How old is your pet really…?

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Bilbo the terrier defies life expectancy at 17

So much happens in our lives over the short period that our pets live with us. They are witnesses to it all; just having them there can be a great support. So, it’s lovely to support them as they age or need more help.

This blog is about the ins and outs of that time–planning ahead and having the right tools and facts to hand. “The path of least regret” can be a helpful idea.

dog walker tramps through boggy groundThat path is different for every case and, as we chart it, we need solid ground underfoot–honest facts to steady us in a sea of uncertainty. Otherwise we end up leaping desperately from boggy spot to boggy spot — making frantic guesses or being too upset to decide. Then, later, we can feel we were forced into things or made the wrong call. It happens…

The next few posts will try to indicate some “patches of solid ground”, starting with age.

We used to think that 1 year of life for a cat or dog was roughly the same as 7 years of human life. The calculation can seem correct, on paper. Unfortunately it’s not that simple, for two reasons. (Both reasons probably apply to cats. We don’t have as much research on their life expectancy as we do on dogs–it’s hard to keep track of nine lives…)

1. A pet’s age on the calendar says relatively little about their body’s actual, “biological” age.
  • The biological age depends on things like genetics, health and fitness.
  • Some giant breeds of dog typically live for ~8 years, whereas many small dogs and mixed-breeds typically live to 13 years or older.
  • Larger dogs that stay trim can live longer than small dogs that get overweight.
  • Some breeds have inbuilt problems that tend to make their lives quite short… For example, the VetCompass data show that, on average: Chihuahuas live for ~7 years whereas Miniature Poodles live for ~ 14 years. However, even life expectancy data are general; they are not a prediction. For example: based on the data, dogs like our cover star Bilbo typically live for 13-14 years. But he is a wonderful 17 year-old!
2. The relationship between human age and dog age is not constant over the dog’s life span.
  • It gets more complex as dogs get older, and it depends on the dog’s breed, body fat and health.

Life expectancy - an older ginger cat sits on bed with ownerJust in case: comparing pet and human ages may worry some younger children (~6 to ~10 years old) because they only understand death gradually. If you say that a pet is as old as grandpa or Ms Smith over the road, and the pet dies, some children may worry that older people (parents, grandparents) are just about to die too.

Bottom line? It’s fun to compare our pet’s age with ours. Does your cat or dog deserve a birthday telegram from the Queen?! However, the comparison is not a great basis for making plans and decisions. Better to use the typical life expectancy of different breeds. The VetCompass project gathers those data continuously, and your vet can advise you.

Our next post will look at solid ground for gauging older pets’ quality of life, including pain.

Caroline Hewson Author: Caroline Hewson MRCVS

Caroline is a vet and has a PhD in animal behaviour. She writes and gives talks that translate research relevant to pets’ end of life into points to keep in mind.

Bilbo terrier ppctMeet superstar senior ‘Bilbo’.

Our cover star was adopted by proud owner Jilly from Birmingham Dogs’ Home and is going to be 18 years young in November. Read more>

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