Early detection is key...

Sophie Sue will be eleven years old this month. She’s a much beloved, dark brindled French bulldog whom I rescued nine years ago after I performed a C-section on her, thereby extracting four healthy pups.

Her uterus at the time, sad to say, was in poorer shape than the rest of her—no thanks to her then-owner’s negligent management of her pregnancy. It’d had to go. Turns out this owner was in even greater dire straits—financially and emotionally, at least. That’s when I ended up trading my reproductive medicine services for Sophie Sue’s freedom from a backyard breeding dog’s crated life.

Sophie’s always been an impressively healthy dog ever since…until last year. Before then, she’d suffered from some simple periodontal disease and the occasional bout of diarrhea—but nothing serious. Last December, however, her age suddenly made itself known.

One morning she arose with a stiff neck. After a week, she couldn’t move her neck in any direction. It seemed to come on so quickly. But if I had been honest with myself, I might’ve recognized the signs earlier. She’d been reluctant to jump so high, move so fast, play so hard…

Sophie’s experience proved that everything I preached to my pet-owning clients was true: The signs of geriatric onset are there. Pet owners just aren’t paying attention to the early warning signs. They aren’t taking the time to find solutions to the problems they know they’ll face in the future…in advance of their onset.

Further reflection, however (the consequence of my struggle with guilt over having ignored the accumulation of evidence pointing to Sophie’s advancing age), forced me to look at the situation more constructively. If a trained professional could overlook the obvious, it was clear to me that every pet owner was at risk of missing the signs, too.

OK, so why, exactly, can this happen?

Part of the problem stems from our pets’ accelerated biological clocks. We all know that dogs don’t live as long, but somehow we’re lulled into a false sense of security based on our dogs’ natural exuberance and their inexplicable, innate ability to bury signs of pain and discomfort.

That’s the rational justification, anyway. Now comes the psychobabble-y, irrational explanation: Pet owners just don’t want to see the signs of aging. We’re content to persuade ourselves that our pets are perfectly fine…until they’re obviously, irrefutably not fine. Part of us simply doesn’t want to comprehend the fact that our pets are aging visibly before our eyes.

In Sophie’s case, her orthopedic emergency was just the tip of the iceberg. Two ruptured discs smoldered beneath the surface. When they were removed (along with a benign tumor—another clear-cut indication of her advancing age), she returned to her normal behavior.

Nonetheless, I became more cautious (and realistic) about noting her daily activity, assessing any signs of her deterioration by keeping detailed notes on her progress - her weight, activity level, appetite, etc. I added supplements to her meals, changed her diet to a largely home-cooked, custom-made mélange, and made household changes to reflect the inadvisability of her former jumping behavior.

Sure, I chastised myself for previously skimping on supplements that might have helped keep her discs under control (though we’re not really sure how they might work) and for allowing her to jump and climb stairs, forgo a harness, etc. All these precautions might have made a real difference. Maybe she wouldn’t have suffered as much—if at all. All in the past, I assured myself. Everything would be different now.

Yet, as if to prove decisively that this year was going to be a bad one, an entirely unpreventable tumor made itself evident a few months later. This time it was her brain.

I might never have noticed it so early had it not been for my newfound degree of Sophie-awareness. This time I would make up for my previous transgressions. Early detection was key. And radiation proved the right option. Six months later she’s doing great.

You could say that I’ve become something of an evangelist on not ignoring aging since Sophie’s saga. Though I’ve had older dogs before, their geriatric care never affected me quite so visibly—at least I never felt it so acutely.

Maybe it’s just that Sophie’s special. Perhaps, however, it’s that everyone eventually wakes up to the reality of their pet’s mortality…and learns that there are very real benefits to doing what we can to ensure their older years are as comfortable and pain-free as humanly possible.

If it takes this much to bring this knowledge home to a veterinarian, you might assume you’ve got no chance of managing your pets’ geriatric bodies. But I would strongly disagree. All it requires is that we open our eyes and agree to accept full responsibility for doing the best we can for our aging loved ones.

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  • Published:
  • Updated: 4/25/2018: 11:03:48 AM ET
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