Why Don’t Big Dogs Live as Long as Small Dogs?

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Large animals tend to live longer (sometimes much more so) than smaller ones*. A cat is going to live longer than a rat, you’re going to live longer than a cat and a Galapagos tortoise is going to live longer than you. The world’s smallest mammal, the bumblebee bat, is thought to live 5 to 10 years, while the largest, the blue whale, lives for 80 to 90. Scientists think that this happens because of the way differently-sized animals use energy. Big animals’ cells are slower and more efficient, so their parts wear out slower and last longer.

Forget about all the other animals and focus on just one species, though, and you see this trend reverse. Within a species, larger size seems to carry a longevity cost. Scientists have seen this is in mice, horses, and even humans**. The phenomenon is well known to dog lovers: Dogs from bigger breeds don’t live as long as smaller ones. The small breeds have an average life expectancy of 12 to 14 years; for larger breeds, it's 8 to 10; and for the so-called “giant breeds,” lifespan is 5 to 8 years. 

This strange flip in the relationship between size and lifespan isn’t completely understood, and many, if not all, of the factors at play are probably species-specific. This is certainly the case for dogs, and scientists think that the reasons big breeds die young have to do with the way humans have bred them and the way they grow. 

Larger dogs grow very big very fast. Take a one-year-old Great Dane, for example. It’s huge. From birth to their first birthday, they increase 100-fold in weight. In that same time frame, wolves increase 60-fold, poodles 20-fold and humans only threefold. Research in the last decade has suggested that larger individual animals die younger because this sort of accelerated growth comes with increased free-radical activity. 

A new study published last month focused only on dogs and likewise concludes that big dogs die young because they age quickly. The European researchers looked at veterinary data for 74 breeds and more than 50,000 individual dogs, including when and how they died, and found that “large dogs age at an accelerated pace, suggesting that their adult life unwinds in fast motion.”

Faster aging isn’t the only explanation, though. Larger dogs are more prone to health issues like developmental disorders, musculoskeletal and gastrointestinal diseases, and tumors—all of which are also linked to their accelerated growth and appear to be the nasty side effects of selective breeding for large size over a short (relative to the millennia other animals have had to evolve by natural selection) period of time.

* There are some notable exceptions, of course, like the relatively small African grey parrot, which can live 50 to 60 years. 

** Tom Samaras has been studying links between human height and other characteristics for decades. After looking at height and age of death for people in a number of historical samples, he found that shorter stature is strongly linked to longer life. Among 3200 deceased pro baseball players, for example, he worked out that every cm of height a player had over the average shortened his life by .35 years.

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March 19, 2013 - 9:30am
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