Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

You can teach an old dog...

Preventative care the key to your pet's long, happy life

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Dogs are considered middle-aged long before humans are. Some of their owners don't believe this. They reject the age guidelines set out by the American Veterinary Medical Association, which holds that one dog year equals seven years of a human life. Whatever the rule of thumb, the bottom line is good pet care.

There was a recent Associated Press story topped by the provocative headline: "Too old to be so young: Vets say cats and small dogs are geriatric at seven." The AVMA claims that a seven-year-old dog weighing less than 50 pounds is like a 44-47-year-old human; 10 years equals 56-60-year-old humans; 15 is like a 76-83-year-old; and 20 is like a 96-105-year-old human.

The same AVMA guidelines view cats in a more straightforward manner: a seven-year-old cat is about 45 human years and 15-year-old cat is approximately 78 years old. If you scan the website, you'll discover that there's a strong correlation between weight or size in dogs and its human age. Thankfully, humans don't calculate their age based upon size and weight or I'd be breaking Guinness world records.

The formula doesn't offer the dog a great deal of time to be middle-aged. Nevertheless, some who operate senior-related businesses, like Old Dog Haven Rescue in the United States, would rather dismiss this age angle. They consider aged dogs as 12 or older. Rescue operators worry that people will cease adopting eight-year-old dogs if they are automatically classified as old.

According to American writer Fadra Nally, "Sixty is the new 40." The Associated Press story explains that Nally classifies larger dogs as old at eight and cats at nine or 10. Because many pets are living longer, I understand the desire by non-experts to adjust AMVA's numbers. Just as in humans, we can't change the laws of nature. I may want to dress like a teenager, but that won't make me 20 again.

Rather than worry about the numbers, isn't it more important to focus on a pet's quality of life?

Many advances in veterinary medicine and changes in owner attitudes can positively affect a pet's health. There were days when now-treatable conditions would have been a death sentence to some pets. Today, as the Associated Press story reports, many owners are perfectly willing to see their pets get insulin shots for diabetes, take their dogs to therapy or even use medical devices -- such as wheelchairs -- to give their animals the best lives possible.

This isn't unlike humans. We used to live much shorter lives than we do now. During the earlier part of the 20th century life expectancy hovered around the 60s. Now Canadians live an average of over 80 years. Should we change the definition of human seniors simply because we're living longer?

Although many pets develop health concerns later in life, the focus should still be on pet care.

My sister, Kathy Edwards, has a Bischon Frise named Scrubs, whose life is a good example of beating the odds of living a long life. At five months old, Scrubs was diagnosed with epilepsy. He wasn't expected to see old age, but is closing in on its 13th birthday.

Over the years, Scrubs has added other conditions to his medical file; he has allergies, thyroid issues, tooth loss and has just been diagnosed with congestive heart failure. But he's had a full, active and happy life. He's on five different medicines but walks daily. And if you didn't talk to Kathy about Scrubs' condition, you'd never know he was sick or classified as geriatric.

Scrubs lives well despite his ailments, because he has an attentive owner. There have been times where I wouldn't mind sis taking care of me -- especially because his wardrobe is nearly as big as mine. Kathy attributes Scrubs' standard of life to his veterinarian. "She really does care," Kathy says.

No owner wants to admit that their spry dog of six is really an old dog susceptible to geriatric diseases. However, facing facts allows you greater options. Just as with humans, the faster you discover a medical issue, the less damage it can cause. It's why humans take additional preventative tests after a certain age. The medical goal is the same: to allow you to catch geriatric-related diseases.

According to the AVMA, geriatric pets can develop many of the same problems seen in older people, such as cancer, heart disease, kidney/urinary tract disease, liver disease, diabetes, joint or bone disease, senility and weakness. If we pay attention to our pet's well being and take them for more frequent veterinary visits, you might be able to prevent, or at least treat, many issues once considered fatal.

Good pet care won't decrease your pet's actual age, but it'll certainly improve your pet's lifestyle.

char.adam@mts.net twitter.com/charspetpage

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 3, 2012 C5

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