Aging dogs, cats having their day

Dr. Stephanie Correa (right) and veterinarian technician Jessica Dailey examine Rockey, a 7-year-old Great Dane with bone cancer in West Palm Beach, Fla.

First came diet foods and treatment plans for fat cats and dumpy dogs, as veterinarians warned about a pet obesity epidemic.

Now there are pet hospices, practices specializing in animal cancer and heart conditions, and products like magnetic dog collars to ease arthritis. It’s all because the pet population is aging, just like the human one, due to a companion animal longevity boom.

Surveys periodically conducted by the American Veterinary Medical Association show about 31 percent of pet-owning households had dogs and cats age 11 or older in 2006, the most current year available. That was a 25 percent increase over 1987.

Credit modern medical technology, better medications, more pet food tailored to medical conditions, and the fact that more “pet parents,” as marketers sometimes call them, view their animals as family members.

As Randi and Craig Burger, of Davie, Fla., watched their very elderly 13-year-old Great Dane Marmaduke struggle daily with severe arthritis, their discussions could have been about any aging relative: Would advanced treatments give her a better quality of life? Was she comfortable? When would they know it was “time”?

The Burgers decided to try a new care alternative when they couldn’t get Marmaduke, weighing 130 pounds, into the car to go for a needed check-up because she wasn’t strong enough to walk. They called in Lap of Love, a veterinary hospice, started by vet Dr. Mary Gardner and a colleague in 2010.

A hospice call is $150, with extra for nights and weekends, about twice the price of a standard vet office visit, Gardner said. But demand has been so high that the practice now has consulting vets in six states.

Pet hospice works pretty much like human hospice. The care focuses on keeping the animals comfortable at home with medications, nutritional supplements and pain management vs. lots of trips to the vet.

Lap of Love also helps owners prepare for the inevitable, and when it comes, can euthanize their beloved pets at home. Or any number of places. Gardner has eased creatures into the beyond at the beach, in a car overlooking a dog’s favorite lake.

“One woman told me her cat loved to be out in her front yard. So I said, ‘Let’s do it there,’ ” Gardner said. “I never have felt more appreciated.”

Dr. Stephanie Correa, a board-certified veterinary medical oncologist working in South Florida, said the average lifespan of a large breed dog 40 years ago was about 7½ years. Now it’s about 11½ years, she said, close to 75 in human terms.

Correa and her husband opened their first Animal Cancer Care Clinic eight years ago, and now operate six across three counties. The main facility in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., features some of the same advanced medical testing and services used on people: a CT scanner, a linear accelerator for radiation treatments, human chemotherapy drugs.