Aging is an inevitable and normal process of living. It should not be considered a disease.
Aging is expressed as physical weakening, reduced stamina and deterioration of the organs and connective tissues in the body. It is associated with gradual changes in the body's phenotype the entire physical, biochemical and physiological makeup of an individual as determined both genetically and environmentally.
Changes such as wrinkles in the skin and gray hair are due to the normal phenomenon of cellular senescence, the process of growing old.
Many diseases, including cancer, involve a multi-step process that accumulates genetic damage over time. As our pets enjoy a longer lifespan, their bodies provide the time needed for the expression of senescence, disease and cancer.
The human-animal bond grows stronger with the passing of time. People are very proud of their older pets and they want them to live as long as possible in good health.
One of the biggest fears of caregivers of senior pets is that their pet will get cancer. The most common concurrent problems afflicting older pets are arthritis, dermatitis, dental disease, endocrinopathies, organ failure and obesity.
The dilemma for caregivers of older pets is the fact that the entire pet population is exposed to carcinogens that are ubiquitous in the environment.
Cancer is initiated and promoted by prolonged exposure to environmental carcinogens such as sun, tobacco smoke, herbicides (2-4 D weed killer), insecticides, asbestos, free radicals, aflatoxins, viruses, etc.
Initial and chronic exposure may cause permanent damage to cellular DNA. The initial cellular damage may not be a direct cause of cancer. But living longer continues exposure and the accumulation of abnormal genes and cells favor the development of tumors.
Decline in Immunity
Old animals have a decline in their anti-tumor immune surveillance, tumor suppressor genes and genetic repair systems. This decline of internal surveillance in older animals increases the risk of tumor growth.
This is a brief explanation why cancer is associated with aging. This is why people have great fear of cancer for themselves and their pets. Clients come into our clinics with hopes that we can offset the inevitable and keep their pet well into old age.
Many people love their pet so much that they say, "This is my last dog. I will never get another pet again because I can't go through the heartbreak." These are strongly bonded clients who do not want their old pet to leave them.
The increasing association of cancer and senescence places our aging pet population at greater risk for the many manifestations of neoplasia.
We must bear in mind how the cancer, or its treatment, affects the geriatric pet when making decisions regarding options. Managing cancer in the oldest portion of our diverse pet population is a very personal decision for the patient's family.
My 35-year consultation service has brought thousands of pet owners to me at a time of grief, decision-making, challenge and adjustment. Pet caregivers tell me the many ways that their older pets have enriched their lives.
People who spend a decade or so with their pets often experience life-enhancing and life-informing events with them.
Being part of interspecies dialogue is a collaborative experience. "Bogie knew me," said Evelyn Lifland of Hermosa Beach, Calif. "It did not matter if I was up or down or just wanted to sit and rest. He was always there for me. I did not want to lose him, especially since he was there for me when my sister moved and when my husband was sick."
Helping us Grow
Caregivers have told me that their cat, dog, bird or horse helped them to grow more psychologically and spiritually. They felt that they were in the presence of another sensitive being that depended on them and communicated with them.
The human-animal bond provides children and adults the opportunity for nurturing and care-giving. Keeping a pet is a wonderful outlet for the need to nurture and for the good nature in all of us.
This need to nurture resonates with the best part of us to do more good works for others, including animals and those less fortunate. Many pet owners thrive with the sense of responsibility that having pets places upon them.
People cherish the idea that their pet is eagerly waiting for them to return home. Caregivers are fond of the special ritual that their pet goes through while greeting them with a wagging tail and sincere excitement.
Pet owners who have enjoyed the loyalty of a dog or cat know that their pet cares about them. Animals bestow feelings of pleasure, belonging, and being loved.
Sometimes the only physical contact that a person has with another living body is the contact with their personal pets. Many pets sleep on the bed or within feet of a family member's bed.
Pet Partner visits bring physical and emotional joy for hospitalized and rest-home patients. Pet owners who are hospitalized want to get well quickly so they can get back home to care for their pets and be with them.
Children are enriched by the companionship of pets. The playfulness and beauty of dogs, cats and animals of all types, fascinate children.
Working K-9s, search and rescue dogs, therapy dogs and assistance animals have a big fan club. When they get old or sick, hundreds of people that they touched are affected.
Over the past 20 years, society has become more understanding and more supportive when pet lovers exhibit anticipatory grief or suffer from pet loss.
It is not unusual for workers to take a personal day or two off when a beloved pet is sick, needs to see the doctor or passes away. Many people can now freely share their fragile feelings of fear and loss with understanding friends and family.
The emotional effect of pet loss is out in the open now.
We are living in a new, more sensitive era for pet lovers who can openly grieve losses and celebrate their cherished relationships.
Veterinarians who work within the paradigm of the pediatrician model have the social responsibility to provide emotional support to distressed clients.
Family practice veterinarians can help bereft clients look forward. The veterinary staff can suggest the value of creating new attachments by placing a new pet in the home or supporting a cause or volunteering for an adoption group.
We have an opportunity to help create enrichment and enhancement relationships in their lives honoring the human-animal bond.
Dr. Villalobos is president of the American Assn. of Human-Animal Bond Veterinarians and is on the editorial review board of the Society for Veterinary Medical Ethics. She may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.