Need advice for aging dogs?

FETCH a cure offers information, support as your best friend ages


One day Fido seems content to watch squirrels instead of chasing them. He's getting up a little slower from a nap.

It's bad enough to think you're getting old, but how can that cute little bundle of energy be losing his pep?

As baby boomers deal with aging issues, so must their pets.

FETCH a cure, a new nonprofit organization in Richmond, is ready to help.

"Dogs have come from outdoors to the back porch into the house and into our beds," said co-founder Tonie Stevens, a Richmond-based advertising rep. The result is that they're living longer and thus must deal with quality-of-life questions -- often the same ones as humans.

FETCH a cure hopes to become a resource to promote canine health, to offer advice to owners of older pets and to promote awareness of canine cancer.

Many veterinarians believe dogs get cancer at roughly the same rate as humans.

"Cancer rates are definitely increasing," said local veterinarian Betty Baugh Harrison. "It is getting diagnosed more. There are more animals in the aging population."

Experiences with canine cancer brought the FETCH a cure founders together.

In July 2006, Mike Holland's Saint Bernard, Hannah, was diagnosed with nasal osteosarcoma of the skull. After visits to several veterinary specialists, Holland met Dr. Nancy Gustafson, a radiation oncologist at the Regional Veterinary Referral Center in Springfield. Hannah began radiation and chemotherapy there, and today, at 11 still is enjoying life.

"We continue to attack from other angles," said Holland, co-owner of Mosaic Caf* and Catering in Richmond. "We made changes to her diet, tried holistic care and looked at lots of different homeopathic remedies, acupuncture and a chiropractor."

Holland undertook a crusade to learn everything he could about treating cancer. Along the way, he learned a lot about the canine aging process.

Ryan Traylor, special events manager at Mosaic, watched his colleague and friend deal with the process.

As the owner of two younger dogs, Traylor wanted to be prepared.

"Quality of life is the biggest factor," he said. "I want to do the preventative maintenance now."

Stevens' golden retriever, Elliot, died of cancer that wasn't diagnosed until after five surgeries. With Bailey, a chocolate Labrador-greyhound mix, she isn't taking chances. Bailey, 11, gets an organic diet of homemade meals; Stevens said she sees a huge difference in Bailey's energy and health.

"My friends say it's funny that I don't cook for myself or them -- I eat out all the time -- but I'll cook for the dog," she said.

Holland said he realizes that the strategy he has used for Hannah may not be feasible for everyone.

Holland, Traylor and Stevens, along with Beth Astin and an advisory board of eight local veterinarians, want the public to know the options for dealing with illness.

"What we're trying to achieve is to allow you to have opportunities to have all the information. You can draw your own decisions and decide what makes you comfortable," said Holland.

FETCH a cure's short-term goal is to provide support and education about the normal aging process in pets and be a resource for those whose pets have cancer.

Its Web site,, offers many tips for caregiving.

"The Web site is a big piece of this puzzle," said Traylor. "It's someplace you can go in the middle of the night when you're worried, not knowing what you should do."

A long-term dream is to be able to fund a canine cancer clinic, staffed by a veterinary oncologist (currently the closest is the VRRC in Springfield). Gustafson estimated that such a facility, with linear accelerator for radiation treatment and other necessary equipment, would cost about $1 million. Hannah's trips to Northern Virginia for treatment, said Holland, were a big challenge.

"An intermediate goal for the near future is to sponsor an oncologist here in central Virginia," said Holland. "That would be a compromise between our shortand long-term goals."

And in the future, FETCH a cure hopes to offer financial $#@!istance to pet owners faced with expensive treatment options.

"It sounds like a wonderful program and I hope it makes it," said Gustafson. "Richmond is a good starting place and I hope this expands nationally. Everyone deserves the opportunity for the same care."

To raise visibility, FETCH a cure has a big project planned for 2008.

The prototype for the new Pups on Parade venture was unleashed at Saturday's Ukrop's Christmas Parade. At the moment the large dog sculpture is nicknamed Splash; organizers are hoping his littermates may be groomed a bit more masterfully by professionals.

FETCH a cure is seeking artists to paint 25 metal statues of dogs. Each dog is what organizers call a "flat 3-D" work, measuring 52 inches long, 48 inches tall and 6 inches wide. FETCH also seeks sponsors to adopt these dogs: $5,000 buys foster care, a temporary home during the "grooming" process until the auction; or $6,500 for permanent pup parents who can provide high visibility for the creation.

The project is similar to Richmond's 2001 Go Fish program.

The Pups on Parade creations will be unveiled at Easter on Parade March 23. They'll be on view at the April 4 First Fridays Artwalk. During April and early May, online voting will select the area's favorite pup. A black-collar reception and auction will be held in June to find permanent homes for all the sculptures.

Another program under way is the holiday bone tree program. Approximately 50 Fetch bone trees are in various businesses around the area, including area veterinary clinics and the Richmond SPCA. The trees are decked with plastic bags containing dog bones; suggested donation is $5. Last year, the group's inaugural project raised more than $5,500; this year, they're hoping to raise about $10,000.

With that money, the organization hopes to start making a big difference in the lives of elderly or infirm pets.

"We would hope one day to be able to affect m$#@! treatment options," said Holland. "But now, as with everything, you do the most for as long as you can."

Old age is not a disease

As your dog grows older, he will slow down, but that doesn't mean he can't enjoy life. Here are some ways to make your pet's life easier.
Comfort: Put a comfortable bed in a warm place (you can purchase an orthopedic bed designed to cushion and warm rickety bones). Elevate food dishes for large dogs.
Mobility: Build ramps for pets to use instead of stairs. Eliminate the need for jumping. Help by lifting under the rib cage and behind the legs (or use a towel or sling under the belly) when entering the car or elevated places.
Safety: Use carpet runners, nonskid mats or booties to help with slick floors.
Security: Don't move furniture often. Dogs are familiar with your house plan and tend to get confused more easily as they age.
Health: Offer more walks to help with bladder issues. Keep up with parasite control, as older dogs have less resistance to disease.
Meals: Keep weight levels normal with appropriate diet. Offer soft foods to help aging teeth.
Anxiety: Leave radio or television on when pets are alone to reduce anxiety.
Grooming: Trim nails regularly so they don't catch on carpet. Groom your pet regularly. Skin and coats can dry out and aging dogs sometimes develop odor.
Canine cancer warning signs

sores that do not heal

swellings that persist or continue to grow

weight loss

loss of appetite

bleeding or discharge

offensive odor

difficulty eating or swallowing

hesitation to exercise or loss of stamina

lameness or stiffness

difficulty breathing or using the bathroom