When my clients make decisions on behalf of their senior dogs and cats, their natural tendency is to factor in the age of their pet. I often hear comments such as, “I would pursue a diagnosis if only she weren’t so old” or, “I would treat him if only he were younger."
When my clients voice these “senior objections” I gently encourage them to rethink their age-related preconceived notions. I suggest that they consider their pet’s functional age rather than the chronological age. This involves assessing the overall quality of a pet’s life, particularly as it appeared prior to injury or illness. When making significant decisions, this “functional age” is far more worthy of consideration than the “chronological age.”
What is functional age?
Here are some examples of how a pet’s age might constructively factor into the medical decision-making process. In each situation, the chronologically older animal is younger from a functional point of view.
- It would be safer to anesthetize a vigorous, playful 13-year-old Labrador with normal organ function for surgery to remove a tumor, than a debilitated 11-year-old Labrador with impaired kidney function.
- Performing anesthetic dental cleaning on an active, otherwise healthy 15-year-old kitty would be safer than performing the same procedure on an 8-year-old kitty being treated for heart failure.
- Treating cancer may be a reasonable option for a 12-year-old Australian Shepherd who has been leading an active lifestyle and enjoying an extremely good quality of life. This may not be a sound choice for a 10-year-old Aussie whose quality of life has been significantly diminished because of severe arthritis.
When making medical decisions, clients frequently ask about their pet’s life expectancy. Life expectancies for cats and dogs of varying breeds are nothing more than averages. This means that some individuals will never reach “average” and others will far exceed it. Dismissal of testing and/or treatment simply because a dog or cat has already reached or surpassed this average doesn’t make good sense.
Be a savvy medical advocate
When making decisions, savvy medical advocates evaluate the whole package — spryness, organ function, overall comfort, joie de vivre — rather than considering age alone. Just because a dog or cat is, by definition, a senior citizen doesn’t mean his body is functioning like that of a senior citizen.
If you have a happy, lively, interactive and agile senior pet on your hands, throw those age-related numbers and averages out the window. Rather, I encourage you to observe your pet’s overall quality of life, share some nose-to-nose time with your best buddy. Look deep into those eyes, and make important medical decisions based on what’s truly important. Avoid simply relying on a number.
Questions for your veterinarian
- Based on my description and your evaluation, how do you judge the overall quality of my pet’s life to be?
- How do you judge my pet’s functional age compared with his chronological age?
- Is the recommended testing and/or treatment likely to restore the quality of my pet’s life?
- Is the recommended testing and/or treatment likely to worsen the quality of my pet’s life?
- What is the likelihood of complications or negative side effects?
If you have any questions or concerns, you should always visit or call your veterinarian -- they are your best resource to ensure the health and well-being of your pets.