When I graduated from veterinary school in 1969, it was generally accepted that the average life expectancy for dogs and cats was about seven years. Today the veterinary profession considers that a seven-year-old pet is middle-aged. The “senior” years begin at about eight and well cared-for dogs can live to 15 or 20. I had one feline patient who lived to well over 25 years! So, what is going on?
Clearly the average life expectancy of household pets is now much more than seven years. Seven was a fairly accurate number when many dogs and cats lived mostly outside with the attendant road hazards, exposure to parasites and diseases and very little preventative health care. Outdoor dogs and cats are also at risk for attack by wild and domestic animals. Today’s pet foods are an important factor influencing pet health and longevity. Well balanced, high quality, commercial diets, appropriate for the life stages, can and do extend life expectancy. Conversely, over-feeding of commercial diets or human foods to our pets can cause obesity and decreased life expectancy.
Most dogs and cats are fully grown and sexually mature at eleven to twelve months of age, and that corresponds to about 18 years of age for humans. A one-year old dog or cat can be considered to be 18 years old, in human terms. After that, I usually add five years (human equivalency) for each pet year. A two-year-old pet can be considered to be 23, a five-year-old pet can be considered to be 38, and a ten-year-old pet can be considered 63. This formula is not exact science. Large breed dogs generally live a shorter life than small and medium size dogs.
Animal health and longevity are influenced and determined by genetics and environment. After we have chosen our pets (or they have chosen us), we can only influence their environment. The genetics are fixed. Humans are the most important factors in pet health and life expectancy! This of course means the pet parents and their health care providers.
As a general rule, the veterinary care of pets during their first year is devoted to preventative health care. This is when we establish and administer immunization and parasite prevention protocols, appropriate for environmental risk factors for the patient. This is when we make initial feeding recommendations. This first year of life is also when most non-breeding animals should be neutered or spayed.
The annual wellness examination visits during the next several years are devoted to early detection of adverse health issues, immunization boosters, appropriate for the lifestyle of the pet, laboratory tests for intestinal parasites and heartworms and blood profile tests appropriate for the pet’s age.
The correlation between obesity and adverse health is well established by veterinary research. The Purina company conducted a study at their Gray’s Summit research farms near St. Louis many years ago and found that overweight dogs had shorter lifespans than proper weight dogs. They utilized a numerical body condition score (BCS) system of 1 to 9 with 5 being the ideal. A BCS of 1 means severe emaciation, which we fortunately seldom see, and 9 is morbid obesity which we do see far too often. In this study, a group of dogs was fed a balanced diet which maintained a BCS of 4 to 5. A second group was fed a balanced diet which maintained a BCS of 6 to7. The lean and healthier group of dogs lived an average of 2 ½ years longer than the heavier group! The healthier group died of the same conditions as the overweight dogs, they just lived longer.
Pet health issues for senior pets, generally fall into one or more of the following categories: cardio-pulmonary, hepatic, renal, neoplastic, hormonal, dental, musculo-skeletal, neurological, behavioral, ocular, dermatology, auto-immune, allergic and traumatic. Some of these pet health issues will be discussed in future articles in Osceola Woman
As always, the veterinarians and staff at Kissimmee Animal Hospital (407-846-3912) and Poinciana Pet Clinic (407-518-0880) are available to answer your questions about keeping our pets healthy. We are here to help and to serve.