Adopting A Senior Pet: Is it In Your Future?

By Teresa Garden, DVM

Almost every senior dog and cat that finds itself in a shelter or rescue group has a sad story to tell. How and why did the animal wind up there? Was there a death, divorce or job loss involving the former owner? Was there a health or housing crisis and the pet could no longer be cared for? Some pets are relinquished to shelters because they were not a good match for their household. Worse yet, maybe this poor creature had lived its entire life in a puppy mill. There are many questions and sometimes few answers. Once you look into their large soft brown eyes, it is easy to make a decision based upon emotion. It may be wiser to stay grounded in facts when considering adopting a senior pet. Pets cannot speak for themselves. They really are at the mercy of their caretakers. Wouldn’t you want your caretaker to know and understand all of your physical and emotional needs and wants?

Prior to adopting it is important to ask yourself a few questions about what you want in a pet. Do you want a high energy dog that requires a lot of exercise and playtime and walks? Are you interested in doing agility or obedience training for such a pet? Does this potential family member require substantial grooming? If so, is that something you want or can do yourself or will you have to pay a groomer to do it? Is the dog housetrained? Most senior pets are. But if this potential adoptee is the exception, are you willing and able to take on the challenge?

Housing is a big factor to consider when adopting a senior dog. Do you live in an apartment or condo that has size limitations for pets? There are many dogs that may be ideal particularly if they are small and quiet breeds such as a Pekingese or Shih Tzu. If you are considering sharing your life with a large senior dog, is your home and yard large enough to meet the pet’s needs? Is your yard properly fenced? Many large dogs can easily scale a 42 inch chain-link fence. A tall (6 to 9 ft) sturdy privacy fence may be in order. Make sure there are no gaps under the fence if you are considering adopting a small dog.

Senior pets may have mobility issues from previous injuries or disease. Will the pet be able to navigate all the staircases or steps in your home? Will your new pet need a ramp? Will you need to block off access to stairs to prevent falls? Are there supplements or medicines your new friend may require for improved ambulation?

Older pets are like older people. They make take a little longer to adjust to a new home or strange surroundings. Sudden changes can be stressful to older pets. They could still be mourning the loss of their previous family or home. You should plan on being home for a few days after the adoption so you can observe your new family member. Make sure your older pet has a quiet place to settle into for the first few days. This may be a crate or a small room. Pheromone collars, sprays, or diffusers may help to relieve the pet’s stress. Consider using Bach Flower Essences such as Rescue Remedy, Walnut, and Honeysuckle to help your senior pet adjust to his new home while minimizing grieving over the previous one. Senior pets may need extra time to bond with new people and pre-existing pets. Allow time for the pet to view you as predictable, safe, and the source of wonderful things (petting, treats, toys). Spending a few days together will let you know if your pet hears and sees well, is house-trained, or if he or she has any fears or mobility issues. Later, your new senior friend can be slowly introduced to your current pets under controlled and safe circumstances.

After your new pet has had time to settle in, it’s important to visit your veterinarian. Every senior pet should have a thorough physical exam, blood and urine tests, and a stool sample checked for parasites. Dental disease, obesity, heart disease, tumors, skin disease or arthritis may be found on physical exam. Underlying illnesses such as kidney disease, liver disease, thyroid disease, and diabetes may be detected with blood and urine tests. It is important to find out if your new family member has any health problems so they can be addressed promptly. A microchip can be a life-saver if your senior pet accidentally wonders off or gets lost. Make sure your veterinarian scans your new pet for a chip and make sure the chip is in your name and contact information.

Adopting a senior pet may not be for everyone. They can require more patience, time, and money than a younger pet. You may not have as many years with them as you would like. But you do learn to treasure every moment you have with your older furry friend. Giving a senior pet a wonderful loving home in which to spend their final years is extremely rewarding. They will give you a lifetime of love regardless of the number of years you share together.

Dr. Teresa Garden is chief veterinarian/owner of Animal Health & Healing, a full-service holistic and conventional veterinary practice in the Maplewood/Richmond Heights area. Phone: 314-781-1738.