November is Adopt a Senior Pet Month, and if you’re looking for a new family member it’s the perfect time to adopt a pet that is aged to perfection.
Those adorable puppies and kittens are hard to resist, but I’ve always been a big fan of mature and senior pets; in fact, more and more people are adopting seniors every year. Sure, you don’t get the cute baby animal Instagram pictures, but what you do get is a pet that already knows how to be part of a family.
Older pets do have issues that younger ones don’t, and the most significant of those are medical. Even a healthy older dog will develop vision, hearing, and musculoskeletal problems to some degree, and at a certain point (right around the seven year mark, in my experience) these problems will start to make themselves known. And with these medical issues often come higher vet bills, special diets, and expensive supplements.
Other considerations for older pets include lower activity levels and [possibly] shorter tempers due to diminished eyesight and hearing, age-related neurological decline, or chronic pain. And - perhaps the worst part - they just won’t be with you as long. It’s heartbreaking to lose a beloved pet no matter how many years they’ve been part of the family, and it can be daunting to contemplate adopting one that may only be with you for a short time.
With all of that having been said, I think the advantages of adopting an older pet far outweigh the disadvantages:
- Already housetrained
- Used to living in a home
- Has a mature personality, so you know what you’re getting
- Used to human work schedules
- No teething
- Needs less exercise
- Lower adoption fees (especially during Adopt a Senior Pet Month)
- White eyebrows and grey muzzles!
With apologies for anthropomorphizing, one of the most satisfying and touching aspects of adopting an older pet is that they tend to be very grateful to be back in a home. Many older pets who have ended up in shelters have gone from a “safe and happy home with beloved humans” to “loud and noisy shelter with many strangers” literally overnight, and watching them deal with these bewildering circumstances is very difficult. No matter how loving and caring the shelter staff and volunteers, it’s still not a real home. And that, my friends, is why adopting an older pet is one heck of a mitzvah.
If you do adopt an older pet, the same guidelines for integration into your home apply as for younger pets, but you’ll also want to do the following:
Be more observant - during the settling in period in a new home (about a month), most pets will be a little bit shut down while they get the lay of the land. Most animals tend to mask infirmities such as failing hearing/eyesight or chronic pain when in uncertain circumstances, and pets are no exception. You’ll also want to be on the alert for behaviors such as separation and generalized anxiety, inappropriate elimination, and resource guarding.
Check for depression - it can be difficult to distinguish the settling in period from the symptoms of depression, but many pets who have ended up in the shelter because of the death of their previous owner may show signs of depression such as lethargy, diminished appetite, and lack of interest in their surroundings.
Keep dietary considerations in mind - even pets who have cast-iron stomachs under normal circumstances may have problems going from their regular diet to shelter food to a new regular diet in your home in a relatively short period of time. Keep their diet bland and introduce new foods slowly so you don’t get surprised by (for example) explosive lactose intolerance issues.
Introduce to other pets slowly - a lot of older pets don’t appreciate “puppy energy”, and with all of the recent upheaval they may be prone to snap first and ask questions later. Keep your current and new pets separated and introduce them to each other slowly; don’t toss them into a room together and assume they will figure it out amongst themselves.
I recommend that you give your new older buddy a month to settle in and get used to feeling safe again, and then bring in a qualified trainer or behaviorist to do an assessment and outline a training program to deal with any issues that have surfaced post-adoption. I also highly recommend A Sound Beginning program, which isn’t specifically geared toward senior pets but is very helpful for integrating adopted pets into their new forever homes.
Check out Erin Schneider's “Space Management 101” and “Basic Training” series for information on how to set your new family members up for success while they integrate into the household: