PAWS Chicago News item | PAWS Chicago

Love Knows No Age

by Alison Martin | Jul 27, 2016

Special Report: In With the Old

The saying “60 is the new 50” may apply to pets just as it does to people as the age that defines a “senior” pet is evolving. According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, improved pet care and healthy lifestyles are helping pets live longer than ever. In fact, the oldest recorded age of a cat is 38 years while the oldest dog was 30.  At PAWS Chicago, pets age six years and above are considered “seniors,” but that doesn’t mean they are ready for retirement, as you’ll see in this special report.

Auntie Em waits patiently while her owner, Abby Lee, lays out her pills. When Abby Lee finishes, she opens another pill bottle–this time for herself.

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“I deal with depression,” Abby Lee explains, “so having someone to take care of keeps me moving. I know I have to wake up and take care of her, and it keeps me motivated. We take our medication at the same times every day. Giving it to her reminds me to take mine as well,” she says.

Abby Lee adopted Auntie Em, who is 13, from PAWS Chicago in February 2016. Auntie Em came to PAWS when her previous owners became homeless. Em is nearly blind as well as suffering from gastrointestinal issues. But Em is active for her age and gets Abby Lee up and out of the house, as they go together on long walks. “She’s a sniffer! She has her nose to the ground as soon as her paws hit the grass,” Abby Lee says. 

Abby Lee and Em have a special connection that could only be shared by a loving adopter and an elderly pet who requires a little extra attention and care. Their love shows why elderly pets can hold a unique and extraordinary place in our hearts, and Auntie Em is proof there’s more to give as you get a little more gray fur. 

While Auntie Em’s story is one of hope for senior  pets in need of new homes, many elderly animals, especially bully breeds like Em, are part of a group at higher risk of ending up in a shelter. They are vulnerable to catching contagious diseases and often in danger of being euthanized. 

In 2015, of the dogs and cats for which age information was reported, those older than age six accounted for 17 percent of the population that entered Chicago Animal Care & Control (CACC), the city pound. They made up 31 percent of animals that were euthanized. 

PAWS Chicago is focusing on finding homes for older dogs and cats like Auntie Em. During 2015, PAWS adopted out more than 50 animals over the age of 10. But older animals often take longer to find new homes. The average length of stay for animals age six or more entering the PAWS Adoption Program is 54 days, compared to under 30 days for the entire PAWS population.

“People don’t always want to give older animals a chance because of the many misconceptions about adopting them,” says Diane Wilkerson, PAWS Adoption Center Director. “They want a younger pet, thinking somehow they are better. They are drawn to cute puppies and kittens, not dogs and cats with graying muzzles. They may even hesitate at adopting a senior, because they fear the eventual loss.” 

Older animals, however, rarely fit the stereotypes of being sickly, passive or short term. Many senior pets are highly adoptable and make a wonderful addition to the family. Many have years left to live and a great deal of love and experience to share. 

Sadie, an eight-year-old Husky mix, was  adopted by Nicole and Matt in November 2015. When Sadie came home she had a hard time with her mobility and suffered from joint pain, likely due to arthritis and being over-weight. Some adopters avoid seniors because they fear they will come with significant health problems. But many of these issues can be overcome.

Nicole and Matt worked with their vet, and Sadie has lost weight and her pain is now under control. She even enjoys activities that once were daunting. “She has become much more mobile, going for longer walks and has even learned to play fetch with us,” Nicole says. 

“It has brought us so much joy to watch Sadie’s transformation. We would definitely recommend adopting a senior pet to anyone looking for a loving and  laid back dog.”

Another big fear adopters have with senior pets is their behavior. A puppy or kitten often represents a clean slate. With senior pets, the slate isn’t completely blank, but that’s not always a bad situation, according to  Joan Harris, PAWS Chicago’s Director of Training and Canine Behavior. 

Piko & Coco, like many elderly pets, came from previous families so they already knew how  to behave around humans. These best friends were recently adopted by Christina, who doesn’t notice their ages and doesn’t feel it slows them down. “Senior pet? Who knew? With the exception of their size, these  eight-year-old adoptees are just as easily as cute and funny and warm as any kitten,” she says. “I am so thrilled with my choice to adopt them. I am certain, in the future, should I adopt more pets, I will not hesitate to look  for seniors.”

Luna, age nine, is diabetic and missing all her teeth, but adopter Kortney says “Luna is the feistiest cat I’ve ever had the privilege of sharing my home with.” Luna, who was adopted earlier this year, had been a long-term PAWS resident because she needs to receive daily insulin shots. During her year-and-a-half stay at PAWS, Luna made many friends, and was a staff and volunteer favorite due to her adorable, quirky nature. 

When Luna was first brought home, Kortney‘s family, which includes multiple other pets, was curious how she would fit in. Thankfully, she made herself right at home. “We tried to keep her separate for a few days, but she wasn’t having it,” Kortney says. On day one, she “walked into the condo as if she’d been there her whole life, establishing her rightful position as the Queen Bee.”

Luna even purrs when she eats, Kortney says. “It’s seriously the cutest thing, but not surprising since meal time is her favorite time of the day! It’s hard to understand why she spent over a year and a half with PAWS without much interest. She’s an amazing kitty and we are so thankful she allows us to be her humans.” 

But for each senior like Luna and Sadie that has found a special home, there are many still patiently waiting for their loving family to walk through the door. 

Tinker finally found her family in May 2016. This 11-year-old Beagle mix spent her entire life chained outside of a trailer home in Tennessee, likely subjected to having litter after litter of puppies. Years of breeding, improper care and neglect left this sweetheart in awful shape. When she was finally taken away by Animal Control, she had a mammary tumor so large, it was raw from chafing against her thighs and dragging on the ground. She also was emaciated  and tick-ridden.

Upon arrival at PAWS Chicago in December 2015, Tinker’s life changed for the better. Her mammary masses were removed and she was given a new lease on life. This resilient girl then went into foster to recover from her surgeries before being adopted into a permanent home.

“Tinker is an incredibly patient, calm and affectionate elderly lady,” her foster Jeanna noted. “Although she does not play or run much, she loves the company of other animals and people alike. She might sleep more than her puppy counterparts, but when she is awake, she will be by your side looking at you with her adoring eyes,” Jeanna says. “I’m just happy my little old lady gets to finish out her final few years in peace, good health and in good company.” 

PAWS Chicago Senior Alumni

POMEX, PRISMA AND ONITZA: This trio of 12-year-old angels was brought to PAWS Chicago in August 2015 after their owner passed away, leaving the dogs at a veterinarian’s office. They have been inseparable their whole lives and needed to be adopted together. Onitza and Prisma are blind, so Pomex helps to guide and comfort them. These three affectionate dogs were recently adopted by their foster, Rosa, who says they were sweet and laid back and even got along with the cat. “I fell in love with them immediately,” says Rosa.

CRISSY: Crissy, a 13-year-old Toy Poodle, had been at PAWS for three months and appeared somewhat subdued before her adoption. But her bubbly personality quickly emerged and adopters Matt and Bill remember the moment they saw it. “The night we adopted her, we were at PAWS until closing. The entire staff came out to say goodbye to her and as we were leaving, we realized we hadn’t yet eaten dinner,” they say. “We obviously didn’t want to leave Crissy alone in the car, so we stopped for burgers and ate in the car. About two minutes into our meal, from the shy, quiet, little dog we just adopted minutes before came a loud and enthusiastic ‘ROWF!’ We looked back and Crissy was giving us the most determined and intent stare. It’s actually sort of hilarious in its seriousness. We now refer to this mesmerizing stare as ‘Poodle Mind Control.’” From the first night, Crissy learned how to communicate her needs, and “we’ve been under Poodle Mind Control ever since.” 

MARMON AND TOSHI: Cristy and Michael adopted Marmon and Toshi around Christmas. “If you would have told me two 11-year-old cats would change our lives for the better, I wouldn’t have believed you,” Cristy says. “In fact, we’ve had cats in the past and I never knew cats like these guys even existed.” When they first brought the cats home from PAWS, they were concerned about how much work they would be or how they would fit in with their dogs. “But shortly after introducing them to the house, I found both the dogs and the cats all curled up on the couch together sleeping peacefully. And as for work, they are the easiest, most well-adjusted cats ever!” Cristy and Michael knew they had made a wonderful decision by picking two seniors: “It was then I knew we were a perfect little family.”

Photography generously donated by volunteer photographer Martin Aspera.

Elderly dogs and our love for them are being showcased in a new book, Unconditional: Older Dogs, Deeper Love, by acclaimed photographer Jane Sobel Klonsky. The book, published by National Geographic, will be available in the fall but can be pre-ordered now online. Information about the book and photographs from Klonsky’s Unconditional series can be found at projectunconditional.info. A number of PAWS alumni including Nicky and Crissy are featured in the project. 

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