Age is Just a Number

When my clients make decisions on behalf of their senior dogs and cats, they routinely factor in their pet’s age.  I often hear statements such as, “I would pursue a diagnosis if only she weren’t so old.” and “I would treat him if only he were younger.”  When my clients voice such “senior objections” I gently encourage them to consider the situation a bit more objectively by considering their pet’s functional age rather than their chronological age.  For example, it might be far safer for me to anesthetize the vigorous, playful thirteen-year-old Labrador with normal liver and kidney function I evaluated on Monday compared to the debilitated eleven-year-old Labrador with impaired kidney function I examined on Tuesday. Functionally speaking, the thirteen-year-old is, by far, the younger of the two.  When making decisions, savvy medical advocates evaluate the whole package- spryness, organ function, overall comfort, joie de vivre- rather than considering age alone.  Just because a dog or cat is, by definition, a senior citizen doesn’t mean their body is functioning like that of a senior citizen.

I thoroughly enjoyed explaining this point on NPR’s popular show, Fresh Air With Terry Gross. “Terry, you and I could both be 80 year old women in need of knee replacement surgery.  You might be a terrific candidate for surgery, whereas I might be a horrible candidate!”

When making medical decisions, my clients frequently ask about their pet’s life expectancy. Life expectancies for cats and dogs of varying breeds are nothing more than averages.  This means some individuals will never reach “average” and others will far exceed it. 

Here’s the bottom line. If you have a happy, lively, interactive, and agile senior dog or cat on your hands, throw those age-related numbers and averages out the window.  Rather, I encourage you to observe your pet’s overall quality of life, share some nose-to-nose time with your best buddy, look deep into those beautiful eyes, and make important medical decisions based on what’s truly important rather than simply a number.  Have you ever needed to be a medical advocate for a senior pet?  If so, please share your story.

Best wishes for good health,         

Nancy Kay, DVM
Diplomate, American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine
Author of Speaking for Spot: Be the Advocate Your Dog Needs to Live a Happy, Healthy, Longer Life
Recipient, American Animal Hospital Association Animal Welfare and Humane Ethics Award
Recipient, Dog Writers Association of America Award for Best Blog
Recipient, Eukanuba Canine Health Award
Recipient, AKC Club Publication Excellence Award
Become a Fan of Speaking for Spot on Facebook         

Please visit to read excerpts from Speaking for Spot. There you will also find “Advocacy Aids”- helpful health forms you can download and use for your own dog, and a collection of published articles on advocating for your pet’s health. Speaking for Spot is available at, local bookstores, and your favorite online book seller.

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16 Comments on “Age is Just a Number

  1. My sweet 15-year old Whippet “Niniane” has had several mass cell surgeries with excellent outcome and she is a little deaf. However, she jumps UP on my bed from a dead stop like a cat, watching her run is a joy and her affection and sense of humour are the same as when she was a friskier youngster.
    I internalize with her intensely – at a somewhat younger age I had a pacemaker implanted in my chest and no one said “why bother, it’s not a good heart”. That was over 10 years ago.
    I plan to have her by my side for many more years. SHE will tell me when she is tired and wants to leave me. At this time however, there is nothing “geriatric” about her.

  2. This is a great point. We always based our decision on potential outcome. Risk versus benefit.

  3. Hi, Sometimes our seniors cannot go on long or brisk walks, yet they need exercise. Exercise not only keeps the muscle in shape but their breathing, inner organs and blood flow too. On a tough day its slow turns , slow movements, on a good day its faster.The best exercise I found for my crew was canine freestyle. The music does wonders for my dogs and myself. The types of things, spinning, weaving between my legs, walking beside me, bowing, etc, are all wonderful tools for exercise which can be done at home. My two boys mentioned before danced until it was time for their last dance. They loved it and it kept them in great shape, I think of it as doggie aerobics! The music does wonders for all of our minds too. My 10 year old girl is having a blast and getting a wonderful workout- she cant visit dog places because of the neutropenia, but we have a grand time here at home!

  4. My dear Cisco. I miss you terribly. Thank You for having faith in me and giving life a chance. It was touch and go many times yet you kept on trying. Cisco got 9 good months rather than the 1 month predicted. In the end I had to help him cross the bridge. The lymphoma we kept at bay , it was a nasal tumor that progressed which I could not stop for him. He as fine and healthy except for this when I helped him cross. The tumor had progressed to the other nostril, he could not breathe well. I made a decision I do not regret, to let him have the dignity of his body in shape and everything else in tact and working on his last days. I would not let him suffer with the breathing problem and let it widdle away at him. I love you Cisco.

  5. I remember my beloved golden retriever Rowdy. He passed away in his sleep in 2009. Rowdy had a melanoma growth on his flew. This was removed, but I knew oral cancer could easily progress to lymphs or the lungs. At 13 years old (2 years post surgery), he was having problems moving. His gait was poor, he could not hear very well and I believe his site was less. It was not the melanona (which I could tell had progressed to his lungs), nor his sight or hearing that was overly concerning. It was his gait. But we found a supplement that did wonders for him quickly- glucosamine synergy. I remember his last days with us he was romping in the field and he could get up on the couch. He did not need intervention for the cancer, it was his gait he needed help with. The specific glucosamine gave him his life back. I miss him, but I know he had a wonderful life.

  6. I remember last summer when my 9 year old golden retriever Jessie had pnuemonia which we could not find a cure for 3 months. She almost died at least 3 times. I remember as I was giving her a breathing treatment when my mother who was visiting said “where are you going with this”. She was looking at my grey faced girl and how sick she was. Jessie had everything else to live for. She had been in good physical shape. She had developed neutropenia over the last 6 months of unknown origin and could not fight off the pneumonia. Even the specialist vets were not giving hope. I had hope though. I knew who she was and the potential for life she could have if we found an answer. We found the answer with a human antibiotic and then a holistic vet (a blend of two worlds was needed). Jessie met her 10th birthday this past December and is still by my side. She has the underlying issue of neutropenia we still continue to assist with a holistic diet. She runs and goes on walks. She dances merrily here with me on earth.

  7. I have 4 dogs and 3 are considered seniors by out vets. I dont look at them as seniors but as puppies. My doctor treats me like a senior as well and I can run circles around most kids today. It is the way you feel that matters not a number.

  8. Our 15 year old mixed breed just had surgery to remove a spindle cell sarcoma about the size of a golf ball. While under, she also had her teeth cleaned and a few teeth removed. Her recovery has been wonderful and no one would ever guess she’s 15. Expect for weak back legs, she’s a spry little thing! Love her to pieces!!

  9. I really like this line of thinking. It’s about quality of life at any age, and functional age is a much better gauge than chronological age. A dog doesn’t feel sorry that he’s old – just that the leash is out, so let’s get going! (Even if he needs help getting up, and no stairs please). I have a practice of adopting male goldens over 10 years old, and my oldest lived to 18 yrs and 3 mos. He was with us longer than a female lab I adopted when she was 2!

  10. When Cagney, my English Springer Spaniel, was 14 and I was 78
    she was diagnosed with pneumonia. Then, some of her medications were like mine i.e. lasix and so we each had our own pill box! Since walking was good for both of us in recovery and we both had arthritis our walks were limited and often included moonlit potty breaks but she recovered. I think she helped me be a healthier and better patient. Growing old together is a wonderful part of the journey and I hope I will die as peacefully as she did. The last words of my veterinarian were– she is ready.

  11. 2 month ago our Golden Retriever had “tightrope” surgery for her CCL. Ruby just turned ten and is doing great. We researched the surgery the best we could, but made the decision based on 2 main things – Ruby has lots of life in her and a positive attitude AND we trust our vet to give us good advice. We know he considered the type of dog Ruby is before recommending the surgery.

  12. Thanks Dr Kay for your latest article on the older dogs. I adopted two “sisters” that are supposed to be about 12 now and Pheona has a very large fatty tumor on her lower jaw. I keep saying, she’s 12 and I don’t think I want to put her under but she is healthy and active. I am going to talk to my vet again about taking this tumor off.
    Always enjoy your articles and thanks again.

  13. The first time my physician referred to me as \middle aged\, I too was floored since mentally and physically I feel around 30! It’s hard to hear because it puts us in touch with our mortality issues and the label \geriatric dog\ reminds us that our time together is shortening.
    I have a 14-year old Golden Retriever mix who is, by all accounts, geriatric. Yet he just went through surgery for a mass removal and is bouncing around again on his twice daily walks and throwing his squeaky toys at me! Go figure. I want him in my life forever, and of course that’s not to be, but the \age number\ is not any better an indicator in his case than for me as a human. Spirit and will are what count!

  14. Wonderful post! I’d even take this one step further and say that this applies to any age. What is right for one pet may not be for another, whether it’s for health reasons, functional age (love that term!) or temperament.

    And like Cris, I really don’t like it when vets use the term “geriatric” – even if the pet truly is (and a 10-year old Lab isn’t even close!). I much prefer senior.

  15. Since she was 3 yrs old, one of my pugs has had to have mast cell tumors removed, every few years they appear again. I get more worried each time we need to take them off. She’s now 13 (Go Coco Go!), a bracycephalic breed, so the risk factor is higher. But she’s also SUPER fit – so making the decision to remove a couple new tumors a few months ago wasn’t traumatic for me. She sailed through the procedure and was bouncing around the day after. Of course your book helped my decision-making greatly too!

  16. My 10 yr old Lab has some fluctuating liver enzyme levels. Specialist wants to do a liver biopsy. During the most recent conversation I had with her, the specialist referred to my Lab as a “geriatric dog”. I was floored and a little offended! She does not know my active Therapy Dog like I do. I know he is a senior dog, but certainlyy not a geriatric dog!! Age is a state of mind, and not just a number as you said.