Welcome back to “Debarking Pet Myths,” a monthly series dedicated to addressing common myths, misconceptions and old wives’ tales about dogs and cats.
When asked how old your dog is, do you answer with two numbers — your dog’s age in “human years” and in “dog years?” If you do, you’ve got a lot of company. Virtually all dog owners know that you multiply a dog’s age in calendar years by seven to arrive at his or her age in dog years.
While widely believed, the one-to-seven formula is a myth, one that has been around for a long time. And if you’ve been multiplying your cat’s age in human years by four, that’s not quite right either.
We now know that simple multipliers don’t accurately compare a dog’s age — or a cat’s age — with ours. However, the fact remains that dogs and cats age more rapidly and have shorter life spans than we do. Not only do dogs and cats age differently from people, but they age differently from each other, and this difference is based partly on size and breed. Dogs vary tremendously in size and longevity (think Chihuahua versus Great Dane), while cats are fairly consistent in size and life expectancy.
Where did this myth originate?
No one really knows how or where the myth started, although researchers have been intrigued for centuries by the ratio between human and canine life spans. The earliest known reference dates back to a 1268 inscription in the floor of Westminster Abbey, which calculated the date of Judgment Day using the life spans of various creatures, including dogs and people.
At some point in the 1950s, people noted that an average, medium-sized dog would, on average, live one-seventh as long as its human owner, assuming optimal healthcare. It was at that time that the seven-dog-years-for-every-human-year equation began. The problem, however, is that not all dogs are medium in size.
A better approach
Like people, each dog or cat matures at a different rate, and each has different needs as they age. Rather than trying to equate dog or cat age to human age, veterinary experts recommend using life stages for managing pet health and well-being. That also makes sense when you consider that human health recommendations are based on life (developmental) stage rather than exactly how old you are in years.
An American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) task force identified six life stages for dogs as part of their guidelines for wellness care. The six canine life stages include puppy, junior, adult, mature, senior and geriatric. These life stages are similar to the feline life stages previously identified by an AAHA-American Association of Feline Practitioners task force. While every cat is different, there are six general age groups of cats that combine typical behavioral and physical changes: kitten, junior, prime, mature, senior and geriatric.
Keep in mind that life stages don’t start and stop abruptly. Instead, they gradually phase in and out. In other words, your dogs don’t automatically become “seniors” on their seventh birthday. And if your dogs and cats are aging pets, remember that their age is just a number! Healthy, well-cared-for senior pets can have long life spans. You just may need to make some adjustments, including more frequent veterinary visits, to help keep them comfortable in their geriatric years.
The next time you take your pets to visit the veterinarian, ask about their life stages and what health concerns and recommendations are associated with them.
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