The saddest stories at humane societies across the country are the older pets that have known the lifelong stability of living with a family or individual and now find their very existence in jeopardy. Sometimes, the owner has died or had to leave the home. Other times the owners regarded their pets as disposable commodities and turned them in to the shelter when caring for them became inconvenient. People who have adopted these older, discarded pets in the past and given them a second chance have had a wonderful and rewarding experience.
Many of us go to an animal shelter with the idea that we must have a puppy or kitten. We think we can shape that animal’s behavior and have a stronger bond if we live with them from a young age. The fact is that with an older animal, all the time-consuming training has already been done for you. These animals know about our routines of sleeping at night and working during the day. They have usually already been housebroken or learned about litter boxes. They are used to living in a home situation and will be very happy to be back in a familiar and comforting environment, rather than in a small kennel at a shelter.
Another advantage with an older pet is that you can see what you are getting. A puppy may not end up the size you thought, with the coat you thought he’d have or with the temperament you hoped for. With older pets, personalities are already apparent. You can see how they like your children or your other pets within a relatively short time. Will you have more trips to the vet with an older pet? Not necessarily. Kittens and puppies need to complete vaccine series, get spayed and neutered and are more likely to get into accidents than are adults. You can avoid the sleepless nights involved in getting a new puppy acclimated to being away from her littermates, and the necessity of taking her out to relieve herself every few hours because older dogs understand nighttime is for sleeping.
Diane Rasmussen, the Outreach and Volunteer coordinator for the Spokane Humane Society, has helped place many adult and senior pets in households. She has seen people arrive at the shelter wanting pets of a certain age, gender or size. Often they walk out with a pet who didn’t meet all those criteria, but with whom they felt a connection or bond. Senior pets, even if they have some minor, manageable health issues, can be wonderful companions.
“There are happy older dogs (and cats) who have some time to share with a loving family,” Rasmussen says.
If senior pets have serious medical or behavioral issues, then euthanasia is unavoidable. However, sometimes previous owners exaggerate problems to alleviate their own guilt for surrendering their pet. Rasmussen says her organization and all shelters are in need of volunteers to help evaluate these pets, walk them and play with them, to see if they are adoptable. (See box.)
Rasmussen especially likes the idea of placing senior pets with senior people. Many seniors miss the companionship of a dog or cat, but do not have the physical capability to deal with an exuberant younger animal. Senior pets may not be up to constant physical activity, but would love to spend part of the day curled up on a lap or on the floor close by. Rasmussen tells of a very elderly dog with poor eyesight and hearing but who was very affectionate and happy. The person who adopted her knew the risk that the dog might not have many more months or years left in her. Her attitude was: “I’m going to love her every day I have her no matter how long that is.”
Few things in life are more rewarding than knowing you gave an older pet a second chance.