FLORIDA - 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 . There are South Florida psychologists and bereavement groups specializing in pet loss. 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.
The association guidelines suggest pet "seniorhood" starts at age 7, although lifespans can vary greatly among dog breeds and individual animals. Under that standard, almost half of the nation's 154 million dogs and cats qualify for AARP cards.
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, 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"?
Sometimes, Craig would circle Marmaduke's bed late at night, to check if she still was breathing. "We love her. We want to treat her the way we would want someone to treat us when we get older," he said.
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 South Florida vet Dr. Mary Gardner and a Tampa 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.
The hospice staff also teaches pet owners home modification tricks. With Marmaduke, it involved creating a path of throw rugs so she could keep her footing on the tile as she walked to the door, substituting a waterproof baby mattress on the floor for her dog bed, and hooking a towel under her back-end to gently help her rise.
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 7 1/2 years. Now it's about 11 1/2 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 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.
More veterinarians are opening specialty practices where their animal patients are likely to be older, geared toward oncology, cardiology and internal medicine . "It mirrors what is going on with people," Correa said. "Our field is changing dramatically."
There's no senior discount when Fido or Fluffy hits 65, and some goods and services catering to their age group can be expensive. Correa said a treatment course, depending on the type of cancer and if surgery is required, can range from $2,000 to $10,000.
More of her clients now have pet insurance, she said, purchased when they were kittens or puppies.
Lee Schrager, vice president of corporate communications for Southern Wine & Spirits, finally gave up trying to get his pet insurance to pay for melanoma cancer surgeries and treatments for his 14-year-old French briard, Spencer. But Schrager has no regrets about the $10,000 it cost him.
"Spencer has been such a great pet and a great friend. And fortunately, I was in the position that I could do it," said Schrager, of Miami. "I wouldn't want him thinking I didn't do the right thing."
A growing number of veterinarians now specialize in at-home euthanasia. Pet-Loss.net, a state-by-state resource directory, lists four in South Florida, along with
loss counselors, pet cemeteries and crematoriums, and bereavement groups.
Maryland author and editor Moira Allen said the number of veterinary in-home euthanasia services have grown tremendously since she started publishing the directory 10 years ago, and expects hospice will follow.
Senior products are appearing on South Florida pet store shelves as well. Last year, Quaker Pet Group unveiled its Silver Tails line, carried at local Petco stores. Items include: magnetic therapy collars for arthritis and muscle pain ($5.99-$7.99), infrared hand-held massager ($39.99), holistic bamboo charcoal mats to improve circulation (up to $49.99) and softer senior-friendly dog chew toys (up to $14.99).
When Michael Delemma took over Animal House, an independent pet store in Fort Lauderdale, six years ago, "there was very little for senior pets," he said. Now he carries nutritional and calming gels for older animals, plus several varieties of senior or weight-loss pet food — although not all brands offer a geriatric selection.
"I've seen a growth in what's available," Delemma said. "But every product today should have a senior version."