Age discrimination is not only a human issue. If homeless senior dogs could talk, they would tell you that. Or maybe they wouldn’t. Canines don’t complain as much as humans.
But ask the people who have made a conscious decision, or even taken on a mission, to see that a dog less likely to get adopted has a place in their homes and hearts.
Susan Hess says her husband, Bill, now refers to their home as Camp Hess. Ring the doorbell, and five dogs appear at the door. Four of them are seniors: Zia, 16; Chaz, 12; Griff and Hallie, 10. And then there’s Hoover, the baby of the pack, at 7.
Hess did not start out on a mission to adopt senior canines. It just happened one day when the former Louisiana SPCA president was told of two senior dogs brought into the shelter when their owner died.
Hess knew the odds of these dogs finding a home were slim. She thought she might take one. But, of course, she took both of them. Snoopy and Kahlua came into her home 7 years ago. They made the cover of a local magazine on the 125th anniversary of the LA-SPCA.
“They have since passed on, but they brought us great joy,” said Hess.
The Hess family has dealt with the sadness that comes with the loss of each member of their canine family.
“Old dogs don’t have an expectation of how long life should be. They live in the present, with no expectation of what tomorrow may bring,” says Hess, who says her senior pets have reinforced that perspective in her own life.
Senior dogs are often overlooked in animal shelters because those seeking pets want puppies and young adults. But those who adopt seniors say old dogs have a magic all their own.
Perhaps it was best worded in Gene Weingarten’s book “Old Dogs Are the Best Dogs”:
“Old dogs can be cloudy-eyed and grouchy, gray of muzzle, graceless of gait, eccentric of habit, hard of hearing, wheezy, lazy and lumpy. But to anyone who has ever loved an old dog, these things are of little consequence. Old dogs are sweetly vulnerable. They show exorbitant gratitude and limitless trust. They are funny in new and unexpected ways. But, above all, they seem at peace.”
When Belinda Wharton unlocks the door to her Magazine Street pet food and grooming business, Zen Pet, she is followed by two dogs. One is an adolescent named Cassie and the other a senior citizen named Allie. Cassie runs for her ball for a marathon game of fetch, and Allie settles into her role as official greeter, dozing peacefully between customers.
Cassie, now 4, has been with Wharton since she was 8 weeks old. Allie, 15, only has been in Wharton’s life for the past few months. The lab mix was once part of a family of five dogs, living in a loving home with her human parents. But as Wharton says, “Life happens to everyone.”
The husband became disabled, and the couple was losing its home. Wharton saw the posting about a home needed for Allie on Facebook and responded.
“I have a soft spot in my heart for senior dogs. There is so much character in their faces. You look at that face, and you see a gentle soul,” says Wharton.
“I was told that Allie loved car rides. Every time I opened the door, she jumped in, thinking she was going home,” said Wharton. But within weeks Allie was enthusiastically responding to Wharton’s morning call: “Ready to go to work?”
Now when customers walk in, Allie rises up to greet them, offers a calm wag of her tail and perhaps a gentle nosing, then retreats to her bed. It took less than a month for Allie to make her place in her new home.
The perfect home
“The perfect home for a senior pet is provided by those who know they won’t have this dog for another 10 years, maybe only two to five more years. But giving that dog, toward the end of its life, the life it deserved all its life can be very rewarding,” says Elizabeth Bell Sprang, of Southern Animal Foundation, a full-service, low-cost animal hospital and rescue organization in New Orleans.
And the same goes for senior cats, she says. Sprang rescued a geriatric cat after Katrina. “He must have been in his 20s. He creaked when he walked, had rotten teeth and diabetes. He only lived another two years. But for the first time in his life, he felt wonderful. That is such a big positive,” she said.
“Those who adopt senior pets understand the mission of saving lives. When they adopt an older pet, they have made a difference and opened up another spot for a dog to be adopted,” says Leslie Wallace, who founded Looziana Basset Rescue 17 years ago.
“About 20 percent of our rescues are seniors.”
None of the organization’s rescues is adopted out until health needs have been addressed, as is the case with most rescue groups.
“A third of the pets taken in by ARNO (Animal Rescue New Orleans) are those that would not have a chance because they may be too old, too young, too frightened or sick,” says the organization’s Ginnie Baumann.
“ARNO loves seniors,” adds Baumann. “Senior pets do well in most homes. They are usually housebroken and just want to be loved. They are low in maintenance and high on love.”
Challenges and rewards
ARNO also has a senior hospice program, says Baumann, which pays for extraordinary care while the adopter pays the routine costs of shots, heartworm and flea preventative.
Other agencies also acknowledge the unique challenges that come along with the rewards of adopting senior pets.
“To help more of them find loving homes, the Louisiana SPCA will usually offer a reduced adoption fee for senior pets,” says Destinie Hammond, spokesperson for the organization. “We also do a huge push for senior pets in November, which is National Adopt a Senior Pet Month.”
But those who have answered a calling to provide homes for seniors — from offering a foster home to adopting to becoming a volunteer who readies a senior for adoption — have an inner mantra that moves them.
In Hess’ words, “It’s not what they can do for you. It’s what you can do for them.”