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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One Comment on “Nellie Appears to Be Older Than We Thought

  1. 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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