There's a push during November to find older shelter animals a fresh home
Magic is a 12-year-old female bulldog. Dory is a 9-year-old female pointer. Gillian is a 12-year-old male domestic shorthair cat. They may all be cute and cuddly creatures, but the odds are stacked against them to get adopted.
November is National Adopt a Senior Pet Month. This month was chosen to draw attention to all the senior dogs and cats in animal shelters. Specifically, it spreads awareness about how difficult it is for senior pets to get adopted.
According to the company Chewy, senior dogs accounted for only 5% of dog adoptions in 2020. Senior cats faced the same issue. In that same year, they accounted for 3% of all cat adoptions.
Gainesville and Alachua County face the same issues when it comes to senior pet adoption.
Although they account for a small percentage of the shelter population, Alachua County Animal Resources and Care shelter supervisor Faren Healey said that senior dogs and cats stay in the shelters a lot longer than younger animals.
The shelter currently holds three senior dogs out of a population of 80. It also holds two senior cats out of a population of 20.
Healey said the shelter tries to promote senior pets as much as it can to try to get them adopted, but especially this month.
“We’re actually waving all of our adoption fees for animals 7 years or older,” she said.
The shelter also likes to show off its senior animals at adopt-a-thons and other adoption events.
Shelter favorite TC, a 7-year-old female that has been in the shelter since September, is a dog the shelter loves to promote.
“She is so easygoing and really fun to be around,” said Healey, “because she just wants to hang out with her person.”
For some people, like Christine Medina, who lives just outside of Gainesville, seniors are the only pets they consider for adoption.
“We will never go the puppy route again,” she said.
Medina realized this after the passing of her senior mastiff Ellie Mae, whom she adopted as a senior.
“She was a genetic mess,” said Medina. “I can’t believe anybody ever bred her. Everything you hear about mastiffs to watch out for, she had.”
Mastiffs are known to develop many health problems because of their genetic makeup. According to the website “Canna-Pet,” mastiffs are known to develop canine cancer, stomach dilation, heart disease and eye disease.
“We used to call her the walking Frito,” said Medina, “because she always stunk like either dirty gym socks or burritos.”
She said when she bought more expensive food, Ellie smelled better. However, that caused her to spend over $400 a month on pet food to feed Ellie and her other pets.
Medina currently owns two mastiffs, Zeke and Mouse; a pit bull, Letti; a 32-pound pug, Georgie; what she calls a “doodle dog,” Daisy; and two cats, Wednesday and Friday.
Ellie passed away just short of her 10th birthday due to arthritis issues and a mix of other health complications.
“She was just letting us know it was time to say goodbye,” said Medina.
Her family did make sure to give her a last meal featuring a cake fit for human consumption before putting her down.
Medina’s experience with Ellie led her to adopt Zeke, whom she adopted as a senior and drove all the way to Indianapolis to get.
“He’s an amazing dog,” she said. “[He is] probably next to the pit bull [Letti] on my bed with his head on my pillow right now.”
Letti was also a senior when the Medina’s adopted him. They started out fostering him before officially making him a part of the family.
“I don’t know any organization that hasn’t allowed you to foster the dog first [before adopting it],” said Eva Squires, a Gainesville local and professional dog groomer who adopted two senior dogs that she fostered in the past, Fuzzy and Onyx.
Squires said most organizations encourage fostering pets if one is on the fence to adopt. She said there are multiple reasons for this.
Fostering a dog allows shelters to better understand what is happening with it. The shelter can find out more about the behavior of a dog when it is outside a shelter environment and learn more about possible health issues.
Additionally, it also helps get dogs out of overcrowded shelters, which has been an ongoing problem since the COVID-19 quarantine ended. This overcrowding was due to the abnormally high number of pet returns to shelters due to people’s need to return to work.
“The senior dogs that have been someone’s pet tend to degrade really quickly in the shelters,” said Squires, “because they don’t understand why they’re there. They just know all of the sudden they’ve lost their human.”
She said that fostering a senior dog helps it get adopted quicker.
Fostering is a way for people to have a pet without having to deal with a huge time and financial commitment.
“For anybody looking into fostering, it’s the most free way to have a dog and help save a life,” said University of Florida fourth year criminology and psychology student Amanda Wysocki, who fosters two pit bulls with the Plenty of Pit Bulls organization.
Foster organizations, like Plenty of Pit Bulls, pay for all expenses.
“All you need is love, food, bathroom time, play and they’re good to go,” said Wysocki.
Wysocki has mainly fostered younger dogs, but she says that Plenty of Pit Bulls mainly focuses on fostering senior pets, and she understands the benefits that come with a senior dog.
“They just have such good memories,” she said. “They’re still going on hikes. They’re still doing activities just as a normal dog would.”
What a lot of shelters want to advertise about senior pets is they have just as much character as younger pets and even have a lot of added benefits.
“I would rather an older dog,” said Squires, “because nine times out of 10 they’ve already had an owner, they walk on a leash, they’re already potty trained, they’re halfway there for you.”
There is also the common phrase “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks,” but Healey wants to set the record straight.
“You absolutely can teach an old dog new tricks,” she said.
One of the other concerns potential pet owners have about senior pets is the financial burden they may have due to unforeseen health complications. However, Simone Guerios, a clinical assistant professor of shelter medicine in the Department of Small Animal Clinical Sciences at UF, says this is not something people should worry about.
“If it’s a healthy dog and it’s a senior, they’ll be the same [as younger dogs],” she said.
Healey said it is also not an excuse to adopt a younger dog instead, because all dogs will become seniors at some point.
“We just remind them [adopters] that this is a lifelong commitment for the animal,” she said.
For senior cats, Guerios said they have an even harder time getting adopted.
For dogs, as they become seniors, they have a contrast in behavior from puppies, making them more desirable to certain people. As a dog gets older, they become calmer and less hyper. However, this contrast is not as prevalent in cats.
Guerios also said that a cat’s behavior in a shelter deteriorates a lot quicker than a dog’s behavior.
“The probability of a cat to not get used to the shelter environment is very big,” she said.
This not only makes older cats less desirable, but it brings more health complications. Guerios said that stress in cats can create kidney problems.
However, there is hope for these felines. Guerios said there are many organizations that help senior cats get out of the shelters.
One such organization is Operation Catnip. They go around Gainesville and spay and neuter cats to help limit the number of stray cats on the streets that later end up in shelters.
She also said there are organizations that set up catios, or cat patios. Usually, senior cats are brought in so they can be out of the shelters but still in a more contained environment.
There are also many barn cat programs. These programs bring in adult cats from shelters and give them to homes with barns and a lot of land. This not only allows for the cat to get out of the shelter, but barn owners use the cats as exterminators to keep rats and mice away.
While there are some alternative avenues for getting senior animals out of shelters, adoption organizations still stress the importance of adopting senior pets, especially now in the month of November.
“When you’re willing to open up your home to a senior pet,” said Healey, “I believe it truly is a rescue at that point.”