If you’re ready to adopt, don’t limit your choices to puppies or kittens. Consider opening your heart to a senior pet instead. According to many who have, the experience has been a life changer.
Too often, senior pets are euthanized or live out their final days in discomfort and loneliness in shelters because of their age. Many were once the faithful companions of people who have moved to assisted living or nursing homes or have died. Others were surrendered due to changing circumstances for their owners or because they became difficult or inconvenient to care for.
Yet, these pets still have much to offer—without the issues that come with their young counterparts.
Oh, yes, the silliness and energy of puppies and kittens can be fun—for a while. But people often underestimate how much work they actually are, said Lisa Lunghofer, PhD, executive director of The Grey Muzzle Organization, which assists groups that help homeless senior dogs.
Whether it’s dealing with teething, jumping, play biting, digging, climbing, potty or litter box training, or socializing, raising a puppy or kitten takes a lot of time. That can be a strain in many busy households.
In addition, young pets are not without costs. Puppies and kittens often require multiple veterinary visits during the first year, not to mention possible surgical alteration and potential ancillary costs, such as household destruction. Senior pets are much less labor intensive. They are typically housebroken, used to living in a home, and often know basic commands.
“Their personality is already formed. You know what you're getting,” said Lana Bajsel, director of Give Me Shelter Cat Rescue, which provides rescue and adoption services for adult and senior cats.
“Unlike kittens, who are high-energy, destructive, need monitoring, and ideally should be adopted in pairs, senior cats are calmer, more sedate, and perfect for busy households or families gone a large part of the day,” said Bajsel.
Of course, senior pets are not without their special requirements. Some may not be able to handle stairs or need easy access to a potty area. Like any pet, they too require veterinary attention.
Mark Epstein, who chaired the AAHA task force for the 2005 AAHA Senior Care Guidelines for Dogs and Cats, said the guidelines advise blood testing and wellness examinations for seniors at least every six months. Special attention is needed for dental health, joint health, nutrition, and proper weight.
As expected, age is an increased risk factor for several disorders, from chronic kidney disease to dry eye syndrome. Those issues come with treatment or management costs or, if they are terminal, the need for palliative or hospice care.
If it’s the thought of heartbreak because of a possibly short time with a senior that makes you hesitate, think again. There are no guarantees with respect to how long any pet will live, said Lunghofer.
Sherri Franklin, who founded Muttville Senior Dog Rescue in 2007, spent years as a volunteer rescuing dogs slated to be euthanized just because they were old. After living with and adopting only senior dogs, she said she found that they taught her “how to live in the moment, knowing that all our time on this earth is limited and to make the most of it.”
“When you adopt a senior, you really go into it knowing that you are giving such a great gift—saving its life, giving it a second chance,” she explained.
Now as executive director of the rescue and hospice, Franklin said that she hears back from those who have adopted seniors. They tell her about how their senior pet has taught them patience, respect, responsibility, loyalty, and unconditional love; what a gift it is to help a senior pet live out its journey; and how their children have learned about the end of life in a peaceful way.
What exactly makes a pet a senior? Forget the myth that one human year equals seven dog or cat years. The AAHA task force consensus was that senior status would apply to those dogs and cats in the last 25 percent of the predicted life expectancy for their species and breed, Epstein said.
“Sometimes people spend time playing with our dogs at an event and then are shocked to find out the dog is a senior,” said Laura Oliver, founder of Lionel's Legacy Senior Dog Rescue. “You can see them processing the information and figuring out how it's going to fit in their lives. It's pretty cool to see people go through that process, especially if it's not something that has ever crossed their minds before. We encourage people to be open-minded and think outside the box. Maybe a senior dog is a perfect fit for their family or lifestyle."
While there will likely be an adjustment period, older animals can unquestionably bond with new owners, Epstein said.
“Dogs and cats are social creatures, period, just as we are, and crave the interaction and attachment no matter when or how it comes into their lives,” he said. “There is great satisfaction in giving one of these special animals a warm, loving home and life experience in the last years of their life that they might not otherwise experience.”
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