Most veterinarians get a tad worried when we are asked:
“How old do you think my dog is?”
Cue cold sweat, rapid shallow pulse: What pressure! I think it’s doubly stressful for us because we know first-hand why it’s important for you to have an accurate age. Like many dogs of unknown age, my dog was adopted from a shelter and has since taken up permanent residence in my heart. We know you don’t want to lose them unexpectedly to age-related conditions. You want to be prepared. That’s why you’re testing your dog with Embark, and why you want to most accurately predict his or her genetic age: If you've used it, you know that this feature depends on an estimate of calendar age as a starting point!
So, I’m going to help you figure out this important question: How do veterinarians estimate dog age?
Even before I put my hands on the dog, the first thing I ask is how long you’ve had your dog. Basically, this provides me with a starting point: I think of how old the dog has to be based on when he or she came to you. Then I evaluate the next few attributes. Follow along and do these assessments with your pup!
Body Shape: As dogs age, the way they distribute their weight changes. Run your hands down your dog’s back on either side of the spine: With age, fat pads usually develop right over your dog’s lower back or lumbar area. Mild muscle wasting, which will lead to a more prominent spine and sometimes a sway-backed appearance, is also indicative of a senior dog.
Lens Clarity: Take a good peek into your pup’s eyes. Do the pupils seem a little cloudy? This is a sign of lenticular sclerosis, an age-related phenomenon that causes the lens to become diffusely hazy or opaque, though it only minimally affects vision. Note that these are not cataracts, which can impair vision. Cataracts are generally milky white in appearance; some breeds are more predisposed to cataracts than others, and cataracts can also come secondary to another condition. If you suspect a cataract or are concerned about your dog’s vision, consult your veterinarian.
Coat Color: Like humans, dog hair will usually begin to whiten out with age. Areas especially affected include the hair around the muzzle and eyes. Note that this is a isn't a particularly specific measure: Some dogs are born with a lot of white in these areas, or will whiten out much younger, especially wire-haired or furnished breeds. So take this with a grain of salt (and pepper!).
Teeth: Dogs’ adult teeth are usually all in by about six months of age: before then, your vet can age puppies by their teeth (and obvious puppyhood) with extremely high accuracy. But once they’re all in, it gets tougher. Generally, dental disease, like tooth wear and loss, periodontal disease, and accumulation of dental calculus or tartar increases with age. But this is confounded by genetics: For example, small breed dogs tend to have more severe dental disease than large dogs. Regardless of size, some dogs accumulate tartar very young whereas others are tartar-free into their senior years. It is also confounded by behavior: in a past life, did your pup chew on bones, or rocks? But depending on the dog, teeth can be a valuable piece of information (and give me an idea of whether your dog might have a cleaning in his or her future).
Let’s say your dog hasn’t got any of the above indications of senior age and simply basked in the attention as you stared intently, willing him or her to bark, “I’m this old, Mom!” If you adopted your dog fully grown, and a few years later he or she hasn’t changed at all, it’s a good bet that your pup is in the time of life where aging is almost imperceptible: adulthood. For a medium-to-large breed dog, you can pretty comfortably say that your dog was probably about 2-4 years old at adoption; for smaller breeds, the starting range will be wider at 1-5 years old at adoption.
I know, that’s not very satisfying. The fact is, dogs are really, really hard to age between the ages of about 2 and 8 calendar years. The range is even greater for small breed dogs because they reach maturity faster and age slower than larger dogs. An adult dog is at the stage in his or her life where he or she doesn’t age visibly, quite unlike the rapid changes you see as a dog transitions from puppy to adult, or adult to senior.
The best thing you can do is to try and document subtle changes over the next few years: Look at photos from a few years ago and compare them to photos now (and then upload them all to your dog’s Embark profile!). Or, if you’ve just adopted your pup from the shelter, start documenting how he or she looks right now: Take a few photos, face on, a profile of the whole body, and maybe even one from up above. Next year, and the next, take them again. Because you’re with your pup every day, the little changes in the way they look won’t be obvious at all until you compare them with how your dog looked a few years ago. Then, send these photos to your veterinarian, or to me. We want what you want: To keep your pup healthy and happy for as long as possible. The more information we have, the better estimate we can give you.
Erin Chu is our favorite DVM and Cornell PhD candidate in molecular genetics. She attributes her success and motivation to her amazing Labrador-Shepherd-Chow Chow mix, Shiloh, pictured here in his autumn years.