How old is the world’s oldest dog? When Pusuke, the Japanese record-holder, died in December, aged 26, it made global headlines from Vanity Fair to the Hindustan Times. It also created a vacancy. Tracking down Pusuke’s successor has proved tough. Animal ages are not always well documented. There was excitement about a Yorkshire terrier from Leeds called Bonnie, rumoured to be 28. But, in a sadly not uncommon event among the elderly of the pet world, she didn’t last long enough for her owners to get the paperwork in.
Another applicant – Pip, a 24-year-old British crossbreed – was deemed short on documentation due to her rescue-home origins. Only now, after more than two months with no reigning champion, is Guinness World Records on the verge of declaring a new oldest dog: Lady, a fragile Jack Russell in Lincolnshire, is a well-documented 23.
The age of our pets is a new obsession. Since 2001, almost 1,000 people have applied to Guinness, claiming the titles of oldest dog, cat or rabbit for their pets. Craig Glenday, the book’s editor, believes these records provide the already lucky animals with the chance to “live eternally”.
But while Guinness makes a bestseller out of the exceptions, longevity among our pets may be becoming more of a rule. “During the 20th century, human life expectancy increased 30 per cent, [due to] clean food, water, hygiene. The same thing has happened, no doubt, to pets,” says Professor Steven Austad, an expert in ageing at the University of Texas.
The evidence can be found queuing up in vets’ waiting rooms. “The feeling is that pet animals are living longer,” says Dan Brockman, a professor at the Royal Veterinary College. “We certainly see more old cats in particular, and old dogs. The three cornerstones are the genetic coding, better understanding of nutritional needs and the care [the animals] receive.”
The British spent around £2bn last year on pet food, just shy of the revenues of the 20 Premiership football clubs. Vets’ bills and other extras account for at least as much again. In the US, overall spending on pets hit $50bn for the first time in 2011, estimates the American Pet Products Association.
This change in how we treat pets began with the Victorians. Queen Victoria had her dogs depicted in portraits, and rushed back from her own coronation ceremony to give Dash, her beloved King Charles spaniel, a bath. Charles Dickens was so taken by his pet ravens that he wrote them into Barnaby Rudge. By the mid-19th century, Britain’s first veterinary schools, founded for racehorses, were treating pets. The world’s first dog biscuits went on sale in London in the 1860s.
But, in recent decades, attitudes have shifted further as owners try to keep their pets alive even longer. “There was an idea that you could put a dog to sleep and get a new model,” says Mike Davies, a vet at the Oakham Veterinary Hospital in Rutland. Today, ancient pets are probably vets’ most reliable customers.
“Gone are the days of James Herriot, when all you did was give a couple of injections,” says Gerard McLauchlan, a vet at Glasgow university. “We used to be decades behind [human medicine], whereas that’s no longer the case.” In some areas, such as the repair of tendons using stem cells, veterinary science is actually ahead.
The fate of our pets is tied to our own. As our lives became more comfortable, so did theirs. When we got fatter, so did they. And now, the stiff joints and stumbling memories of longer lifespans belong to both of us. The five pets featured here are all old-age pensioners. They may not qualify for Guinness World Records – or perhaps even still be with us by the time these pages come out. But they are the faces of the new geriatric generation.
Source: Financial Times