Age may creep up on man, but his best friend gets there at warp speed.
Going from pup to grandpup doesn’t leave much prime time under American Veterinary Medical Association labels that cats and small dogs are geriatric at 7 – and large dogs at 6.
But not everyone agrees, and rescuers say those definitions can be a death sentence to older animals in need of homes.
The last third of life should be considered the sunset years, says Emily Pointer, staff internist and medical co-ordinator at the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals’ Bergh Memorial Animal Hospital in New York.
“That seems fairly crazy,” she said of the AMVA designations. “I would never consider a person in their 40s or 50s to be senior.”
Forget the notion that seven dog years equal one human year, the AVMA said. A seven-year-old dog weighing less than 50 pounds is like a 44- to 47-year-old human; 10 equals 56- to 60-year-old humans; 15 is like a 76- to 83-year-old; and 20 is like a 96- to 105-year-old human, the group said.
Pet health improved in the 1950s and ’60s when commercial dog food and vaccinations became popular and spaying and neutering increased, said Stephen Zawistowski, ASPCA executive vice-president and science adviser.
Technology has advanced and today’s owners are more willing to go the distance for their pets, Dr. Pointer said.
“In the past, if your cat was diagnosed with diabetes, the recommendation was probably to euthanize the cat. Now, a lot fewer people are willing to do that because it’s a treatable disease.”
Kristin Dewey of Los Angeles has an 18-year-old ragdoll cat named Cokie. He fell from an 80-foot palm tree 16 years ago and seemed okay until four years ago, when something temporarily paralyzed him and left him incontinent.
“Indoor-only cats that are loved and treated like family start to get old around 15 but can still live good lives until 19 or more. They may be a little creaky and have some health issues, but so do we all,” Ms. Dewey said.
Dr. Pointer agreed: “Well-loved pets live longer than unloved pets.”
Dori Repuyan of Columbus, Ohio, says Tucker, a 60-pound German shepherd-beagle mix her family rescued nine years ago is between 11 and 13.
She worries that calling dogs old so young will cost them good homes because “people don’t want old dogs.”
Tucker started showing his age a few years ago, Ms. Repuyan said. He stopped running with her, limited his walking and had trouble jumping on the bed. He started going grey and when he tore a ligament, developed weight problems. Ms. Repuyan and her husband had two children and it seemed to depress Tucker, she said.
They rescued Phoebe, a small, young dog that brought Tucker out of his funk. However, Tucker now sees the vet more often, gets a supplement for arthritis and is no longer allowed on the stairs.
“It’s not so much that pets are living longer than their life expectancy, although they are, but we are taking better care of them and they are surviving longer. Sixty is the new 40 is true for pets,” said Fadra Nally, a writer and blogger from Raleigh, N.C.
She figures large dogs should be old at 8 and small dogs and cats old at 9 or 10.
But Tracie Hotchner of Bennington, Vt., author of The Dog Bible and The Cat Bible, believes the AVMA’s numbers are right.
“It raises people’s awareness of the need to get more frequent and more thorough wellness checks,” she said. “Not enough people respect the fairly serious physical changes that take place in older cats and dogs and the kind of preventive care that’s available.”
Dogs don’t have middle age, she said.
At 6 or 7, pets can experience kidney failure, digestion problems, arthritis, obesity, teeth trouble or other ailments that can be treated.
Ms. Hotchner herself has two older dogs with knee problems. They had surgeries, are on medication and undergoing stem-cell therapy harvested from their own belly fat.
It might sound extreme, but the quality of their lives has been extended decisively because of those things, she said.
And just how long can a pet live? The AVMA said the oldest cat on record was 34, the oldest dog was 29.