Increasingly, cats are living longer, healthier lives

Q: We just had our cat put sleep; he was 20 years and four months old. How long do cats and dogs usually live? -- L.S., Bradenton, FL

A: I'm so sorry to hear about your cat, but at least he enjoyed a long life, longer than most. Increasingly, though, cats are living (and in good health) to age 20 or longer.

While there is no national database on pet health, Banfield the Pet Hospital maintains an amazing database, which includes information from over 800 hospitals. It can likely provide an accurate snapshot. According to the Banfield State of Pet Health 2013 report, pets are living longer: The average lifespan of a cat in 2012 was 12 years, which has increased by 10 percent since 2002, adding a full year to a cat's life. The average lifespan of a dog in 2012 was 11 years, a four percent increase adding a half a year to a dog's average lifespan.

Additional findings in the 2013 report include the impact of spaying and neutering on a pet's lifespan. Data reveals neutered male cats live, on average, 62 percent longer than unneutered males, and spayed female cats live, on average, 39 percent longer than unspayed female cats. An increase in longevity was also seen in dogs. Neutered male dogs live, on average, 18 percent longer than their unneutered counterparts, and spayed female dogs live, on average, 23 percent longer than unspayed females.

We also know that being proactive by taking a pet for regular preventive checkups to maintain good health and diagnose illness early when it may be easier (and less expensive) to treat, adds to longevity and quality of life. I believe quality of life is what's most important for our pets; it's not how long they live but how well they live.

Q: I read your recent column on preventive care. Does teeth cleaning matter? -- R.S., Fort Lauderdale, FL

A: "Absolutely," says Dr. Kate Knutson, president of the American Animal Hospital Association. "The secret to effective oral care is starting with a clean mouth. Otherwise, you may be brushing on abscesses (infected teeth). It may feel like taking a scrub brush to an open wound. It hurts, so no wonder the pet doesn't take to brushing."

Knutson, of Bloomington, MN, is an enthusiastic supporter of x-rays for pets' teeth for similar reasons that human dentists x-ray our teeth. Since x-rays in animals are done under anesthesia, Knutson notes that it doesn't cost much extra money to then have clinic staff conduct a cleaning.

"Appropriate dental care prevents bacteria from building up, which could otherwise lead to disease," she adds. "Also, living with bad teeth and gums is painful. For example, many cats (and small dogs) aren't being finicky, the truth is it may hurt to eat."

Q: Why doesn't my beagle bark? He howls (a lot) and makes sounds like he's talking, but he doesn't bark. -- F.G., Knoxville, TN

A: Howling is the default for many beagles. Or maybe your pup is doing sort of a howl/bark fusion you call a howl.

You didn't mention your dog's age. Sometimes it takes a while for puppies to "grow into" their bark. Newly-adopted dogs may take some time to muster the confidence to bark.

Believe me, I know a few beagle owners who wish they were in your shoes!

Q: My friend adopted a kitten off the street. Socks will sometimes become very still, squint her eyes, stalk and attack my friend, even biting so hard that it bleeds. Sometimes she'll even bite my friend's face. My friend has used a water bottle to squirt the cat, which sometimes works, as it does keep her off counters. Socks used to sleep with my friend, but now hides in the basement at night. My friend is terrified. Can you shed any light on what's going on here? -- V.M., Cyberspace

A: "Cats, especially kittens, love to stalk and pounce; it's what they do," says cat veterinarian Dr. Elizabeth Colleran, of Chico, CA. "Cats who may not have had the advantage of their mother and littermates as teachers may not know not to bite down so hard. It's important that your friend play with her cat using an interactive toy (such as fishing pole-type toy with feathers). You should never use your hands or feet as play objects, even with young kittens."

Your friend is already familiar with some of the cues, such as stalking and squinting; others include tail flashing, a cat's ears rotating back, the cat crouching. The instant she sees any of these, she should toss a toy (a squeaky mouse toy or a toy that moves, like a little ball) in one direction for the cat to chase, while she slowly walks off in another direction. She should keep toys in her pocket so she's always ready.

As for the cat biting at your friend's face, I'm not sure what's going on, but she needs to prevent the cat from having that opportunity.

Colleran, the American Association of Feline Practitioners spokesperson for Cat Friendly Practices, is somewhat concerned that the cat hides overnight, and wonders why. She also wonders if perhaps your friend is being more punitive toward her cat than simply squirting water. She may be doing something as simple as her screaming at the cat for harming her (which is understandable) and also squirting the water. As a result, the cat has associated the unpleasant experience with the owner. Since hiding is a new behavior, Colleran also wonders if there's a medical explanation, so seeing your veterinarian makes sense.

(Steve Dale welcomes questions/comments from readers. Although he can't answer all of them individually, he'll answer those of general interest in his column Send e-mail to PETWORLD(at)STEVE DALE.TV. Include your name, city and state. Steve's website is http://www.stevedalepetworld.com; he also hosts the nationally syndicated "Steve Dale's Pet World" and "The Pet Minute." He's also a contributing editor to USA Weekend.)

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