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When you spot that first tuft of grey...

In a dog’s world, ageing is gracious and there’s no need to panic at the sight of greying hair. Human parents, however, are still humans and freak out they will.
Last Updated : 15 October 2022, 20:15 IST

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During my last visit home, Pippi was exhilarated to see me, and like a good boy, decided to put his head on my lap and grab a siesta. While my fingers stoked his whiskers, I saw some tufts of grey hair on his muzzle — and my heart sank. Was Pippi growing old already? He’s almost six, but only six! In a split second, the image of an old, frail and limp Pippi flashed in front of my eyes. How do our pets grow old so fast? In a minute, he was up, barking at the garbage truck, as if nothing had changed. For him, indeed nothing had changed. But, I now see him in a new light, like I saw my grandma.

I have a special place in my heart for old dogs. I admire their majestic walk with a healthy dose of pride, a subtle balance of curiosity and wisdom in their head, and a big-hearted generosity to tolerate most nuisance.

With Pippi, he is slowly but steadily getting there. He is less anxious and more relaxed on his walks these days, has an extended sleep time during the day, loves a preset schedule with no sudden disruptions and enjoys life at his pace — just like life should be enjoyed. So far, he isn’t showing any signs of distress, but he is stoic and we’ll need to pay close attention. His eyesight is great, his cognition is laser-sharp and his muscles are toned like they always have been. His muzzle is turning grey and he seems to have a newfound fondness for younger dogs. Is that old age mellowing him? Perhaps.

When I first saw the tuft of grey, I wanted to know how old he actually was in human parlance. The often-told ‘one dog-year equals seven human years’ is a myth long disregarded by science. But, a recent study last year found a convincing but convoluted formula that is closer to the science of ageing but needs a scientific calculator. You first need to find out the natural logarithm of the dog’s age, multiply that by 16 and then add 31.

While only Labrador retrievers were used in the study, scientists say this could be a guideline for most dogs. Ageing, like birth and death, is a natural process. The gymnastics with numbers above are based on how ageing starts with our DNA, which attaches certain chemicals produced in our body called methyl groups to itself. These groups don’t alter the DNA but can turn certain genes on or off. Scientists dub this process of attaching methyl groups the ‘epigenetic clock’. If all the calendars in the world were to go bust, scientists could still tell how old one is by looking at the methyl groups on the DNA — the older we are, the more our DNA has them. For dogs, however, this process is at top speed between two and five years, and hence they age really fast. Later on, the process slows down, giving us more time with our beloved pets.

So, for Pippi, who’s now almost six, that’s 60 years! Yes, a milestone for humans in many cultures, and ripe for retirement. But he has a long way to go, and lots of love to give before he can retire as a dog. And unlike humans, he has no need to colour his grey muzzle, or prop his sagging skin, because in a dog’s world, ageing is gracious and there’s no need to panic at the sight of greying hair. His human parents, however, are still humans: we freak out about ageing.

When Belli and Rinky, my previous pets passed, we couldn’t screen for cancer or catch a failing liver before it was too late. Today, veterinary science has caught up, more or less. When our pets get old, they suffer from the same ailments that we do: obesity, arthritis, diabetes, cataract, cancer and cognitive decline. But, medical interventions like chemotherapy, cataract surgery and arthritis management also exist for pets, so their sunset years can be as peaceful as possible. There are specially-designed ramps to help them get on the stairs, harnesses that help them walk, prosthetics and wheelchairs to help them navigate the world, and strollers they can sit in to enjoy the morning breeze when they can no longer walk.

I can’t predict what Pippi’s sunset years will look like, just like I can’t predict my own. But, knowing what to look for as my boy hits the milestone, and what to be watchful about, can make these years filled with joy and memories, for him and for us.

Tailspin is your monthly column on everything that’s heartwarming and annoying about pet parenting.

The writer is a science communicator and mom to Pippi, a five-year-old rescued Indie, who is behind her drive to understand dogs better. She tweets @RamanSpoorthy

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Published 15 October 2022, 19:42 IST

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