Better care for aging dogs and their seniors

Dogs have a lot to teach us. In addition to the important life lessons we learn from our pets about friendship, joy, and caring for others, dogs also provide veterinary researchers with a good model for understanding the effects of aging in humans.

“Dogs allow you to examine the chronic influence of environmental and social factors in a truly unique way,” said Natasha Olby, professor of neurology and Dr. Kady M. Gjessing and Rahna M. Distinguished Chair in Gerontology. Davidson in College. of Veterinary Medicine (CVM). “We believe that all of the research we do on aging is potentially extremely relevant to people.”

This study of aging, or gerontology, is one facet of Olby’s canine research within the CVM. His endowed chair in gerontology—currently the only such position in a veterinary school with an associated research program—provides resources for his research on neuroaging and neurodegenerative diseases in dogs.

Olby also introduced geriatric medicine to the CVM curriculum, helping to set it apart from other veterinary schools by the degree of emphasis placed on this important and growing field. As the lifespan of dogs increases alongside that of humans, there is a growing need to study the impacts of aging on dogs and humans.

“One of the great challenges of modern society is maintaining health span as well as life span,” Olby said. “Now, with improved health care for pets, dogs are surviving longer and we are facing the exact same challenge. [as we do with people]. I think it’s extremely important that we don’t say “They’re getting old”, but that we pay due attention to the process, understand what things we can change in the process and improve our understanding of aging in general.

Treating patients is research

The unifying theme of all of Olby’s research — which also includes spinal cord injury, genetic disease mapping, and a neurodevelopmental disorder called chiari-like malformations — is that she works exclusively with hospitalized patients.

Unlike a traditional model for studying disease in rodents, in which disease is introduced to mice or rats in a tightly controlled laboratory environment, Olby’s research is conducted on aging dogs that live with people. at their home. His subjects are affected by the same social and environmental factors that affect people as they age, as they live with people. They are exposed to the same air we breathe, often the same food we eat, the amount of exercise we do, the chemicals in our environment, and the social structures of our families.

“There are so many opportunities out there because dogs are such a great role model for humans,” said Kate Simon, DVM/Ph.D. student who works in Olby’s lab. “There is so much work on cognition, dementia and even aging, in the field of human medicine. We all see the same things happen in dogs. We may perceive or measure it a little differently, or call it slightly different things, but it’s still happening.

Olby began his program on neuroaging in dogs in 2018 with an initial goal of developing protocols that were safe and did not harm dogs in any way. She wanted to find ways to quantify changes that can be seen in dogs as they age, such as mobility, postural stability, cognitive performance, vision, hearing and smell. Thanks to this study, Olby and his team were able to publish many articles on what happens to dogs as they age, and they now have enough basic data to conduct clinical trials.

Extraordinary Difference: Dr. Natasha Olby

A clinical trial, led by Olby and associate professor of behavioral medicine Margaret Gruen, is currently underway, testing the effects of two supplements on aging dogs. One increases cellular levels of an enzyme that helps with metabolism, which naturally declines as dogs age. The other supplement kills senescent cells, or “zombie cells” that should have died but didn’t, which consume the enzyme and cause inflammation.

“It was a very exciting test to race,” said Olby. “We are learning a lot about conducting trials in this population of very old dogs, with a focus on developing new therapies safely.”

Simon is helping run this clinical trial, which relies heavily on dog owners to complete regular questionnaires about their perceptions of their dogs’ quality of life, cognition, and mobility at home. Working on this trial increased her appreciation and affinity for working with pet owners, as she saw firsthand the bonds between them and their pets.

Kate Simon hands a treat to a dog on a leash.
Kate Simon holds a treat while working with a dog in the lab.
DVM/Ph.D. student Kate Simon performs cognitive tests with two of the participants in a clinical trial currently being conducted by Natasha Olby and Margaret Gruen.

“You see such a huge amount of care and owners really want them to have the best medicine, the best health, and the best care in, potentially, the last stage of their life,” Simon said. “I love seeing that.

“Because it’s something that’s quite different from human and veterinary medicine, it’s end of life and quality of care, and our understanding of geriatric medicine,” she added. “Dogs have someone who is their proxy, and it depends so much on what the owner thinks and what the owner perceives about their quality of life. So we try to match that to what we notice objectively in the clinic, through our reviews and through our gait analysis, and how that matches what owners see more subjectively.

Results and skills that translate

Much of Olby’s research on aging in dogs also improves our understanding of the aging process in humans. For example, one disease that Olby’s lab has studied in dogs is degenerative myelopathy, which is caused by a genetic mutation that is expressed with age and is comparable to an inherited form of Lou Gehrig’s disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) in humans. The gene therapy trial they conducted for degenerative myelopathy studied a natural canine model of ALS in humans while developing new treatments for dogs.

This comparative or translational nature of Olby’s research, and the wealth of research done at NC State, were part of what motivated Simon to attend veterinary school here. As a combined DVM/Ph.D. student, she is studying to become a veterinarian while completing her doctorate in comparative biomedical sciences.

Learn more about opportunities for College of Veterinary Medicine students.

“I think NC State really exemplifies One Health and comparative medicine,” Simon said. “It seemed like the perfect fit and all I could ask for.

“It’s really cool to be at an institution that cares so much about research and really supports students who come with this training and want to pursue this, or haven’t been able to find the opportunity yet.”

There are opportunities for students at all stages of their graduate journey to engage in research at CVM. Olby has also had students from outside the university join his lab who are interested in science but want to work on natural diseases rather than induced diseases. For students interested in veterinary medicine, she pointed out that there are many possible careers beyond the small animal veterinary path that they might immediately imagine – although working with mankind’s best furry friends is always a popular option.

“Veterinary medicine is a degree that will allow you to have a career that could take almost countless different directions,” Olby said. “You could go to public health. You could be an epidemiologist. You could be a pathologist. You could work in the community, in shelters. You can go brief the DOD on biological warfare. A veterinary degree will give you such good training in so many different areas that you might find that all sorts of career options suddenly become very attractive to you.

About Chris Stevenson

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