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Nursing homes go to the dogs

August 1, 2007
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My dog hates freedom. He hates it real bad. Every Fourth of July, while the rest of the nation celebrates independence by detonating a psychedelic minefield in the sky, Fizbo1 mounts a passionate protest. With the rockets' red glare reflected in his terrified eyes, he barks hysterically and races around the backyard as though possessed, deaf to our shouted commands, and entirely uncatchable. In the absence of a butterfly net, tranquilizer blowgun, or Haldol-soaked piece of meat, we're forced to just watch him, bemused, with our fingers in our ears.

When the evening finally ends2 we take no comfort, because the residual effects always linger long after the last explosion. For the next several weeks, in fact, every noise, every airplane passing overhead, every star, every spark, and every firefly will provoke the same deranged response. Starting about dusk, he patrols the patio, just staring at the sky. It's kind of pitiful, really. Like he's waiting in vain for a spaceship to take him home.

I'm no pet psychologist, but I'm pretty sure Fizbo has PIDCSD.3 A few more of these patriotic pyrotechnic orgies and he'll be headed for premature insanity. I worry sometimes that eventually, as the dementia progresses, he'll regress beyond my ability to care for him. But now I can finally rest easy. I just learned there's a brand-new nursing home waiting for him—and it's only an ocean away.

Seriously. This is absolutely true.4 While recently conducting a routine Google search for long-term care items in the news, an Associated Press headline caught my eye: “Japan to Open First-Ever Dog Nursing Home”

It seems that somewhere near the Japanese city of Tochigi, a pet products company and a veterinary clinic have joined forces to create a revolutionary doggy care experience. According to the article, the 20 aging canine residents will receive round-the-clock monitoring by doctors, specially fortified food, and a team of puppies to help them stay fit and feel younger—all at the bargain rate of 98,000 yen ($800) a month. It's an intergenerational Eden Alternative, in reverse.

Apparently, a boom in pet ownership in Japan, coupled with better healthcare and a more balanced diet, has led to a surge in elderly pets.5 So if this pilot project works, chances are we'll see similar ventures sprouting all over the Pacific Rim. When that happens, it can't be long before one opens in Fizbo's neighborhood, and I'm crossing my fingers that it will be in time.

But really, could it work here? The whole idea sounded preposterous to me at first, but after further reflection, I'm coming around. In a regulatory and reimbursement environment often counterproductive to providing quality care for actual people, this could be the perfect alternate business model for fed-up American nursing home providers.

For one thing, these places must be simple and cost effective to build. I've not seen the Japanese prototype, but architectural standards for doghouses have never been particularly high—pretty much either igloo or box. Whether arranged in a circle or off double-loaded corridors, the 20 private rooms could be small, with low ceilings and minimal light. Furnishings would be sparse and cheap: plastic food and water dishes, a couple squeaky toys, and maybe an old blanket or torn T-shirt tossed on the floor.6 No need to spend money on private bathrooms either, when a single, centrally located fire hydrant could suffice.

There are millions of dog lovers, so I imagine staffing would be easier in canine care—once you get past the challenge of finding people willing to enter the building on their hands and knees by pushing through an opening with a swinging flap. Activity programs and personnel could be almost totally discarded, since the old dogs would be doing nothing but eating, drinking, sleeping, and playing poker.7

Such a facility would obviously be a boon to its community, a beacon for tolerance and understanding between species. At holiday time, the dogs would rise from their poker chairs, gather in the main lobby, and bark “Jingle Bells” to visiting school groups. The hearts of even the crustiest skeptics would melt watching these stately, dignified pets lift their elegant gray chins and sing like it's the old days.

But let's be fair and balanced about this. The financial potential is clearly enormous, since one dog year in the facility would be reimbursed as seven. Bringing canine care to the United States would be extremely challenging, and not just because the puppies will chase the med carts. This is a highly regulated and litigious environment, with significant risk management and corporate compliance issues to consider before jumping into anything paws first.

How do you explain HIPAA to 20 barking dogs, for instance? How do you find a dietary manager who won't be constantly slipping treats to all those sad, pleading faces? How do you monitor unnecessary meds and stay F329-compliant when the answer to every question is “Woof”? And most troubling of all, what if the survey team turns out to be a bunch of punitive cats? These are just a few of the questions the serious investor will have to chew on.8