Long Live Your Pet
I recently saw a 19 year old Cockatiel for a routine wellness exam, and that made me happy for the entire day. That evening, I was greeted at the door by my three dogs, two of whom are seniors, and Max the Cat, who will be 14 next month. I looked over their four fuzzy heads to the rodents in the corner and realized that all four of them are older than the average lifespan of their species.
Remember when I had to make a decision on surgery on Wuzzy Rat, who was, at the time, six months older than the average lifespan of hairless rats, and at the end of the lifespan of “normal” rats? Of course you do! She is super cute! How could you forget that face? Especially when I keep taking pictures of her and Fuzzy and making you look at all of them! ANYWAYS, do you remember what I said about pet lifespans then?
…A lifespan…is an average. Every average has outliers. Most average lifespans of our pet friends are steadily increasing as husbandry and medical knowledge improve.
I should listen to myself more carefully. Instead of being encouraged when I walked in my front door after seeing Old Bird, I was sad that all of my pets, save Joy the Puppy, who is by far the most annoying of the eight, would soon be gone.
Knowing the average lifespan of pets can be a comfort as pets age, and as unpredictable as life is, can give us some semblance of what to expect. Every member of every veterinary team could tell you the age of the oldest dog or cat (or Cockatiel) in their practice. We are very proud of what is possible and excited when our patients thrive.
But what is really possible? In the whole world, which pets have lived the longest? Are the records breakable? WHY did they live as long as they did? After I greeted all my pets and all my people, I sat down at the computer, and Googled “oldest” and “world record” and individual species.
I am going to share what I found with you. Many of these records are debatable. (“Are you sure this is the same brown gerbil? Her whiskers look a little different…”) Still, I think it was healthy to look up from my herd of aging pets towards the horizon, towards what might be true years from now.
Of course, longevity is not our sole goal as pet owners. May we always put the well-being of our pets above our own desire to have them with us forever.
The physiologic differences between our pets and us and the option of euthanasia will at some point force most pet owners to make a more difficult decision than we should be called on to make. Dogs and cats rarely die of “sudden” causes. For example, they do not develop arthrosclerosis as efficiently and completely as we do, and thus rarely succumb to myocardial infarctions (heart attacks) or vascular accidents (strokes), common causes of sudden death in people. The decision of when the life of a pet will end, is often, cruelly and unfairly, placed squarely on the shoulders of those closest to them. Yet, this is one of the rare instances in life when we will have the opportunity to be truly selfless.
It is a brave owner indeed who can say goodbye to a friend whose heart is pumping strongly but whose joints have completely failed him. It is a brave owner indeed who can say goodbye to a friend with terminal cancer after treatment options have been exhausted but before pain is unmanageable.
I looked around my living room again. Every single pet was, and still is, healthy. They do not appear to be going anywhere soon:
Fuzzy and Wuzzy Rat were climbing the walls of their habitat doing happy ratty antics.
Princess Gerbil was chewing her TP roll and doing a little gerbil dance.
Piggy was standing at his door, smiling at me, knowing I would soon break free from the goofy mutts and bring him a cookie (I know a good exotics veterinarian would say “orange slice” here, but this is a true, unembellished story, people!).
Max the Cat was sitting to the side of the commotion, not an old, decrepit cat who could not join the celebration of my daily return home, but a very fit and agile cat, who is much too cool to jump up and down like a goofy Poodle.
Use this list entirely for fun and encouragement, and of course, your own bragging rights, if you have, or have had, an exceptionally long-lived pet. Do not allow this list to induce any guilt. Well cared for pets sometimes die young. Poorly cared for pets sometimes die old. Preventative care increases the odds that our pets will live longer, but provides no guarantees. Life, as you know, contains a frustrating amount of randomness and is not always fair.
Tell me about some of the oldest pets you have known. I do not want proof! I do not want collaboration! Now is the time for rumors and hearsay! I have heard that my Mom’s friend had a thirty year old cat.
Can I prove it? No!
Does it still make me happy every time I think of it? Yes!
That is what we are going for people! Let us together celebrate mortality being, if not yet defeated, at least sometimes temporarily suspended.
Here’s to a long and healthy life for you and your pets. Here’s to the upside of the unpredictability of life.