We all want to know how we and our pets can live longer and better, right? Science is just beginning to discover and manipulate the factors that influence lifespan in pets, and much of that research has been has been started on dogs.
Genes influence how long we live, but did you know that only 25-30% of lifespan variations can be attributed to genetics? It’s true: data from human twin studies have proved this fact, indeed scientists now believe that variations in life span in both humans and animals is determined by three major factors: 30% is due to genetics, 10% is due to chance, and 60% is due to the environment and lifestyle choices. 60 percent! This means that life style choices are, you guessed it, important determinants of how long you will live. When I say lifestyle choices, I mean specifically diet, exposure to chemicals, hormones, and stress, all of which significantly influence an individual’s lifespan.
So how does this affect our pets? Well, many studies have shown that nutritional factors, specifically that number of calories eaten, can influence longevity of people and pets. Caloric restriction has been studied for the past 75 years and shown to positively impact life span in animals and people. In 2008, a landmark study was published in the Journal of Proteome Research in which a group of Labrador dogs enjoyed long lives on carefully planned diets under the care and scrutiny of nutritional scientists. These dogs provided researchers with a unique life-long metabolic profile and revealed the relationship between diet, disease, and longevity.
The first part of the study took more than fifteen years. 48 puppies from seven litters were followed their whole lives by researchers. The dogs were either free fed or fed a diet that was 25% less calories than the free fed dogs. The dogs received regular check-ups, and the urine samples that were collected from each dog over a life time provided a metabolic record that scientists have used to study the biological process of aging and metabolism.
The scientists found that gut flora, the bugs that live in our digestive system, differed between the two groups of dogs. This is significant because altered gut flora has already been linked to obesity in humans. What they also found was that the dogs that were on restricted diet lived, on average, about two years longer than those on the control free-fed diet. Two years! That was a significant finding.
The mechanics of how calorie restriction extends lifespan has not been determined but is under intense investigation. By identifying how calorie restriction works, scientists hope to identify critical regulatory points that control longevity. One thing is certain: calorie restriction has several effects, and significantly impacts hormones, the immune system and the whole biochemistry of the body.
What does ‘calorie restriction’ look like for pet parents? Well, first of all, it is not starvation, dietary restriction, or malnutrition. On the contrary, pets receive nutritionally adequate levels of all essentials nutrients. The basic difference is that you control your pet’s calories to keep him or her on the lean side. In a lean pet, you can feel ribs but not see them. Rather than feed an empty food bowl, it means measure out the amount of food that your pet needs daily, and when it is gone, it is gone. If you feed treats or hide chews, then count those calories as well.
Active animals need more calories than sedentary couch potatoes, and neutered companion animals have different caloric requirements vs. pets that have not been spayed or neutered, so work with your local veterinarian to determine the exact amount of calories your pet needs every day – just ask and they will be happy to calculate that for you as well as help you determine how much food and treats to feed total each day.