Long live cats and dogs, owners say

Pets: Veterinarians are able to do more for aging animals, and owners are more willing to pay for the increased life expectancy.

January 23, 2000|By Deborah Stoudt | Deborah Stoudt,Special to the Sun

Caring for an aging pet is much like caring for any aging family member, in that they can have many of the same health problems as humans: cancer, heart disease, arthritis, diabetes, vision and hearing loss, kidney failure and obesity.

Just as the life expectancy for humans has expanded over the past 50 years, so it has for household cats and dogs. And just as medical care for humans has become high-tech, so it has for pets. Indeed, almost any medical procedure done on humans can now be performed on these companion animals.

Veterinarians fight cancer through surgery, chemotherapy, radiation and, in rare cases, bone-marrow transplants. A cat's proverbial ninth life can be extended with iodine radiation therapy or a kidney transplant. Pacemakers can help dogs and cats with heart disease.

While medical advances give pet owners more options, the treatment costs can be overwhelming, although more of us seem willing to pay for expensive treatments to extend Fido's life. Only a small percentage of pet owners carry health insurance for their pets.

"Nowadays, some people look at their pets as a child," says Dr. Anthony Kanakry, a veterinarian at VCA Lewis Animal Hospital in Columbia. "A lot of them don't have or want a child, but will get a pet and treat it like a child. They will spend almost anything on their pets. Others can't afford to."

Thirty-eight percent of pet owners said they would spend any amount of money to save their pet's life, according to the American Animal Hospital Association's 1998 Pet Owner survey.

The results of that commitment may explain why the percentage of cats 6 years old and older jumped from 24 percent in 1983 to 47 percent in 1996, according to the American Veterinarian Medical Association. "In about 13 years we've seen nearly a two-fold increase in longevity," says Dr. James Richards, director of the Feline Health Center at Cornell University's College of Veterinary Medicine. The life expectancy of dogs has increased from 7 years in the 1930s to more than 12 years today, according to Teri Goodman, coordinator of the Senior Dogs Project, based in San Francisco. With the right care, some cats, and some small breeds of dogs, can live as long as 20 years -- roughly the equivalent of a person in her late 90s. (A dog or cat is considered to be a "senior" pet at 7.)

Donna White of Ellicott City knows about aging cats. Her tabby, Jill, will be 20 in March.

"If you saw her, you'd never believe she's almost 20," says White, who with her husband, Bob, owns a dog and four other cats.

Two years ago, Jill started "urinating outside her litter box and asking to be fed at 1 or 2 a.m." White recalls. "She'd be meowing to eat again at 4 or 5 a.m."

She took Jill to Kanakry, who diagnosed her with hyperthyroidism, the most common endocrine disorder among cats. The thyroid is locked in overdrive, accelerating blood flow, heart rate and metabolism, causing the animal to begin wasting away.

"You need to shut down the switch to slow it down," says Kanakry.

First, Jill was given pills to break down the overactive thyroid tissues. Monitoring the drug's negative effects required monthly blood tests and checkups.

The pills caused her hormone level to plummet below normal, leaving her vulnerable to infection. The alternative treatment: radioactive iodine injections or surgery. White chose the shots, which required Jill to stay at Veterinary Referral Associates in Gaithersburg, one of the few specialty clinics in the area licensed to perform the procedure. "The stay is required to make sure the cat urinates out all the radioactive iodine," explains Richards.

Iodine radiation is the most effective treatment because it doesn't require surgery or life-long medication, he says.

White couldn't visit Jill during her 15-day stay at the clinic. For the first 21 days after Jill came home, the Whites could only hug her briefly and had to stay three feet away from her because she was still radioactive.

But Jill was cured. "It was not painful, that's what was so wonderful," White says. Now, "She doesn't clamor for food, and she's back to her normal weight."

The cost of the treatment was about $1,000. It was no more expensive than paying for monthly checkups, blood work and the pills. "For me, it was $1,000 well spent," White says.

White never considered having Jill euthanized. "She gives us a lot of pleasure. She's a member of our family, and I don't think you would be so quick to let a family member go so easily."

Why are cats and dogs living longer? "Prevention, more than treatment, has extended pets lives," says Kanakry. That includes neutering and spaying, vaccinations, better diets and regular physical exams.

If a cat is spayed before the first heat, it elimies the chance of mammary tumors and uterine infections, says Kanakry. Neutered dogs aren't susceptible to prostate cancer.

Vaccinations have also saved many pets from early deaths. "They aren't dying of distemper," says Dr. Kenneth Volk of Lutherville Animal Hospital.

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