The pill that could extend the lifespan of pet dogs by years

5 April 2022 - 5 min read

Scientists in the USA are conducting a trial into dog health that could extend their lifespan by two to four years simply by giving them a pill.

Dog looking at pill

The Dog Aging Project at the University of Washington started the first of a three phase set of tests in 2017 to see if the anti-rejection medicine rapamycin could help dogs live longer.

The pill that may help extend dogs' lives

The drug rapamycin has an anti-inflammatory effect and helps cells get rid of waste. It's already used to help humans accept kidneys after a transplant and it has been found to increase the lifespan of mice by up to 25%.

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The initial trials were conducted on 24 middle-aged Golden Retrievers, Labradors and German Shepherds and were designed to test if the drug was safe to give to dogs. Following the end of this first phase of testing, scientists found evidence of improvements to the dogs’ hearts.

“The key findings were that there were no significant side effects associated with the rapamycin treatment, and there were statistically significant improvements in heart function in the dogs that received rapamycin relative to those that received the placebo, similar to what has been observed in older laboratory mice,” said University of Washington’s Dr Matt Kaeberlein.

He went on to stress that it was important to keep in mind that this was a small study that requires replication before further confidence can be found in the results. Dr Kaeberlein added:

“It's also important to recognise that we don't have any evidence that the improvements in heart function indicate overall improvements in health or slower aging in these dogs or even what the long-term effects of rapamycin will be."

What scientist found when they tested the pill on 50 dogs

Phase one ended with researchers saying the results were ‘highly encouraging’ and ‘strong justification’ for continuing the trials.

In the middle of 2018, phase two of the trial began. This was a one-year trial to assess the effects of rapamycin on the heart function of 50 dogs. The trial also looked at the effects of rapamycin on the cognitive function and activity of dogs.

“In phase two, we’re looking at two things,” Dr Kaeberlein said. “First, can we replicate the positive heart function we saw in phase one over a longer period? And second, are there any persistent effects? Do changes last after dogs come off rapamycin?”

No official start date has been confirmed, but phase three (the real experiment) of the study is expected to last five years, with dogs being enrolled during the first 18 months of this time period.

The aim of phase three is to have a cohort of dogs that are aging rapidly. If rapamycin has any beneficial effects, the results will be seen in Phase threee.

Dr Kaeberlein explained further: “Unlike phase one, which is mostly about safety and phase two, which is mostly about cardiac function, phase three is about lifespan. And to detect an expected 15% increase in lifespan over a three-year period, the math said we need 600 dogs aged seven or older.”

Dr Kaeberlein said: “Imagine what you could do with an additional two to five years with your beloved pet in the prime of his or her life. This is within our reach today.

“We all want our pets to be around for as long as possible so it’s an exciting development that it may be possible in the near future.”

How can I increase my dog's lifespan?

Some simple everyday steps can help keep your dog healthier, which could mean they live longer:

1. Watch what they eat

Improvements to pet food have helped extend dogs’ lifespans, so speak to your vet about the best food for your dog's breed.

You should also weight out their food and weigh your pet regularly as obesity can significantly shorten a dog's lifespan.

2. The right amount (and type) of exercise

If you keep your dog healthy with regular walks it can help give them a long, happy life. As they age, you might have to switch to lower impact activities to protect their joints – less ball chasing, more swimming.

3. Give their brain a workout too

Regular games that test their sense of smell and ability to learn and remember will help to keep their mind active and sharp. It can be as simple as feeding treats and meals in puzzle toys or scattering treats for them to sniff out.

4. Look after their teeth

Bad teeth, gum disease and other dental problems can really take a toll on your dog's overall health. You can clean your dog's teeth at home to keep them healthy and help you spot any problems early on.

5. Regular vet visits

Getting them to the vets for a check-up at least once or twice a year will mean any problems can be picked up and treated earlier – which gives them a better chance of living longer.

Pet insurance can help with expensive fees for treatment if they do fall ill or get injured. Lifetime pet insurance means they’ll be covered for any illnesses they develop during their policy for the rest of their life.

Lifetime (or ‘yearly limit’) insurance covers vet fees up to the stated limit every year. This can be a good option if you worry about your pet developing a long-term or recurring illness. So long as you renew a lifetime policy each year, the level of vet fees will reset to the full stated limits that you started with.

Your premiums don't stay the same for your pet's life - they're likely to increase each year at renewal. As your pet gets older your excess is likely to increase, too.

Lifetime pet insurance is different to a 'per condition' policy, where a particular condition can become excluded once the condition limit is reached.

Our Complete policy covers dental illness.

How long do dogs live?

Dogs tend to live for about 10 to 13 years. But there are few scientific studies into dog lifespans and life expectancy also depends on breed and size.

Smaller breeds have an average life expectancy of 12 to 14 years. Larger breeds have a life expectancy of eight to 10 years.

A dog’s life expectancy in human years also depends on their size. On average it's about 60 to 80 years old.

But the old 'one human year to seven dog years' theory is now thought to be too simplistic. It's based on an outdated statistic that dogs lived to about 10 and humans lived to about 70.

Instead, you should allow about 15 human years to a dog's first year. Then nine human years for its second year. Then five years for each year after that.

That means the dog-to-human-years calculation looks more like this:

Human yearsDog years
115
224
329
434
539
644
749
854
959
1064
1169
1274
1379
1484
1589
1694

Which dog breed has the longest lifespan?

The oldest dog on record is an Australian Cattle Dog called Bluey, who lived to 29 years old!

At ManyPets, we can cover pets of any age. In 2021, the oldest dogs we insured were 16 years old.

Which breed has the shortest lifespan?

Dr. Kelly M. Cassidy’s list says Bulldogs have the shortest life expectancy, at six years. Other lists say Dogue de Bordeaux, which live for about five to eight years.

What is the lifespan of a dog with cancer?

Finding out your dog has cancer can be upsetting. How long they will live with the disease depends on factors such as the kind of cancer, the treatment they receive and the age and size of the dog.

It can be tough weighing up the benefits of treatment against the impact on your dog’s quality of life.

Chemotherapy remission can take 12 months, so it may not be fair on older dogs.

But veterinary procedures have improved in recent years and it may be possible to extend your pet’s life. Treatment can be expensive, which is where pet insurance can help.


Digby Bodenham
UK engagement team lead

Digby is an experienced journalist in various fields but has specialised in insurance for more than six years. Before joining ManyPets in 2013 he was part of the editorial teams of various magazines, including Retail Week and Drapers. He has a degree in journalism and a cat called Potato.