Can You Love A Pet As Much As A Child

Long in the tooth: Owners find new ways to nurture their aging ‘babies’

By Amanda Daniels
Copley News Service

Wallie padded onto the Dippity Dog platform in her life jacket and turned her head as if to say, “I’m ready.” A button was pushed, a motor whirred and the old Labrador sank into the familiar warm pool. She began paddling her laps in a neat line, careful not to disturb the two Burmese mountain dogs working out nearby.

Wallie exercises twice a week at this special backyard pool, takes 14 medications each day and every evening wears a diaper for incontinence. Her owner, Barbara Beck, believes old age is no reason to put a dog to sleep. She will do anything, pay any amount of money, to improve her 11-year-old black Lab’s quality of life.

“I may have incontinence someday,” said Beck. “I wouldn’t want somebody to put me down just because of it.”

Some might call Beck, 51, a donk — a “dog-obsessed, no kids” baby boomer. Donks lavish their pets with all the accouterments money can buy: IQ-raising toys, dental braces, orthopedic beds (for pets with bad backs), sweaters and T-shirts, sun hats, shoes to protect their paws, Halloween costumes (angels, princesses, and hot dogs are favorites), birthday cakes, wheelchair-like carts.

But most of all, they do whatever it takes to extend their pets’ lives. Studies by the American Veterinary Medical Association show pet owners are spending more (up 38 percent for dog owners from 1996 to 2001) and their pets are living longer (nearly 17 percent of cats were 11 years or older in 2001, compared with 13 percent in 1997).

The American Pet Products Manufacturers Association has found a similar trend in its surveys. The most telling: Eighty-three percent of pet owners refer to themselves as Mommy or Daddy.


If pets are viewed consciously or unconsciously as children, they are ones who may grow old but will never grow up. Being forever dependent creates a unique bond, said psychologist Lorri Greene.

The unconditional love and loyalty that pets offer in exchange for pampering is powerful.

Greene, 55, has led pet loss support groups for 20 years and has seen myriad pet-owner relationships.

“I know people who have taken out money from their house,” Greene said. “One man took $10,000 and the animal still died, but he did not regret it.”

Nor does Greene regret the $1,000 she spends each year on her two tabbies, Tara, 18, and Bosco, 11.

Her cats offer companionship distinctly different from bonds with her husband, daughter, and friends. In exchange for this closeness, she gets regular check-ups for Tara and Bosco. Tara has blood work done every six months and takes a daily pill to regulate her thyroid. She has irritable bowel syndrome and tends to be anxious, Greene said, so she also eats special dry food.

Greene maintains a healthy lifestyle and says she is more aware of preventive medicine than she’s ever been. But, still, she would bring her cats to a veterinarian more readily than she would go to a doctor herself.

This is not uncommon, said veterinarian Cliff Matsuda, an administrator at Animal ER of San Diego, an emergency care clinic. Many of the people he sees “would do anything for their pets, just like they would for kids.”

Once unheard of for animals, cardiac and abdominal ultrasounds, endoscopy and colonoscopy, blood and plasma transfusions, kidney replacements for cats, hip replacements, and cardiac pacemakers in dogs — all are fairly routine procedures to Matsuda.

When he began practicing 20 years ago, Matsuda said, a dog hit by a car in the middle of the night would most likely be destroyed.

Now it has as much medical support at its disposal as a human would.

So, too, with rattlesnake bites, a common summertime emergency. Not long ago, a dog might not survive a poisonous bite. Now, it can receive life-saving medication 24 hours a day, albeit at a cost of up to $1,000.

“Word gets out you can do all these things to animals,” Matsuda said, “and more and more people will do them.”

Which accounts for the flourishing practice of Trish Penick, who runs the water rehabilitation sessions Wallie attends. Four years ago she was a physical therapist for humans, a profession she’d been in for 15 years.

“I just found the animals needed me more,” she said.

Penick has had no shortage of customers, she said. She offers animal rehabilitation where dogs receive the same stretching, electric stimulation, massage, and swim sessions as humans.

About 80 percent of Penick’s clients are baby boomers, but she thinks it’s time, more than money, that dictates whether they give their pets special treatment.

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