Technology isn’t just extending human lives—our pets are living longer too: Peter Nowak

It was a tough week for my wife and I as we had to say goodbye to one of our cats and then ship another off for surgery to remove a brain tumor. Fortunately, he’s doing well and is on the road to recovery, but we miss our departed kitty greatly.

It all got me thinking about mortality. Heading into my forties, I’ve actually been blessed with not having to really deal with death yet. I’ve had some grandparents that I didn’t really know pass away, plus the relatives of some good friends, but otherwise I’ve never lost anyone close to me until our poor kitty.

It’s a fact I became more aware of a few months ago while interviewing vampire author Anne Rice for my upcoming book Humans 3.0. We were talking about the effects of technology on life expectancy and she remarked on how many people in the most advanced parts of the world simply don’t understand or accept death today because of its relative rarity:

“We’re seeing death in a new way. Instead of taking it for granted, the people I know see it as a personal catastrophe. I get emails from people who are actually surprised that someone has died. They regard it as an injustice. I understand their feelings, I get it, but the fact is this is a fairly new perspective on death. Nobody in the 1900s would have regarded death as a personal catastrophe. They would have mourned and might have been grief stricken, but they saw death all around them.”

We could certainly understand what she was saying this week, as the passing of our pet was really one of the toughest things we’ve had to experience.

But it also made me curious about the point of that conversation. Rice and I were discussing the effects of technology on human health and how it has certainly helped – but what about animals? That wasn’t something we touched on, so I couldn’t help but wonder: Are our pets seeing the same benefits of technology?

According to the best research available, they are. Banfield Pet Hospital, a chain of 800 animal clinics based in Portland, produces an annual State of Pet Health report. According to the latest installment, domestic animals are indeed seeing an uptick in their life expectancies, much like humans.

Dogs have seen an improvement of 4% over the past decade, or nearly half a year to an average age of 11. Cats have had it even better, with life expectancy improving 10% to an average of 12 years, an increase of one year over the same time. Our little guy was actually 17, so he got his money’s worth.

I spoke with Dr. Sandi Lefebvre, a Canadian trained at the Ontario Veterinary College in Guelph who helped compile the study, about the improvements. She attributes them to some of the same factors that are behind gains in human longevity, particularly in preventative care. Today’s animal care providers have access to high-quality computed tomography and magnetic resonance imaging scans, plus echo cardiology and digital dental x-rays.

“We have better ways of detecting disease than we ever did before. This helps us to take action on pets that are sick as opposed to saying, ‘I’m sorry, I don’t know what’s wrong with your pet. It’s suffering, I’d recommend euthanasia,’” she says. “Pets can’t tell us what’s going so we have better ways of finding out without actually asking them. This technology is speaking for the pets.”

After the fact, pets are also receiving better treatment through improved surgical technologies – such as lasers for brain tumors – and better drugs and chemo-therapy. Recent years have also seen significant advances in psychological treatment, where behaviours are being understood better. In the past, a good number of pets were put down for behaviours that their owners couldn’t deal with, such as uncontrollable urination, for example.

With the rise of pet psychologists – dog and cat whisperers, like Jackson Galaxy on the show My Cat From Hell – that’s not happening as much. “These pets aren’t being euthanized like they used to be,” says Dr. Lefebvre.

The downside to all of this is that while pet care has dramatically improved in quality in recent times, it’s still extraordinarily expensive. That’s similar to human health care, but at least here in Canada, people aren’t exposed to those costs thanks to a good state insurance system.

Pets don’t have that luxury. Surgeries can run thousands of dollars while even costly simple procedures can spur owners toward choosing euthanasia instead. Insurance, meanwhile, can be very expensive and cover less and less the older a pet gets.

My wife and I offer simple advice on this to any pet owners out there: start your own insurance fund. It might be only $30 or so that you squirrel away each month, but it will ultimately pay off when you need it without being prohibitively costly on a regular basis.

All told, Dr. Lefebvre can’t say with certainty that pets are living longer than they ever have, but the fact that owners are caring for them more with better technology would seem to suggest that. It’s a trend that’s likely to continue, she says.

Not satisfied, I also spoke with Mary Elizabeth Thurston, an expert on animal companionship, author of The Lost History of the Canine Race and historian for the Hartsdale Pet Cemetery, the oldest continuously operated animal burial ground in the United States. She says animals are following similar health patterns as humans, like how around one out of eight females of either species gets breast cancer.

“It’s a reflection that we’re all living in the same environment with the same environmental factors.”

Animals are thus experiencing the same health problems as people, particularly when it comes to nutrition. With most modern pet foods being highly processed, particularly with corn gluten, pets are also seeing upticks in issues such as obesity and diabetes. These issues make it a little tougher to judge whether cats and dogs really have it better today than they did before. “It’s one of the big issues facing companion animals today,” she says.

Thurston points to Pukka’s Promise, a recent best-selling book by outdoorsman Ted Kerasote, about his quest to extend his dogs’ lives. Part of his plan includes putting them back on a primitive diet, which includes the elk that he hunts as well as wild berries.

It’s only when this sort of low-tech approach is combined with modern high-tech preventative and medical technologies that our pets will really start to see improvements in their longevity, Thurston says.