Britain has long been touted as a nation of animal lovers, which was confirmed last year when we spent a record £6 billion on our pets. But as medical care becomes better, animals are living longer and this is contributing to a rise in old-age conditions that would have been rarer in the past.
There are an estimated 1.3 million dogs and cats with dementia in the UK, with half of all cats aged over 15 suffering from dementia and 41 per cent of dogs aged over 14. This is partly as a result of rising life expectancy, which means pets are suffering from conditions where in the past they wouldn't have lived long enough to experience them.
Putting an animal with dementia down does not have to be the only option; with care, senile pets can live perfectly comfortable lives. However, extra vigilance is required if this course of action is taken, as there can be a range of things to watch out for, such as confusion moving around familiar objects or routes, disregard for previously learned training including soiling within the house, anxiety, lack of self-grooming (fur may become matted) and notably changes in their sleep cycle such as night walking.
It can be extremely difficult for a vet to diagnose pet dementia in the course of a consultation and this is why it is so important that pet owners are aware of the signs. By using the simplified '1-to-7' ratio people may not be aware of when they should start looking for signs of dementia or taking extra care.
A better understanding of the ageing process of pets and how size and breed can influence this should be something that pet owners look into as standard when considering buying an animal.
A separate but important issue exists here with rising human life expectancies meaning that the standard '1-to-7' dog year ratio is becoming obsolete. Most pet owners I know stand by the 'one size fits all' method to gauge their pets' equivalent stages of life, but the reality is far more complex and can negatively affect the health of our pets further down the line.
The background to this is incredibly interesting. The measurement of 'dog years' has a long history, with a Judgment Day calculation inscribed at Westminster Abbey in 1268 declaring a ratio of 9 to 1 dog years to human years. In 1953, a French researcher named Lebeau categorised life-stage markers shared by humans and dogs - puberty, adulthood, and maximum lifespan - and established, for the first time, that dogs age 15 to 20 times faster than a human in their first year of life and then, as they age, gradually slow to a ratio of one to five dog to human years.
As we humans grow older, calculating the equivalent age of our pets becomes harder. Owners must keep this in mind and think about the same issues we humans face in old age in their pets.