Life with Dempsey, a blonde Labrador retriever with a soft round head, has changed for Kevan and Sheila Cunningham. The trio once hiked on conservation land near their home in Southeastern Massachusetts. They relaxed in front of the TV as Dempsey curled up in his own chair. They took vacations as a family and slept together in a big bed.
The Cunninghams got the dog when the Lab was 8 weeks old, and they still refer to Dempsey as their “baby.” Fourteen years later the puppy is 98 in human years. Senior Dempsey, arthritic and failing, can’t climb stairs anymore, jump up to the bed, or ride in the car. The beloved pooch has good days and bad.
“He’s hanging in there,” says Cunningham, a judge with the Taunton District Court. “But every day is a little bit different. He does like to get outside and watch the world and he barks occasionally. It’s an elderly type of bark but he still manages to croak one out.”
Living with an elder of any species is heartbreaking, gratifying, uplifting, and patience-trying. Old dogs have an especially deep emotional pull when they peer up with their sweet, sad, trusting eyes.
“It’s so hard to live with an elderly dog because it’s like a roller coaster, up and down all the time,” says Dr. Lisa Moses, chief of the Pain Medicine Service at Angell Animal Medical Center. The subject is personal for Moses. She has a 16-year-old pit bull, Dora. “What they used to be able to do, what their life used to be like, it’s really hard to set that aside.”
Singer Fiona Apple made headlines last week for postponing the South American leg of her tour so she can stay by the side of her ailing, nearly-14-year-old pit bull, Janet. In an eloquent and lengthy letter to her fans, Apple explained how important this time with her beloved pet is: “. . . I know she is coming close to the time where she will stop being a dog, and start instead to be part of everything. She’ll be in the wind, and in the soil, and the snow, and in me, wherever I go. I just can’t leave her now, please understand. If I go away again, I’m afraid she’ll die and I won’t have the honor of singing her to sleep, of escorting her out. . .”
The Globe’s Brian McGrory wrote a 2004 column, “The Brown Eyes of Wisdom,” an elegy to his golden retriever Harry in the final act. The lead sentence is a weeper: “They should come with a warning label, these creatures. They should come with a label that says you’re going to fall hopelessly in love, only to have your heart shattered before you could ever possibly prepare.” Kevan Cunningham keeps a clipping of the column close.
Old dogs touch a nerve — and the pocketbook. With an eye on burgeoning market possibilities of the senior set, canine product purveyors sell specially formulated kibble, beds, bowls, ramps to get up into the car, harnesses, diapers for incontinence, as well as various supplements, herbs and holistic remedies designed to cosset a senior dog through its last years. Doting owners find it difficult to resist the pitch for anything to help their four-legged family member.
The Cunninghams bought a large therapeutic bed for Dempsey. They changed to a food for senior dogs. On days he shuns the kibble, Sheila makes chicken soup. The Cunninghams lined the tile floor of their kitchen with rubber mats so Dempsey doesn’t slip. They give him fish oil, glucosamine and chondroitin, supplements thought to assuage arthritis. Their veterinarian prescribed a pain medication, which seems to help. Yet, as with every dog, Dempsey has a simple go-to obsession having nothing to do with fancy or expensive: “Bread,” says Kevan Cunningham. “Any kind of bread.”
Jon Comeau, product development specialist for dogs at Vermont’s Orvis Company, says his company’s market expands with the aging dog population.
“We see it in the sales figures that come through,” he says. “Ten years ago, we were selling products to keep dogs off the couch. Now we’re selling products to keep them on the couch.”
Beds are big sellers for elderly dogs with creaky joints. “We have several versions of Tempur-Pedic and regular memory-foam beds,” says Comeau, who touts the advantages of rectangular beds for stiff dogs who won’t curl up because of the pain. Orvis, which claims to have sold the first dog bed in 1976, also sells absorbent covers for incontinence.
According to the latest statistics from a survey of pet owners by the American Pet Products Association (APPA), there are 78.2 million dogs in US households. The numbers give no breakout figures for how many senior dogs are out there but veterinarians and other experts anecdotally agree canines are living longer because of advances in veterinary care, better food, and heightened owner awareness about how to keep a dog healthier longer.
“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.”