Final Odyssey Ody shuffles down the hall and stops at the doorway of my office, peering in at me with brown

eyes made milky by age. He doesn’t come all the way into the room to put a muzzle on my lap or push a nose under my hand as he used to. For Ody the greeting remains incomplete, a reminder that he now inhabits a different world. I turn in my chair and call him. Though he doesn’t come, I know he hears me. His stump of a tail flicks back and forth in reply. I also know, because we repeat this exchange day after day, what comes next. With a snort and a raspy cough, Ody will turn stiffly and make his way back down the hall, the click-drag click-drag of his nails telling me where he is headed. But I don’t want him to go just yet. I stand and step into the doorway. Kneeling, I take Ody’s face in my hands. His long ears are like velour under my fingers. I run my hands along his body, feeling the spongy lumps that bulge out here and there, like a super-sized Braille inscription. The lumps, the vet tells me, are fatty deposits called lipomas and are a harmless, if unsightly, manifestation of age. Despite his lumps and skin tags and white hair, Ody is still just as handsome to me as ever. Repeating another familiar exchange, I lower my face and touch my nose to his. I’ve always loved his nose, which is improbably colored to match the russet of his coat. I close my eyes and feel the cool roughness. His breath is a reminder of worn and broken teeth and of gums decayed by time. We remain here nose-to-nose for several long moments, and I then I stand up and turn back to my work. Ody shuffles off, click-drag, down the hall. Ody is just over fourteen, and if you saw him on one of his occasional walks (he walks when the mood is right, and otherwise refuses to leave the house) you would know that he is an old dog. His back legs are atrophied and weak and bend awkwardly, and he stands as if he were halfway toward sitting. Every few steps one of his back legs fails to do its job, and he lands on top of his toes, rather than on his paw pad. Without support of the foot, the leg collapses, and his body dips and sways. This idiosyncrasy is most likely the result of some neurological dysfunction that causes the brain to send the wrong signals to the legs. It is one among several symptoms of “cognitive dysfunction syndrome”—in other words, Ody suffers from dementia. Ody is nearing death. And the closer he draws toward the end, the more puzzled I become about what a good death would mean for him. It is pretty clear what a bad death looks like, and far too many animals in our world suffer a bad death, dying afraid, in pain, and alone or with strangers. But what is a good death? The message I get from everything I read and all the people I talk to is that eventually Ody will reach a point at which his life becomes burdensome, and he will tell me, somehow, that he wants to be released. I will take him to the vet and the kindly people there will poke him with a needle and it will all be very quick and painless and gentle. But something about this scenario bothers me, like a splinter just under the skin of my conscience. And the closer Ody limps and shuffles toward this elusive endpoint, the less comfortable I become. Is a “natural” death preferable, for Ody, to euthanasia? Why is it that we have such a revulsion against euthanasia for human beings, yet when it comes to animals this good death comes to feel almost obligatory? If it is an act of such compassion, shouldn’t we be more willing to provide this assistance for our beloved human companions as well? I worry: will I be able to read Ody’s signals? And I wonder: does life ever become so burdensome for an animal that he or she would prefer death, or is this something we have judged from the outside? Is it that their

lives become burdensome for them, or for us? The more troublesome Ody becomes—the more he pees on the floor, the more often he barks for no reason at odd hours of the night, the more frequently he stands, confused and panting, in the middle of the kitchen while I’m trying to cook dinner—the more ambiguous the question of burdens becomes. ---OLD PETS In contrast to old animals in the wild, who have attracted relatively little attention, aging pets are a subject of considerable interest. Within the population of companion animals, the elderly is the fastest growing category with over 35 percent of all pets in the United States now considered, by their vets, to be geriatric. There are about seventy-eight million companion dogs in US households and ninety-four million cats, which means roughly twenty-seven million geriatric dogs and thirty-three million geriatric cats. These numbers are likely to grow, as veterinary medicine offers an ever-wider range of treatments, from organ transplants to hip replacements, and as better lifelong care increases pet life expectancies. In step with the changing pet demographic is a growing appreciation for the final stages of our companion animals’ lives: there are geriatric specialists, old-dog and old-cat foods, products designed help older animals maintain functionality, books devoted to caring for old pets, advice from trainers about how to deal with age-related behavioral changes, and old-dog and old-cat rescue organizations. Despite increasing attention to the needs of old companion animals, for many of them, being old is a dark and unpleasant stage of life. There remains a deep prejudice against the old. Sometimes dogs and cats are euthanized merely because they are old, even though they may be reasonably healthy or have treatable problems. Many more languish in shelters, where adoption rates for seniors are very low. Old animals too often suffer from untreated disease and pain, either because owners don’t recognize their changing needs or because they cannot or will not pay for adequate veterinary care. Ironically, at the same time as the population of pets in American and other wealthy countries is undergoing a demographic shift, with many more animals living well to old age, in the wild, things may be moving in the opposite direction. The rate of dying in the wild is increasing for many species—and life expectancy is dropping—sometimes dramatically, as climate change, habitat destruction, and pollution (including oil spills) challenge survival capacities. Polar bears, for example, are much less likely to reach old age now and are less likely to survive their first year, as compared to even a decade ago. WHAT TO EXPECT WHEN YOUR PET IS SENESCING According to the veterinary literature, dogs and cats are considered geriatric when they turn seven (five for some larger breeds of dog, nine for some smaller breeds). My little Maya turned seven yesterday, which means she is now, officially, a senior citizen. She is still active, and when she’s out running with me, she looks youthful and beautiful and svelte. But I notice that she sleeps a lot these days—and she is getting those lumps, just like Ody. Only lipomas, says the vet. Maya also has skin tags on her eyebrows and chin, and the fur beneath her eyes is streaked with white. In dog years, Maya is just about my age—midforties—and Ody is in his late seventies.

Aging brings with it many physical changes for dogs: skin and hair disorders and alterations, including the distinctive graying of the muzzle; reproductive system changes, especially for male dogs (male dogs who have not been neutered often develop prostate problems; there is no canine menopause); bone and joint problems, including osteoarthritis; muscular atrophy; decrease in heart, lung, liver, and kidney function; intestinal issues (constipation, gastritis); weakened immune system; vision changes; and hearing loss. In dogs, smell is usually the last sense to fail. Aging also affects the brain. For humans, cognitive decline is said to begin in our thirties—a fact I find totally depressing, since I’m clearly headed south. The aging brain undergoes structural and chemical changes, such as loss of neural circuits and brain plasticity, thinning of the cortex, and declines in dopamine and seratonin levels. We can’t think as fast, can’t remember as well, and can’t process as much information. Cognitive decline also affects animals, sometimes quite dramatically. The vet tells me that some of Ody’s behavioral mannerisms, like his knuckling, are caused by neurological decline. Ody also probably has some level of canine dementia, or CDS (cognitive dysfunction syndrome). The brains of dogs with senile dementia are more or less identical to those seen in cases of human Alzheimer’s disease. Necropsies performed on dogs with CDS show a similar kind of plaque to that found in Alzheimer’s patients; because of the similarities, dogs are being used as models in Alzheimer’s research. Like Alzheimer’s, CDS is not curable, but drug treatments (e.g., Anipryl) have been shown to help slow a dog’s decline and can sometimes decrease symptoms. Changes in the body and brain can in turn affect behavior. Dogs with mental deterioration may stop being as interested in their owners, sleep more, become incontinent or disoriented, and show changes in personality. Sometimes the behavioral changes are subtle, and pet owners often don’t notice symptoms or don’t report them to their vet, assuming they are normal signs of aging. Veterinarian David Taylor, author of Old Dog, New Tricks, mentions a few of the most common behavioral changes seen in older dogs, along with their likely physiological cause: dental disease—suffered by the majority of old dogs—can cause pain, thus irritability; loose stools can cause house soiling; less efficient lungs reduce oxygen levels, leading to decreased energy, a tendency toward confusion during the night, and senility; heart disease restricts a dog’s ability to exercise and leads to more sleeping during the day (all dogs over the age of thirteen have some degree of heart disease, he says); inefficient processing of waste by the liver can contribute to cognitive dysfunction; kidney disease can cause excess urine production, which can sometimes lead to urinary accidents in the house; enlarged prostate can lead to incontinence; an underactive pituitary can lead to increased irritability, overeating, excessive drinking, restlessness, and house soiling; loss of bone density and muscle mass may decrease mobility; and failing senses can lead to increased vocalization, fear, and aggression. One of the most common behavioral issues for older animals is anxiety, Ody’s favorite neurosis (and a bugaboo for many humans, too). Taylor says of anxiety in old dogs: “Although they are experienced in life and set in their ways, old dogs often exhibit signs of anxiety that can involve problem behavior. They can become more irritated by or fearful of changes in their environment. . . .” Anxiety can often be related to physical infirmities. For example, a dog whose body is producing an excessive quantity of urine may be anxious about soiling the house. Also, the loss of sight and hearing can create feelings of anxiety, as can cognitive dysfunction. “Some elderly canine behaviors,” Taylor writes, “are expressions of a conservative, averse-to-

change attitude which is similar to that commonly seen in old people.” Ody is most certainly anxious about his physical changes, particularly the refusal of his hind end to behave as it should. I can see worry in his face as he sways and limps and struggles to stand upright enough to eat. Taylor believes that many of the problematic behaviors related to aging can be addressed by a committed pet owner. Perhaps the most important point is this: behavioral problems such as urinating in the house oftentimes stem from a medical condition, and the vet is the first person to see, not the behaviorist (who might be second). The first person to see is definitely not the euthanasia specialist or the shelter in-take worker. If we anticipate behavioral changes as our animals age, we can remain proactive in seeking their root cause and helping our animals adapt to aging. We’ll also be far more likely ourselves to adapt successfully. Of course not all behavioral changes in older dogs are adverse or hard to deal with. For instance, while many older dogs suffer from increased separation anxiety (perhaps spurred along by a heightened ambient level of anxiety), Ody’s separation anxiety has actually gotten much better. Because he is mostly deaf and very often asleep, he doesn’t notice when we leave and doesn’t panic; because he is addled, he forgets that he is supposed to destroy things while we’re away. But even when he does see us go—when he stands in the hallway and watches all the rest of us going out into the garage and piling into the car—he doesn’t seem all that concerned or interested. I think he actually looks forward to us leaving because he has a chance to check all the dog dishes and then all the counters and cabinets and eat what he finds without worrying about getting in trouble with Topaz. Behavior books talk blithely about retraining. “If your older dog is having issues,” they say, “a period of retraining is called for.” I sigh when I read this, knowing full well what “a period of retraining” means: another series of opportunities for Ody to be obstinate and for me to fall short. I have learned from Ody that almost all behavioral issues in dogs have a strong human component: we give confusing signals, expect our dogs to understand a foreign language, and become upset when they fail to read our minds. And I will be the first to say that training or even retraining a dog is not easy and can require a substantial commitment. Granted, it may only take fifteen minutes a day, but these fifteen minutes are somehow very hard to lock down. It is like trying to improve one’s daily diet: consistency and commitment are slippery and sometimes the harder you try, in your mind, the less you accomplish in fact. But it is not only our own wellbeing that is on the line here.