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Monkey Molars and Cat Hair: A Guide to Guessing an Animal’s Age


Story at-a-glance -

  • Unless a zoologist has x-rays or tissue samples, it can be quite challenging to estimate the age of an animal. Experts rely on visual interpretations and a bit of speculation.
  • Aging a primate often involves the molars. If they’re worn down, it could mean the animal is older. Aging primates also get wrinkles and lose bone density just like humans.
  • The best way to guess the age of a feline, whether a housecat or a wild cat, is by the hair. Cats tend to develop a dry, brittle, gray coat as they get up in years.

By Dr. Becker

Here’s a little something you’ve probably never even thought about. Do you realize how difficult it is to determine the age of an animal – especially a wild animal?

Zoologists can sometimes use x-rays to determine growth markers in the skeleton of an animal. And it’s easy to learn an animal’s age once it dies by performing an autopsy to evaluate certain biological markers.

But absent x-rays or tissue samples, it can be quite difficult to determine the age of an animal. Zoologists must rely on visual observations and their own judgment.

How Zoologists Determine a Primate’s Age.

Figuring out the age of a primate involves evaluating his monkey molars. Worn-down molars can be a sign the animal is older. Or, it can signal a diet that requires lots of aggressive chewing.

A primate’s skin can also give clues to her age, just as a human’s can. The older the animal, the more wrinkly the skin.

Most sexually mature dominant male orangutans have what is called a flange, or cheek pad. As these fellows age, their flanges sag much like human jowls.

Female orangutans don’t come equipped with flanges. However, like older humans, they lose bone density and develop wrinkles. They might even lose hair if they’re under unusual stress.

Baby orangutans have white circles around their eyes that disappear as they get older. So if the whites of an orangutan’s eyes are still visible, you know it’s a youngster who hasn’t been fully weaned.

Cats Never Look Old. Or Do They?

Determining the age of a feline is all about the hair. Whether you’re talking housecats or lions and tigers, the hair gets gray, dry and brittle as the animal ages. These changes can be seen even at a distance. The coat becomes duller. Older felines spend less time grooming their fur.

Other signs of aging can be harder to pick up, because cats are notoriously stoic and secretive about the state of their health.

All animals, including cats, lose muscle tone as they age. Rump size diminishes in older felines, and ribs often become visible. The gait in older cats also changes as eyesight diminishes. Stepping becomes more deliberate.