Karen Hirsch, public relations director for LifeLine Animal Project, said people who open their homes to older pets “just have a special place in their hearts.”
Jolie Gallagher and her family's three dogs, (from left to right) Cricket, Ruby and Cooper. Courtesy of Jolie Gallagher
Sometimes the older pets come in as strays. Perhaps they escaped, the owners felt they were too big, or they were dumped by their owners because of the expense of keeping them. Some are dropped off at the shelter because the owner has died or the owner has to move to a nursing home or assisted living facility that doesn’t allow animals.
“You have to look at it as a mission that you’re giving that dog a home and a second chance,” said Becky Cross, director of Atlanta Lab Rescue. The rescue takes in 450 to 500 dogs annually, of which 10% to 15% would be considered seniors.
ALR reduces the $375 adoption fee by $125 for a dog at least 7 years old and waives the fee for dogs 10 and older. If there’s a significant medical condition at the time of an adoption, the nonprofit will consider the dog a permanent foster and continue to pay its medical bills, said Cross.
Charlie Kleman, a retired corporate executive, is chairman of ALR’s board and a volunteer who often logs hundreds of miles a day ferrying homeless dogs to the vet, kennels and foster or forever homes.
Sometimes, his passengers are older dogs.
“By the time they’re 8 or 10 years old, they’re used to being around somebody,” he said. When they’re abandoned or strays or surrendered, “they’re so confused.”
They’re happy to get out of the shelters. “Half of the older ones will want to put their paws on my lap and they can’t stop wagging their tails,” Kleman said.
Older cats and dogs can live full, healthy lives. Others, like people, experience health issues as they age.
LifeLine has some older cats from time to time, and they are also harder to place than younger ones.
There is some debate about how old is elderly for cats, Hirsch wrote in an email. According to the American Association of Feline Practitioners’ Senior Care Guidelines, older cats are classified as mature or middle-aged at 7 to 10 years old, as senior cats at 11 to 14 years old, and geriatric from 15 to 25 years old.
Hirsch said her last three cats lived to be 17, 18 and 20.
Like their human counterparts, older pets are more likely to develop age-related health issues such as arthritis, heart, kidney and liver disease, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association. Dogs get cancer at roughly the same rate as humans, while cats typically have a lower rate.
Atlanta artist Lawson Thomas Chambers had a roommate who had older dogs.
In 2018 when Chambers, who prefers using a gender-neutral pronoun, decided to foster, they specifically looked for an elderly dog. Chambers “fell in love” with Akira, an older dog who had terminal cancer.
Chambers shared drawings on their social media accounts to show the “gift” that Akira brought to their world and the lessons Chambers learned.
“I wanted to learn discipline and learn how to take care of a dog without necessarily caring for a puppy,” Chambers said. When Chambers first visited the LifeLine shelter, they noticed Akira because while other dogs were barking, she remained quiet.
It was a 180-degree turnaround once Chambers got her home.
“She had too much life for an 8-year-old pitbull with cancer,” they said. “She had a lot of personality. She was a loud, bold, stubborn woman.”
Although she was ill, they noticed that when Akira went for a walk, she had boundless energy. “She was a puppy until the day she died.”
Several times a month, Linda Hunt, founder of Act2Pups, sets up shop outside the Top Dogs Pet Boutique locations in Kennesaw or Canton.
Her nonprofit specializes in older dogs and those with special needs and sometimes takes “pups,” as she likes to call them, from area shelters, but she’s also found at least two from garbage cans.
Her rescue does careful screening of prospective adopters, and before a dog leaves her care, it has been treated at a vet for any ailments and routine screenings.
Linda Hunt, founder of Act2Pups, encourages people to consider adopting an older dog. She says the benefit is twofold: The dog can live out the rest of its life in comfort and the owner's life is enriched as well. Courtesy of Linda Hunt
An older dog is not for everyone and she knows that. Some people open their hearts and home with the intention of giving the senior dog “all my love for the few years it has left. You can’t save them all, but the one you do save makes all the difference in the world.”
Tucker, a 7-year-old dog, is awaiting adoption at LifeLine Animal Project. Tucker is described as a super friendly and wiggly guy who is always smiling. "This couch potato listens well, aims to please and is just the cutest, chunky old man around." For more information, contact firstname.lastname@example.org. (Courtesy of LifeLife Animal Project)
Tim Gulley can’t look away when he sees a pet in need, particularly an older dog or cat.
Several years ago, Gulley went past a ramshackle house in Gwinnett County when he spotted a dead dog in the driveway. Other larger dogs were milling about, but a small Chihuahua stopped him cold.
“She looked pitiful out there,” said Gulley, who has volunteered with a number of animal rescue groups. The owner planned to have her put down because she was old and sick.
Gulley asked could he have her instead.
As best the vet could tell, she was between 12 and 14 years old. Her spine was severely damaged. Part of her jaw was missing, so her tongue protruded from her mouth. She was anemic, dehydrated, blind, and her tiny body was battling an infection.
She was less than 2 pounds, which is low even for that small breed.
Today, the dog, named Nola, although still feeble, has outlived predictions. She shares a Dacula home with Gulley, a regional sales manager for a garage door opener company, his wife, Vickie, four other dogs and a cat. The pets are all senior rescues, ranging in age from 8 to perhaps 14.
“The majority of people just want a pet,” said Gulley. “I didn’t want them as pets. I wanted to take care of them. Seniors are the most neglected, and a lot of people don’t want to deal with them.”
During a recent outing to their vacation home on Lake Hartwell, Gulley filled a pill organizer for Nola, who takes five medications daily.
“My heart just goes out to them,” Gulley said. “If we can get one dog adopted who needs it, wow, that would make a difference. They’ve brought me so much joy.”
Michael San Filippo, a spokesman for the American Veterinary Medical Association, said that due to improved veterinary care and dietary habits, pets are living longer now than ever before.
“It’s important to remember that age is not a disease; good care allows our pets to live happy, healthy and active lives in their senior years.”
LIFE SPANS FOR PETS
It’s difficult to say what the average life span of a dog is because it varies by size and breed, as well as other factors, such as whether the dog is spayed or neutered.
Chihuahuas, for example, have an average life span of about 15 years, compared to Great Danes, whose average life span is closer to 8 years.
Cats are a bit more consistent (in size and age range), with the average life expectancy of cats being somewhere around 15 years if they are indoors-only cats; cats that are allowed to roam outdoors have much shorter lifespans.
Source: American Veterinary Medical Association