Your Money: As pets live longer, they may need long-term health care

NEW YORK (Reuters) - If you think only humans are living longer, check out Willoughby.

People walk their dogs along the beach after sunset in Cardiff, California January 27, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Blake

The adorable little shih tzu from Atlanta is still trucking at the ripe old age of 18. In human terms, that puts him well over 100.

It is no fluke.

Dogs are now living an average of 11.8 years, according to the 2016 State of Pet Health report from privately owned Banfield Pet Hospital, which operates veterinary clinics around the United States. That is up from just 11 years in their 2013 study, and 10.5 years in 2002.

Cats are also enjoying more golden years, an average of 12.9 years, or roughly 70 in human terms. That is up from 12.1 years in the 2013 study, and 11 years in 2002.

“Dogs used to be considered geriatric at six or seven. But these days larger breeds can make it to 15 or 16, and smaller breeds can even live up to 20 years,” says Laura Coffey, author of the book, “My Old Dog: Rescued Pets With Remarkable Second Acts.”

Owner preferences are increasingly tilting toward the longer-living smaller dogs, says Dr. Kirk Breuninger, a veterinarian and lead researcher for the State of Pet Health report.

Pets are living longer, primarily due to “education about pet health,” says Breuninger, including more check-ups and medication. In the past, elderly pets with health problems might have just been put down.

Also helping is better nutrition. Gourmet pet food, which some consider healthier, now accounts for more than one-half of the U.S. market, according to research firm Euromonitor International.

In total, Americans spent a record $60 billion caring for their pets in 2015, according to the American Pet Products Association.

You don’t have to tell that to Willoughby’s owner Niv Persaud, a financial planner in Atlanta. She spends around $100 a month on medications for dry eyes, arthritis in the hips, and a heart murmur.

A pet owner doesn’t need to go broke caring for their animal companion. But one does need to be aware of additional costs as pets age, and prepare for potential health problems before they turn into a crisis. And consider ways to minimize the outlays that will inevitably arise. Here are some tips on caring for your little Methuselah:

* Be proactive with preventive care

Just like with humans, wellness programs can help prevent more serious (and costly) health issues later on. Administering heartworm medication from an early age, for example, is one way to potentially lengthen a pet’s life, Breuninger says.

By quickly identifying conditions, like kidney disease in cats, you can design specialized diets that will boost lifespans and extend quality of life.

* Get covered

Some of the array of conditions that tend to affect senior pets, according to Breuninger, include arthritis, cancer, diabetes, and thyroid problems.

Insurance from providers like Nationwide Pet Insurance (formerly VPI), Healthy Paws or Petplan can help allay the costs. The U.S. market amounted to $688.8 million in premiums in 2015, covering 1.4 million pets, according to the North American Pet Health Insurance Association.

* Don’t overlook dental work

Owners do not tend to think much about their pet’s teeth, but a lot of older dogs have dental issues, says Coffey. If you remember how painful toothaches can be, think about how your pet feels. Consider paying for professional cleaning and tooth extraction if necessary, which can be “life-changing” for afflicted pets.

* Retrofit your home

Just as you would for an elderly parent, look to make your home comfortable and safe for elderly pets, advises Coffey. Rubber mats and runner rugs are better than hardwood floors or tile, which lead to more slips and falls, and are harder on arthritic joints.

* Consider rescues

An increasing number of pet-welfare organizations focus on placing senior pets in loving homes. As part of the adoption, they might help with health examinations and coverage for prescription medicines. Check out the state-by-state resource guide on Coffey's site (

“Don’t be scared to take in an older animal,” says Coffey, who shares a home with Manny, a 10-year-old Labrador retriever, and Frida, a 12-year-old Rhodesian ridgeback. “You are making such a huge difference in the life of a little creature who has otherwise run out of options.”

Editing by Beth Pinsker and Jeffrey Benkoe