Dog Years

Bill Coffin


March 1, 2010

dogThey say dogs age seven years for every human year, but that's not entirely true. Dogs reach the human equivalent age of about 25 by the time they are two years old, and that seven-to-one thing kicks in some time later. The size of the breed affects things too; smaller dogs live longer than larger ones. As it is, my dog Sidney is about 105, which for a dog her size is well above the age curve. As I write this, I am heading home on the train, having received news that poor Sid lies on the floor of our kitchen, unable to walk. Earlier in the day, she screamed and collapsed; the vet seems to think she will be fine in a few days, likening her to a '57 Chevy with 400,000 miles on it, but even that strikes me as optimistic. That's the thing about dogs; for as much as you love them, their lives are entirely too short.

Cats, for instance, can count on living into their 20s, especially now that cat food has been reformulated in recent years to include a vital amino acid housecats need. That single step has added an average of a decade of extra life to the domesticated mouser. That means our cat Kismet, barring any disasters, should make it at least until my kids are out of college. But there are animal companions who make it even longer, and I find myself suddenly envious of them. For example, take Cheetah, the famous chimpanzee that starred in the old Tarzan movies. Cheetah lived to 75, enjoying his sunset years in Palm Springs, California, reportedly watching TV, painting and playing the piano. As a matter of reference, Cheetah's co-star Johnny Weissmuller only made it to 79. I hope he had as nice a retirement too.

Living even longer still was Charlie, a blue macaw reportedly bought by Winston Churchill two years before the beginning of WWII and trained to squawk anti-Nazi epithets. However, the fellow who bought Charlie in 1964 is unable to prove the bird's past ownership, and even Churchill's own estate has no record of Charlie. Given the bird's wartime tirades, one would think such a pet would have been impossible to overlook, but even if Charlie turns out to be made up, it seems that his reported age of 104 isn't out of the realm of possibility.But Charlie has nothing on the Japanese koi Hanako, which died in 1977 at the incredible age of 226, verified by counting the growth rings on its scales. Hanako became a family heirloom, outliving several owners along the way. To keep Hanako's life in perspective, it was born into a Japan that was still a land of samurai and feudal lords and left a world that had viewed Neil Armstrong's moon landing. And Hanako wasn't exactly unique; by the time of its death, its pondmates ranged in age from 150 to 179. Must be something in those food pellets.

But the true grand-daddy of animal companions old is Adwaita, a giant tortoise from the Seychelles Islands that was a pet of British adventurer Lord Clive. Clive rose to prominence in the East India Company but succumbed to an opium addiction and died in 1774 at the age of 49. Some time after that, the tortoise was moved to Alipore Zoo in Belgali, where it lived for more than 130 years. When it got a leg infection in 1998, a full medical board was scrambled to address it. When Adwaita finally died in 2006, it was from an infected crack in its shell, and when the creature passed, the entire zoo staff held a moment of silence in admiration for a lost friend. Eventually, they had to carbon date Adwaita's shell to determine its true age, which is now believed to be around 255. It makes me wonder how old I am in tortoise years, but I'd rather not find out.

As it turns out, Sid had bone cancer so advanced that it ate through her leg, and what was left snapped under her weight. We put her down that night, a decision that the trauma vet agreed with, saying it was the most humane option for Sid. I'll never forget those last moments with her, my head touching hers, as she faded away. And afterwards, I thought how strange it was that my last act of loving that dog was to kill her. It hurt. Why even own a dog, when you know you'll have to put it out of its misery in the long run. After all, anybody with a dog is just taking on a liability with a nearly 100% change of a total loss, and that simply isn't smart risk management. But when I got it home, my six-year-old son helped me get my perspective back. "I miss Sidney so much," he said through his tears. "But please can we get another dog?"

Sure, little man. We can get another dog. I wouldn't have it any other way.
Bill Coffin is a freelance writer and former editor in chief of Risk Management.