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In the pet world, stumbling puppies and tottering kittens get plenty of play; after all, it’s hard to argue with a little lapful of helpless fur. Some would claim that pets get even more lovable as they get older–Lauren Bond, for example. A trainer at B-More Charming obedience school, behavioralist/food expert at Howl pet store, and owner of a nine-year-old Border Collie, Bond can’t help but make a case for the animal kingdom’s elder statesmen and -women. 

“You lose a lot of that tough stuff about owning a dog if you adopt or own a senior dog,” she says. “They like to lay on the couch and go on relaxing walks. On some level, they need less from their people.”

Marlyand SPCA vet Dr. Cristina Mollenkopf, DVM, agrees, with a caveat.

“The most common reason people adopt an older pet is companionship, with the benefit that the animal is probably already housebroken, less likely to be destructive, already knows [its] name and some basic commands, and will be calmer than a puppy or kitten,” she notes by e-mail. “The thing people should consider is that they may need more medical care.”

That’s where the America Veterinary Health Association’s Senior Pet Health Care Month comes in: running through September, the event draws attention to our animal buddies’ needs as they reach middle age and beyond. To celebrate the occasion, we spoke with an array of veterinarians and pet professionals to get some tips on helping the aged and cuddly.

• Keep your pet close, but your vet closer.

Unless you’re Dr. Doolittle, there’s a good chance your animal will never mention its internal maladies to you. The solution?

“Be your pet’s advocate,” says Falls Road Animal Hospital owner Dr. Kim Hammond, DVM.  Hammond, who started the hospital in 1981, recently lost a dog to old age and emphasized giving elderly animals the same yearly physical and blood tests one would assign a human. “They’re not going to come out and tell you that their teeth hurt or their bones ache or they have arthritis,” he says.  “Be proactive.”

Mollenkopf agrees. “There are almost as many specialties in veterinary medicine as in the human field.  So a dog with hip dysplasia can have a hip replacement. A veterinary opthamologist can do cataract surgery.  Just as with people, regular check ups are important.”

• The best defense is a good dinner.

In the late ‘80s, cats’ life expectancies nearly doubled–from one decade to two–when scientists realized dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM), a common feline death sentence, stemmed from a lack of the amino acid taurine in supermarket cat food. Thus began a zeitgeist of high-end animal food, all following improved American Association of Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) standards. Dr. Hammond applauds the new landscape, suggesting that pet owners look for AAFCO’s rigorously tested “complete and balanced” seal on pet food packages.

“In the olden days, we were reactive,” Hammond says.  “Now we try to prevent animals from getting sick. It’s an equation: proper nutrition plus an expert who can tell you, ‘Gosh, there might be some genetic factors involved, too.’ Whether it’s rodents or humans, it’s all about nutrition and husbandry.”  By the same token, he cautions owners to be wary of dietary fads.  “Raw food is in vogue, but it’s not the smartest thing–it’s more marketing than science,” he says.  “Raw meat can overload the kidneys with protein.  It’s very much not balanced.”

• When it comes to life, quality beats quantity.

“It really is a blessing that we can let our animals go when their quality of life gets worse,” Bond says. “We can say enough is enough.”

It’s a sentiment echoed across the board in the veterinary community.  “The last thing we want is an animal hanging out and not really enjoying anything,” Falls Road vet Dr. Keisha Adkins, DVM, says.  Though she notes the decision should always be up to the owner, she proposes a rule of thumb in considering the heavy topic of euthanasia: “Think back about six months about what the animal enjoyed–eating, playing, and so on.  If they’re starting to not enjoy those activities anymore, then it’s time to start thinking about it.”

• Oh, and you can teach a dog new tricks.

Meds and vet visits of the golden years aside, Bond wants to be clear: Like a Boomer uncle taking up golf in retirement, your pet’s still got plenty of life in it–it’s just a bit more relaxed.  Don’t consign it to couch potato status quite yet.

“They’re content to do less,” she says.  “But animals can be trained until their cerebral cortex stops working or they stop eating.  Until it breathes its last breath, your pet’s still learning things.”

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