How and Why We and Our Dogs & Cats Age

And What We Can Do About It


R.S. Hines DVM PhD

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For most of my life, I have been one of Dr. Willett’s guinea pigs in a Harvard Medical School study. He follows my habits until I die to identify some of the factors that influenced how long I lived. But long before his study began, I was a young research veterinarian at Microbiological Associates as well as the veterinarian in charge of animal care at the National Institute on Aging. Dr. Hayflick, my supervisor, once pointed out to me that all our cell cultures divided about forty times from conception to death. That is, they aged. It didn’t matter if I began my culture from a newborn trout, mouse, monkey or a man – about forty divisions always signified the end of the cell culture’s life.

There are several theories on what aging really is. The traditional one is that God gives each man, woman and animal a limited time on this earth - that a biological clock begins ticking when we are born. Put in a more scientific way, one would say that as cells in our pets and us divide, errors occur in the genetic instruction manual that built us. So after time, our pets and we have so many errors that we loose the ability to repair ourselves. We all know that time takes its toll on everything. Caralampio, my parrot, is 30 this year, and she doesn’t look as spry as she once did. And I too have a lot more gray hair than I did when she was one. Well, that theory could be true, or partially true, but the most widely held theory in this November, 2002 is that our bodies are slowly and steadily crippled the release of Free Radicals. If a Mac truck doesn’t hit us, we go to heaven when we have too many mistakes in our instruction book.

One free radical is atomic oxygen. On the earth, it exists in doublettes (02), but in cells, some is released as very harmful 01. (I have not mastered droping the 1 & 2 following the O) Free oxygen is keen on grabbing surrounding cell molecules and, in the process, damaging them. This process is called oxidation. It’s akin to rust on an iron nail. When it occurs, the nail is damaged and eventually destroyed.

Now oxygen will grab the most convenient and weakest bonded molecule that it encounters. The body produces some sacrificial molecules to throw in the way of free radicals (superoxide anion, hydroxyl radicals, and hydrogen peroxide, etc.). So one might guess that if you feed your pet compounds that free radicals enjoyed destroying more than the pet itself, you’d slow down cellular damage (aging). The same pertains to your body. Now I am going to cut to the chase. If you want to get more into the science of aging or argue points, read some of the literature I have browsed, cited at the end of this article.

Sacrificial molecules are called anti-oxidants. The body produces some naturally (superoxide dismutase or SOD). Others come through our diets. They include vitamin C, vitamin E, and beta-carotene and flavonoids. In most scientific breakthroughs animals are the guinea pigs. In this case it is reversed. It’s easier to take a group of people, see what they are eating and watch how long they live. So much of what I write on retarding aging assumes that our animals share the same aging process we undergo. Dr. Denham Harman, the originator of the free radical theory of aging, says this in his erudite way:, “a growing consensus among biogerontologists that in mammals, aging -- defined as an increase in the risk of death -- results from deleterious cellular changes produced by free-radical reactions. These cell-damaging processes are largely initiated in the course of mitochondrial respiration while life span is determined by the rate of damage to the mitochondria” (1). My simpler way of saying it is that I suspect that damage by free radicals constitute a major portion of the aging process.

Carotenes (carotenoids) are pink to orange pigments found in plants. Shrimp have a lot of them from eating plankton and flamingos are pink from eating shrimp. There is a common super-carotene all around us in the produce isle of our food stores that is twice as powerful as the beta-carotene sold on the health and beauty aids isle. It is called lycopene. It’s what makes tomatoes, watermelon, pink grapefruit, chili peppers, roses dried and fresh apricots and other pink to orange produce reddish . (2) It is now known that eating lycopenes reduce the incidence of a wide range of cancers and age-associated diseases in people. It is very very probable that lycopenes will do the same for your pet and you. A sliced medium-size tomato has about 23 milligrams (mg) of (all –trans) lycopene. The problem is that the lycopenes in fresh fruit and vegetables aren’t well absorbed. Absorption increases when they are cooked, mashed, or eaten with other foods rich in oil. That is why big salad eaters don’t get the befits that big eaters of pizza/pasta do.

Flavonoids are other great antioxidant. They are found in green and black tea, cranberries, peas, beans and lentils.

Vitamin C is also an important antioxidant. It is contained in many plants, including citrus, alfalfa sprouts, cabbage, broccoli and kiwi. (3)

There are a number of drugs in the pipeline that may be even better in retarding aging than the natural nutrients. Upjohn has developed a group of compounds called “lazaroids” to retard aging. They even use the name of Lazarus, whom Jesus raised from the dead. Another is a thiol-specific enzyme developed by the National Institutes of Health (9). A third compound, Tirilazad, is being used experimentally by Eukarion Inc., a Bedford, Mass – based Biotechnology company while Centaur Pharmaceuticals is tinkering with one based on phenylbutylnitrone.
So here are my suggestions for you and your pets:

1) Live a healthy life. Don’t smoke, drink moderately, eat a balanced diet, do all things in moderation. This goes for you and your dogs, cats, bird, ferret, etc.
2) If your going for the Guinness record, pick a female pet. Female animals of all species tend to live longer than males. The exceptions I know of are rabbits, ferrets and opossums, which must be spayed early in life to get the sex benefits of longevity.
3) Do not feed musty, old or rancid products to your pet or yourself. They are loaded with oily compounds that enhance aging. This goes for fish-containing products as well as grain-containing products with animal and vegetable oil. An added problem are the mycotoxins they may contain and which I will not dwell on.

4) Feed your pets that will eat them, dried cranberries, red peppers, dried tomatoes and all the vegetables mentioned in this article. If they loose hard body weight, they are eating too much of them. Add both Vitamin C and Vitamin E to their diets. Within reason, there does not appear to be a toxic dose of either vitamin. I suggest about 2 units of supplemental E and 2 units of C per pound per day for most pets. I give more E if the animals eat dead or processed fish. The more free radicals that are in your pets diet, the more of these body-spareing compounds it needs. If they produce loose stools, cut back on the vitamin C. I do not attempt to get carnivores to eat vegetables. Even if they did, I doubt that they would absorb the nutrients and vitamins they need and it often causes indigestion. For carnivores C and E from a grocery store is more practical. Beta-Carotene and, perhaps, even lycopene are available there too in capsule or pill form. Just crush it over their diets once a day.


(1)Harman, D. J. Gerontology 1956 Jul;11(3): 298-300
(2) Science News Online – Food for Thought 7/19/97s
(3) In Search of the Secrets of Aging Http:// Dietary Intake of Antioxidants and Risk of Alzheimer Disease
4) Martin, G.R. & Baker, G.T. Theories of Aging and Life Extension, Encyclopedia of Bioethics, New York: Macmillan, 1993.
(5) Marianne J. Engelhart, MD, MSc; Mirjam I. Geerlings, PhD; Annemieke
Ruitenberg, MD, PhD; John C. van Swieten, MD, PhD; Albert Hofman, MD,
PhD; Jacqueline C. M. Witteman, PhD; Monique M. B. Breteler, MD, PhD JAMA.
(6) International Society for Free Radical Research
(7) Alison Mack Trying to Unlock the Mysteries of Free Radicals and Antioxidants.
Helmut Sies, Insitue for Physiological Chelmistry I. Heinrich-Heine—Universitat, Dusseldorf. Germany The Scientist 10[19]: 13, Sept.30, 1996 (8) Hayflick, Leonard. How and Why We Age (2d ed., New York, Ballantine Books, 1996
(9) M.B. Yim et al., Journal of Biochemistry, 269:1621-6, 1994