Why our dogs die….

Having a dog in the family is like bringing death into your house because of their short life span but that doesn’t deter us

Ever wondered why our dogs die? I do. But not only do I approach it emotionally the same way you might, looking my beloved pets deep in the eyes wondering when they’ll leave me behind, I also have a way of geeking out on the mortality stats the veterinary literature occasionally offers. But then, you’d expect nothing less from me, right?

In a retrospective study of almost 75,000 dogs collected from a national veterinary database and published in the Journal of Veterinary Internal Medicine’s March/April edition (Mortality in North American Dogs from 1984 to 2004: An Investigation into Age-, Size-, and Breed-Related Causes of Death), the answers rushed onto the page in a flurry of cold hard facts.

Categorized by organ system or pathophysiologic process, then segregated by age, breed, and breed-standard mass, the causes of death were reported as following:

Young dogs died more commonly of gastrointestinal and infectious causes whereas older dogs died of neurologic and neoplastic (cancer) causes. Increasing age was associated with an increasing risk of death because of cardiovascular, endocrine, and urogenital causes, but not because of hematopoietic (blood-related) or musculoskeletal causes. Dogs of larger breeds died more commonly of musculoskeletal and gastrointestinal causes whereas dogs of smaller breeds died more commonly of endocrine causes.

All of which fits mostly with the prevailing veterinary wisdom: Young dogs die of eating stupid stuff and getting random infections while older dogs die of cancer. Meanwhile, smaller breeds are more likely to die of more complex endocrine (hormonal) issues like Cushing’s and diabetes while bigger ones succumb more often to the results of things like osteoarthritis and bloat. And yeah, advancing age is correlated with increased risk of mortality due to heart disease, endocrine dysfunction, renal failure, pyometras and prostatic disease. Makes sense.

Of all the stats, I guess the one thing that stands out is that older dogs die of neurologic disease and cancer. Of course, cancer, I get. But why neurologic disease in particular? That, to me, is an eye-opener. Just as for humans, it seems the issue of cognitive dysfunction (doggie dementia) and other forms of neurological decline deserve more consideration than we’re currently affording them.

But that’s, after all, why studies like these deserve so much of our dedicated geekiness. As the study’s authors sagely noted in their section “Conclusions and Clinical Importance”:

Not all causes of death contribute equally to mortality within age, size, or breed cohorts. Documented patterns now provide multiple targets for clinical research and intervention.

Right on.

Now, if only we could get the same kind of study done for our cats…

Dr. Patty Khuly


Pic of the day: Sad Dog by Duane Storey

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Posted by on September 14, 2011. Filed under CRITTER TALK. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry
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11 Responses to Why our dogs die….

  1. jenny40 Reply

    April 11, 2011 at 4:33 pm

    I’ve loved and lost so many dogs. Thanks for this.

  2. Holte Ender Reply

    April 11, 2011 at 4:45 pm

    When you lose an animal, ont he bright side, there are so many more in need of a good home, just waiting for you.

  3. Four Dinners Reply

    April 11, 2011 at 5:56 pm

    Ultimately they do die…generally before we do. So do cats.

    I will have a dog later when I’m home enough to have one…until then it’s cats.

    I cry every time we lose one. Usually through old age…generally around 15 to 21 years…occasionally sooner as per Max in 1990 at 8 years old with a heart attack.

    I feel no shame in saying I cried my heart out and hugged him until he went cold.

    Our pets may die but our memories keep them alive.

  4. Barbara Russo Reply

    April 11, 2011 at 7:48 pm

    It is so hard to have to say good-bye to one of your close buddies. I have the ashes from one of my beloved dogs and my son has instructions to spread our ashes together when I pass. The joke now, since I have gotten another dog is, how many of you are there going to be?…… ha ha.
    You never know son, you may need a wheelbarrow

  5. Michael John Scott Reply

    April 11, 2011 at 7:58 pm

    I have lost so many I have a little graveyard at the back of my property.

  6. lazersedge Reply

    April 19, 2011 at 2:05 am

    Though through my life I have had and lost my four legged friends the one I have now is very special to me. He is unique in that he picked us instead of the reverse. When we bought this house almost 7 years ago he was a pup running the neighborhood. I really did not want another dog because I travel so much. I tried best I could to find his owner but could not. Every time I came home he aggravated the hell out of me barking at me when I got out of the car. He was a little skinny dude and for some reason just would not leave our yard. The prior homeowners didn’t know him or where he lived. He eventually wore me down and I started feeding him. Now I don’t know if I could live without him. The skinny dude is now a 85 pound hunk of dog meat who has decided that this home belongs to him, my wife, about a dozen cats and him. All others are not welcome and he makes sure that everyone knows that. I really wish that he would out live me, but then I would not want to wish that pain on him. I wish more people had the kindness and common sense that Rascal has.

  7. AKaBooM Reply

    September 14, 2011 at 6:40 pm

    Dr Kuhly wonders about neuro issues and aging. I am not surprised, aging neuro issues are not just about cognitive dysfunction.

    Some neuro issues require a high level of owner involvement and not every owner can do that or bear the increasing involvement – physical and emotional. And some neuro diseases/disorders do not respond to medication/care as well when the dog ages.

    Seizure disorders, vestibular syndrome, degenerative myelopathy – just a few neuro issues I can think of that can be cause for euthanasia as dogs age.

    I have a degenerative myelopathy dog (2 copies of the defective SOD1 gene) who has shown symptoms for 3 years+ now … we are in very late stages and I expect to euthanize her some time late this year/early next year. She is 13 year old retriever and would still be active if not for dm.

    The defective SOD1 gene has been identified in more than 100 breeds including mixed breeds, so we may be seeing more diagnosed dm as these dogs age and earlier cause for euthanasia.

    • Michael John Scott Reply

      September 14, 2011 at 7:31 pm

      Thanks for your thoughtful comments. They are most appreciated and I’m sorry about your retriever.

  8. Anonymous Reply

    September 14, 2011 at 8:50 pm

    “Now, if only we could get the same kind of study done for our cats…”

  9. Dorothy Anderson Reply

    September 14, 2011 at 9:04 pm

    I always love reading your posts, Dr. Patty. Thank you so much. AKaBooM, I am so sorry about your retriever. You’re obviously a great mom/dad.

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