When veterinarian Dr. Dean Cerf began his practice 33 years ago, once a dog or a cat would start to show signs of old age, most owners would say, "Well, I guess his time is up."
Now, he says, the reaction is quite different.
"Now people say, 'How long can you keep them going?'" Cerf, medical director at Ridgewood Animal Hospital, says. "People used to say it's just a dog. Now there is almost no end to what they will do."
The number of "elderly" pets is booming, and owners are spending more money to keep them healthy and to combat diseases animals didn't even face decades ago.
According to surveys done by the American Veterinary Medical Association, in 2011 almost half the nation's cats were 6 and older; 25 years ago, that figure was barely 30 percent. Total medical spending for dogs surged from about $5 billion nationwide in 1991 to $19 billion in 2011.
"The dog has gone from the back yard to the bedroom," Cerf says. "In their older age, they are considered to be much more important than they used to be."
Most veterinarians now offer chiropractic care or acupuncture for pets. There are underwater treadmills to help aging dogs exercise. Dogs and cats routinely receive chemotherapy for cancer.
The website seniorpetproducts.com started selling gear like pet diapers, lifting harnesses, padded pet steps and even wheelchairs about 10 years ago.
"The growth in this, the demand, has just exploded," says Gabe Martinez, general manager for the California-based company. They sell supplements for joint health, dental products to care for senior pets' teeth, and booties for their paws, which grow more sensitive as they age. The website's first customers were typically seniors themselves, Martinez says, but now even younger families are caring for aging pets.
Although Martinez is an animal lover, he gets that some people wonder whether wheelchairs for cats and diapers for dogs are a bit crazy.
"I can understand the doubters," he says, "but for most of the population, pets are a member of the family. You would do anything and everything to make sure your family member has a long, happy, healthy life, to live a life with dignity. You do the same for your animals."
Before their 11-1/2-year-old German Shepherd, Tristan, died last year, the Abramenko family went to Ridgewood Animal Hospital for several problems, including surgery to treat his arthritis. There, Cerf replaced ligaments in two of Tristan's legs, and the dog also had stem cell treatment to speed healing.
It's not the only time the Ridgewood family has gone to great lengths for their animals. Emily Abramenko says their other dog, Freya, is on a raw food diet because of allergies, and she also cared for cats who lived to 18 or 19, giving one injections to cope with diabetes. She says the money and effort spent for her animals was always worth it.
"They are a family member," Abramenko says. "It's hard to articulate, but with an animal, it's a very uncomplicated relationship. You love them and they love you, and there is nothing else there."
Traditionally, Cerf says dogs especially tended to be crippled by arthritis as they aged. Now that there are more treatments for arthritis and dogs tend to recover, they are getting different diseases.
"It's not so different from humans," Cerf says. "As we age, your heart, liver and kidneys wear out."
Medications or treatments used on older humans are often adopted for older animals. For example, aging dogs often have housebreaking and sleeping issues, which are associated with cognitive problems. Cerf treats those with the animal drug Anipryl, which is the same as the human drug Selegiline, used to treat Parkinson's disease and dementia.
The street goes both ways. Dr. David J. Waters, executive director of the Gerald P. Murphy Cancer Foundation, based at Purdue University's Research Park of West Lafayette, has studied female dogs and female humans who have had their ovaries removed, comparing them to females of both who kept their ovaries intact. Both humans and dogs lived longer when they kept their ovaries, and Waters argues that the research has helped both species.
"We really believe in the power of taking a life-course perspective to promote healthy longevity, not just waiting until we become geriatric to intervene," he says. "The ovary story is a vivid example of this realization: Early life events influence adult health outcomes."
Barb Urqhart, of Elmwood Park, uses a hospice program offered by Oradell Animal Hospital for her Labrador, Tucker, whose mass cell cancer has spread from her skin to her liver, spleen and bone marrow.
Veterinarians and technicians from the hospital come to Urqhart's home periodically to adjust pain medications and perform exams. Tucker also receives acupuncture care at Oradell Animal Hospital and chemotherapy at another facility.
Although she estimates she has spent "tens of thousands of dollars" on care and even though she says she is far from wealthy, Urqhart says the money is worth it.
"Besides, she's perky and happy now," Urqhart says. "Once that changes, then we'll have to reconsider."
Dr. Heather Troyer, a staff veterinarian at Oradell Animal Hospital, runs the hospital's palliative care and hospice program. In the home, vets and technicians can administer drugs by IV, tweak medications, perform exams and help the pet – and the family – as the end of its life draws near. The cost of the hospice services are paid for on top of normal veterinary care.
And more and more, Troyer says, families are choosing in-home euthanization. Urquhart admits it is hard to know when it's time to let an animal go. She believes one of the key differences between elderly humans and elderly pets is this: People know they are aging, they feel more keenly their limitations and they understand the permanence of death.
"When I look at my dogs as they age, they don't know that," she says. "As long as they feel good and they are still able to enjoy things, I don't think it is as traumatic for them to grow old. It's kind of nice, actually."