It’s a dog’s life

Words by:
Matt Limb OBE
Featured in:
July 2022

Matt Limb OBE looks at a new scientific study of the life expectancy of dogs, which uses ‘life tables’ to tell us more about different breeds.

One thing I see regularly, amongst many people across our country, is a love of their dogs. The UK is seen and known across the world as a dog loving nation. The breed matters not; be that a sprinting crossbreed lurcher, the small toy breeds that make the greatest of companions, the loyal and faithful spaniel who sits waiting, or the busy little terrier chasing rats around the farmyard. They all have one thing in common: a desire to be with you, and for many, work for you – in doing so they bring hours of enjoyment and great satisfaction to their owners.

But all dogs have one great failing: they never live as long as we would hope. Sadly the clock starts ticking the moment that energetic, busy and nosey little puppy arrives. I know I have said this before, but we should make the very best of every moment with our dogs, as they are never around that long. But how long is that? What is the typical life expectancy for our best friend? Many have a fair idea which is based on our own experience. Here we can be creatures of habit and it is not uncommon to have several dogs of the same, or at best, very similar breeds. But recently there has been some genuine science behind this question.

one of the country’s largest and longest established independent veterinary schools and recently published a report on life expectancy in dogs. The report studied several breeds in the hope of helping owners have a better understanding, but in my mind far more important, to aid future research across the wider veterinary profession.

It is worth noting here that most of the previous research has been based on an estimate using the average age at the dog’s death to give a future life expectancy by breed. But in this recent research, the Royal Veterinary College has used ‘life tables’, a popular method of estimating life expectancy in humans, also called a mortality table.

The life tables generate data that gives the probability, by breed, that a dog of a particular age, will die before their next birthday. It is not hard to see why the use of life tables, or similar calculations, is popular across the insurance industry, where they are used to calculate life expectancy for humans in determining policy premiums.

For dogs, the use of life tables is thought to be a unique tool for calculating life expectancy along with the probability of death, when done across a range of age groups. It is of no surprise for anyone, including dogs, that life expectancy decreases as we grow older. But our remaining life expectancy does not follow a linear decline with age. Therefore, life tables provide more accurate estimations. For anyone with an interest in dogs, such data, which is based on evidence rather than simple anecdote, will be of direct and immediate benefit.

The research was conducted in great depth over a four-and-half-year period, starting back in January 2016, using 18 popular breeds, in addition to crossbreeds, and over 30,000 dogs. The results give an overall average life expectancy at age zero, that is at birth, for all UK dogs of 11.2 years. This figure should be of no great surprise to anyone who has owned dogs for any length of time. But it is when we dive into the various breeds that we can see the real findings of the research.

Once we investigate the details of the study, we see that it identified Jack Russell terriers, a long-time favourite breed, as the greatest life expectancy from birth at just over 12½ years. This was followed by Border Collies at just over 12 years – and the other country favourite, the English Springer Spaniel, at just under 12 years.

Other interesting data that came from the study identifies that a neutered dog was found to have a longer life expectancy, compared to their non-neutered counterparts, but the difference was only a matter of months. Equally, the overall life expectancy of a bitch is about four months longer than a comparable dog.

Commenting on the report, Dr Shotton said: “These life tables offer an important insight into the life expectancy of popular dog breeds in the UK and will be a useful tool for vets and pet owners in assessing dog welfare.” Dr Shotton further commented on the concern the report highlighted about the life expectancy of today’s popular flat-faced breeds, adding: “While the study doesn’t prove a direct link between these breeds’ potential welfare issues and shorter length of life, the findings serve as a fresh reminder for prospective dog owners to choose a breed based on health, not looks.”

The report does underline that the flat-faced breeds have the shortest anticipated life, the worst of which is the highly popular French Bulldog, with an expected life of just four and half years. This is followed by the English Bulldog at about seven and half years and the American Bulldog at just under eight years. It is a well-known fact that such breeds suffer from a range of health issues; their distinctive head shape did not develop naturally, it is the consequence of selective breeding. This has resulted in the flat-faced breeds often suffering from breathing problems, which with age will greatly contribute to life expectancy.

For the many of us who have had dogs for years, there may not be anything surprising in the report, but we will recognise its value in future research. As someone who has been with dogs, in one form or another, all my life, the report does one thing more than anything else: it reminds me just how short our time is with our faithful friends, plus the importance of making the very best of every minute we share.

No matter what the breed or age, sadly and always too soon you have to say goodbye to them.

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