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  • Molly Weinfurter

How to Tell a Dog’s Age at Shelters and Rescues

Updated: 7 days ago

When you adopt a rescue dog, you probably won’t know the dog’s exact age. Many dogs that end up at shelters and rescues come from unknown pasts, so there’s rarely documentation of when they were born. However, the organizations have to list something on the dog’s bio, so where are those numbers coming from? Keep reading to find out how to tell a dog’s age at a rescue or shelter.

Rescue dog outside in field

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Do Shelters Tell You the Real Age of a Dog?

When they can, shelters and rescues will tell you the exact age of a dog. If the dog was surrendered by someone who owned them since birth or discarded by a breeder, there may be proof of the dog’s age. If the rescue has that information, they will share it with you or at the very least tell you how old the dog is and what their background is.


Yet, not every dog enters a shelter with an exact birthday. If they were found as a stray or surrendered to several shelters before adoption, the organization might not know their whole history. In those cases, the shelter staff will do their best to estimate the dog’s age, but they can’t guarantee it’s accurate.


The rescue I volunteer for always does their best to estimate the dogs' ages as accurately as possible. Not all organizations are as thorough though. My first foster dog came from a southern shelter, and that shelter thought she was about two years old. Yet, when she came to my state, the rescue I volunteer for got a better look at her and determined that she was actually closer to seven years old. It's crazy how much you can learn about a dog's age just by inspecting their features more closely.


Schnauzer foster dog
This was my first foster dog

How to Tell a Rescue Dog’s Age

A dog’s age is typically divided into one of four categories: puppy (0 - 6 months), adolescent (7 months - 2 years), adult (3 - 7 years), and senior (8+). These age ranges vary slightly depending on the dog’s breed and size. Large dogs become seniors much sooner than small dogs.


There are several ways to estimate a dog’s age simply by observing them. However, those guesses can sometimes be skewed because dogs from rough pasts, such as puppy mill survivors and strays, are often in rougher shape than dogs who lived in loving homes.


Teeth

Teeth are the most common way to estimate a dog’s age. Puppies have small, sharp teeth that they lose and regrow until they’re six months old. Adolescents will have all their adult teeth, and they’ll be pearly white with distinct ridges on the back teeth.


As dogs enter their adult years, their teeth start to wear down and have a hint of yellow. If they haven’t had proper dental care, their teeth may have signs of plaque and tartar. Once they reach their senior years, their back teeth will be very worn down and all teeth will look yellow. Sadly, most senior dogs experience some type of dental issue, so tartar will likely be visible.


Your dog's teeth may deteriorate faster without any dental care. So, brush your dog's teeth several times a week to keep up with their dental heath. This is the dog toothbrush kit I use for my dog. If your vet recommends a professional dental cleaning, that can make a huge impact too.


Activity Level

Activity levels can vary based on a dog’s breed and personality, but in general, young dogs are more energetic and playful while older dogs spend most of their time napping. However, regardless of how much energy your rescue dog has, you should be exercising them regularly to help them maintain a healthy weight.


Skin and Coat

Puppies usually have soft, fluffy coats that are free from tangled hair. As they become adolescents, their coats are still super soft, but they may become thicker. Adult dogs typically have soft coats, but their hair may become duller or start to gray. Then, as seniors, dogs often experience thinning, graying hair.


As for skin, puppies have soft, smooth, and stretchy skin, making it easy for their mothers to pick them up. During adult years, dogs may experience skin conditions due to allergies or other underlying health concerns. Senior dogs commonly have bumpy skin that has lost its elasticity.


While skin and coat can provide some clues for a dog’s age, it’s not the most reliable method. Unhealthy skin and coats can occur because of other factors, such as poor diets.


Dog eyes and nose close up

Eyes

Puppies have bright, clear, and shiny eyes, as long as they aren’t born with vision problems. Once dogs enter their adult and senior years, they may develop cloudiness or a blueish tint to their eyes. The cloudiness doesn’t necessarily mean the dog is going blind, however, senior dogs are more likely to face vision problems than young dogs.


Joints and Mobility

Arthritis is a common sign that a dog is older. Puppies and adolescents are clumsy but are constantly on the move without issues. As dogs enter their late adult and senior years, they’re more likely to struggle with joint pain and mobility issues. If a dog is stiff, limping, or having trouble getting up or lying down, they’re likely a senior or close to it.


A dog joint supplement is a great way to keep your dog healthy at any age. If they're already dealing with arthritis, it can reduce the rate their joints deteriorate, but if they're a younger dog, it can prevent them from facing arthritis in the future. However, it's best to consult your vet before adding a new supplement to your dog's diet.


Paws

Puppy paw pads are soft and delicate, generally light in color. Puppies also have small, sharp nails. As they enter their early adult years, a puppy’s nails will become thicker and less shiny. Their paw pads will become hardened from regular walking. The older a dog gets, the darker and drier their paw pads usually become.


Consult a Vet

Some rescues and shelters may talk to a vet to get a more accurate estimate of a dog’s age, but even vets don’t know for sure. However, vets can look more closely at your dog’s features to help you come to a conclusion. If you’re curious about your dog’s age, ask your vet what they think after you adopt your dog.


Is There a Way to Find Out a Dog’s Real Age?

Just by looking at a dog, there’s no way to guarantee their age. However, there are some DNA tests out there, such as the Embark Dog Age Test. While these types of tests aren’t 100% accurate, they can give you a dog’s estimated birthday within 18 months of their real birthday.


Knowing a dog’s age may not be necessary, but it could help you adjust your dog’s lifestyle and health needs to better fit their age.


Dog at adoption event

Why are Some Rescue Dog Ages so Specific?

If rescues and shelters don’t know the exact ages of dogs, then why are specific ages listed on their websites? Many dog rescues include the dog’s age in terms of years, months, and even days. The reason for that is because many systems that organizations use require them to put in a birthday for the dogs. 


When they put in the dog’s estimated birthday, the system automatically updates the dog’s age as time passes. Thus, it will look like the dog’s birthday is super specific, but it’s really just the way the system presents it.


Frequently Asked Questions


At What Age Do Dogs Stop Growing?

Dogs stop growing anywhere from 6 to 24 months. It greatly varies based on the dog’s breed size (giant dogs take longer to finish growing than small dogs).


Are Dog Years Real?

Dog years aren’t exactly real. One year of a human’s life is not equal to seven years of a dog’s life. Instead, the dog’s first year is equal to about 15 human years, year two is about nine years, and every year after that is about five years.


Are Dog Age Tests Accurate?

Yes, dog age tests are somewhat accurate, but they won’t give you the exact birth date. Usually, they could be a few months to a year off.


What Dog Age is Considered a Senior?

The age a dog becomes a senior varies based on their size. Large dogs are usually seniors around 6 to 7 years old, medium dogs are seniors around 8 to 9 years old, and small dogs are seniors around 10 to 12 years old.


Why Do Large Dogs Age Faster Than Small Dogs?

It’s thought that large dogs age faster than small dogs because their size puts more strain on their body. Thus, big dogs are more likely to have health issues in their senior years, such as arthritis, due to their size.


Puppy with rope toy

Don’t Judge a Dog By Their Age

Unfortunately, a lot of people are deterred from adopting because of a dog’s age, especially when it comes to senior dogs. But dogs of all ages are wonderful companions, so it shouldn’t matter that you don’t know their exact age. 


Sure, a senior dog may not live as long as a puppy, but the happiness they’ll bring you will give you a lifetime of memories. So, when looking for a dog to adopt, don’t think too deeply about the ages. Instead, choose the dog that you’re the most drawn to (as long as that dog fits your lifestyle).

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