Having a family pet pass away is a traumatic event for anybody, whether young or old, but new research into delaying the effects of ageing in animals could see dogs live significantly longer lives.

A trial currently underway at the University of Washington's Dog Ageing Project is investigating potential therapeutic strategies that could increase the healthy years enjoyed by our canines.

"We believe that improving healthy lifespan in pet dogs is a worthy goal in and of itself. To be clear, our goal is to extend the period of life in which dogs are healthy, not prolong the already difficult older years," the researchers write on the project's website. "Imagine what you could do with an additional two to five years with your beloved pet in the prime of his or her life. This is within our reach today."

The trial involves 32 middle-aged dogs (6–9 years old, depending on the breed), that are being treated with the FDA-approved drug, rapamycin.

Rapamycin, also known as sirolimus, is used to prevent organ transplant rejection in human patients, and also to fight cancer. In low doses, rapamycin appears to slow ageing processes, with studies showing that it can increase the lifespan of mice and other organisms.

"If rapamycin has a similar effect in dogs – and it's important to keep in mind we don't know this yet – then a typical large dog could live two to three years longer, and a smaller dog might live four years longer," geneticist Daniel Promislow told Sarah Knapton at The Telegraph. "More important than the extra years, however, is the improvement in overall health during ageing that we expect rapamycin to provide."

The researchers are looking to see how rapamycin affects the dogs' heart function, immune function, activity, body weight, and cognitive measures. After the 3- to 6-month trial is complete, the dogs will be monitored to see whether there are any significant improvements to their healthy ageing and lifespan.

A longer trial is also being run on a second cohort of middle-aged dogs, and based on the results in mice, the researchers anticipate rapamycin will extend the healthy lifespan of middle-aged dogs by up to five years. If the results are successful, it's quite possible that the benefits may extend to cats also – let alone other species.

In addition to intervention trials with rapamycin, the researchers are also conducting a longitudinal study of ageing in pet dogs, following animals throughout their lives to try to understand why some dogs live long, healthy lives, while others succumb to diseases such as cancer, kidney failure, and dementia.

"If we can understand how to improve the quality and length of life, it's good for our pets and good for us," said Promislow. "It's win-win."