Are Our Dogs Dying Younger Than They Used To?

One of the most popular ways to promote unconventional ideas, including alternative therapies, is through fear. Claiming that health, longevity, and other measures of well-being have declined from some time in the past opens the door to claims that science-based healthcare is ineffective and that we should return to some past practice or adopt something radically different. Dr. Karen Becker, a popular promoter of veterinary pseudoscience, recently made just this sort of argument, claiming that dogs are not living as long as they used to and then implying that this can be blamed  on commercial pet food and “toxins,” by which her past writing indicates she means vaccines, parasite prevention products, and pretty much any conventional medical treatment.

To demonstrate this, she cites two surveys of pet owners conducted by the U.K. Kennel Club, one in 2004 and another in 2014.

Why Are These Popular Dogs Dying So Much Younger Than They Used To?

The 2014 survey also found that tragically, the average lifespan of a pedigree dog in the U.K. is just 10 years. In a 2004 Kennel Club report, the average was 11 years, 3 months.

This means the median longevity of Britain’s purebred dogs has dropped by 11 percent in just a decade.

Dr. Becker then goes on to list specific breeds with reported median longevity that is lower in the 2014 survey compared with the 2004 survey.

As we have seen many, many times in the past, Dr. Becker cares far more for her own narrative than for the truth, and she is perfectly comfortable misrepresenting or ignoring facts if doing so will make a story that fits her beliefs and her pitch. This bit of fear-mongering is yet another example.

It is true that the life expectancy figures in the 2014 survey are lower for many breeds than those in the 2004 survey. So, does this mean our pets are not living as long as they used to? Not quite. For one thing, life expectancy figures for some breeds are actually higher in the 2014 report than in the 2004 survey. For example:

Breed 2004 Lifespan 2014 Lifespan
Flat-coated Retriever 9.83 years 10 years
Gordon Setter 11.08 years 12 years
Great Dane 6.5 years 7 years
Greyhound 9.08 years 10 years
Newfoundland 9.67 years 10 years
Old English Sheepdog 10.75 years 11 years

Cherry-picking just the figures that support your claims is a classic move in creating a story that fits what you want to say regardless of the facts.

Overall, the pattern of longevity in the two surveys is nearly identical, as you can see from these figures.

2004 Life Expectancy Histogram


2014 Life Expectancy Histogram uk-survey-2014-histogram

As you can also see, however, the number of deaths reported is very different, and there is no statistical comparison to show whether the difference in the median or mean is significant. Why is this? Well, it turns out the data were collected in very different ways, they represent different methods and different dog populations, and the two surveys can’t legitimately be compared! Here’s what the actual authors of the survey have to say.

Please note there were substantial differences in the way the 2014 survey was conducted compared to the Purebred Dog Health survey, which was carried out in 2004…Given the difference in methodologies between the surveys, the data from each is not fully comparable and differences observed do not definitively imply changes in population parameters.

Furthermore, there were 5,864 deaths reported in the 2014 survey compared to 15,881 deaths reported in the 2004 survey. This significant drop reduces the likelihood of the sample accurately representing the wider dog population, and so would likely have an impact on median longevity figures if the two sets of data were compared, which would not be reliable.

In other words, Dr. Becker is comparing apples to oranges to show that apples were better in 2004 than in 2014. The actual reality, as determined by facts and evidence not one’s pre-existing beliefs, is that we don’t know whether our pets are living longer or not over the last 10, 20, or 30 years. There is excellent data in humans, and that shows conclusively that life expectancy and nearly every other objective measure of well-being has improved steadily for at least the last 100 years. For humans, at least, science and science-based nutrition, sanitation, and healthcare work far better than anything that went before.

There is no reason to believe the same is not true for our pets, however, there is also no reliable evidence either way. What we need is data, and a respect for legitimate scientific research, not more fear-mongering and twisting of the facts to sell an ideology.

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22 Responses to Are Our Dogs Dying Younger Than They Used To?

  1. Bryan says:

    Completely agree. A common recurring theme I’m seeing here is that there just isn’t enough legitimate studies on pets.

    I think a lot of pet parents are attracted to unconventional theories because they want to know what is being done or what can be done to improve the lives of their pets but there is not much talk about those things from a legitimate scientific perspective.

    Conversely, I recently came across the “Dog Aging Project” and the use of Rapamycin. It sounds interesting but I haven’t read much about their findings so far or the science behind it. Thoughts?

  2. dogowner says:

    I wouldn’t be surprised that if you consistently inbreed dogs without selecting much for longevity, they start to live shorter lives- though I have no evidence that this is the case.

    Much easier to blame commercial pet food and toxins, than to look at actually changing breeding practices. The latter doesn’t have a nice quick fix that can be sold at exorbitant prices.

  3. Jo Amsel says:

    But haven’t you just cherry picked too ?. Not that I am a fan of Dr Becker!

  4. Jo Amsel says:

    You picked out the 6 breeds that live longer. You haven’t compared them to how many breeds that don’t live as long in the later survey.. However as you point out the two surveys are not comparable as well neither is the
    methodology so picking out those breeds is surely meaningless in this instance ?

  5. skeptvet says:

    You misunderstood the point in my citing those breeds. Cherry picking is when you have a claim you wish to defend, so you look at all the evidence but only select and reference that which supports your case, ignoring that which doesn’t. That is what Dr. Becker is doing.

    I have no specific claim about dog longevity that I am presenting or defending. My only point in selecting the breeds I did was to illustrate that Dr. Becker had ignored them since they did not support her claim. I am not cherry-picking here, I am providing evidence to show that Dr. Becker is.

  6. Jo Amsel says:

    Ah OK. She certainly does that.

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  8. Nancy says:

    Interesting. I recently switched my dog’s food to “raw” because I read that dogs’ lives are shorter. I need to rethink that. The cost of raw is about triple!!

  9. Charlie says:

    We bought an 8-week old Cavalier pup. I did some research which showed a large number of potential health problems, but we decided to take a chance as this breed is smart and very affectionate. Having said that, in two years we have spent over $5,000 on vets and medical tests… with no end in sight and a projected lifespan of about 5 years. It appears breeders are definitely not geneticists and are out for the buck. We paid $2,400 for our dog. The breeder offered to take her back and give us a replacement but insisted she had never sold a pup with similar problems. We are so attached to her we would never give her back, much less take a replacement from the same gene pool. I’m sure breeders count on that. And yes, I’m a little bitter about the whole experience.. I guess Gid gave her to us knowing we would do whatever we had to do to make her happy. Yes, she is on a special prescription dog food.

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  11. Jenny Haskins says:

    Personally I WOULD blame the food. Commercial ‘complete foods’ are rarely good, and some are definitely bad.
    Then the average dog’s life style toady is very different to what it was in the past. I think the food was better, but dogs died of accidents and diseases which can now be prevented. Also more people are paying for expensive operations or treatments to keep their unwell dogs alive.
    Personally try to keep my dogs comfortable and pain free, and when I cannot to that I give them the benefit of a painless death.

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  13. JCM says:

    @charlie, so you did research telling you the dog you were buying was very likely to have significant health problems, but you’re surprised and upset that the dog you bought has significant health problems? And you blame that on the breeder who already offered to replace your dog?

  14. HK says:

    This is an on point comment. Extensive surgeries have kept dogs alive longer (and likely suffering more) just because the human owner cannot let go. I do not say this with judgement as I would want to do the same with my dog. But as for kibble, it is totally bad for dog health compared to homemade food. I mean what’s better for humans or any other animal? Processed food? Or real Whole Foods? And the argument in this blog saying well being has increased in the last 100 years. Well 100 years is pretty short a time in human history. What about prehistoric human health vs modern human Health? I believe the evidence demonstrates humans are much sicker today than When humans were foragers

  15. skeptvet says:

    This simply isn’t accurate.

    1. Increases in life expectancy are not due to surgical intervention in old dogs in most cases but to a reduction in causes of death seen in the young, particularly infectious disease, malnutrition, and trauma. This is the case for humans and for our companion animals. This extends both length and quality of life. And when surgical intervention is employed in older dogs, a discussion is always had about the likely benefit in terms of quality of life for the dog. Sure, some owners may make choices I would disagree with, but I’ve seen many, many cases of old dogs given more good quality time by surgical treatment of curable problems, from foreign bodies to wounds to tumors. Your assumption here is not consistent with the evidence or with my experience in 20 years of clinical medicine.

    2. The supposed merits of fresh foods compared with kibble and canned food haven’t been proven and can’t simply be assumed because the idea sounds reasonable. The claim that these foods are the same thing as potato chips and fast food in humans is false and misleading. I have several articles discussing this issue in more detail.

    3. The idea that humans were healthier or live longer better lives in some mythical prehistoric period before modernity ruined everything is complete nonsense. People lived shorter lives with much greater suffering. Starvation, malnutrition, infection, trauma, heck every toothache or broken bone was simply endured until it went away or killed you, and most people didn’t survive too adulthood. All of that is almost unimaginable today, and the benefits of sanitation, nutrition, and medicine derived from science are so ubiquitous that it has become possible for people to take them for granted and really believe fantasies like this, at least in the developed world where we have access to the benefits of these things.

    The rise in lifestyle-associated and age-related diseases is not a reflection of the world becoming less healthy but of the incredible success we have had at reducing the things that used to hurt and kill us.

  16. Edward Peck says:

    It seems reasonable that breeding for certain physical traits and not health and temperament, feeding kibble and dog foods which are highly processed, and overloading our pets with too many vaccinations given too often are counter productive to good health and longevity. I say reasonable to assume because not enough studies have been done to prove what reasons may be responsible. There may be others which are causing dogs to get sick and die sooner. Certainly breeding practices and stress and life styles could be causative. No one can deny that many purebreds are suffering shorter and sicker lives due to the AKC influence on exaggerated physical traits. Look at Bulldogs
    and German Shepherd Dogs to name just two examples..

  17. skeptvet says:

    Sorry, but “it seems reasonable” doesn’t mean something is true. The list of villains you give, such as commercial dog food and vaccinations, already includes some misinformation, which undermines your argument. And the absence of studies isn’t license for us to just fill in whatever explanation appeals to us. Extreme breeding is absolutely a serious welfare problem, but the evidence we have on lifespan is limited, and it is as or more probable that our dogs are living longer than they used to.

  18. gary taylor says:

    Whats interesting that unlike humans dog lives have not substaially increased.

  19. skeptvet says:

    Actually, we don’t know that is true. There is some evidence dogs are living longer than they used to, and most vets feel anecdotally this is true, but the epidemiology data is so limited in vet med, that we can’t state that with the same confidence we can in humans.

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  21. Richard Serio says:

    Any dog can survive on commercial dog food but my dog
    Thrives on a BARF diet !!

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