What can we learn from aging companion animals?

The Psychology of Aging

Like many of us, I have said goodbye to some of my most beloved companions. It inspired me to start a pet bereavement group, initially co-run with a veterinarian colleague. Over the years, it became something else, a reflection on life and our own mortality.

“Dog years” are fluid things; smaller breeds live longer than big ones. Emotionally, a domestic dog exists in a kind of perpetual adolescence, a long summer twilight of play, meals, naps, and happy routine in the company of parents who adore you. They will always be our babies.

The scientific term for this Peter Pan state is “neoteny” — when adults retain juvenile traits — and it’s one of many characteristics of older canines. Psychologist Daniel Promislow, who studies aging at the University of Washington, recently assembled scientists from various disciplines to join a Canine Longevity Consortium. With a grant from the National Institute on Aging, they’re laying the groundwork for the first national longitudinal study on aging in dogs.

Why? The researchers are exploring an audacious idea: Dogs are in many ways our mirror species. “Unlike most [animal] models used to study aging, dogs aren’t in a lab — they share the same environment we do,” Dr. Promislow writes.

Domestic dogs exhibit huge genetic variability, often eat processed food, sleep in our homes (actually on our beds) and enjoy access to humanlike health care. I have written elsewhere that American dogs and cats enjoy more healthcare, socialization, affection, comfort, and nutrition than many children the world over.

Increasingly, they also get sick and die like us: They acquire arthritis and heart disease and many of the same cancers; they grow frail, tired, and forgetful. Interestingly, in contrast to humans, dogs often do not show physical pain or distress until they have an advanced disease. Researchers at the veterinary program and med school at the University of Virginia and Virginia Tech are researching why this applies to animals, and how it may be useful for human interventions. The medical definition is compression of morbidity: when significant deficits are not shown until close to the end.

Often companion animal lives are extended by expensive medical interventions. Dr. Promislow and his colleagues hope to discover what factors allow some dogs to better fend off these indignities.

The gerontologist Kenneth Doka has called the death of a pet “disenfranchised grief.” It’s a loss whose significance others don’t recognize. You post a sad Facebook update and go back to work. You speak with a couple of close friends who might understand. In general, the world wants us to go back to normal. Even though we have lost a family member.

In my group, past discussions have included what we learn from our aging pets.  An important theme has emerged:

Everything you do for a dog or cat to help them age well, you should do with them. So research and eat the best food you can afford. Go for a walk, even if it’s raining. Take a lot of naps. Keep your teeth clean and your breath fresh, so that the people you lick will not flinch. And when someone you love walks in through the door, even if it happens five times a day, go totally insane with joy.

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