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Sighthound Longevity

Bo Bengtson wonders why we don’t talk more about how old our dogs get.

How old will your Sighthound get? I can’t imagine a more important question to ask, whether you are a new owner bringing your first puppy home or a seasoned fancier whose dogs are inching into seniority. How long can we reasonably expect our dogs to brighten our lives? Strangely, this is not a subject that’s talked about much, perhaps because of a certain squeamishness in discussing a subject that’s really a matter of life an death. And, of course, when you have a puppy, the question of old age, infirmity and dealth seems blissfully distant.

 

Nevertheless, it’s worth thinking about. Do our dogs, as many believe, live longer lives today than they did in the past? If so, does a longer life span mean that the dogs are really healthier than they used to be? I don’t have any solid answers, but I am hoping others with similar concerns will provide more information. This is certainly a subject that deserves to be aired much more openly.

 

It is surprisingly difficult to establish what the average life span is for any large group of dogs. For one thing, while the birth date of any registered dog is usually easy to find, the date that a dog dies is seldom made public. Then there’s the question of how you estimate average life span. Should this be based on the dog’s date of birth, from the day the puppy leaves its breeder (usually around two months of age), or from the day it reaches adult age — one year or two? Also, of course, for the figures to be really useful one needs to know the cause of death. Did the dog die from a freak accident (and, if so, should this affect the statistics?), was its life cut short from a specific disease, or did it die from natural causes in old age?

 

Just how many puppies die in the first two months after birth can only be learned from a breeder’s personal records — provided, of course, that the breeder keeps reliable data and is willing to share them. Most breeders are not anxious to allow others to peek into the privacy of their whelping box, at least not beyond the stereotypically happy picture of a healthy litter nursing or playing. 

 

For what it’s worth, I don’t mind sharing my own records, although of course those figures are much too low to constitute a statistically valid average. A total of 43 Whippet litters bred (1966-2011) and 253 puppies born over almost 50 years resulted in 22 puppies that died in the first eight weeks — most of them within the first 24 hours after birth. That includes a few that didn’t make it after a c-section (very rare in my breed; I’ve only experienced two), but most were simply either stillborn or weak. I have no idea if this is a normal figure, but based on hearsay evidence it seems to be about average. 

 

(For the record, at the time I wrote the above I was no longer actively breeding, which made it easier for me to share the figures than it would have been for someone who was still producing puppies. The retirement from breeding didn't last: in 2018 I bred another litter, a large one: 12 puppies, 11 live and one born dead. One additional bitch puppy was so small that we didn't think she would last the night, but she was feisty, lived and grew steadily — at just over two years old she's now doing extremely well.)

 

At two months of age the puppy has become an individual, independent from dam and siblings, with its own name, often a new owner and a new life. The first year is obviously fraught with danger, perhaps especially for Sighthound puppies, who develop quicksilver speed before learning adult motor skills, which can result in tragedy. At least seven dogs that I have bred were killed by a car or in a similar accident, usually at a young age. Other than that, it seems Whippets stay pretty healthy at least up until late middle age.

 

Once a puppy goes to a new home it can be difficult to know for the breeder how its life develops. Most puppy buyers stay in touch at first, but over the years you inevitably lose touch, which makes it difficult to know how long the dogs you’ve bred live. It’s sad, but also rewarding in its own way, to hear from someone who bought one of your puppies 15 or 16 years ago, how much that dog meant to the whole family. In recent years I’ve had such letters from owners whose dogs were 17 or 18 years old. I don’t remember any Whippets getting as old as that a few decades ago, but I wonder if that’s simply because then communication was more difficult, and we just knew less.

 

There are also differences between the various Sighthound breeds. Some years ago an Irish Wolfhound study established, if I remember correctly, that the average life span of that breed to around six-and-a-half years. If that’s incorrect I am sure I will hear about it. On the other hand, e.g. Salukis often don’t even reach full maturity until five or six years of age, and many that are much older are still competitive in the show ring. It would be interesting to know about any recent studies that have been made for any of the Sighthound breeds.

 

Failing other information there’s always the Internet. Wikipedia simply says that smaller dogs often live over 15–16 years, medium and large size dogs typically 10 to 13 years, and giant breeds often only 7 to 8 years. I found one study from 2007, “Dog Longevity,” by Dr. Kelly M. Cassidy, that lists average age of breeds. I don’t know if the figures include e.g. puppy deaths and living old dogs, but here are the average ages listed: Afghan Hounds 11-12 years, Basenjis 13, Borzoi 9, Greyhounds 10-11, Irish Wolfhounds 6-7, Pharaoh Hounds 10-11, Rhodesian Ridgebacks 9, Salukis 12, Scottish Deerhounds 8-9, Whippets 12-13 and Italian Greyhounds 10 years.

 

By far the most comprehensive data comes courtesy of the Whippet Breed Archives (https://whippet.breedarchive.com). Publisher Karin Schellner wrote in 2014 that of the nearly 200,000 dogs in the archives (six years later the total had increased to 324,560 dogs), almost all had a birth date listed, but only 5,087 had a date of death recorded at the time, so even that is not statistically reliable. However, it’s encouraging to see that only 542 of these were three years old or less when they died, nearly 1,000 were at least six, at least half were 11-12 years old at death, and 465 reached an age of 16 years. Fifteen of these dogs turned 18, five were 20 years old, and one reportedly celebrated its 22nd birthday before it died!

 

This is, of course, just a brief overview. There’s a lot more to be said and discussed. I look forward to reading your comments: write to sighthoundreview@impulse.net.

 

 

The Whippet Izzy, 12 years old.

The Whippet Izzy, 12 years old.”

The Whippet Izzy, 12 years old.”

 
An earlier version of this article was published in Sighthound Review 2014/1, but the text has been updated and edited.

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