For Senior Pets, Age is Just a Number

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When my clients make medical decisions on behalf of their senior dogs and cats, most automatically factor in the pet’s age. I often hear statements such as, “I would pursue a diagnosis if only she weren’t so old,” or, “We would choose to treat him if only he were younger.” When my clients voice such “senior objections” I gently encourage them to consider the situation a bit more objectively by thinking in terms of their pet’s functional age rather than his chronological age. For example, one patient of mine, a vigorous, playful 13-year-old Labrador with normal kidney function, is a much better candidate for surgery than another of my patients, an arthritic, obese, 11-year-old Labrador in kidney failure. Functionally speaking, the 13-year-old is, by far, the younger of the two patients.

Don't Focus on Age

When making medical decisions, I encourage my clients to evaluate the whole package — spryness, overall comfort, organ function, and joie de vivre — rather than considering age alone. Just because a dog or cat is, by definition, a senior citizen doesn’t mean their body is functioning like that of a senior citizen! I enjoyed explaining this point on NPR’s "Fresh Air With Terry Gross," when we were discussing how to make tough medical decisions. “Terry, you and I could both be 80-year-old women in need of knee replacement surgery. Whereas you might be a terrific candidate for surgery, I might be a horrible candidate.”

What About Life Expectancy?

When trying to make significant medical decisions, my clients frequently ask about their pet’s life expectancy. Why remove a liver mass from a 12-year-old Beagle when the Beagle’s life expectancy may only be 13 years? I explain that life expectancies for cats and dogs of varying breeds are nothing more than averages. This means some individuals will never reach “average” and others will far exceed it.

I sometimes tell pet owners about Lily, one of my own dogs, a Golden Retriever who had a liver mass surgically removed when she was 13 years old. Fortunately the mass was benign, the quality of her life was fully restored, and darned if that girl didn’t go on to live three more years, passing away peacefully at the age of 16. Was doing major abdominal surgery on our 13-year-old Lily an easy decision to make? Not at all — my husband and I struggled with it for weeks, which is exactly what needs to happen when we are striving to be effective, well-informed medical advocates for our pets.

Trust Your Instinct

Here’s the bottom line: If you have a happy, lively, interactive and agile senior pet on your hands, throw those age-related numbers and averages out the window. Rather, I encourage you to observe your pet’s overall quality of life, share some nose-to-nose time with your best buddy, look deep into those eyes, and make important medical decisions based on what’s truly important rather than simply a number.

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