Visiting Vet: How old is that doggie…?

Saturday is my daughter’s Bat Mitzvah. All I can think about are things like how Grandpa will handle the flight from Florida, and if I got enough lox. A “coming of age” ceremony, a Bat Mitzvah is the time when the Jewish community recognizes a girl as an adult. But maturation is a gradual process, a continuum. Don’t tell my daughter I said this, but despite what they may think, 13-year-olds are hardly “all grown up.” On the other hand, they’re not children anymore, either. This is true for pets as well as people.

Consider your typical two-year-old Labrador. He may look mature, but he hasn’t filled out completely. He can reproduce (if not neutered), but you prefer he doesn’t. He doesn’t pee on the floor anymore, but occasionally still chews your shoes and races around madly like a puppy. People love those charts that convert doggie years to human ones, but that old equation that each dog year equals seven human simply isn’t accurate. So how do we assess maturity in cats and dogs? At what age are they adult, middle-aged, senior? Let’s look at normal dog and cat development.

The feline time line is fairly straightforward. The gestation period averages 61 to 63 days. Kittens’ eyes open around ten days, and they start trying solid foods at four to six weeks. They are usually weaned between eight and twelve weeks old although, if left with their mother, one will occasionally find a much older kitten still being allowed to suckle. During these early days we can assess a kitten’s age by its size and teeth. The adult canine teeth are the last to arrive, at five to six months old. Puberty generally occurs between seven months and one year old, but some precocious individuals may go into heat as early as five months. So, as you can see, the first year of kitty’s life is not equivalent to seven of ours but more like 10 to 15.

Then things slow down. Like people, life span varies with gender, breed, health care, diet, individual genetics, and life style. Average life expectancy for cats in the United States ranges from 12 to 15 years, or even longer. Unneutered males typically have the shortest lives since tom cats roam in search of true love, fighting off other suitors. These activities increase the risk of contracting diseases, wounds, infections, being hit by cars, attacked by dogs, and getting lost or otherwise injured. Indoor cats are safer from such events but have greater risk for obesity, diabetes, and illnesses related to being sedentary. Certain breeds, such as Siamese, have a longer life expectancy, often making it to their late teens or even twenties.

The oldest cat ever? Since there is no scientific way to determine exact age once the adult teeth come in, we depend on things like veterinary records and people’s memories. The first is relatively reliable, the latter not so much. The verified Guinness World Record holder for oldest cat is Creme Puff, a kitty from Texas who made it to 38 years. By the seven-year theory that’s 266 years old. Not likely. It is, however, as rare as people living to 120.

For dogs, development is similar to cats, right up to the appearance of those six-month canine teeth. Then things get trickier. Onset of puberty varies with breed and size. Smaller dogs mature faster and may go into heat at six months old. Larger breeds mature later, not going into heat until 8 to 12 months or even older, and giant breeds may take more than two years to truly mature. Goofy, your typical Island golden retriever, can be expected to continue to both fill out and “grow up” for several years. People often come in with dogs like Goofy at around three years old, complaining their dogs are less active and “just not themselves.” Sometimes Goofy is truly sick, but more often than not, he has simply outgrown puppyhood. It’s like suddenly noticing that your kids aren’t playing with dolls anymore. Life expectancy is also breed- and size-related. Small dogs average in the 15-year range, or even older. Medium and large breeds average 12 to 14 years, giant breeds often as short as seven or eight years. The oldest dog I could find verified was “Bluey,” an Australian Cattle Dog who made it to over 29 years.

When a pet is adopted as an adult, we often don’t know a date of birth. Take Peter Pan, your pooch, to the veterinarian and we will use various clues to approximate his age. First impressions are important. Does Peter look lithe and agile like a youngster? Or is he more heavily muscled like a dog in his prime? Are his behavior and movements puppy-playful, middle-aged mature, or stately and stiff like an old-timer? We know he is older than six months by his teeth, but we also assess the amount of tartar build-up, gum recession, tooth loss, wear, and discoloration. Now look in Peter’s eyes. Older pets often develop cloudiness in their lenses called lenticular sclerosis. How about his coat? Fur may become coarser and less luxurious with age. Finally, there is that telltale grey or white hair. None of these clues are definitive. Our dog, Flower, has been going grey on her muzzle since she was four, just as some people go prematurely grey. Old dogs can be spry with great teeth. Young dogs may have dental and orthopedic problems making them appear older than their years. We can’t pinpoint Peter Pan’s age precisely, but we look at the whole picture and make our best guess.

My daughter, however — she’s turning 13. I know that for sure. I was there when she was born. She won’t be happy I wrote about her in this context, but luckily she doesn’t read my column. Now I have to go order bagels for the Bat Mitzvah. I hope six dozen are enough.