I absolutely love puppies. Whenever I see one, I feel a kind of magnetic attraction pulling me toward it, making me want to touch it and cuddle it. I want to smell Puppy Breath. But I have to confess that my heart really goes out to old dogs.
According to the veterinary literature, dogs are considered geriatric when they turn 7 (5 for some larger breeds of dog, 9 for some smaller breeds). My little Maya is eight, which means she is now, officially, a senior citizen. (Does this mean we get discounts on dog food?) She is still active, and when she's out running with me, she looks sleek and beautiful. But I notice that she sleeps a lot more these days. She is getting all kinds of lumps under her skin (called lipomas) and various skin tags are growing on her eyebrows and chin. The fur beneath her eyes is streaked with white.
Within the population of companion animals, the elderly is the fastest growing category with over 35% of all pets in the U.S. now considered, by their vets, geriatric. There are about 78 million companion dogs in U.S. households and 94 million cats, which means roughly 27 million geriatric dogs and 33 million geriatric cats. These numbers are likely to grow, as veterinary medicine offers an ever wider range of treatments, from organ transplants to hip replacements, and as better lifelong care increases pet life expectancies. In step with the changing pet demographic is a growing appreciation for the final stages of our companion animals' lives: there are geriatric specialists, old-dog and old-cat foods, products designed help older animals maintain functionality, books devoted to caring for old pets, advice from trainers about how to deal with age-related behavioral changes, and old dog and old cat rescue organizations.
Despite increasing attention to the needs of old companion animals, for many, being old is a dark and unpleasant stage of life. There remains a deep prejudice against the old. Many elderly animals are euthanized simply because of their age, or because their human owners don't have the patience or resources to adapt to their changing needs. Many more languish in shelters, where adoption rates for seniors are very low. Old animals too often suffer from untreated disease and pain, either because owners don't recognize their changing needs or because they cannot or will not pay for adequate veterinary care.
Aging can be hard on animals, and on their human companions. But the challenges of aging can invite us to know and love new dimensions of our animals, as we become particularly attuned to their evolving needs. It is a time for us to give back some of the unconditional love, patience, and tolerance that our pets offer us throughout their lives.