Aging cat

Ever wondered whether you’re too old for chemo? What if someone considered you too aged for radiation therapy? Or too “mature” for knee surgery?

When we humans get sick, doctors seldom wonder if we’re too old to receive life-saving treatment. Though physicians sometimes question the utility of some common orthopedic procedures in the very aged and may recommend against painful procedures in the terminally ill, people don’t typically get denied like pets do. Not exclusively on the basis of a number, anyway.

Factoring Age Into the Vet Care Equation

Though we may love our pets mightily in this country, it’s nonetheless true that pet owners often make life and death decisions based almost exclusively on a pet’s age. As in…

“She’s 10 now, so it makes sense she might get a lump on her spleen, right? Sounds like it’s time to put her down.”

Or how about this one…

“He’s only got a couple of years left, so I don’t think I’ll be putting him through that kind of knee surgery.”

Can We Really Predict Longevity?

I got to thinking about this issue after the nation’s largest hospital group, Banfield Pet Hospital, published a report on the subject of pet mortality. After analyzing the data for 460,000 cats and 2.2 million dogs, it concluded that the average cat died at 12.1, and small, medium and large dogs succumbed at 11.3, 10.8 and 11.1 years, respectively.

Which kind of surprised me. Those ages sound pretty young to me — especially for cats and smaller dogs. After all, I’d never respond to a client’s query about their pets’ potential longevity by citing these stats. They’re averages and, as such, they can’t possibly reflect the individual variations I’m privy to.

At least that’s what I tell myself after counseling clients like those in the following scenario:

Margot is a 13-year-old West Highland Terrier with a thing for licking Bufo toads when she knows she shouldn’t but who has otherwise been a model patient healthwise. That is, until an unsightly black growth started peeking out from the pristine white fur of her front paw, where she’d been licking.

By the time I got a chance to observe the mass, it had started to bleed and was obviously extremely painful. Given the location and the thing’s presentation, malignant melanoma was my tentative diagnosis. And three chest X-rays, some basic lab work and a quick-snip-style biopsy later, we’d confirmed Margot’s excellent health in spite of a malignant melanoma sprouting from her toe. 

Toe amputation and melanoma vaccination are modern veterinary medicine’s solutions in a case like Margot’s. But her owners weren’t so sure. “We know that taking her toe off and treating her melanoma with that new vaccine is the best thing, but she’s almost 13 now. Do you really think it’s worth it? I mean, she’s thir-teen!”

How Age Can Impact a Pet's Value

When faced with a question like this one, I always have to wonder: Am I being asked to opine on the state of Margot’s health, comfort and overall quality of life, or is this a financial discussion we’re having?

Which isn’t as cutthroat as it sounds. It only makes sense that money would enter into it. After all, $3,000 to $5,000 worth of treatments will likely ensue in cases like Margot’s.

Nonetheless, I’ve just been asked a very specific question about “worth” in the context of a specific illness, its treatments and one dog’s longevity. And it seems to me that given my role (I’m their veterinarian, not their banker), my job is to explain that Margot could easily live an additional three years if treated successfully (never mind Banfield’s stats) — long enough to have her enjoy almost a full fifth of her lifespan!

Why Shortchange Older Pets?

Now, this “good news” should be a reason to celebrate — but isn’t always. Because when faced with expensive treatment options, many pet owners will latch onto almost any uncertainty by way of seeing the problem solved — for better or worse. And, let’s face it, longevity is among the most uncertain factors in a pet’s life. So it is that even owners who can easily afford the expense of treatments like Margot’s are more likely to forgo it than you might think.

Given cases like Margot’s, is it any wonder that plenty of veterinarians count age discrimination among our staunchest foes? Perhaps what we really need at a time like this isn’t a study that reinforces old notions of too-short lifespans, but one that shows us how long pets can live when cared for well.