Pets living longer, better

September 30, 2009 at 6:40 pm Leave a comment

There aren’t any actual statistics on increasing longevity in dogs and cats, but ask any vet or pet owner and you’ll bigstockphoto_Old_Dog_438541hear tales of dogs living to be 15 or more and cats reaching the age of 20 or even older. An informal and completely unscientific survey of people I know who have dogs turned up a number of pets who were living well past the 12 to 14 years that we tend to think of as the average lifespan. Some of those were small breeds, which tend to live longer anyway, but medium-size breeds such as Beardies and Corgis were up there at 15 and 16 years and sometimes more. I even heard about a 15-year-old Mastiff.

So I was happy to address the subject in my column this month, although many of my questions went unanswered. Why do smaller dogs live longer than giant-breed dogs but elephants and whales live for many years? Apparently, we don’t really know. One of the things we know about dogs, says Martha Smith, DVM, director of veterinary services at Boston’s Animal Rescue League, is that longevity directly corresponds to breed size, but within a group–Labrador Retrievers, for instance–smaller Labs don’t live longer than larger ones. So you can’t make any predictions based on the size of an individual dog versus another individual of the same breed.

And how do we know that pets really are living longer? Any statistics on that? Not really, Smith says.

There is no comprehensive study that has looked at that. I think the only way to gather all that data would be to get into the records of various veterinary hospitals throughout the United States. It’s a really complex data search that would be required.

Pets are living longer, veterinarians think, because of improvements in veterinary care, nutrition and the human-animal bond. Leash laws and keeping cats indoors, for instance, mean fewer pets get hit by cars. The attitude that the pet is a member of the family means he spends more time indoors, more time in the company of his family and thus gets looked at more closely. Little things that might turn into big problems are more likely to be seen and treated by a veterinarian before it’s too late to manage them.

bigstockphoto_Old_Cat_629983That said, the number-one reason dogs die is cancer, says Johnny Hoskins, DVM, who has spent much of his career studying pet longevity. For cats, the main cause of death is usually related to some type of organ failure, such as kidney or heart. The key in animals as it is in humans is early detection and management, Hoskins says.

One of the things Smith and I talked about was how to estimate age in pets. Being a shelter veterinarian, she has to do that frequently. Time was, people relied on looking at the teeth and body condition. But that can be misleading.

Both of those factors are influenced by what their life experience has been. You can have a very fit animal with great teeth that’s quite old or you can have an animal who’s kind of loose and floppy and has bad teeth and is young.

A new technique has veterinarians looking into the eyes for answers. With training, they can shine a light through the lens, which creates patterns that can be tracked. The spot of the light diffuses at different rates depending on the animal’s age, and a chart was created to help establish the age based on the pattern.

Will we ever be able to predict lifespan? Smith wonders if canine genetic tests might play a role in that someday.

I’ve just learned that the makers of one of the big canine genetic tests has started to market the fact that they can predict a dog’s size based on his genetic profile when he’s a puppy. So if you adopt a mixed-breed puppy and you’re hoping he’s going to be under 25 pounds, but you’re not sure, you can send out a blood sample to find out based on breed composition how big he’s going to get. I wonder at some point if they’ll be able to make lifespan predictions.

That would be cool.

One thing my editor wanted to know was a formula for calculating a dog’s age in human years. The old “multiply by 7″ rule doesn’t really apply because different breeds age at different rates. But knowing that number isn’t essential. Other things are more important, Smith believes.

For me, it’s immaterial what they are equivalent to people’s age because they’re not people. They’re dogs and cats and they are what they are. Are they fit? Are they happy? Are they enjoying life? Are they enjoying your company? Are they active? Those are the important questions to ask, not what numbers we should assign to them.

Tell it, sister!…

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