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

iStock / yellowsarah
iStock / yellowsarah

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.

The Horrors of Anglerfish Mating

Masaki Miya et al. "Evolutionary history of anglerfishes (Teleostei: Lophiiformes): a mitogenomic perspective," BMC Evolutionary Biology 10, article number: 58 (2010), Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0
Masaki Miya et al. "Evolutionary history of anglerfishes (Teleostei: Lophiiformes): a mitogenomic perspective," BMC Evolutionary Biology 10, article number: 58 (2010), Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0

When you think of an anglerfish, you probably think of something like the creature above: Big mouth. Gnarly teeth. Lure bobbing from its head. Endless nightmares. 

During the 19th century, when scientists began to discover, describe, and classify anglerfish from a particular branch of the anglerfish family tree—the suborder Ceratioidei—that’s what they thought of, too. The problem was that they were only seeing half the picture. The specimens that they were working with were all female, and they had no idea where the males were or what they looked like. Researchers sometimes found some other fish that seemed to be related based on their body structure, but they lacked the fearsome maw and lure typical of ceratioids and were much smaller—sometimes only as long as 6 or 7 millimeters—and got placed into separate taxonomic groups.

It wasn’t until the 1920s—almost a full century after the first ceratioid was entered into the scientific record—that things started to become a little clearer. In 1922, Icelandic biologist Bjarni Saemundsson discovered a female ceratioid with two of these smaller fish attached to her belly by their snouts. He assumed it was a mother and her babies, but was puzzled by the arrangement.

“I can form no idea of how, or when, the larvae, or young, become attached to the mother. I cannot believe that the male fastens the egg to the female,” he wrote. “This remains a puzzle for some future researchers to solve.”

When Saemundsson kicked the problem down the road, it was Charles Tate Regan, working at the British Museum of Natural History in 1924, who picked it up. Regan also found a smaller fish attached to a female ceratioid. When he dissected it, he realized it wasn’t a different species or the female angler’s child. It was her mate.

The “missing” males had been there all along, just unrecognized and misclassified, and Regan and other scientists, like Norwegian zoologist Albert Eide Parr, soon figured out why the male ceratioids looked so different. They don’t need lures or big mouths and teeth because they don’t hunt, and they don’t hunt because they have the females. The ceratioid male, Regan wrote, is “merely an appendage of the female, and entirely dependent on her for nutrition.” In other words, a parasite.

When ceratioid males go looking for love, they follow a species-specific pheromone to a female, who will often aid their search further by flashing her bioluminescent lure. Once the male finds a suitable mate, he bites into her belly and latches on until his body fuses with hers. Their skin joins together, and so do their blood vessels, which allows the male to take all the nutrients he needs from his host/mate’s blood. The two fish essentially become one.

With his body attached to hers like this, the male doesn't have to trouble himself with things like seeing or swimming or eating like a normal fish. The body parts he doesn’t need anymore—eyes, fins, and some internal organs—atrophy, degenerate, and wither away, until he’s little more than a lump of flesh hanging from the female, taking food from her and providing sperm whenever she’s ready to spawn.

Extreme size differences between the sexes and parasitic mating aren’t found in all anglerfish. Throughout the other suborders, there are males that are free-swimming their whole lives, that can hunt on their own and that only attach to the females temporarily to reproduce before moving along. For deep-sea ceratioids that might only rarely bump into each other in the abyss, though, the weird mating ritual is a necessary adaptation to keep mates close at hand and ensure that there will always be more little anglerfish. And for us, it’s something to both marvel and cringe at, a reminder that the natural world is often as strange as any fiction we can imagine.

Naturalist William Beebe put it nicely in 1938, writing, “But to be driven by impelling odor headlong upon a mate so gigantic, in such immense and forbidding darkness, and willfully eat a hole in her soft side, to feel the gradually increasing transfusion of her blood through one’s veins, to lose everything that marked one as other than a worm, to become a brainless, senseless thing that was a fish—this is sheer fiction, beyond all belief unless we have seen the proof of it.”

This Automatic Fetch Machine Will Keep Your Dog Occupied When You Don't Have Time to Play

iFetch
iFetch

Every dog owner knows that it's impossible to keep up with a pooch that's always looking to play. But if you want to keep them active while still having time for yourself, there's the iFetch, a toy that will automatically throw tennis balls, allowing your canine to play fetch whenever they please.

You can find the iFetch Original, which is ideal for small or medium dogs, on Amazon for $115. The Original can either be charged with an AC adapter or run on six C batteries, both of which are included. You can adjust the settings on the iFetch to throw the ball 10, 20, or 30 feet, making it perfect for indoor or outdoor play. Once it's charged and the distance is set, let your canine drop a tennis ball into the machine and it will take care of the rest.

If you have a large dog, look for the iFetch Too, which is available on Amazon for $200. This model has a rechargeable battery that can last up to 300 throws. This model can launch the ball 10, 24, or 40 feet, and it also comes with a custom option, so you’ll find room for your dog to play no matter how much space is available.

If your dog loves their new toy, but you don't love finding slobbery tennis balls around the house, check out the company’s medium- and small-size slobber-proof balls.

It may take time for your canine to learn how to use the toy, but the company has some training tips from Nicole Ellis, a certified professional dog trainer. To start, it's recommended that your dog knows the “drop it” command. If they don’t, check out their training tips here. After your dog has mastered that command, the company has plenty of tricks, such as keeping training sessions short and ending them on a positive note. For more ideas, check out their page.

Once you set up your iFetch and watch your furry friend run back and forth, you may start to wonder why they like fetch so much. According to research on the subject, when dogs exercise, neurotransmitters stimulate reward regions in their brain, which is much like when humans experience a "runner's high."

If you happen to notice your canine seems particularly athletic while they are chasing the ball back and forth, check out these other sports they can play.

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