Adopting an Older Dog From a Shelter

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by Dr. Nicholas Dodman

Dr NIcholas Dodman

It is a crying shame that older dogs are so difficult to adopt out of shelters. Almost everyone wants a bouncy young puppy or a really cute-looking younger dog. It’s easy to see why these dogs would be attractive. Youth and beauty can be hard to rival. I once visited the Boulder Humane Society as a large shiny bus rolled in with the new arrivals from Utah to be put up for adoption. “Do you want to see them,” I was asked. I jumped at the opportunity. Climbing the stairs into the bus, I was faced with wall-to-wall pets – dogs and cats – all looking at me hopefully, each one in need of a home. But then it struck me. They were all young and good looking. There were white dogs with a black patch over one eye, ghost-grey dogs, dogs with split-colored eyes and a jaunty look, dogs with cute crinkly ears, curly-coated poodle-ish puppies, tortoiseshell cats and cinnamon-colored Abyssinian-type kittens. I said, “They’re all gorgeous. How is that?” The reply came, “We only take the young and cute-looking animals because they’re the ones that are most adoptable. I immediately had a mental image of someone walking down the line of kennels in Utah saying “I’ll take you … not you …this one can come … this one is older dog looks too sad and her coat is straggly – she stays.” And to be let behind was really bad news – but let’s not get into that. In another shelter I visited, Animal Friends in Pittsburgh, one of the principals had made it her personal mission to see that older dogs got adopted. Sometimes that’s what it takes, a champion like her to root for the older dogs and explain to prospective new owners what they’re all about. Here’s why you should consider adopting an older dog:

  • They’re a known quantity.
    Older dogs are physically and mentally mature – that happens at 2-3 years of age. Literally what you see is what you get. There are no mysteries here. Potential adopters might want to enquire why the dog was dropped off at the shelter, ask the staff about the pet’s behavior in the shelter, and take him or her out of the shelter environment to evaluate his interactions and behavior toward them. Armed with this information, good matches are made by good judgement, not merely sheer luck!
  • They are already house trained, vaccinated and neutered.
    Older dogs are almost always house trained and older cats know that the litter box spells sweet relief. Both dogs and cats will come fully vaccinated and will already be neutered. There’s no work to do here.
  • Lower exercise requirements and steady temperament.
    Older pets usually have low exercise requirements, are of even temperament and are easy keepers. For people who are older themselves, or who have some physical limitation of their own, adopting an older pet may be match made in heaven.
  • They come with experience.
    Older pets come with a lifetime of experience. They are mature and can be easier to have around. Dogs will probably have some training in place and cats too may have a better of people and other pets.
  • They make great pets and will be truly thankful for a loving home.
    All pets who have lost their owners and find themselves kenneled and awaiting new ownership (though they don’t know that) must be overjoyed at being “sprung” from the institution, however clean and well run. They will surely appreciate that they have a savior and will thoroughly enjoy the creature comforts of their new home.
  • They need your help and you will grow to love them
    These pets really need your help. Initially, the bond between the two of you may be warm and friendly but it will grow over time to become an inseparable friendship. Love is not too strong a word to use here. I know this from first-hand experience with my dog Jasper, who was middle aged when I rescued him. He has become a true and loving family member whose initial trepidation has been replaced with a relaxed knowledge of his own security and a belief that his new owners – my wife and I — aren’t going anywhere. We are here for him. It has been a heart-warming transformation to witness. Ditto with my rescued cat Griswald

Many older dogs and cats find themselves in shelters through no fault of their own. There are several reasons why people relinquish pets of any age. I once heard from a friend at HSUS that 20% of people surrender their pet because they are “too old.” Surrendering a senior pet to a shelter seems particularly harsh. How could anyone give up on their old friend? Reasons include impatience over potentially resolvable behavioral issues, moving home (possibly a new landlord who does not allow pets), divorce, people’s work schedule changing, an owner dying and no one in the family prepared to look after the pet.

These pets need someone to step up and look after them in their golden years and they will match or even exceed in loyal companionship what the new owner contributes in care and guardianship. It is true that an older pet, say a 10 year old dog or 12 year old cat has “more mileage on the clock” in terms of lifespan, but those last years can be an absolute joy for all concerned.

Certainly some pets may develop old-age medical issues, like arthritis or possibly renal disease, but most of these old-age conditions – if they occur — can be successfully managed these days thanks to modern day veterinary medicine. The look in the eyes of a “good old dog” or “good old cat” that you have rescued and are looking after will say it all. "An animal’s eyes have the power to speak a great language" — Martin Buber once wrote. Looking into your pet’s eyes, you’ll know you did the right thing. Altruistic acts like rescuing pets of any age — but especially stranded older pets – will give caring new owners a warm feeling inside of having done the right thing by saving a life and providing a good home for a pet in need. Aesop said, “No act of kindness, however small, is ever wasted.” I would add that no act of kindness goes without its own intrinsic reward.

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