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Defining Senior Dog Status

The time when a dog crosses the threshold from mid-life to seniorhood is highly individual. Your 9-year-old dog could be a senior, but the 9-year-old pooch who lives down the street may not be. The 5-year-old dog who used to gallop around your local dog park may now be a canine elder, while another 5-year-old pooch may be as active as a 5-year-old human child.

A good way to estimate when your dog will become a senior is to find out what his life expectancy is. The longer a dog is expected to live, the later the onset of seniorhood will occur.

A matter of breeding

Breed plays an important role in determining how long a dog is likely to live. Some breeds simply live longer than others. For example, the average Toy Poodle is likely to pass his 14th birthday before mortality catches up with him; by contrast, a Bernese Mountain Dog isn't likely to live much past the age of 7. Scientists aren't exactly sure why breeding affects longevity, but they have a few ideas.

Inbreeding

Research indicates that inbreeding (breeding close relatives to each other) may be a factor that affects a breed's longevity. Some dog breeders advocate inbreeding as a way to boost the odds that a particular trait or characteristic is passed on to future generations. For example, when a breeder wants to ensure that puppies have ears that fold over rather than ears that point upward, he may breed two half-siblings who both have the ears he desires.

The trouble with inbreeding is that it may not only increase the likelihood that the puppies will have a positive characteristic, but it may also increase the odds that they'll have an undesirable characteristic. For instance, if the two half-siblings with pretty ears also both have a gene that makes them vulnerable to a certain kind of cancer, their puppies are almost guaranteed to have that same gene.

The pure-breed approach

Related to the inbreeding factor is the practice among some breeders of using the same male dog to father puppies from many different females. If the breeder uses the same male dog over and over again, other males aren't used and their genetic characteristics disappear. Meanwhile, the male dog who's getting all the action may be passing negative characteristics along with the positive to his progeny. If those negative characteristics affect life expectancy, eventually the breed's overall life expectancy decreases.

That's why many caring, reputable breeders have become geneticists-on-the-fly in their efforts to produce the best possible purebred dogs. They're careful to match their dogs with other dogs who are most likely to produce the heartiest, strongest dogs with the longest possible life expectancies for that breed. These breeders are looking for more than points and titles on their dogs; they're looking to better the breed.

Still, breeds vary widely in their life expectancies. Table 1 lists the 20 breeds that had the highest total number of American Kennel Club (AKC) registrations in 2002 and their average life spans.

Table 1-1: Breeds and Longevity

Breed

Average Life Span (Years)

Beagle

13

Boston Terrier

12

Boxer

10

Bulldog

9

Chihuahua

15

Cocker Spaniel

12

Dachshund

12

German Shepherd

11

Golden Retriever

12

Labrador Retriever

11

Maltese

13

Miniature Pinscher

14

Miniature Schnauzer

13

Pomeranian

14

Pug

13

Rottweiler

9

Shetland Sheepdog

13

Shih Tzu

13

Yorkshire Terrier

14

Mixed breeds

Determining the life expectancy of a mixed-breed dog is a little trickier than determining the life expectancy of a purebred dog. On the one hand, a mixed-breed dog's life expectancy is affected by the life expectancies of each breed he's made up of — assuming you can figure out what those breeds are. On the other hand, a dog's unique mix means a unique gene pool, and the more unique the gene pool, the less chance the undesirable trait has of affecting the dog. And if you're looking for a precise figure for your particular dog's breed mix, research isn't a whole lot of help. If you're willing to take an average, though, a mixed-breed dog's life expectancy is about 13 years.

Is your dog a senior?

Are you still stumped as to whether your canine companion is an elder states-dog, a doggy dowager, or a middle-aged canine? The answers to these questions can help you determine whether your own very special dog is beyond her prime:

  • Has she slowed down? Just like older people, older dogs don't move as fast as they did when they were younger. When your four-legged friend hits seniorhood, she's likely to take more time going up and down the stairs, getting up from a nap, and lying down.
  • Has she gotten grayer? Gray hair, especially around the face and muzzle, can be a sign of seniorhood and so is a thinner, drier coat, compared to the one she sported in her youth.
  • Does she have accidents? Some aging dogs, especially older spayed females, begin developing bathroom issues. If your one-time potty prodigy starts making puddles on the floor, she may have an old-age bladder or may be developing a condition called canine cognitive dysfunction syndrome (CDS), which is common among senior dogs.
  • Does she get tired more quickly? If your canine companion used to retrieve a Frisbee 20-some times without getting winded but now wants to quit after just 10 retrieves, she's probably approaching seniorhood, if she's not already there.
  • Is she getting lumpy? If you find a new lump under your senior's skin or anywhere else on his body, call your vet as soon as possible during normal business hours and make an appointment. In the meantime, don't panic. The lump is probably nothing to worry about. Many older dogs develop soft, spongy lumps on their bodies, particularly on their trunks. These lumps, called lipomas, usually aren't life threatening.
  • Does she seem to ignore you when you call her? If so, she's probably not being rebellious; she may have lost some of her hearing, which is a common sign of aging.
  • Does she get lost in her own backyard? If your four-legged friend can't seem to find her way back to the house after spending time in your backyard, she may be losing her vision or developing CDS.
  • Does she get upset more easily than she used to? Thunderstorms and other loud noises that never bothered her before may now cause her to whine, tremble, or otherwise show apprehension. Such behavioral changes occur quite often in senior pooches.

If you answered yes to most of these questions, your beloved pooch may well be entering the golden years of doggy seniorhood.

Although each question in this list describes a sign of seniorhood, it also depicts symptoms of illness. Don't automatically attribute any of these changes to old age. Play it safe and have your vet examine your dog.

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