One of our faculty members in UP, Dr. Lemnuel Aragones, told me recently he cried his heart out recently when his Kayu died on New Year’s, aged 17 years and 2 months.
Kayu (for Kayumanggi) was a mixed Belgian Shepherd, Malinois and yellow Labrador.
I hear, more and more, of dogs and cats living to be really old and couldn’t help but think of how it parallels the increasing life expectancy of humans. Like humans, dogs and cats suffer more of the lifestyle diseases humans have: obesity, diabetes, heart disease, but advances in veterinary medicine, as well as more responsible human care, have generally given our four-footed friends a longer life span.
It is important to know what life expectancies are when you’re thinking of getting a dog or cat. If there’s anything forever, as in till-death-do-us-part (Dr. Aragones jokes that his relationship with Kayu of 17 years was the longest he ever had), it’s a pet-human bond. When I was on an overseas trip last year my son went off and got a puppy and my reaction was: “You know who’s going to end up taking care of the puppy and at 65, I could very well be taking care of her till I’m in my 80s.”
Actually, his puppy was a litter-mate of another dachshund that I got for my Uncle Larry, who is 80 and felt he needed a dog’s companionship. In the context of the Philippines, with our extended family system, we shouldn’t stop the elderly from getting pets because they can promote better health for the elderly.
The average life expectancy of dogs and cats actually vary depending on their size, breed and, as with humans, socioeconomic status. In a good home, the life expectancy for dogs is 10 to 13 years but it’s not unusual now to find them living to be 18.
Dog years, human years
A common myth is that dog years multiplied by 7 give you its equivalent in human years. It’s not quite correct because the first year of a dog’s life is marked by very rapid growth and development and a better approximation is to say that for the first two dog years, each month is equivalent to one human year. After that, each dog year would be equivalent to about four human years.
But here’s a complication: the size of the dog figures as well in the calculation, the large breeds actually having lower life expectancy. Great Danes, for example, can be expected to live only 6 to 8 years, versus a Lhasa Apso, reaching, on average, the age of 15.
A site, petmd.com, gives a table of human year equivalents for dogs, depending on whether they are small, medium or large breeds. So, 10 dog years for a small breed of dog is calculated to be equivalent to 56 human years. That same 10 dog years is equivalent to 60 human years for a medium breed, and 66 for a large breed. The chart ends with 16 years, which for a large breed is equivalent to 120 human years, so Kayu was a centenarian!
Purebreds tend to have more health problems than mongrels or what we like to call “aspin” (asong Pinoy) because all the inbreeding results in genetic diseases. Labradors, for example, tend to have hip problems.
Each breed also has specific behavioral traits that could
affect their life span. Dachshunds were bred to hunt for and dig up underground creatures so they’re curious about everything. They love frogs, but frogs hate them, ejecting a toxic white latex-like liquid that could kill the dog.
Like dogs, purebred cats have more genetic problems than the mixed ones, so in theory they would live shorter lives.
While an average cat can live 13-17 years, the Bengal cat, a fairly rare breed, lives on average of only 7 years. A cat’s color also could determine its life span. Male calico cats, for example, are usually sterile, and are more susceptible to certain diseases. Black cats, at least in a study in Britain, live longer than cats with other color patterns.
Yet in countries like the Philippines, the purebreds are the ones who reach ripe old ages and the reason is class. Yup, it’s the upper classes who can afford to pay thousands of pesos for a purebred dog or cat and although they may have all kinds of genetic disorders, their humans can afford the best veterinary care possible, plus better nutrition and housing, sometimes superior to what the human poor will get. Note that indoor cats live longer than outdoor cats and we know it’s the upper classes who are more likely to keep cats inside the house.
Whenever I visit urban poor households and ask how old their dogs or cats are, most will not be able to give an answer except “ay, bata pa” (still young, which means a puppy) and “matanda na” (it’s old, which is over two years).
As a middle class grows in the Philippines, the idea of caring for pets will become more popular. The longer life expectancies will be challenging for humans as that happens. Like humans, the geriatric dogs need special diets (low salt, low protein, low fat). Unlike humans, we can’t fit them with eyeglasses for failing vision or hearing aids for deafness.
But animals adapt more quickly than humans to old age. I had a terrier that went totally blind when she was about 10 but lived another three years, finding her way around the house, to the kitchen for meals and retiring to my parents’ bedroom at the end of the day.
Secrets to long life
While geriatric veterinary medicine is still developing, we can learn “secrets” to a longer life from humans. It’s really the same: eating right, lots of physical and mental exercise. I had a dachshund that went to dog school aged 7 (that’s about midlife) and although she would sometimes fall asleep in class, she did pick up the tricks like her younger classmates.
Do our dog and cat seniors suffer from Alzheimer’s and dementia? The research suggests they do, but I will say that no matter how debilitated they were, our senior dogs and cats never lose their affection for their humans, taking extra effort to wag that tail, prick up an ear or lick your hand. When the end seems near, some seem to “know” how to wait till the end of the day after family members had gotten home, or lingering on to a New Year’s family reunion, to take leave.
Puppies and young dogs are cuddly and fun, making us forget senior dogs do appreciate being hugged, too. Or taken out for a walk. This Saturday, March 3, there will be a human and dog run at SM Mall of Asia at 5:30 a.m. to raise funds for the animal welfare group PAWS. Register at any Pet Express branch: P600 for a human race kit and P450 for a doggie race kit. Our editorial assistant, Tin Buban, will be there with her 9-year-old Rakoony.
Subscribe to INQUIRER PLUS to get access to The Philippine Daily Inquirer & other 70+ titles, share up to 5 gadgets, listen to the news, download as early as 4am & share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.