POTOMAC FALLS, Va. — "I can't imagine my life without a dog, I just, I just can't," says Cindy McConnell.
For McConnell, dogs have always been constant companions in life – ever since she was a toddler. Sandy, the chihuahua-terrier mix. Buffy, the miniature poodle. Joshua, the Australian shepherd. Chermar Summerice, her first greyhound.
"They're just pure love,” McConnell says. “They, they really want to please their owner."
It’s a deep bond of unconditional love that McConnell treasures. She keeps pictures and memorials of all her furry family members in her home.
In 2018, she adopted Serena, a greyhound retired from a life of racing on the tracks.
"She's this almost ethereal presence in my life," McConnell said.
The greyhound is a calming presence that keeps McConnell happy and healthy. She wants that for Serena, too.
So, when she heard about the Dog Aging Project – groundbreaking research on human aging involving the study of dogs – she was excited to apply.
The project is funded by a $15 million grant from the National Institute on Aging (NIA) which is part of the National Institutes of Health.
"The Dog Aging Project came in as an innovative approach to understand this process of aging. Their aging process is so similar to ours, and in fact, they develop the same types of diseases humans do," said Dr. Francesca Macchiarini.
Macchiarini is chief of the Biological Resources Branch in NIA’s Division of Aging Biology, and the program official for the NIA grant that funds the Dog Aging Project.
Like humans, dogs can suffer from heart disease, cancer, diabetes and even dementia.
Researchers from a dozen universities are hoping to recruit 100,000 dogs of all different breeds, ages, sizes and sexes from all across the country.
From that pool, 10,000 will be picked to be tracked for a decade by scientists and veterinarians. The goal: To get a better understanding on how a dog's genetics, like a human's, impact aging.
“We're going to learn in a relatively shorter period of time than we would to study the human population, a lot about the impact of genes, the environment, life style choices on aging and the development of diseases,” Macchiarini said.
Investigators believe this project has the potential to identify genes in dogs that may be strongly associated with a particular condition, allowing vets to detect and treat diseases earlier.
"If we have concrete evidence, some concrete science that we can say these are factors that may ultimately impact the length of life, then maybe we can make changes in our lifestyle, changes in the environment so that we see that reflected in our pets' health," said Christine Klippen a veterinarian at Friendship Hospital for Animals.
"I'm excited to be a part of this groundbreaking study," she said.
McConnell is excited to participate too, and hopes she and Serena are chosen.
"I do think that those who sign up their dogs are essentially willing to contribute to the greater good to increase our understanding of how biology, lifestyle and environment can affect healthy aging in dogs and then have that be applicable to humans,” she said.
Once the Dog Aging Project concludes, all the information will not only be available to dog owners, but the entire scientific community.
So far, more than 80,000 pet parents have nominated their dog for the study.