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Elderly Dogs
In the end, we do whatever will haunt us the least. / David Baratz/USA WEEKEND

A vet’s tips for aging pets

"Age is not a disease,” says Katie Baldwin, a veterinarian in Chicago. “Don’t assume pain or loss of energy is normal just because your dog or cat is old.” As your pet gets older, keep an eye on the following:

Teeth. For dogs and cats, 9 to 10 years old is the time to get teeth in order, because tooth decay becomes more severe and anesthesia riskier.

Blood. Regular blood work can alert your veterinarian to otherwise invisible ailments for which early detection can prevent long-term problems. Kidney and thyroid problems are particular concerns for cat owners, Baldwin says.

Joints. If you see changes in how your pet takes the stairs, talk to a veterinarian about possible arthritis treatments.

Body and soul. “Don’t assume that because they’re older, they don’t need as much exercise or attention,” Baldwin says. Regular physical and mental activity can hold off arthritis and dementia and can strengthen your bond.

Show us your pet on the go!

You’ll be in the running for one of five $100 gift certificates to PetCo when you share a photo of your pet on the go. The possibilities are endless: Kitty could be on vacation with you or Fido could be in a frenzy chasing his tail in your own backyard. If your pet is on the go, we want to see it! Post photos to usaweekend.com/onthego between March 25 and April 29. Five winners will be drawn May 1.

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Over the 11 years I owned him, my dog Solomon was described by friends as “a rampaging firelog,” “half fox, half potato” and “a tube with legs.” The unfortunate result of his goofy shape was increasingly painful: stressed joints.

During the last year of Solly’s life, my husband, Al, and I carried him up and down two flights of stairs into our apartment, three times a day. Since the dog weighed only 26 pounds, that was no big deal, until the evening when I stumbled. As we both fell, Solly ruptured a cornea. My sweet Solly was in a lot of pain, and I needed to decide what to do.

I tell people now — and it might even be true — that I would have put him down right then if Al hadn’t been out of town. If Solly had still been my dog alone, I might have chosen not to put him through any more pain and trouble. But about three weeks after Al moved in with us, I found the two of them on the couch, my future husband whispering “Solly, Solly, Solly, Solly, Solly” in the dog’s ear, and I knew there was no such thing as “my dog” anymore. Letting Solly go before Al could say goodbye was unthinkable.

People tell you that your pet will give some clear, unmistakable sign when he’s ready to shuffle off this mortal fur. But sometimes, just when you’ve resolved that letting him go is the kindest thing to do, the old mutt will lift his head and wag his tail as you walk through the door, because no matter how lousy things are for him, he will still be, always, so happy to see you.

In the end, we do whatever will haunt us the least. For some, that means putting a dog to sleep at the first symptom of a terminal illness. For others, it means taking extraordinary measures to head off the possibility of regret. For Al and me, it meant carrying Solly up and down the stairs for five more months.

The truth is, you can’t ever be 100% sure you’re doing what’s best for a creature who can’t give you his opinion on the matter. But you can be certain that you acted out of love and compassion, that you did the best you could for an animal that trusted you completely. And I think you can even be pretty sure that the animal knows it.

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