aren’t just helping our dogs lead a better life but are also unveiling how humans age — a process thought to be similar to canines. There’s no denying that you bring home heartbreak when you bring home a pet. As pet parents, it’s a truth we all live to face, much as we don’t want to. Although the ‘forever pet’ might be a moonshot at this point, these giant strides in veterinary medicine may one day help us get there.  

Tailspin is your monthly column on everything that’s heartwarming and annoying about pet parenting. The writer is a science communicator and mom to Pippi, a five-year-old Indie, who is behind her drive to understand dogs better. She posts on X @RamanSpoorthy

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Published 06 April 2024, 23:30 IST

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