“We’ve seen a real change in the overall life span,” says Dr. Moses.
What is considered geriatric in a dog? The actuarial table depends on size. For small dogs, old age begin after 10. For bigger dogs, after age “8 or 9,” according to Moses, and for “giant breeds (Great Dane, St. Bernard) at 5 or 6.”
Anne Shuhler of Watertown got a jolt when her veterinarian made an offhand remark while examining her “genuine mutt” Sawyer.
“When Sawyer was 8, the vet said something like, ‘Oh well, he’s a senior now.’ ” Shuhler wasn’t ready for the reckoning. “At the age of 8 I hadn’t really thought of him that way. I thought dogs were old at 12 to 15. I know they don’t live forever but I hadn’t moved him into that mental place.”
Since then, Shuhler has made her peace and now refers to Sawyer, a 10½-year-old with shades of German shepherd and collie, as her “old man.” The two hiked in the White Mountains of New Hampshire not long ago.
Admitting age is a human denial trigger, which owners can extend to un-self-conscious dogs. Cristen Underwood, director of marketing for the Quaker Pet Group, says the company’s “Silver Tails” products for senior dogs didn’t sell well at Petco, the pet store chain, because “people don’t want to admit their dog is getting older. It’s hard to make that change into buying senior pet products.”
Underwood says the Silver Tails line, which includes mats with bamboo charcoal inserts to warm furry bodies and infrared massagers, will now go into “boutique” stores where dog keepers have more of a connection to the sales staff.
Yet, Rob Van Sickle, co-owner of the Polka Dog Bakery in Boston’s South End and Jamaica Plain, says any marketing pitch for dogs through their owners can be foolhardy.
“I was just at a trade show in Las Vegas and people were walking around with white poodles that had been tie-dyed,” he says. “There always seems to be a new marketing pitch.” Van Sickle calls the pet industry a “giant marketing engine and everybody’s always trying to build a better mousetrap.”
Unfortunately, no product will make an old dog live forever. And the owner of a senior dog ultimately confronts the grief of loss. Dr. Moses of Angell empathizes. “People who are devoted to elderly animals are very special people,” she says. “They do the best they can to make their dogs’ lives better for however long they have.”
For Kevan Cunningham, it’s simple. He wants to do anything for Dempsey because the old dog gives everything back. “He is so mellow and peaceful and just wants to please us,” says Cunningham. “He’s still there to greet us with a tail wag.”
Monica Collins can be reached at email@example.com.