Pets, Places, & Things, Points on Pets

Embrace a Senior Pet, Bond for Life

By Carolyn Cockroft

“If you touch me, you’ll understand what happiness is,” sings Grizabella, the aging feline in Andrew Lloyd Weber’s musical, Cats. I recall this lyric often when stroking an elderly cat at King Street Cats (KSC), the no-kill shelter where I volunteer weekly. Like Grizabella, the senior residents at KSC once had their days in the sun. Yet now, they are sometimes overlooked by prospective owners in favor of younger and “more adorable” adoptees.

Many shelters are filled with aging cats and dogs. Yet, according to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, senior dogs have a 25% adoption rate, compared to a 60% rate for younger dogs and puppies. “Older shelter cats are just as loving, loyal, and delightful as young ones, but typically the last to be adopted,” ASPCA President Matthew Bershadker explains, “and result in senior cats being among the first shelter animals to be euthanized.”

So why the hesitation to adopt older pets? While they may require special care because of their aging needs, the following are some misconceptions that prevent senior animals from being placed in a forever, loving home.

Myth #1: They are in a shelter because they are undesirable, and nobody wants them. FALSE. Often an animal has been brought to a shelter because of conditions that have nothing to do with health, personality, or appeal. A new baby in the family, change in marital status, a move to a place that won’t accept pets—these are only a few reasons. The most heartbreaking cause is when the owner passed away or had to give up the pet due to a transition to assisted living. Such cases occur at our shelter; the poor creatures are afraid, lonely, and unable to understand why they are no longer with their human companion(s). Pets are not immune to grief.

Myth #2: Their age means more special needs and they require more care and attention. Not necessarily!  Shelter animals are usually housetrained before being released to a new home. Many senior pets’ bladders are fully developed and require fewer trips to relieve themselves. Also, mature dogs and cats are calmer and content to sleep and enjoy a quiet life, unlike rambunctious puppies and kittens who require constant supervision and assume every item in your home to be a toy. Older dogs also are much less likely to engage in destructive chewing since they are no longer teething. Rarely is there a need to “pet-proof” a home for a senior who already learned the rules from a previous owner.

Myth #3: Older animals are not as charming or entertaining as cute baby pets. Hardly true!  In fact, a calmer disposition is the remarkable charm of an older pet, who may be a perfect fit for not only an elderly person who prefers a less energetic routine but also for a family with young children and other pets. Adult animal personalities are already developed so you know what you are getting. Since shelter care givers interact daily with their residents, they can carefully match you up with the right dog or cat for your lifestyle—active or laid back.

Myth #4: Old dogs can’t be taught new tricks. Oh, yeah?  Many senior dogs already know how to walk on a leash, ride in a car, fetch, and understand basic commands such as “sit” or “stay”. Older dogs also have a much longer attention span than puppies and can be easier to teach. “An older dog is more receptive to learning new commands,” according to Kyle Johansen, a cofounder of How I Met My Dog™, a website that matches up potential adopters with shelter dogs. “Older dogs with prior training can be quicker to pick up on new command cues. With the solid bond you two share, there will be more concentration from your dog towards each one of your actions. This natural awareness will make your new dog much more receptive to learning new commands.”

Myth # 5: They have more health issues. Not always. Shelter personnel already know the animal’s medical condition and requirements, if any, for medicines or prescribed nutrition. This information will help to avoid unnecessary or frequent trips to the vet. A guessing game is not necessary to discover what food, treats, or exercise they prefer.

Myth #6: They have a shorter life expectancy. Maybe, but. Advances in animal nutrition and medicines have made it possible for older pets to have longer, healthier lives. And while a younger pet may have more years ahead than an older one, youth is no guarantee that a kitten or puppy will not have a genetic disorder (such as a weak heart) or develop a disease while still young. Many dogs live well into their early teens and cats even survive into their 20s. An eight-year-old adoptee, when provided with a healthy diet and medical visits, may still have many years to share with a human friend. Even if an aging pet does not live long after adoption, its owner will be repaid with utmost loyalty and gratitude for providing a caring and comfortable home environment at the end of life.

So, all assumptions aside, this is the truth. In a traditional shelter environment, the older the animal, the smaller the likelihood of leaving the shelter alive. “They have had years to perfect the art of loving a human unconditionally, and most do not get a second chance to find a new home,” states Young at Heart, a haven for senior pets. When you adopt an older dog or cat, you have saved a precious life, and the bond between the two of you will be profound and lasting. And then you will know what happiness is.

About the Author:  Carolyn Cockroft has volunteered at King Street Cats for more than 11 years. Her two senior cats, Marigold and Butterbean, still have lots of energy and relish their superior status at their home in Woodbridge.


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