Old Animals find their Senior Years are Golden at Home for Life Sanctuary

One group of animals Home for Life often helps is old animals, defined as those cats or dog over age 8. We have many older animals at Home for Life, and they hold a special place in our hearts. Like people, nature designed cats and dogs to do most of their living after they have reached maturity, at about age 1 year. And like people, adult animals continue to learn and develop through their entire lives, which can last more than 20 years for cats and 15 or 16 for dogs
If you have cared for a cat or dog through its entire life, you will know how your pet worked to tailor itself to your personality and habits. Like a perfect spouse or long time friend, your pet learned to read the subtlest cues from you and adjusted accordingly. If you think about it, you will realize what a huge investment your pet has put into its relationship with you. You will also understand what a profound loss it is for an older animal to lose its home.

Age 8 is really middle age for an animal, who will still have half their life or more to live after that benchmark. But many shelters and rescues won’t accept a surrendered animal over age 8 or even age 6;they know that animal will be perceived as “old” by the prospective pet owner looking to adopt and will be difficult if not impossible to place in a new home. For an animal who is older and now surrendered to a rescue or shelter, there is the compounded trauma of losing their home and then realizing they are unwanted and likely not to get a second chance.

Just like human beings, animals are designed to do most of their living as adults, which for a dog or cat is over age 1. But just like elderly people, mature animals, those middle aged or over, are overlooked in our youth obsessed culture. We love the young and beautiful,and this prejudice extends to animals: most individuals who want to adopt an animal will gravitate to a kitten or puppy. Moreover, prospective pet owners will get what they want, and what they want is for their new dog or cat to be theirs: the assumption is that they can mold and imprint a young animal more easily, and not have to deal with “issues”created by a prior owner. Be they predilections of behavior or medical problems and associated expense, older animals are never going to be the blank slate like a puppy or kitten. What’s more, those individuals contemplating pet ownership don’t want to take on an animal who might have a shortened lifespan –they project the expense, the loss and heartbreak that will occur if an older animal gets sick and dies, and perhaps they want to put off the inevitable as long as possible. Why sign on for this reminder of mortality any sooner than necessary? When a puppy or kitten is so young and full of life it's easy to forget that they don’t live forever and that we won’t either.
The supply of older animals seems always to exceed the demand of prospective pet owners, no matter how the senior dogs and cats may be showcased and marketed by rescues.[1] There are several adoption groups that focus on the senior animal, but as Home for Life responds to the many emails and calls for help each day on behalf of old cats and dogs , it’s clear to us that there will always be more older animals than welcoming homes or even rescues for them, and that animal welfare cannot adopt their way out of the problem of the middle aged and senior animals who are unwanted . Restricting the numbers of puppies and kittens available though spaying and neutering so that the only choice is an older animal for the person who wants a pet and visits a shelter or rescue won’t work as long as animal welfare models themselves on the retail, consumer economy. If people cannot find the pet they want at a shelter or rescue they just go look somewhere else- a pet store, on line, a neighbor, Craig’s List or the want ads These prospective pet owners will not be looking for a senior animal.

Demonizing prospective pet owners who want what they want or shaming them into adopting an animal they don’t really want will not solve the problem of the many middle aged and older animals who have lost their homes.

One idea Home for Life has is to reframe the problem. As the New York Times columnist David Brooks once wrote(in a column completely unrelated to animals or rescue), “description is prescription: if you can get people to see the world as you do, you have unwittingly framed every subsequent choice”. Home for Life uses media like our newsletters and website featuring the beautiful photos taken by volunteer professional photographers to encourage people to see animals typically overlooked or dismissed as instead, amazing individual spirits with attributes that are different but just as appealing as those of a young animal. We have used this strategy to transform the way people regard leukemia positive and FIV+ cats. So, rather than allowing people to view an older animal as pathetic, used up,problem-laden and pitiful, we challenge the commonly accepted view of the senior animal, not in a didactic or confrontational way but by encouraging people to come to their own conclusion that old animals are still worthy of life and have much to offer.

With the help of the artistry of our volunteer photographers who take the photos we feature in our newsletters and on our website, we encourage people to see the animals of HFL including our old animals, with new eyes: after viewing just some of the photos of our animals on our website or in our newsletters, try these adjectives on for size for a new perspective about old animals : noble, spirited, wise, kind, resilient, survivors.

Molly, who came to Home for Life this spring, was described as a bichon frise but looks to likely be a toy poodle mix. Her family adopted her at age 8 weeks and surrendered her to Home for Life when she was age 11.The parents had divorced, and the mother with her children had to move to an apartment where Molly could not join them. They had no additional money to secure a rental that would accept pets or to pay the pet damage deposit. They were heartbroken to give up their beloved dog after 11 years. They wanted a no kill shelter for Molly but no shelter or rescue would accept her because of her age and because Molly was a diabetic and nearly blind. The family had only a $100 donation to give at the time Molly was surrendered to Home for Life. It turned out to be a fortunate turn of events that she came to HFL as the family enjoys being able to keep in touch with Molly through emails and photos even if they cannot keep her in their home.

Sometimes and especially in this economy, animals lose their home through no fault of the prior owner. There are bankruptcies, foreclosures, job losses and catastrophic injuries or illnesses, and though the loving owner may wish they could keep their pet, they just cannot. If a friend or relative can’t take the pet, and the pet cannot be adopted out to rescue, then what? In these situations, it is a comfort for that owner to know the animal (maybe a senior or with special needs) is at Home for Life. They know where their beloved dog or cat is, and they can visit the animal at the sanctuary and also keep in touch via email and even receive photos. As you might suspect, many of these individuals cannot afford to sponsor their former pet, but one thing Home for Life can do for them is give them peace of mind about their pet by keeping in touch with photos and emails, and welcoming them for visits. It's for the dogs and cats like Molly, and for their families that we work so hard at fundraising with our newsletters, mailers and events.
Although Molly was always an only dog she has enjoyed becoming friends with the other Home for Life senior small dogs like Marco and Hawk. They have accepted her into their pack. Her life at the sanctuary is nothing like the years she had with her family as an only pet but just as fulfilling as she enjoys new found canine companionship, the freedom to go outside when she wants, a luxury she did not have in her old home, plenty of daily activity and superior food, vet care and grooming. The stimulation of the daily activity, exercise, and companionship from humans, dogs and cat friends(she resides in our feline leukemia cattery!) and many new experiences have kept Molly young at heart. Her life is much different than when with her prior family but the essential qualities that create a quality home for any animal are present at the sanctuary: loving care, a place to belong, companionship, safety and security.

Dorabella was named for one of the sisters in the Mozart opera “Cosi Fan Tutti” which was playing at the Minnesota Opera at the time she was abandoned at Minneapolis Animal Control. She is in her in teens and was the beloved pet of an elderly woman who passed away. No one in the woman’s family wanted the cat, and a relative brought her to Animal Control. If they knew her name they did not disclose it to the animal control officer on the paperwork or at the time of the cat's surrender. Maybe in the chaos after the death they just could not handle one more thing (the cat) or maybe they didn’t want a reminder of their departed mother, grandma, sister, aunt, so gave up the cat and didn’t look back. If it had been I, I would have treasured the opportunity to care for this last living link to my relative, her cherished pet.

Several rescues help the animals at Minneapolis Animal Control and use foster homes to try to save as many unwanted cats as possible , with the goal of adopting them out. The rescue who contacted Home for Life about Dora –who had at that point had no name- reported that she had been passed over by the rescues who knew they would not be able to adopt her out due to her age. She would tie up a place in their foster network which they needed to turn over via adoption to make room for the next rescue. Still the rescue representative felt sorry for the old cat left alone in a cage to be euthanized after the required holding period of just a few days, and she sent an email to HFL asking for help on behalf of Dora . Thinking of her owner, imagining the heartbreak if she knew her cat was left to face her lonely fate, we just couldn’t let Dora spend her last days in a cage, alone, waiting to be killed.

The cat, a spayed female was frail physically but exhibited a radiant spirit from day one. Her strong personality called for a spectacular new name which would do justice to her flashy good looks and will to live despite what must have been a terrible loss for her and then the close call at Animal Control. Dorabella is a hearty eater for a little old lady, and is also very affectionate. She is not shy about asking for extra food despite having constant access to dry food and canned food meals twice a day. She is struggling a bit with early stage kidney failure and mild anemia, conditions which are not uncommon in older cats. She doesn’t have many teeth, suggesting her owner had a vet do a dental at some point in her life. She takes vitamin/ mineral supplements to boost her red blood cell count, and regular fluid therapy helps her maintain hydration so that she can thrive despite the kidney issues.

A common question often asked of Home for Life is whether it's too jarring for an old animal to transition to a sanctuary like Home for Life after they have lived in a home and even as an only pet. Here is what is unsaid in that question: Maybe it is better if they be euthanized rather than have to adjust after years in their former home. Maybe that animal is better off dead. Usually the person offering this opinion is not old themselves. Maybe they would have a different outlook if they were a senior citizen and facing a move from their longtime residence to assisted living. I doubt they would rather die than give life a chance in a new setting. They might feel that they wanted to enjoy every day they could even if they were 75 years old and had only comparatively few years more to live. Animals are not so much different.

Home for Life believes a place can be created for animals that may be overlooked for adoption but who still can live a quality life and that these animals include the senior pet. Assuming these animals not easily adopted would be better off dead just projects our assumptions on them and reflects a reality that there are not many takers in the retail environment of animal welfare for the oldsters. But sometimes people don’t know what they want, and they have to be shown. Home for Life will continue to challenge the assumption that old animals are better off dead because they cannot be adopted. Dora is in her teens and after that many years in a home,she must miss her former owner. But even older animals have the capacity to hope for better days ahead. One inspiring quality exhibited by older animals is their ability to live in the present to make the best of all that is good in their lives. If they can enjoy any aspect of their life, those qualities are what they focus on. Dora’s positive outlook allows her to appreciate the people who made sure she got out of animal control safely and the loving care and attention she receives now at Home for Life. If she may not be a prime candidate for adoption, it doesn’t necessarily follow that she was ready to die. Animal welfare needs to create safe harbors for senior pets which offer quality and loving care for those cats and dogs( and other animals too!) who want to live and can live even if the next phase of their life cannot be in an adoptive home. These older animals can be beacons to us humans who may despair that there is nothing left to live for after youth is gone. Our senior animals know that each phase of life is precious and that a home can be defined in many ways.

Cedric, age 13

Cedric out on a therapy visit at Amplatz Children's Hospital in Minneapolis, MN with HFL vounteer Janet Sontsegaard

Channing is age now 12/1/2 and was surrendered by her second owner who lost her home after her husband died. Channing has sepration anxiety, and her former owner, a HFL supporter, did not want her to land in a shelter or rescue where she might get passed around from home to home

[1] Total dog intake at shelters is still right about where it was 10 years ago, total dog killing is only marginally down, adoptions are actually way lower than 10 & 20 years ago, despite all the effort put into rehoming older dogs, & a far higher percentage of dog intake are dogs who flunk behavioral screening. So we have a numbers crunch: four million dogs per year entering shelters, two million finding homes, & two million problem cases. Total kennel space for dogs in all U.S. shelters combined comes to room enough to house about 150,000 dogs on any given day. Shelterless rescues, sanctuaries, & fostering situations house about as many more. Daily shelter intake of dogs, nationwide, is about 5,500 per day, with the live exit rate only half that number. Another way to put that is, if every shelter in the country was empty as of this moment, they'd all be full in two months. Shelterless rescues, sanctuaries,& fostering situations, if all empty, could accommodate the overflow or about two more months. Then we're stuck.

Cut total dog intake in half, & double the dog holding capacity, & we're quite close to no-kill. Until the intake is down by half, though, neither shelters nor sanctuaries nor shelterless rescues nor fostering can absorb the present surplus. Right now the humane community is pretending that we can adopt our way out of the situation, but that approach won't work because even if we double the adoption share of dog acquisition, which is highly unlikely, we're still about 20% short of rehoming every dog. Merritt Clifton, Animal People Magazine ED.NOTE: it can be assumed the situation for elderly cats is even worse