Research helps owners understand the life expectancy of dogs - Veterinary Practice
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Research helps owners understand the life expectancy of dogs

The Royal Veterinary College VetCompass programme has published research that will allow owners to predict the remaining life expectancy of their dog from different ages using “life tables”

New research from the Royal Veterinary College’s (RVC) VetCompass programme now enables owners to predict the remaining life expectancy of their dog from different ages, with results broken down by breed and gender to make these as useful as possible for owners of many breeds in the UK.

The findings also identify breeds with the greatest and lowest life expectancies of the 18 breeds in the study, highlighting wide differences in life expectancy amongst popular breeds.

Using analysis from a random sample of 30,563 dogs that died between 1 January 2016 and 31 July 2020, from 18 different breeds and crossbreeds, the results revealed the overall average life expectancy at age 0 for UK companion dogs was 11.2 years.

Conducted in collaboration with researchers from the National Taiwan University (NTU) in Taiwan, the study identified Jack Russell Terriers had the greatest life expectancy from age 0 at 12.7 years, followed by Border Collies (12.1 years) and Springer Spaniels (11.92 years). In comparison, four flat-faced (brachycephalic) breeds were found to have the shortest life expectancy with French Bulldogs only expected to live 4.5 years from age 0, followed by English Bulldogs at 7.4 years, Pugs at 7.7 years and American Bulldogs 7.8 years.

The flat-faced breeds identified as having the shortest life expectancies are heavily associated with several life-limiting disorders such as breathing problems, spinal disease and dystocia. The latest information on life expectancy from this study supports the wider work by the RVC and partners on addressing the many health and welfare issues of flat-faced breeds, such as French Bulldog, English Bulldog and Pug, which have been reported previously in VetCompass studies.

Given that breeds with shorter lives many have generally lower health, the life expectancy information in this new study can also promote a greater consideration of a dog’s expected quality of life by potential dog owners when deciding which breed to purchase.

Other key findings from the study include:

  • The average life expectancy at age 0 for male dogs is 11.1 years, this is 4 months shorter than female dogs
  • Among the Kennel Club breed groups, terrier had the longest life expectancy at age 0 at 12.0 years, followed by gundog (11.7 years), pastoral (11.2 years), hound (10.7 years), toy (10.7 years) and utility (10.1 years)
  • In both male and female dogs, neutered dogs were found to have a longer life expectancy at age 0 in comparison to their non-neutered counterparts (Females: 11.98 versus 10.50; males: 11.49 versus 10.58)

Previously, life expectancy was guesstimated crudely from using only the average age of death of dogs overall or for a particular breed. However, using “life tables” – unique tools that list the remaining life expectancy and probability of death across a range of age groups in any given population – allows owners to accurately estimate the remaining average life expectancy. While life expectancy decreases with age as would be expected, remaining life expectancy does not follow a linear decline with age and therefore life tables provide more accurate estimations.

While commonly used for humans, life tables are a novel concept for dogs because access to large-scale population information wasn’t readily available before the VetCompass programme was launched.

Broken down by gender, common breeds and Kennel Club breed groups, the life tables have the potential to drastically improve dog welfare by helping inform treatment plans and end of life decisions. This also can benefit potential dog owners, particularly those looking to adopt, by helping them estimate the remaining length of ownership commitment and potential medical care needs of different breeds and differently aged dogs. 

Dr Dan O’Neill, associate professor in companion animal epidemiology at the RVC and co-author of the paper, said: “Dogs have helped many humans to get through the loneliness and isolation of the COVID-19 pandemic. These new VetCompass Life tables enable owners to now estimate how long more that they can benefit from these dogs.

“The short life expectancies for flat-faced breeds such as French Bulldogs shown by the VetCompass Life tables supports the UK Brachycephalic Working Group’s call for all owners to ‘Stop and think before buying a flat-faced dog’.”

Dr Kendy Tzu-yun Teng, project assistant professor at the National Taiwan University and lead author of the paper, said: “The dog life tables offer new insights and ways of looking at the life expectancy in pet dogs. They are also strong evidence of compromised health and welfare in short, flat-faced breeds such as French Bulldog and Bulldog.”

Bill Lambert, health, welfare and breeder services executive at The Kennel Club commented: 

“This new tool, funded in part by The Kennel Club Charitable Trust VetCompass grant, helps us understand and determine more accurately a dog’s life expectancy given different factors throughout their lives, instead of just based on historic breed estimates. 

“This new approach helps us and others to identify particular conditions or events that can happen early on in life that may have an impact on a dog’s life expectancy, and we hope this will play a part in supporting owners to understand their dog, make responsible decisions and provide good care, and help would-be owners to select the right breed for them.

“While some of these breeds have only recently become popular, and so we might not have such a full picture of their overall longevity as of yet, using information and research to create new tools like this is invaluable in our work to make a difference to the lives of such dogs and their owners.”

Dr Justine Shotton, British Veterinary Association (BVA) president 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.

“A concerning finding is the lower life expectancy for flat-faced breeds. 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. “

Dr Sheldon Middleton, British Small Animal Veterinary Association (BSAVA) president said:

“As a vet in practice, I am often asked questions about the average lifespan of my patients. To have this data now available, and based on evidence rather than anecdote, provides a direct and immediate benefit to those working in the clinic. Additionally, this will inform future research and provide useful insights for the wider allied professions.”

This study was supported by an award from the Kennel Club Charitable Trust, Agria Pet Insurance and NTU-Yonglin Humane Project. The publication of this research also marks a milestone for the RVC’s VetCompass, which has now published 100 academic papers on a range of topics aimed at improving companion animal health.

The full paper, “Life tables of annual life expectancy and mortality for companion dogs in the United Kingdom”, is available to read in Scientific Reports.

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