Aging Pets: Senior, Geriatric and What It All Means to Experts and Readers

Senior Dog and Cat
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What do the terms "senior" and "geriatric" mean to you when it comes to dogs and cats? Do you think your definition is the same as your vet's?

We wondered at what age pet owners and professionals thought those terms applied to dogs of various sizes and cats, so we polled 213 veterinary professionals (including veterinarians, technicians and office staff) and 1,896 readers to get their feedback. As we suspected, there was some disconnect between the groups' use of those words.

When Does a Dog Qualify as Senior or Geriatric?

People often throw around the term "dog years" as a way to describe time, but when it comes down to it, most of us know that the oft-quoted "one human year equals seven dog years" equation is nothing more than a loose approximation. Most people understand that dogs of varying breeds and sizes age at different rates, so we broke the question down into when small, medium, large and giant breed dogs would be considered senior or geriatric.

Regardless of size, veterinary professionals considered dogs senior earlier than pet owners: 5 to 7 years old was the answer among 79 percent of professionals, while the majority of pet owners (57 percent) believed that 7 to 9 years was more accurate. If we break it down by size, the trend still holds true: Small, medium and large dogs were all considered senior at around 7 by veterinary professionals, with giant breed dogs hitting the senior mark around 5. Most readers considered small dogs senior around 11, medium dogs near 9, and both large and giant breed dogs around 7.

The term "geriatric" fared in much the same way: Veterinary professionals tended to consider dogs in general to be geriatric around 9 years old, while readers were more likely to select "around 11 years old" as geriatric. Veterinary professionals considered small and medium dogs geriatric around 11, large dogs near 9, and giant breeds around 7. Readers felt that small dogs were not geriatric until they were older than 13. For medium dogs, "around 11 years old" and "around 13 years old" tied among readers, who said large dogs were geriatric around 11 and giant breeds close to 9.

All of that being said, vets were more likely to be in agreement on those terms than pet owners, so it could be concluded that vets have a more concrete understanding of the terms "senior" and "geriatric" than your average pet owner when it comes to dogs.

What About Cats?

Answering the same questions in regard to our feline friends was a bit simpler: The highest percentage of veterinary professionals considered cats senior around 9 years old and geriatric around 13. Readers went a little older when it came to senior, with the highest percentage choosing 11 years old, and 51 percent agreeing with vets on the geriatric age as 13.

The Terms and Their Use

With so many similar answers, you might wonder whether there's a difference in how veterinary professionals and pet owners view the terms "senior" and "geriatric." The answer is "yes." More than 77 percent of veterinary professionals and pet owners alike said there was a difference between the terms "senior" and "geriatric." However, readers were more likely to believe there was no difference between the terms than veterinary professionals (17 percent versus 14 percent), with the remainder of both groups offering no opinion (9 percent of veterinary professionals and 6 percent of readers).

Is the fact that pet owners understand the terms to have different meanings owed to veterinarians using both "senior" and "geriatric" (whichever is applicable) when talking to them? Not as much as you might think. Though 96 percent of veterinary professionals refer to aging patients as "senior," only about half say they use the word "geriatric" after a pet advances past "senior" age. Of course, it stands to reason that veterinary professionals see more senior pets than geriatric pets, but that's still quite a difference.

But how do our readers feel about the terms? There's not much concern about "senior," with 95 percent saying they would not be offended if their vet referred to their pet as such, and only 3 percent saying they would be offended. The remaining 2 percent had no opinion. They were a bit touchier about "geriatric," however, with 85 percent saying they would not be offended, 11 percent saying they would be, and 4 percent offering no opinion.

How do you feel about the terms? Do you use them? Does it bother you if someone refers to your pet as "senior" or "geriatric"?


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