2006-11-23 / Columnists

Pets, Pets, Pets

...by Joanne Anderson

Mayflower left and Sarge, right Mayflower left and Sarge, right Editor's Note: The following- "The Feline Fountain of Youth" first published in the Massapequa Post, March 16, 2006, is one of three "Pets, Pets, Pets" columns nominated in this year's Cat Writers Association (CWA) Communication Contest. Joanne received this award called a Muse Medallion in the "Newspaper Article" category at the CWA Conference in San Francisco last weekend.

Cats may own the Fountain of Youth. They are masters at disguising their age. So much so, that vets have trouble estimating how old stray cats are. There are only a few times in a feline's life when age is relatively easy to pinpoint. The teeth are the benchmarks of youth; whereas eyes are a clue to senior status.

Dogs fall apart like us. They show their age. Canines slow down and gray faster than their feline friends. Not as dignified, dogs are more apt to engage in hobbies, like Frisbee or rock chewing, that wear down their teeth. The puppyish exuberance in a mature dog seems to go long before the kittenish flexibility of the adult cat. Many felines in their twilight teen years can still jump with ease. Dogs have usually stopped attempting the old leaps by then. In addition, more cats survive into their 20s than dogs. The oldest cat in the Guinness Book was "Crme Puff" of Austin, Texas who turned 37 in 2004.

So how do guess the age of a found cat with no history? Kittens are much easier to judge than cats. First look at the teeth. Kittens do not start getting baby (deciduous) teeth until they're 3-4 weeks old, and all baby teeth are in by 8 weeks. By the time the kitten is 6 months old, the baby teeth have been replaced with adult teeth.

After that, most folks try to estimate by looking for wear or tartar build-up. This takes an experienced eye because some cats just have better teeth. Certain pure breeds, like Abyssinians and Persians, are predisposed to dental problems, and other strays may have had a better diet or their teeth brushed. Typically, by 2 years, the molars usually have some tartar; by 5, more tartar on the molars and some on the canines as well. Then by middle to older age, the incisors begin to wear down, and eventually, teeth may begin to fall out (like those of a 10 year old Siamese mix at Babylon Shelter that left for Last Hope). By age 12, some incisors may be missing.

In older cats, the lens of the eye begins to show signs of aging. This condition, called lenticular sclerosis, usually begins around age 8-9. As the animal gets older, the nucleus of the lens becomes denser, harder, and somewhat cloudy, often with a blue-green tinge. This becomes more obvious as the cat ages, but should not be confused with cataracts which can cause blindness. Fortunately, vision is not significantly affected by lenticular sclerosis until the last stages of the cat's life.

In 2000 three veterinarians came up with an interesting test for estimating both dog and cat age, within 2 to 3 years, by shining a penlight into the animal's eyes and measuring the size of the reflection. As the pet ages, the size of the reflection gets larger. They claimed it was the first realistic method for mature cats, and twice as accurate as dental assessment in dogs more than 4 years. I recall reading about this then, but have found little to verify how reliable this technique is.

Cats have also discovered a fountain of Miss Clairol. The graying process on the face varies from cat to cat but is so subtle that it goes undetected. Perhaps the various feline multicolor patterns help camouflage the gray. Dark dogs lose pigment early. White faces on Golden retrievers and Irish setters age them prematurely. My black longhair cat died at 13, still as dark as can be, but my 2 year old Afghan hound already shows slight gray on her muzzle. Graying is not a determinant when guessing a cat's age.

With better veterinary care and responsible owners, life expectancy in cats is now better than ever. The biggest variable is whether the cat lives indoors or outdoors. Indoor cats generally live from 12-18 years with many surviving into their early 20s. The average age for outdoor cats is around 4-5 years because there are so many dangers. Outdoor cats are often victims of trauma like car accidents and dog attacks. They are also more susceptible to infections, parasites and viruses from altercations and prolonged exposure to other free roaming cats.

Outdoor cats, the battle-scarred strays, have a hard life so they look "older" than their pampered, indoor kin. Add this tough life to the cosmetic equation, estimating age gets even harder. Cats are not about to offer up any hints. Senior cats become Norma Desmond. Just like the fading screen legend: "All right, Mr. DeMille, I'm ready for my close-up," (but I won't reveal my age). Staying secretive 'til the end is part of the feline star's mystique.


Oyster Bay Town Shelter (677-5784) Miller Pl. Syosset has a selection of lovely adult cats of indeterminate age. There are also plenty of kittens. "Mayflower" #1085, a sweet, mature Russian blue type, is snuggling with the Snoopy Pilgrim. She's a great cat. Meanwhile back in the kennel, "Sarge" #1082, a big boned Shepherd mix was quite cooperative. He sat at attention as soon as we asked him to pose for his picture. Both would like to share a drumstick, and more importantly, a home with you. Happy Thanksgiving!

Female: "Pebbles" #1092- a 6 yr. Wheaten/Lhasa. Her owner is quite ill and had to give her up; "Dee Dee"#1010- the Pointer mix.

Male: Two affectionate cats- "Creamcicle"#859- the orange polydactyland "Bob"- last week's poster tabby- have been moved to the lobby showcases; "Joltin'Joe" #893- the cream Shepherd.

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