Ask My Vet: Do dogs really age seven years every year?

Ask My Vet is a series based on questions I have—and maybe you do, too—about dogs. Katniss’ veterinarian, Dr. Katharine Kennedy of Arbor Animal Clinic here in Austin, provides answers and expertise as a part of this series.

Question: Do dogs really age seven years every year?

Dr. K: “The short answer: It depends. One human year could be equal to seven dog years at one stage of their life or 10 dog years at another stage of their life.

The obvious point would be that dog life spans are significantly shorter than human life spans. They are longer today than they have been in the past thanks to medical advances like vaccines, heartworm preventives, appropriate dental care, and vastly improved technology for detection and management of disease processes. I would also point out that the role of the dog in the American household is significantly different today that in any other time in history. Many people consider dogs a member of the family that lives in the house rather than a working animal that stays outside with the livestock. It used to be unusual for pets to live beyond nine or 10 years. I am now regularly seeing 13- and 14-year-old dogs and sometimes dogs even older than that! Our understanding and medical experience with dog aging is growing as our pets are living longer.”

I can’t imagine Katniss living outside, especially in the brutal Central Texas heat. I imagine most of my readers—both of them—keep their dogs inside, too.

Dr. K: “Unofficially, I most often [think of] the speed of dog aging as a bell curve—faster on each end with a fairly stable middle arc. Puppies mature to adult dogs within the span of about one year. That year encompasses the human growth periods of nursing, potty training, the terrible 2’s, that awkward phase of pimples and braces (at least that was a phase for me), high school prom, having your first beer and getting ready for college. Your dog is going get bigger, get smarter, and get sexually mature and want to start making out with other dogs in the movie theater! Do what the parent of every teenager wishes they could do in this situation—get them neutered! (Preferably around six months of age after they have finished their full puppy vaccine series.)”

As far as I know, Katniss has not had her first beer. After reading this, though, I suppose Katniss is most likely in her early 20s in human years—she’s about 1 1/2 in people years. Maybe she slipped away to spring break on South Padre Island here in Texas when I wasn’t looking and shotgunned a few cold ones like her old man?

Dr. K: “Beyond that things start to vary a bit. Most of this variation is based on breed and size. The general rule is that the larger the dog, the shorter the lifespan. … Certain breeds of dogs can be predisposed to specific health issues that can also affect their lifespans.

As a rough guideline we consider any pet older than 8 years of age to be ‘geriatric.’ We start to notice that aging seems to come on more rapidly after this point. Geriatric medical issues like arthritis and clouding of the lenses in the eyes start to show up. Your vet is going to start recommending annual lab work more strongly to screen organ function. They are going to really want you to do that dental cleaning you’ve been putting off for later. If there was one point I wish I could drive home to clients about their aging pets, it’s that you should treat them like your dear old grandmother. Your granny doesn’t need less care as she gets older, she needs MORE CARE. She’s going to have more medical issues, she’s going to need extra support. You have always loved her, so don’t stop loving her now that she needs you more than ever!”

The thought of the wily, ornery Katniss getting old is a little scary, and frankly it seems impossible that she would ever slow down. But when she does—and unfortunately, she will—there ‘s no doubt we’ll be there to take care of her.

Kennedy cannot provide medical recommendations to individuals or groups that are not established clients with a current client-patient relationship. She will also not share personal information of clients with though she may discuss general medical details not associated with specific individuals.
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