In an article written for The Conversation, Dr. Jesse Grady explains that assigning a “real” age to a dog or a cat is not as simple as it is made out to be. Dr. Grady says that it is important for veterinarians like himself to understand the age of their patients so that they can make the best healthcare recommendations.
“There’s an old myth that one regular year is like seven years for dogs and cats. There’s a bit of logic behind it. People observed that with optimal healthcare, an average-sized, medium dog would on average live one-seventh as long as its human owner – and so the seven ‘dog years’ for every ‘human year’ equation was born,” writes Dr. Grady.
He describes this rule as an “oversimplification” because not all dogs are average-sized. Furthermore, animals age differently from humans and from each other, and the aging process is partially based on breed characteristics and size. For example, bigger animals tend to have shorter life spans compared to smaller animals. Nutrition and weight are also major contributors to the life expectancy of a pet.
Dr. Grady says that veterinarians are now able to provide far better medical care to animals than even a decade ago, and that a better methodology is used to measure the ages of pets. Vets divide dogs into six categories, or life stages: puppy, junior, adult, mature, senior, and geriatric.
“Life stages are a more practical way to think about age than assigning a single number; even human health recommendations are based on developmental stage rather than exactly how old you are in years,” writes Dr. Grady.
Cats are also divided into six stages of life, which are more consistent compared to dogs because cats have much less variability in size. Veterinarians use these life stages to determine what screenings or tests the animals need.
“Just like a normal human toddler doesn’t need a colonoscopy, a normal puppy doesn’t need its thyroid levels checked,” explains Dr. Grady. “An adult woman likely needs a regular mammogram, just like an adult cat needs annual intestinal parasite screenings.”
Dr. Grady points out that an animal’s overall health status can influence its age for better or worse, just the same as people.
“So next time you take your pet to the veterinarian, talk about your animal’s life stage and find out what health recommendations come with it. Watching out for health abnormalities and maintaining a healthy weight could help your cat live long past the literal ‘prime’ of its life.”
Jesse Grady is a clinical instructor of Veterinary Medicine at Mississippi State University.