Life expectancy by breed: what research tells us

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It is only natural for us to wish for our dogs’ lives to be long. They do not live as long as we do, and it is only inevitable for us to say goodbye in the end, but the more years we get with them, the better. In nature, it’s common for large mammals to have a longer lifespan than smaller ones; this rule of thumb is reversed in dogs, with smaller dogs often enjoying longer lives than large breeds.

This is however an approximation; new research from the Royal Veterinary College’s (RVC) VetCompass programme, assessing the life expectancy of British pet dogs, has taken a more in-depth look at life expectancy at birth of the UK’s pet dogs – aiming to help dog owners “better understand the remaining life expectancy of dogs”.

Life expectancy for dogs at birth was overall 11.23 years

Life tables of annual life expectancy and mortality for companion dogs in the United Kingdom was conducted in collaboration with researchers from the National Taiwan University (NTU) in Taiwan, using analysis from a random sample of 30,563 dogs that died between 1 January 2016 and 31 July 2020. It has produced “the first life tables for dogs in the UK, reporting annual life expectancy and probability of death for the UK companion dog population, dogs of different sex and neuter status, breed groups and also for 18 breeds and crossbred dogs”.

Life expectancy for dogs at birth was overall 11.23 years, with females having a slightly longer average life expectancy than males – 11.41 years to 11.07 years.

Neutered females and males both showed a longer life expectancy than their unneutered counterparts, with a more marked difference in females – 11.98 to 10.50 years, whilst in males the difference is 11.49 to 10.58 years. However, the study cautions that life tables for neutered dogs should be interpreted with great caution.

“Neutered animals in these cited studies would have already lived to the age of neutering, biasing their life expectancy towards greater length, highlighted by the lowered probability of death at year 0–1 in neutered dogs,” the paper reports.

Life expectancy estimates varied greatly among different breeds and groups

“Neutering may also act as a proxy for stronger owner responsibility and better care, as it is often considered responsible dog ownership. Thus, neutered animals may benefit from additional survival advantages related to enhanced owner care.

“Neutering may directly affect the risks of various health conditions and therefore shift life expectancy as a result. In female dogs, neutering reduces or eliminates the risk of pyometra, a potentially life-threatening condition that occurs in 2% of entire female dogs under 10 years.”

Image by FoxTerrier on Pixabay

“Neutering is linked to a reduced risk of tumours within reproductive organs and various cardiovascular diseases, but an increased risk of joint disorders and several types of tumours such as lymphoma and hemangiosarcoma, especially in females.”

Life expectancy estimates varied greatly among different breeds and groups. Among the Kennel Club (KC) breed groups and dogs of breeds not recognised by the KC, Terriers had the longest life expectancy at birth (12.03  years), followed by Gundogs (11.67 years) and non-KC recognised dogs (11.66 years).

The French bulldog placed last by far, with an average life expectancy of just 4.5 years at birth

A Jack Russell Terrier pup has the best average life expectancy at 12.7 years, living up to its reputation as a healthy, hardy breed. The Yorkshire Terrier placed second, with 12.54 years of average life expectancy at birth; Border Collies and Springer Spaniels are close behind, with 12.1 years and 11.9 respectively. Dogs classed as ‘Crossbreed’ also placed high.

These placements did not come to great surprise at Dogs Today – and sadly, neither did the breeds who placed last.

The French bulldog placed last by far, with an average life expectancy of just 4.5 years at birth. Just above is the English bulldog at 7.4 years, Pugs at 7.7, and American Bulldogs 7.8 years.

“Breeds that show high levels of potentially life-threatening predispositions that start early in life are likely to have a higher probability of death at younger ages and therefore a decreased life expectancy,” the study reads.

More needs doing for the welfare of breeds whose increasingly exaggerated features have led to a disastrous decline in quality of life

“Indeed, four brachycephalic breeds (French Bulldog, English Bulldog, Pug and American Bulldog) that showed the shortest life expectancy at year 0 of all 18 breeds in our results are also reported with several predispositions to life-limiting disorders that occur early in life, such as brachycephalic obstructive airway syndrome, spinal disease and dystocia.”

These results are yet another reminder that more needs doing, and urgently, for the welfare of breeds whose increasingly exaggerated features have led to a disastrous decline in quality of life.

Pugs are brachycephalic dogs

Commenting the study Bill Lambert, Health, Welfare and Breeder Services Executive at The Kennel Club, said, “This new tool, funded in part by The Kennel Club Charitable Trust VetCompass grant, helps us understand and determine more accurately a dog’s life expectancy given different factors throughout their lives, instead of just based on historic breed estimates.

“This new approach helps us and others to identify particular conditions or events that can happen early on in life that may have an impact on a dog’s life expectancy, and we hope this will play a part in supporting owners to understand their dog, make responsible decisions and provide good care, and help would-be owners to select the right breed for them.

The poor quality of life of the brachycephalic breeds at the bottom of the list is far from news

“Whilst some of these breeds have only recently become popular, and so we might not have such a full picture of their overall longevity as of yet, using information and research to create new tools like this is invaluable in our work to make a difference to the lives of such dogs and their owners.”

Old-time readers may find the statement rings a little hollow. While this research is a new and valuable insight in our dogs’ life expectancy, the poor quality of life of the brachycephalic breeds at the bottom of the list is far from news.

A 2016 study published in Canine Genetics and Epidemiology found that English bulldogs have “very low genetic diversity resulting from a small founder population and artificial genetic bottlenecks”. In short, they were deemed to be too inbred to improve without outcrossing – a solution the Kennel Club has repeatedly rejected.

Many breeds can be subject to genetic conditions as the result of careless breeding, but the situation becomes particularly dire when extreme features are considered desirable and are deliberately bred for, as is the case for flat-faced dogs.

Dogs with exaggerated features keep being named Best in Breed and Best in Group at Crufts

Dr Justine Shotton, BVA President, said, “These life tables offer an important insight into the life expectancy of popular dog breeds in the UK and will be a useful tool for vets and pet owners in assessing dog welfare.

“A concerning finding is the lower life expectancy for flat-faced breeds. While the study doesn’t prove a direct link between these breeds’ potential welfare issues and shorter length of life, the findings serve as a fresh reminder for prospective dog owners to choose a breed based on health, not looks.”

Yet, despite years campaigning and the pledges from the Kennel Club to work to improve the situation, dogs with exaggerated features keep being named Best in Breed and Best in Group at Crufts – with less extreme examples of the breed overlooked time and time again.

This year’s edition was no exception. Dr Samantha Gaines, dog welfare expert at RSPCA, was far from impressed by the exaggerated features of several dogs at Crufts 2022 – features which were celebrated despite being detrimental to the dogs’ welfare. The English Bulldog Best of Breed was particularly disappointing, as a dog with an extreme flat face won out against dogs with features more compatible with their well-being.

Life tables are widely used for humans, but are now being applied to dogs for the first time

“Despite the overwhelming body of research highlighting the welfare impact of extreme body shapes and particularly brachycephaly, progress has been incredibly slow,” Gaines wrote. “However, recent positive amends to the French bulldog breed standard and prizes given to healthier examples of typically exaggerated breeds earlier in the week did offer a glimmer of hope.

“Sadly, this glimmer rapidly faded as we saw the dogs awarded Best in Breed brought out for Best in Group. Across all three dogs, exaggerated features were still very obvious, including flat faces, folded and wrinkled skin as well as short and curly tails.”

Life tables are widely used for humans, but are now being applied to dogs for the first time thanks to the access to large-scale population information made possible by the VetCompass programme.

With the construction and application of life tables “still in its infancy,” the paper reads, “life table literacy is important for veterinary professionals, shelter staff, and dog owners because it can optimise decision-making and subsequently can positively impact dog welfare”.

Should all of this put you off adopting an adult or older dog whose breed’s life expectancy is not all that good? Not necessarily

“Life table literacy will promote realistic expectations for the life expectancy of dogs at different ages, helping to make treatment plans for illness and end of life decisions.

“Shelters and charities can also incorporate this information in the adoption process ensuring that potential dog owners understand the expected length of ownership commitment required for dogs of different breeds, ages, and neuter status.”

Christmas pug

Should all of this put you off adopting an adult or older dog whose breed’s life expectancy is not all that good? Not necessarily – and this is where a little knowledge of how statistics work comes into play.

Think, for example, of the popular misconception that people in the middle ages should count themselves lucky to make it to age 35, and would be considered ancient by the time they hit their mid-forties. The average life expectancy was indeed quite low, but we now know that it was not overly uncommon for individuals to reach their seventies or even go beyond – so what is the cause of this discrepancy?

You can make each other happy – regardless of how much time you have together

The answer is simple: the high rate of infant mortality. With so many children not surviving into adulthood, it’s inevitable for the overall life expectancy to be dragged down. However, if you were to survive childhood – and were lucky enough to avoid occupational hazards of the time such as the pox and plague – you would have had a fair shot at living to a relatively advanced age, well beyond the average life expectancy.

The same thing happens with dogs. The study found that some breeds – including American Bulldog, Chihuahua, English Bulldog, French Bulldog, Husky and Pug – had a probability of death before reaching adulthood “much higher than the overall dogs”, and acknowledges that high rates of mortality in young dogs drag down the breed’s average life expectancy.

It is an unfortunate reality that some dogs will die young, and irresponsible breeding practices, as well as extreme breed standards, have a lot to answer for. But if you have the chance to adopt one of these dogs, even later in life, don’t let life expectancy put you off: they may very well have quite a  few years left to enjoy with you.

And most of all, you can make each other happy – regardless of how much time you have together.

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