Nellie Appears to Be Older Than We Thought

Nellie. Photo Credit: Susannah Kay

I recently published information about the changes that occur as our dogs age and what we can do to enhance their longevity. As of late, I’ve unexpectedly discovered that this information has become relevant in my own household.

I first set eyes on Nellie when a Good Samaritan picked her up as a stray in a neighboring town and dropped her off at my hospital. A receptionist delivered her to the treatment room with her arms fully outstretched, carrying this little waif as far away from her clothing as possible. Can’t say as I blamed her. Until she’d been bathed, there’d be no cuddling with this greasy, grimy, smelly, bleeding ragamuffin of a dog.

Nellie, as she would come to be called, was in heat, had a horrible skin infection, and had been peppered with BB’s. She was a skinny little soul, in need of an additional four to five pounds on her six-pound frame. Her nipples were somewhat enlarged suggesting puppies in the not too distant past.

Nellie was completely emotionally shut down. Once placed in a hospital cage, she didn’t move, much less eat or drink. She offered no protest whatsoever to being examined or bathed. There was neither a growl nor a single wag of her tail.

Nellie’s eyes were her most compelling feature- beautiful large eyes that were an unusual collage of varying tones of brown. Nellie’s horrific condition convinced me that it would not be in her best interest to go looking for her owner. Her eyes convinced me that she needed to come home with me.

Nellie spent her first week or so in my home not moving from a particular spot on a family room couch. Coaxing and cajoling were needed to get her to eat, drink, or go outside. Having just lost our two elderly dogs, Nellie had no canine companionship to set an example. She had to go it alone.

Ever so gradually, Nellie’s personality emerged. A good two years were required to receive the “full Nellie effect” in terms of her behavior and temperament. She is a super affectionate silly little girl who loves her daily walks with Quinn, her very best canine buddy. Best of all, she loves to sneak kisses. When you least expect it, Nellie’s tongue will snatch a lick after which she appears thoroughly delighted with herself. And, she is nondiscriminatory licker- she seemingly loves everyone!

To this day Nellie continues to demonstrate some fear/anxiety. When approaching a doorway she creeps up to it ever so slowly, just one step shy of being fully stopped. If I’m holding a door open for her, I’d best not be in a hurry. Once she reaches the door’s threshold, she scampers through. And, when a person approaches Nellie too quickly, she crouches to the ground, sometimes rolling over on her back.

When my husband (also a veterinarian) and I first met Nellie, we guesstimated her age to be somewhere between one and two. That was ten years ago, putting her current guesstimated age at 11 or 12. For an 11-pound dog, this would mean that Nellie is just embarking upon senior citizenship.

It’s now become apparent that our initial evaluation of Nellie’s age was inaccurate and we’re realizing that she likely became a senior a few years ago. We’ve recently noticed that Nellie’s hearing is dissipating, she’s not playing quite as much, and she is beginning to slow down a wee bit on our morning walks. Physical exam findings and laboratory testing have ruled out any underlying disease processes.

Such age-related changes are not expected in an 11-year-old tiny breed dog. I suspect that we underestimated Nellie’s age by a good two to three years, darn it! Given the changes we’ve been observing, I suspect our 11-year-old girl is more likely 13 or 14.

Such age miscalculations are easy to make. From birth to approximately six to nine months of age, one can quite accurately ascertain a dog’s age by its teeth. Once older than this, determining a dog’s age when there is no known history relies on one part intuition and three parts guesswork.

Our recognition that Nellie is older than we thought is somewhat sad news for us. We likely won’t have as much time with her as we’d originally thought.  And yes, we do know that, as unpredictable as life is, time frames are never guaranteed.

Now that I’ve discovered that I’m caring for a canine senior citizen, I must put my own advice on enhancing canine longevity to work as I take extra measures to keep Nellie comfortable, happy, and part of our family for as long as possible.

How old is your dog and what’s your level of certainty?

Best wishes,

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
Author of Your Dog’s Best Health: A Dozen Reasonable Things to Expect From Your Vet
Recipient, Leo K. Bustad Companion Animal Veterinarian of the Year Award
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 and Your Dog’s Best Health.   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 and Your Dog’s Best Health are available at,, local bookstores, and your favorite online book seller.


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17 Comments on “Nellie Appears to Be Older Than We Thought

  1. Years ago we adopted Teddy (large retriever mix) from a neighbor who lived alone and passed away. The neighbor’s relatives told us that Teddy was 7 years old, which seemed reasonable as he did move and behave like an older dog. We had Teddy for 8 full years before we had to put him down due to kidney failure, which would place his age at 15 years. We casually mentioned to our vet that we were not 100% sure of his age, and the vet said “about 9 or 10”. We had a private giggle, as there is no way Teddy was that young. When we adopted Teddy 8 years prior he was already showing early signs of arthritis (which slowly got much worse over the years). We did not correct our vet, as he is an amazing doctor and it was a moot point anyway, but I just wanted to support Dr. Kay’s point that it can be very difficult to pinpoint the age of an adult dog, even for the pros!

  2. Our story is much like Nellie’s story. In our home we usually adopt older beings sight unseen and more than likely from not so wonderful circumstances. That is what happened several years ago when I received an email from a young woman in NC who worked as a vet tech. Seems someone had dropped a poor old Beagle mix off at a farm near Greenville. Folks there were at least feeding the little guy. The farmer was not so generous in his feeling and soon indicated that the old guy had to go or be shot. The young vet tech got involved and soon her plea for the old guy hit Facebook. As is usual with Facebook it soon made the rescue rounds and arrived at my desk. Knowing that my niece was attending college close to the area where the dog was located I arranged with the vet tech to have him picked up to join a transport north. The guesstimate of the old ones age was about years as he left NC. Arriving in the worst snow and ice storm that winter we met our new (old) pup and drove through the blizzard to get home. Never made a peep all the way home. Vetted the next day our vet placed his age at about 13/14. Hard to think that the spry old gentleman could be that old but per the vet, the teeth told the story. We welcomed him into our fold and soon found out that he was a lovely and joyful being who loved to be loved and eat and sleep. Months later on a visit to the canine opthamologist it was indicated that the eyes seemed to place this man at an older age, more like 15/16. Not sure if these opinions are valid but sure of the fact that this little man who came to us from a bad situation is one of the very best dogs ever born and we hope to keep him around for many more years.

  3. I know that my Basset hound bitch is between 16 and 17 (amazingly) she’s deaf as a stone but otherwise remarkably functional. she can jump up on the sofa with only minimal hesitation and sometimes two tries and enjoys her walks. The two boys are both between 11 and 12, both somewhat arthritic but otherwise doing well for older medium sized gentlemen (Pit mix and Golden/ Basset cross- no relation to the old girl) At this point, I just hope to outlive everybody and not leave anyone behind.

  4. My 15-year old Papillon has had kidney issues all of his life, takes medication for it and eats k/d. He also has high blood pressure. I am sure that you have checked Nellie for this as well as for diabetes. We have never done this before with our older dogs and it has made a world of difference. He runs — not far and not often — with our 4-year old Pap. This little guy was a show dog, a therapy dg and a hospice dog. He has packed a lot into his life. His hearing is going, but he is male.

  5. Let me start by stating clearly that I doubt Nellie had a loving family looking for her and Dr. Kay likely did her a huge favor by just keeping her. That being said…. Please, please never assume that a dog found in bad shape… physically and/or emotionally.. does not have a loving family praying for her return! Dogs that get lost can quickly get hurt/mangy/scared to the point that they no longer look like a valued family companion. Always be sure to take a found animal in to be scanned for a microchip, and file a found report with local animal shelters and rescue groups. A few examples to ponder: a friend of mine was in a terrible car accident far from home. One of her dogs ran off (they had all been crated but one broke open) and was missing for weeks. He is a sensitive dog that was traumatized by the accident (physically and emotionally) so was hiding. He was in terrible shape and acting fearful… but was actually a very much loved and extremely well cared for dog that was lucky to get reunited with his family. If someone had assumed the worst and just kept him my friend would be traumatized to this day wondering whatever happened to her dog. Another dog was “found in the middle of nowhere” by people that took him with them. He ended up getting out of their yard and was hit by a car… they did call the local shelter but when they heard about vet bills they admitted they had found the dogs 2 weeks ago and weren’t willing to pay the medical expenses. I was an animal control officer at the time and the one they talked to and when I heard where the dog was originally “found” I called the shelter in that area and sure enough his family had reported him lost the same day the people had taken him… it is quite probable that his “rescuers” were trespassing on his owner’s large piece of property. His family was ecstatic that he had been found and didn’t blink an eye at paying the vet bills that never would have been required if he hadn’t been taken by the well meaning but misguided people that assumed he had been dumped in the middle of nowhere (he was a very healthy weight which these people also mistook for underweight since, alas, so many people are used to seeing overweight dogs that they no longer recognize a healthy, athletic build when they see it). This was before microchipping was common, and the dog was forever losing his ID tag while running on his acreage… but the people filed a very timely lost report and could have been reunited with his family quickly. Then there was the cat that came in as a stray in good shape and had a microchip… we called and the people were stunned because they had reported their cat missing in a neighboring county 3 years previously! Clearly someone had been taking care of the cat… perhaps they had assumed it didn’t have a home so started feeding her and then took her with them when they moved away? Or she umped into someone’s load of hay and got out in the next county? Regardless, whoever was taking care of the cat for those 3 years never bothered to have her scanned for a microchip… and they never called to try to claim the cat when she ended up at our shelter. The original owners were thrilled to get their cat back!

    Chances are good that if an animal does not have a loving home that no one will have filed a lost report… or if they have then you can involve local authorities if you are concerned about the animal’s condition. There are many times when lost animals in bad shape likely do not have a loving home and you are doing them a huge favor when you take them in… but please, please always do check for a microchip and lost reports because some of those animals that are in horrible shape and skittish do have loving homes, they are just lost and scared. And not everyone that loses a pet is irresponsible… there are car accidents, delivery people that leave gates open, the jerk down the street that sets off fireworks a week before the 4th when people think its still safe to leave their dogs outside, the freak thunderstorm that is the first one a dog ever experiences so no one knew he was phobic… heck, I once tripped on a tree root when hiking and fell and dropped the leashes and one of my dogs was startled and bolted… luckily I wasn’t hurt and was able to give a very happy “come” that broke through the initial panic response, otherwise my dog could have been lost in the woods… and it would have taken him 10 minutes running through the brush to be covered in stickers and look like a dumped, unloved dog in desperate need of a new home.. especially since he was healthy and athletic, so at risk of being labeled skinny by the average pet person! :0

  6. Our little Maggie from Belize was estimated at 2-3 yo when we adopted her, and we let her go 10 short years later when congestive heart failure grew less manageable and she was in discomfort. Like you though, I think she was older then we suspected when adopted and probably lived to 15 or thereabouts. Esmé was adopted from a rescue with her birth date in her vet records, so that makes her 7 now. No matter what, it is never long enough, is it? Thanks for sharing Nellie’s story, so glad she found you and has had such a wonderful life with you.

  7. Thank you so much for taking this dear soul into your household. While it is sad to realize she’s older than you had first thought, she is such a lucky dog that someone brought her to your clinic so she could have the best life possible after such a rough start.

  8. I know very well how old my dogs are. However, I do my best not to remember that they are 12 and 8 respectively. It seems the older I get, the more precious the time spent with the “perfect girls” becomes. Getting old sure can be a bitch.

  9. I have nothing but senior citizens in my house. I have a soon to be 16 year old Bichon (August 20) and two 15 year old poodles. I got the bichon and one of the poodles as puppies so I know their ages. One poodle has arthritis and kidney disease and he gets epigen and adeqan injections as well as the occasional tramadol if he is limping after a walk. The other poodle was a rescue at the age 13 and he is blind but does not appear to have significant arthritis or any other issues. The bichon has a herniated disk so she gets arnica and the occasional tramdol. I also have a cocker spaniel and she is about 10 and she has hip issues but arnica seems to work for her as well. I love them and I feed a good raw diet and add supplements as needed. If we are lucky, we all will age and get age related diseases. I just hope that I can help them live the best quality of life as long as they can and then cross the bridge if they need help. Thanks for the great blog. Love the seniors!

  10. I have two rescue Chihuahua mixes. Amber who came to me 6years ago appears to be older than we thought. We originally thought she was under 2y.o. However, given the changes I’m seeing, we now guess her age to be about 10 or older.
    Owen who I got as a 9 y. o. 3 years ago is apparently older. Who can tell? He has a multitude of health problems & really bad teeth. The good news is that he is happy & as healthy as I can keep him. My Vet has advised against the anesthesia needed to fix his teeth so we are treating as we can. It took the poor guy 2 full years to come out of his shell but now he is my little loving shadow.
    I would love to know their real ages but really, I love them both as they are so in the long run it doesn’t matter how old they are.

  11. My 11-pound Norwich Terrier turned 13 in April (born 4/29/04). She’s showing age-related hearing, vision, and possibly cognition changes. I had hoped that, being such a small dog, we would not see these issues for much longer, but no such luck.
    Hearing changes first noticed January 2015 (age 10.75) — while she still hears relatively well, she has problems telling where sounds are coming from, particularly in differentiating between sounds in front of her and sounds behind her (she can still tell right from left). Vet couldn’t find anything wrong. Note she’s never had ear infections.
    Vision changes first noticed May 2016 (age 12). First, I saw that she would sometimes have trouble spotting me if I was standing still maybe 30 feet away from her. Then I saw her flinching when walking from bright light into shadow. Took her to an ophthalmologist who found nothing other than age-related changes (nuclear sclerosis, pinpoint cataract in one eye, slight iris atrophy in both).
    Possible cognitive changes in the last year or so include sometimes going to the wrong side of doors, and doing poorly with nose work (we compete at fairly high levels). The door issue might be related to vision or just not paying attention; she corrects quickly when I open the door. Nose work problems could be unrelated (it’s easy for problems to arise when either the dog or the handler loses confidence).
    Ella also has slowed down markedly in the last six months. Before that, she would have some slow days, but now they’re the norm, though she does still have some fast days (we normally walk two miles a day). An integrative horse vet who specializes in movement was finally able to identify soreness in her right knee that may be causing this.
    I started her on three joint supplements (glucosamine-type, along with Chinese herbs that will switch to Cur-OST soon) and one cognitive supplement (Senilife) in June, and have seen improvement in her nose work (possibly unrelated). She is having more good days on walks, though it’s not consistent (I got a stroller for her to ride in part of the time when she’s slow so as to not overdo it). She also wakes up very happy and active, running around much more than before.
    Anyway, just wanted to provide these details since my dog is similar to yours and I have seen changes at a younger age than I would have expected for her size. Ella did live outside the first five years of her life, but was well cared for during that time. Overall, she is doing well and nothing is progressing quickly. People are still amazed when I tell them how old she is.

  12. Curly is 16, going on 17. His dob is known even though we are his 4th home. At 80 pounds (Aussie-Great Pyr x best guess) we feel so lucky to have been allowed to bring him home at ten years old. He has shots and meds for arthritis, and no longer gets long walks, but he does get to run around a couple of acres while I watch.

    Curly is in charge of teaching the 3 year old GSD her job, and he is doing a wonderful, gentle jib of it.

  13. We have an aging Yorkie that was rescued from a breeder who had 42 of them in a basement outside Philadelphia in January. They had no heat and lived in bird cages. Here is a piece from Speaking for Spot on this incident.
    Our vet estimated Molly to be 5-6 then which makes her 12-13 now. She has been a gem of a companion even though she was in deplorable condition when we adopted her. Now, in her senior years, she sleeps most of the day and demands to be held the rest of the time. She shares her life with a Sheltie and two other Yorkies, all adopted and all in fairly constant hysteria. Her house training, never perfect, is frustrating. Her eyes are grey.
    Yorkies live a long time. That’s the good news. But the bad news, Yorkies live a long time. We had one that lived 15 years and in her later time, she gradually became blind, deaf and had seizures. We had many discussions as to whether we were keeping her alive for her or for us. Finally, mercifully, she left us.

  14. AW- What a sweet story. So sorry she’s older than you thought, Nancy. As you know I’ve lost an older rescue in the last year and my 2 oldest sister labs are 11 already. God has a strange sense of humor when cats live much longer than our dear dogs (sorry cat lovers).

  15. Most of my pack are of known breeding and I have their exact DOBs.

    My rescue guy was dumped in a parking lot with no name, no history. So, he is only a guess. All 3 of his initial examining vets estimated him at 8-10 yo. I was convinced they were off by a couple of years… he seemed older than my 12 year old dog… I put him at 10-12 years

    With good care and vet treatment, he morphed into the canine Benjamin Buttons. He gets younger every day!!! The grampa dog who couldn’t walk now begs to go for walks several times a day. I thought he would pass within a year yet he has made it 2 1/2 years . He’s never going to be healthy but he is happy and static.

    I surmise he is 10-12 years old right now. But of course, we will never know for sure since his history is a mystery.

  16. We aren’t completely certain about the age of our Shiba Inu we adopted last year. Her previous vet records are missing her DOB. Best guess from our vet and the humane society was 3 years old according to her teeth and her vaccinations records. We wonder about that guesstimation since she is rather calm for a Shiba Inu. She definitely had or was going to have puppies when we adopted her. HS spayed her but she was suffering from mastitis and still lactating when we brought her home. Just a lot of question marks about her past. I did call her previous vets office and tried to find out her birthday but they couldn’t give me that information. She’s a lovely dog and we just love her and happy to give her a nice home. I do think sometimes that we she may be older than we think by a few years. Thanks for the great blog! Always love reading your thoughts!

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