ST. GEORGE — Looking for a furry friend this holiday season? A senior pet might fit the bill.
Older pets might already be house-trained and have a lower activity level. Senior dogs have already “gone through their destructive puppy stage,” Cedar City Animal Adoption Shelter Manager Brittany McCabe said.
The benefits outweigh the potential issues, with many senior pets happy to spend their days cuddling, said April Jewell, the animal services supervisor at the St. George Animal Shelter.
“If someone is looking for a laid-back pet that isn’t demanding a lot of activity, and they want the companionship of a pet, seniors would be an ideal adoption choice,” she said.
“They are sometimes overlooked in shelters,” Jewell added. “All they want is a warm, soft bed and a family to love them for however long they have left.”
Lifesaving and care specialist Jacquie Bushway Speer said that the animals impact those who care for them and “always have something to teach us.”
For instance, Sheena, an older dog who previously lived at the Best Friends Animal Sanctuary, was diagnosed with cancer, so staff created a bucket list for her. A volunteer offered to take her on a road trip to the Oregon coast, where she spent time playing on the sand and in the ocean.
“When we saw those pictures of her (on the beach), I was boohooing and everything,” she said. “And they had a great time, and they had a good trip coming back. This is what they teach us, and this is what we give back to them.”
Older pets may have additional medical needs or more dire diagnoses, such as cancer or kidney, liver or heart diseases, Jewell said.
Others may have a difficult time maintaining a healthy weight. They may not see or hear well and could startle easily. For this reason, some senior animals may not be recommended for homes with children, Jewell said.
“Not because the senior pet isn’t good with children, just to avoid accidental bites or scratches from a startled pet,” she said.
However, not every senior pet will require intensive medical care, as “just like people, they age differently,” said Best Friends public relations and marketing strategist Michelle Sathe, who works at the nonprofit’s sanctuary in Kanab.
“Old isn’t a disease,” added Jen Reid, the sanctuary’s Horse Haven manager. “Maybe they need a little arthritis (medication), or maybe they need a different amount of exercise, those sorts of things. But old isn’t a disease — actually, it can be pretty awesome.”
For instance, 11-year-old canine Jorts loves to walk but doesn’t need “mile-long hikes,” said Best Friends lifesaving and care specialist Tim Dempsey. Other, less mobile dogs may also enjoy time outside in a wagon, stroller or golf cart.
Shelter staff and veterinarians can help pet owners learn to care for their senior pets. For instance, as animals age, they sometimes have difficulty grooming themselves, especially if they’ve gained weight or have arthritis. So, pet owners should clean their behinds as needed, said Amy Kohlbecker, the director of the sanctuary’s Cat World.
Depending on “how it looks back there,” caregivers can use a wet washcloth, fragrance-free baby wipes or pet wipes. They can also use soap, such as pet shampoo, diluted fragrance-free baby shampoo or Castille soap.
Kohlbecker said pet owners should remember to wipe upward toward the tail to avoid causing a urinary tract infection. Some pets may benefit from being shaved to prevent matted fur.
Cats are considered older when they hit their teens, so Kohlbecker suggests getting blood work done annually when they reach age 12. But owners can look for other signs of illness before then, such as separated, clumpy or dirty-looking fur, overgrooming or difficulty moving.
Felines tend to hide their symptoms, so it’s important to look for small changes, as Kohlbecker illustrated with a story about her cat.
“I noticed when he sat, his one leg was just slightly out more than the other one, which is abnormal,” she recalled. “And so I took him (to the vet), and he ended up having beginning spondylosis in his spine.”
There are also treatments to reduce the impact of arthritis, including cold laser therapy, where a patient is treated with a low-intensity light thought to increase blood flow and ease pain, said Sierra Medlin, manager of small animals at the Sanctuary.
While time with them is more limited, pet owners may have more years than they think.
For instance, rabbits reach their senior years around age 6 and typically live for approximately 12 years, Medlin said. They require more frequent vet visits to check for arthritis, cataracts and other health issues as they age.
Because they are already fragile, owners should hold older bunnies carefully and ensure their backs are supported, Medlin said.
Bunnies are often considered starter pets but may have different needs than owners expect and are typically less cuddly than dogs or cats. Medlin said they can be litter-boxed trained and allowed to free-roam, but houses should be rabbit-proofed.
As prey animals, rabbits prefer to be low to the ground rather than picked up and held, but they might hop into their human’s lap once a bond is established, Medlin said. They do best with a furry friend, so Best Friends typically requires they be adopted in pairs.
“It’s more adjusting to their lifestyle than opposed to asking them to adjust to ours,” she said.
Pigs can live into their teens but often have “old pig maladies even though they’re not old pigs yet,” Reid said, adding that 10-year-old Jared and 9-year-old Roxy are still on the “healthier side.”
Reid said those considering adopting a pig of any age should check their local zoning laws beforehand to ensure they can legally take one home.
Additionally, while pigs are often equated with dogs, they have different needs and behaviors. While they can be kept indoors, they have been known to tear up furniture and blankets and are typically happier outdoors. Potential adopters should ensure they have enough space, Reid said.
While horses are often considered elderly in their teens, Reid said she doesn’t deem them old until their 20s and has seen many horses live into their 30s with proper care.
As they age, some horses may require dietary changes as it becomes more difficult for them to chew, and they might need to be retired from riding.
Still, pet owners can relate to unrideable horses as companions, and they are often used in equine therapy. Reid said she’s seen people brought to tears by their time with senior horses.
“Where they’re looking to make a connection or do more emotional work, older horses can be miraculous,” she said.
Additionally, because horses are herd animals, they do better in pairs or groups, and seniors can make great companions for riding horses, Reid added.
Dogs reach old age at various rates, with large breeds like Great Danes becoming seniors around 6 years old and small breeds between 7-10, according to the American Kennel Club.
It’s essential to watch for signs of aging, including cloudy eyes, bad breath, weight changes, incontinence and difficulty getting around or slowing down, the club notes.
Preventive care can help keep dogs healthy longer, so Dempsey said pet owners should talk to their vets about appropriate exercise and supplements before they reach old age.
As canines age, the chance of them developing health issues increases, and some pet owners have had to surrender their dogs to shelters due to increasing medical expenses. Acquiring pet insurance while pets are younger can help offset the risk, Sathe said.
If concerns about medical costs prevent a person from adopting an older pet, Dempsey suggests fostering.
Southern Utahns, including those in Iron and Washington counties, could qualify, and the sanctuary would continue providing no-cost food and veterinary care as long as they are willing to make the trip to Kanab.
“Those are the least adoptable (animals), so it’s great to provide a home for them,” Medlin said. “We always love hospice fosters or people that are willing to take older animals because a lot of people don’t. … We want them to experience those last years in a home where they’re getting a lot more attention and love.”
Those interested in adopting but worried about cost should talk to Best Friends’ staff, as the sanctuary may be able to reduce fees to increase affordability, or there may be an ongoing promotion.
Those interested in meeting felines of various ages can attend a two-day adoption event at Washington City’s Petco on Black Friday and Small Business Saturday. There will be about 20 adoptable cats available, and adoption fees will be waived, Sathe said.
What: Cat adoption event
When: Nov. 24-25 from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Where: 765 W Telegraph St., Washington
To adopt a senior pet, Southern Utahns can visit a Washington or Iron County shelter.
Or they can visit the Best Friends Animal Sanctuary in Kanab, where adoption fees will be waived for cats and dogs over 6 years old throughout November. To take a peak at the senior pets available at Best Friends, click here.
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