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'Good Old Dog:' Caring For Senior Pets18:27
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They're our best friends...

And they're at their best when their muzzles start turning gray.

We're talking about good old dogs. But senior citizenship isn't always the easiest time for pet owners. Aging dogs fight the same illnesses we do — incontinence, arthritis, even dementia.  The fact is, advances in veterinary science and home care, and quite frankly, the central place that dogs - all pets for that matter - have in our lives, means that animals are living longer than ever. Geriatric pet medicine is a growing part of what vets now do.

Nicholas Dodman has worked with aging dogs for decades as a veterinary behaviorist and the head of the Animal Behavior Department at the Tufts Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine. He's also the editor of "Good Old Dog: Expert Advice for Keeping Your Aging Dog Healthy, Happy and Comfortable," out in paperback this month.

What are your questions for Dr. Dodman?

Guest:

  • Nicholas Dodman, veterinary behaviorist and head of the Animal Behavior Department at the Tufts Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine

-- Excerpt (Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt):

The very idea of a dog’s “old age” is relatively new. It wasn’t too many generations ago that dogs were still viewed largely as utilitarian workers, nonsentient creatures bred to keep a flock of sheep in line or spot prey. The notion of a dog having a comfortable, happy old age would never even have been considered.

Now, dogs are full-fledged members of the household, with a strong reciprocity of feeling between pet and owner — so much so that research has shown that having a dog in the home reduces blood pressure and, thereby, the risk for heart disease.

Dog owners even report improved psychological well-being, largely attributable to reduced feelings of loneliness and isolation, as well as a reduction in stress. We know; most of us number among them.

Surely, many of those positive associations come from the relationships people develop with their pals as the years pass.

There’s something more serene, wiser, about an older dog, even one who still has plenty of energy. A dog you’ve had for more than just a handful of years can simply understand you better, accommodate your moods better.

Of course, too, there’s extra closeness with a dog you’ve known for a long time. How could the bond not strengthen after one’s four-legged friend has turned seven, ten, twelve years old? After all, the better part of a decade or more has been spent nurturing the relationship — helping the dog grow from a “baby” who needed to be taught the rhythms of your home to a mature soul who can easily read your mood and provide comfort, protection, or simply good company whenever it is needed.

Perhaps you and your older dog have watched children go off to college together, grieved a loss, relocated, or dealt with a career change. Surely, you’ve taken walks by each other’s side, watched favorite TV shows, greeted each other enthusiastically after a long day apart, and been a reassuring presence to each other at bedtime.

During checkups and other visits, we see the closeness in the way people interact with their more senior companions. There’s a comfort level, a something that can be taken for granted, that isn’t yet present between people and their younger dogs.

Bring into the mix that a pet is so innocent, so unquestionably devoted and accepting, and it’s not at all surprising that even the toughest among us might blink back tears at the thought of a faithful companion getting on in years. Such emotion doesn’t make us softies or weirdos; it makes us human. It’s simply an indication that we’re able to respond to all the depth of feeling a companion dog is able to elicit.

No wonder it has become important for people to increase not only a dog’s life span but also their pet’s health span, changing what it means to be geriatric.

By the numbers, “geriatric” signifies the point at which 75 percent of one’s anticipated lifespan has gone by. The good news — what this book is about — is that passing that milestone no longer means “over the hill.” Sophisticated advances in veterinary medical technology help dogs remain healthier for much
longer even as they reach significantly older ages, thereby compressing the amount of time a dog will be infirm or uncomfortable before reaching the end of life. Thus, just as silver-haired men and women in their seventies and eighties now go traveling and white-water rafting and lead active, fulfilling lives — something that was once largely unthinkable — twelve-, fourteen-, and sixteen-year-old dogs can now continue to enjoy their usual romps and shenanigans with the help of modern veterinary medicine.

This program aired on January 6, 2012.

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