Helping a pet age gracefully can take a little extra care

PETS AT HOME

April 17, 1993|By Gina Spadafori | Gina Spadafori,McClatchy News Service

Toni's pushing 12, but she still has the thick, fluffy coat of her youth. Other parts haven't fared so well.

Her muzzle sports more white hairs than golden ones, and her brown eyes are milky with the seeds of cataracts. Her joints are misshapen by arthritis.

She's made her adjustments, as have I. Toni takes her twice-daily constitutionals to the patio just outside the kitchen door, seeing no reason to walk 10 steps more onto the lawn. I clean up the mess and say nothing.

She sleeps more, on a pile of fluffy rugs in the hammock bed I found for her at a dog show. Mornings, she drowses in the sun.

And yet, in many ways, her senior years are the best ever. Toni is the queen of the household, feared by other dogs and pampered in a way befitting her status.

She rules with an iron paw.

The other dogs, Andy and Bob, know her moods and act accordingly. When Toni wants to play, it's usually Bobby she chooses, walking regally over to him before grabbing foolishly at a front paw. He plays with her, gently, for the two or three minutes he holds her interest. Then she turns her back and heads for bed.

When he first came, Bobby would miss this "game over" sign and end up face to face with teeth still sharp enough to do damage. He reads the clues better now.

Visiting dogs -- and there are many -- get the message in no uncertain terms: Toni needs her space. From Maxie, a friend's shepherd I sometimes dog-sit, to a constant parade of foster dogs, Toni issues her guttural warning. Big or small, they quickly back off. Only one dog was foolish enough to challenge her; she got a nip for her troubles and never tried again.

Toni has aged gracefully thanks to good diet, regular exercise -- limited, at this stage -- and a regimen of preventive health care (sounds familiar, doesn't it?). In this, she's in the minority. It saddens me to see so many old dogs in bad shape, their health problems dismissed as "par for the course."

It doesn't have to be that way.

If you have an older pet, schedule a checkup and discuss with your vet the following risk factors:

* Diet. Obesity is a problem for all pets, but older dogs and cats seem especially prone. Ask your vet if your pet would benefit from a change of diet or portions.

* Lumps and bumps. Old pets all seem to develop their share of tumors. Most are benign, but all need to be checked out. Grooming your pet regularly will help you spot tumors and keep track of their growth. Your vet can help you decide if any need to be removed. Another sure cancer fighter: Spaying and neutering.

* Teeth and gums. Veterinarians now believe the risk of anesthesia is secondary to the debilitating effect of infections of the mouth or gums, or the pain caused by broken or abscessed teeth. An older pet's mouth will likely need attention. Ask your vet for recommendations.

Toni is a living example of an older dog leading a full life, but it

wouldn't have been possible without the help of our vet. With the advances in geriatric veterinary medicine, there's no reason an older pet should suffer.

Ms. Spadafori is a newspaper reporter and an animal obedience trainer in Sacramento, Calif. Questions about pets may be sent to her c/o Saturday, The Sun, 501 N. Calvert St., Baltimore 21278

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