Are Our Pets Really Living Longer?
We love our pets and want them to live forever. Their lifespans are too short for most of us. According to conventional veterinary wisdom, our pets are living longer lives. But are they?
30+ years ago during morning teaching rounds at the University of Pennsylvania vet school, we’d see many patients. These dogs and cats often had been admitted for diagnosis and management of serious dis-eases. One of the student responsibilities was to develop a list of likely differential causes based on age, sex, breed and problem. It was very, very rare for cancer to be among those possible diagnoses for pets under 5 years of age.Tweet
Not anymore. Cancer and other serious diseases that vets used to see only in older pets are now commonly seen in youngsters. Even puppies and kittens!
The Way It Was
It wasn’t that long ago when (we and) our pets lived closer to nature. Most dogs and cats were not “pure” breeds. They did not receive repeated (or any) vaccinations and they shared whatever food we happened to be eating. Few pets had routine preventive veterinary care. Common but abnormal conditions like red eyes, dry skin, bowel problems, etc. were treated gently with home remedies.
Harsh flea and tick treatments were not used. Yet Lyme and other tick-borne diseases did not afflict our pets the way they do today. Yes, some had fleas and other parasites, but they rarely caused a problem. Chronic, intense pollen, food and other allergies were virtually unheard of. Not anymore.
Our pets were implicitly given permission to live like animals without too much human intervention. This worked for thousands of years.
Dog breeder and trainer Gail Fisher says:
Way back in my youth, my “best friend” was my next door neighbor’s Irish Setter. She moved next door to us when Shannon and I were both nine and we immediately formed a close bond. Shannon died when I was a Freshman in college – we were both 17. These neighbors also had a black cocker spaniel, Brandy (a nasty piece of work), who lived to be 20. Shannon and Brandy were both fed the way the family had fed their family dogs in Scotland – table scraps, some dry “biscuit” (which was dry bakery fines in those days), maybe some canned meat dog food, raw bones, and other “real” food. I grew up thinking (believing) that dogs should all live to their late teens because that’s what most dogs did in those days.
Fast-forward a few years. In the early ‘70’s, early in my career “in dogs,” I interviewed for a Kennel Manager position with the late Margaret Booth Chern, in Milford, CT. Mrs. Chern’s “Little Bear Kennel” was one of the first Newfie kennels in the U.S. At the time of my interview, they had over 40 Newfies, including several dogs that were in their late teens, and one or two that were over 20 years old. As a Mastiff breeder, naturally I was fascinated by the longevity they achieved with their giant breed. Among the Kennel Manager’s jobs was preparing the dogs’ diet, from scratch with “real” ingredients, including raw meat and fish. Mrs. Chern followed Juliette de Bairacli Levy’s philosophy of natural feeding. This was my introduction to anything other than “dog food” – mostly Purina products. (After all, Purina Puppy Chow made “milk” when you added hot water—one of the very first brilliant marketing ploys).
A few years later, I started following Juliette Levy’s book, feeding real food. At about the same time, I met the late Dr. Richard Kearns, a holistic and homeopathic veterinarian in Hingham, MA. Through a combination of feeding real food and homeopathy, in my 20+ years breeding Mastiffs, I had several dogs live to be 14 and one live to be 15. Even though this is considered quite old by today’s standards, to me it feels as if we’ve regressed from the days when a 17 year old dog wasn’t at all unusual. The time we have with our dogs is far too short by any standards, putting a premium on increasing their health and longevity.
How Long Do Dogs and Cats Live?
Back in the good ole’ days it was common for dogs to live into their late teens. Even older. There are reports of dogs that lived into their thirties! We still occasionally see eighteen year old toy dogs. Not many big dogs. Not anymore. In fact the average lifespan of a German Shepherd-sized dog is now ten years or less.
It’s a similar story for cats. Eighteen, twenty, even twenty-five year old cats were much more common ten years ago. The oldest cat? Extreme longevity in cats has reached late thirties and beyond. I’ve personally had the honor of working with cats in their late twenties and
dogs like Reggie who lived great lives into their late teens and twenties.
Gail Pope is one of the founders of the animal hospice movement. She has lots of experience with senior pets in her holistically-oriented BrightHaven rescue for animals of all sorts who were otherwise destined for euthanasia , Gail’s experience is that more and more young animals are dying from cancer and other dis-eases of “old” age. She says:
Our oldest dog was Ollie, the Dachshund, who became paraplegic at the age of 15 years when he took to a wheelchair (chariot!) like a duck to water. Ollie survived a myriad of health problems related to bladder issues as well as meningitis with recurrent high fevers – but astonished everyone by dying in his own good time at the age of 24 years!
Our oldest cat was Frazier who truly was a miracle man. He developed and then survived an aggressive facial cancer in his twenties, but then lived on very happily and enjoying life greatly until the age of 34 years.
Over time we have become well known for our cats especially, who have lived to their late 20’s and early 30’s, but in recent years we have definitely seen a trend downwards.”
Along Comes Purina
In the recent past our pets did not need commercial diets to survive and thrive. TweetAbout seventy-five years ago all of this changed as “complete and balanced” pet foods started flooding the markets. Many of us were convinced that feeding a “scientifically” formulated diet was healthier for our pets. But is this trend promoting longevity or is it a myth?
At about the same time pets were becoming more integral parts of our lives. We visited and were treated by our doctors routinely. Companion animals were like family members so shouldn’t they get the same treatment?
Veterinary visits increased. Newer and more effective treatments were developed and recommended for our pets. High tech vet med continues to grow. Sophisticated diagnostic tests and procedures are increasingly becoming the standard of care. Yet at the same time our companion animals are getting sicker at younger ages.
Has your pet had a routine checkup this year? If not, s/he absolutely should. Preventive health maintenance can be invaluable in detecting problems early on. But don’t be surprised if your vet advises routine blood and urine tests and calls these a senior profile. Yet your pup is only seven and your kitty is not even ten.
What Can You Do To Promote a Long Life for Your Pets
This sad state of affairs can be changed in my opinion. High tech veterinary medicine does not seem to be the answer. Don’t get me wrong, modern medical and veterinary innovations can be life-saving once your pet becomes ill. However, their tendency to get sick at a young age is not reduced. On the contrary, just the opposite may be true.
It’s up to each one of us to be the medical guardians of our beloved companions. There are a few simple steps that can help your pets live the longest and happiest lives:
1-Allow your pets to remain close to nature. Minimize external toxins. They deserve fresh air and sunshine, fresh food and water, exercise and mental stimulation.
2-Work with a holistically and homeopathically-oriented vet as the quarterback for your vet care team. If you see concerning signs and symptoms, they will help you work through them. Not suppress them.
Please share your experiences. I’d love to hear both about younger sick pets as well as long-lived older pets.