FORT KENT, Maine — Laurie Sirois can’t imagine her life without Otto.
She’s had the American Staffordshire terrier for more than 15 years, ever since getting the little brown 8-week-old puppy in 2000 while living in Portland.
“Otto is like a big brother to my two sons,” Sirois, who now lives in Presque Isle, said. “When he was a puppy we moved to Standish, and through my first pregnancy he took daily walks with me through a forest trail to swim in Sebago Lake. My oldest [son] is now 14 and my youngest is 10 [and] Otto’s favorite place to be is with them.”
Over the years Sirois said Otto, who has long considered himself a 60-pound “lap dog,” has gone from a dog who could nearly outrun cars or bicycles, jump to fetch sticks and climb trees to a more sedentary house pet who needs help navigating stairs and able to take only short walks.
“Due to arthritis and a cancer bout, Otto has lost some muscle tone,” she said. “But he still loves to lay in the sunshine and smell the wonderful forest scents of northern Maine.”
Sirois said removal of tumors helped her pet beat cancer three years ago, and special diets plus arthritis medication are keeping him happy and pain-free.
Older pets do require more time, attention and often expense, and veterinarians agree it can be well worth it.
“They are fabulous pets,” Dr. Katy Hazzard, a veterinarian at Falmouth Veterinary Hospital, said. “Especially if they have spent their whole life with you and they know your patterns and what makes you laugh.”
Because of advances in animal care and understanding the needs of geriatric pets, they are living longer with improved quality of life, according to Hazzard.
“We are definitely seeing more older pets. As a [veterinary] practice, we have more older pets than middle age or younger pets, so that does speak to longevity and that more people are willing to spend money to keep pets comfortable,” Hazzard said.
This winter Sirois started taking Otto to North Country Animal Hospital in Caribou for a 10-session water therapy program to treat his arthritis.
At $48 per visit, Sirois acknowledges it’s an expense but one is she is happy to make.
“Otto is otherwise healthy, so it only makes sense to me to get him well,” she said. “He loves the attention [at North Country Animal Hospital] and they are so good to him there.”
Most vets rank pets as “senior” based on species and size.
“We start calling cats ‘senior’ at 8 or 9 years old,” Dr. Christiana Yule at the Fort Kent Animal Hospital said. “With larger breed dogs we say 5 or 6 years old and 7 to 8 for the smaller breeds.”
Yule said she figures the dogs “eligible for Social Security” make up about 20 percent of her patients.
“Yes, they have special needs,” she said. “Depending on the breed, they are more prone to dental problems, diseases associated with metabolism and arthritis.”
A vast majority of senior pets also can face weight problems, Yule said, either gaining or having a difficult time maintaining weight.
Taking advantage of advances in geriatric animal care to deal with those problems means keeping an eye on a pet for any behavioral or physical changes, according to Yule and Hazzard.
“They may be slower in the morning or have difficulty with stairs or getting in the car. That can mean it hurts them to bend due to arthritis,” Hazzard said. “If they suddenly have bad breath or are leaving oddly shaped kibbles in the bowl, that can mean there are dental issues.”
Older pets can face cognitive issues, as well, Hazzard said.
“They may not remember to tell you they need to go outside or there may be times their minds just seem to drift,” she said. “They may not be processing things the same as they used to due to loss of hearing or sight. We want to help them as much as possible with appropriate interventions with supplements, medication or diets to improve their lives.”
Regular screenings throughout a pet’s life can really help track and treat those changes, Yule said.
“It’s a lot easier to diagnose and treat if the animal has been seen long-term,” she said. “I like to see my geriatric patients twice a year [because] we can catch things early and treat them better.”
Having a pet age along with its people is one thing, but for many adopting an older pet also is a great option.
“They make great pets,” Stacey Coventry, director of development and public relations at the Bangor Humane Society, said. “A lot of people assume our senior animals have a hard time to be adopted out, but our older dogs are the ones people seem to like.”
Coventry said a calmer, well-behaved and trained older dog or cat can be perfect pets for aging populations.
She spoke of an 82-year-old area resident who regularly volunteers at the shelter and has successfully adopted two senior dogs.
“We can all attest animals are good for our health and our mental and physical well-being,” Coventry said. “So it is really nice to match older pets and senior citizens so they can spend their golden years together.”
Finding those appropriate matches is the key to happy-ending pet adoptions, she said.
“These older animals are not for families looking for active dogs that will hike or play fetch all day,” she said. “But for people who do not have a lot of time or people with quieter homes, a senior, well-socialized cat or dog are great additions to the family.”
There is no denying the extra expense associated with feeding and care of an older pet, but Coventry said it can be so rewarding.
She also said more and more pet owners are taking advantage of increased offerings of pet-specific health insurance which can run around $35 per month.
“That is a monthly expense,” she said. “But it can be worth it on the other side if you need advanced or long term care for your pet.”
And owners do want their animals to be comfortable, Hazzard said.
“We are much more aware of what we can and should do for them,” she said. “It used to be we just took for granted they would limp or lose their appetites as they got older. It is really gratifying to have people coming in ask what they can do, and that really warms my heart.”
Hazzard said treatments such as acupuncture, laser therapy and games to mentally stimulate pets all increase lifespan and quality of life.
However, she and Yule also know there is no denying the time does come for every pet when an end-of-life decision has to be made.
“It’s never an easy thing to do,” Yule said. “But if we pay attention we can tell when our pets are telling us it’s time [and] it is the the final and kindest thing we can do for them.”
Sirois knows that day will come and that it won’t be easy.
“Otto has taken care of us for years and is incredibly important to our family. He is truly one of us,” she said. “I’m certain that some other families would have had Otto put down by now, but he still has a very strong constitution and is overall healthy. Most importantly, he is still happy. I feel it my duty to give him the quality of life he deserves at his incredibly old age and as he gets ready to transition out of this life.”