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Thursday, July 19, 2012

Pet longevity rising, as is the long-term care tab


Medical progress and advanced health care have enabled pets to live longer than ever before, with owners, for their part, increasingly having to provide nursing care for their aging companions.

News photo
Far from a dog's life: Akira Ishii and his wife put their 17-year-old dog, Hank, into a stroller for a walk at their home in Suginami Ward, Tokyo. KYODO

Akira Ishii, a 57-year-old TV and radio scriptwriter in Tokyo, and his wife have made it their nightly custom to roll out a futon in a living room to sleep alongside their geriatric 17-year-old dog, Hank.

The couple take turns caring for the "shiba inu" through the night, helping the dog turn his body while sleeping so he will not suffer bedsores. Soaking pet food in hot water and putting it into Hank's mouth is another routine chore.

"I thought I knew how hard it would be looking after an elderly pet, but it's a big difference between hearing about it and experiencing it," Ishii said. "I never imagined that it'd be this hard."

Hank suffered a stroke two years ago and became unable to get on his feet.

His vet told Ishii to consider euthanizing him, but anticlotting medication helped avoid the worst case scenario.

Medical expenses have since weighed on the Ishiis, who spent more than ¥120,000 in April alone on medication for Hank, ranging from twice-a-day pills for his heart and liver to a tranquilizer designed to prevent him from barking at night.

The need for 24-hour care prevents Ishii and his wife from staying away from home together for extended periods and limits the sphere of their activities, but they hope Hank will live as long as possible.

It is believed that pet owners' preference began to change significantly around 2000, after large dogs that can live outdoors became a hit in the 1990s. Smaller dogs like the Chihuahua have gained popularity and "indoor" breeds now dominate choices.

Experts on relationships between people and pets say such a change in part reflects declining birthrates, noting there are a number of owners who consider their pets like a child or family member.

Naturally, this trend gives owners the opportunity to better observe their pets' health conditions.

"Unlike the days when pets lived outside houses, owners can easily notice changes in their pets' health and they tend to bring them to the hospital more often than before," said Takako Shimizu, a veterinarian from the western Tokyo city of Akishima.

Extensive blood examinations similar to those conducted on humans help find health problems swiftly and precisely.

Pets can now receive advanced medical care like radiation treatment at large veterinary hospitals, while vets at smaller institutions treat them with anticancer agents or even perform surgery using a feeding tube.

"Going through these kinds of treatment takes time and costs a considerable amount of money, so it is up to their families to decide which treatment they will choose or how far they will go with it," Shimizu said.

"There must be many cases where elderly people are providing care for elderly pets, and I think it's good for them to take a break sometimes by using pet care services or short-stay hospital visits," Shimizu added.

Against this background of pet-nursing, the pet insurance market is growing in popularity.

Anicom Insurance Inc., the industry leader with a market share of some 60 percent, has about 400,000 contracts with annual insurance premium revenues totaling about ¥13 billion.

"The number of contracts is roughly 2 percent of overall pet dogs and cats in Japan and we expect the figure will grow further and further," an official of the Tokyo-based insurer said.

Caring for an elderly pet does not always seem to be painful for owners.

Hoshi Waniko, a cartoonist known for her work depicting the lives of elderly cats and their struggles with illness, lost her 14-year-old cat in the spring of 2011.

"It was a difficult time for me, but I think it was good that I had a chance to look after him," she said. "That has helped me get over the loss."

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