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Ten Lives? pet owners jump through hoops to keep their aging pets alice 

click to enlarge MATTHEW THORSEN
  • Matthew Thorsen
This is a gal who has “already outlived three husbands,” confides Jere Berger, “but I don’t think she’ll be a widow the fourth time around.” The gossip concerns Jenny and her current mate, Percy, who is several years younger and utterly devoted. The couple lives in a two-story condo in Hinesburg, where her cradle-robbing exploits give the neighbors something to chew on. With such a romantic tale, they’re all ears.

Jenny is a bunny and, at 14, practically ancient. The average rabbit lifespan tends to be six or seven years. A white Netherlands Dwarf with black ears, she’s shacked up with five other lagomorphs of different breeds. There are three male-and-female pairs, each with its own handmade chicken-wire condo, in the home of Berger and his wife, Rebecca Werner. Although Jenny weighs less than two pounds, she is the reigning matriarch.

“I actually can’t believe she’s still alive,” says Werner, who got Jenny from a little girl giving away baby rabbits — called kits — at the side of a road in Richmond. “She has arthritis and doesn’t see that well. Percy loves her nonetheless.”

Devotion to aging domestic animals appears to be a growing phenomenon among humans as well. Although no statistics are kept, experts agree that many pets are experiencing unprecedented longevity these days.

“There are a lot of geriatric pets now,” says Dr. Nicole van Harreveld of the Mountain View Animal Hospital in Essex Junction. “Health care and diet have improved significantly in the last 10 or 15 years, so we’re seeing things we never did before: degenerative joint disease, cancer and tumors, renal and liver failure. These are problems associated with old age.”

Dr. Gary Page, of the Malletts Bay Veterinary Hospital in Colchester, has a similar perspective. “Dogs and cats used to die from infectious diseases and worm infestations. But now, they’ve got better nutrition and better veterinary care,” he says.

Given the conventional wisdom that every human year is equivalent to seven dog or cat years, at 12 a Persian or a Poodle would be approaching 90. So what to make of the current preponderance of cats in their twenties and dogs in their late teens? “That used to be rare,” says Page. “Now it’s quite a common thing.”

“Pets are definitely living longer than they used to,” notes Dr. Linda Moore, who owns Cats Vermont in Burlington. “Their lifestyle is changing and vets are doing a better job of treating them. They get vaccinations. We can now take care of parasites. There are more diagnostic tests.”

Feeding has become more refined, too. “Owners used to just grab a can of whatever cat food happened to be on store shelves,” Moore says. “Today, there are many more choices.”

Indeed, a stroll down the cat chow aisles at PetSmart in Williston reveals several brands offering a range of meat and fish meals available in cans marked “senior” or “special diet” for urinary tract health. A close reading of the tiny print on a Friskies Savory Salmon label, for example, lists percentages of protein, ash, crude fiber, fat, potassium and magnesium, among other nutritional contents.

Fifteen or so years ago cat food generally had only small amounts of the protein taurine, which has since been proven effective in preventing heart disease. “Most commercial brands are now supplemented with taurine,” Moore says.

Advances in pet-oriented technology have provided such treatments as kidney dialysis or even transplants for renal failure, and chemotherapy or radiation for certain cancers. “That may not be feasible for Joe Q. Pet Owner and Fluffy,” Moore points out. “But we can still extend the quantity of an animal’s quality life. It’s the same for them as for humans — gearing medicine to wellness. We do see our pets as little four-legged family members.”

Crybaby, the sole feline occupant at Sharry Underwood’s Burlington home since 1977, is both a surrogate child and a grandparent. “He’s a little arthritic,” she says. “His sight and hearing are going, but he’s hanging in there.”

A dark tiger with white paws, muzzle and chest, Crybaby was a neutered stray — “not a kitten” — when Underwood and her husband Wynn took him in on Christmas Eve almost 25 years ago. The cat’s yowl sounds something like that of a Siamese, a breed known for unearthly vocals. “We gave him his name because he can really tune up,” Underwood says. Otherwise, Crybaby is a rather subdued senior citizen in a fashionable pink flea collar. He still has tattered ears from the neighborhood brawls he tomcatted his way through during his street-fighting youth.

Crybaby no longer goes out at night, however. He prefers to curl up in a comfy cat bed but often stands in the middle of the living room, looking confused. Underwood thinks that behavior is more a result of his failing senses than a sign of senility. “Sometimes he gets stuck under the table, bumping into the legs, until we help him get out,” she explains, adding that they celebrate his “birthday” at Christmas every year by sticking a candle in a can of food and singing to him.

Although her cat has his good and bad days, Underwood is not ready to end a life that retains some measure of pain-free dignity. “Crybaby’s a gentleman,” she muses. “He still makes his way to the litter box.”


For the chronic complaints of animal old age, such as arthritis, Western medicine has started to accept some traditional Eastern practices. “One of our vets, Dr. Marv Greenberg, has been doing acupuncture for things like pain relief, inflammatory bowel disease and limb amputations,” says Katie Wepsic, a veterinary technician at the Hinesburg Animal Hospital. “About a month ago, he also started providing Chinese herbs for cats and dogs, as an appetite stimulant and in other treatments.”

The hospital has begun implementing geriatric exams for animals “that are getting to be over the hill,” a process that usually begins around age 8 in cats and dogs. Blood is tested; intake and output are monitored.

“My cat Bugsy drinks a lot and pees a lot,” reports Heidi Nepveu of Burlington. “She’s 14 and diabetic, but still kicking.”

After a still-mysterious health crisis two years ago, Bugsy — a black, gray and white domestic short-hair born in a Shelburne Farms barn — has become more attached to her owner than ever. “She doesn’t let me out of her sight,” Nepveu says. “This week, I’ve got to start giving her daily insulin injections for the diabetes. I’d do anything for this cat.”

That vow wouldn’t surprise Dr. Page, of the Mallets Bay Veterinary Hospital. “Owners are going the extra mile to save their old and sick pets,” he suggests. “I’ve been practicing for 30 years, and I think the effort is far more extraordinary now.”

When all else fails, there is euthanasia, essentially a daily ritual at veterinary hospitals. Most owners refuse that option unless their pet is in the throes of an incurable or inoperable ailment.

“We’ll lose all these guys in the end,” says Linda Moore of Cats Vermont. “Unfortunately, few of them just die in their sleep without suffering. So, everyone wonders, ‘How am I going to know when to say when?’ Most of the time, your pet will tell you.”

And the end is not necessarily announced with a meow or a woof. The message may be almost subliminal. Conse- quently, many people rely on their veterinarians for advice that might be akin to grief counseling.

“We vets decide life-and-death issues, even though we’ve really had no training for that in school,” observes the Shel-burne Animal Hospital’s Dr. Steven Metz. “We’re called upon to deal with some very intense emotions by helping families, in the most intimate way, make these difficult decisions.”

But how do you know if your Python is ready for a nursing home or the hereafter? In exotic pets, “the symptoms of disease and aging can be much more subtle,” says Metz, who has been treating reptiles, rodents and birds — as well as ordinary animals — for more than 30 years. “But when a creature stops eating, that is the chief yardstick.”

Life expectancy varies from species to species. While cats can sometimes keep going into their twenties, pooches, depending on their size, can reach the late teens. Small birds like canaries or finches might live to be 10. Ditto for ducks and geese. A parrot, on the other hand, could survive for 75 years. Hamsters, guinea pigs and gerbils fare poorly — they are 3 or 4 when they expire. Ferrets used to die off at 5, but as our understanding of their physiology has improved, they have been making it to 7, according to Metz. “Just yesterday, I X-rayed a water turtle who’s 28,” he says. “Land turtles can go 50, 60, 70 years. Green iguanas have 10 or 12 years; snakes 10 to 15.”

Although death is a constant, Metz is passionate about all sentient beings. “I’ve spent about one-third of my entire professional career dealing with aging animals,” explains the vet, who is outraged when people consider euthanasia because their elderly dog or cat just sleeps all the time. “Well, that’s what humans who are 70 or 80 often do,” he says. “Does that mean they should be killed? Old age in animals is just another stage of life.”

That stage came to an end last week for Metz’s own German Short-Haired Pointer, Katie. “She was 14 and had a number of other things wrong with her, but died of heatstroke,” he says with the sorrow of a physician who could no longer heal his own beloved old dog.

Over at the Huntington bunny condos, Jenny and Percy just take each day as it comes. “She’s mellowed a lot,” says Rebecca Werner, “but still jumps up in the air with excitement whenever we let her out. Even an old rabbit has spring in her step.”

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