Old age can be as isolating for pets as it is for people. For a long-haired Chihuahua mix, that isolation came when he was surrendered to the animal shelter in Kingman three years ago after serving more than a decade as a loyal pet.
I was at the shelter looking for a possible sibling for my own dog when the 10-year-old dog was carried in. He was visibly old, with a frosted face, and not particularly cute as far as small dogs go. I gave the old dog a pat on the head to try and calm him as he shook in the arms of the man surrendering him. It was an uncomfortable moment. “I’m sure he’ll find a home,” I said, trying to reassure both ourselves and the old dog.
Being surrendered is a fate that befalls senior pets at a higher rate than other animals that end up in shelters across the country. Researchers who wrote an article that appeared in the Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science in 2012 found no significant change in the number of dogs and cats surrendered during the economic downturn that started in 2008, except when it came to senior dogs. The data they collected from a Chicago-area shelter showed that more senior dogs were surrendered and fewer senior dogs were adopted during the recession.
While Kingman’s rural demographics differ significantly from that of urban Chicago’s, Western Arizona Humane Society then-director Patty Gilmore said Mohave County’s shelters are full of older surrenders and strays – former pets who find themselves frightened and confused, just like the long-haired Chihuahua I watched tremble as he was handed over to shelter to staff. It is especially tragic when you consider that older animals often make ideal companions. They have calmer temperaments than puppies, are often already housebroken, generally require less energy than younger dogs, and are likely to have already experienced a relationship with a person. Older animals make especially good companions for older people who could benefit from the companionship of a pet but do not have the capacity or desire to train a younger, more energetic puppy.
Dogs have earned the title of man’s best friend for good reason. They have been shown to positively impact the health of owners, and those benefits are magnified for senior citizens. Researchers published in the Medical Journal Of Australia measured the heart rates of healthy senior citizens while walking with and without a dog. They found that heart rates increased and stress levels decreased at a higher and more sustained rate while walking with a dog when compared to walking without a dog. Even the simple act of petting a dog was found to have a positive impact on heart rate.
Elderly dog owners report a higher level of overall satisfaction with their physical, mental, and social states versus those elderly individuals who do not own a dog. A dog may be the only social interaction people have some days. In a survey of more than 100 dog owners between the ages of 64 to 82, almost three-quarters reported that the dog was “their only friend.”
There are some downsides to adopting an older dog. Advanced age brings with it health issues and trips to the veterinarian that can strain the finances of seniors with already tight budgets. Research supports that senior citizens are capable of providing a high level of daily care for a pet, although they seek veterinary care less frequently than younger owners, either for financial or transportation reasons.
Pairing senior pets with senior owners can significantly impact euthanasia rates at the Kingman shelter. More than a quarter of Mohave County residents are over the age of 65 according to the 2010 census. WAHS currently offers a Senior for Seniors adoption incentive program where residents over the age of 60 can adopt large dogs over the age of six years or small dogs that are eight-plus for the discounted rate of $25 and a license fee of $10. Encouraging older residents to adopt older dogs could have the potential to improve the quality of life for area senior citizens and save the life of a senior dog, like the long-haired Chihuahua I watched being surrendered.
That old dog did indeed find a new home, with me. He also has a new name, Lennie Briscoe, in honor of the old but scrappy “Law and Order” television detective. Briscoe’s relaxed demeanor and low-maintenance is in stark contrast to his Chihuahua brother half his age. He would have made a great pet for someone of any age, and it breaks my heart to know that our county’s shelters are full of Briscoes looking for homes where they can live out their lives as “good boys.”
At the end of the day, dogs don’t really care about the age of whoever adopts them. Most senior dogs were loyal pets before they ended up in the shelter, and are confused to suddenly find themselves alone in a strange environment. They don’t notice the gray in their fur, or yours, and are simply eager for the chance to be – likely for the last time – someone’s best friend.