Writer Agnes Sligh Turnbull hit the nail on the head when she famously said, "Dogs' lives are too short. Their only fault, really." Throughout my life, I have experienced this reality again and again, each time swearing I won't sign up for another heartbreak -- until that next wet nose worms its way into my heart and I find myself bringing a new "heartbreak" home.
But dogs are now living longer and longer lives, thanks to how far veterinary medicine has come in the last few decades. It's a wonderful evolution for a pet-lover like me (who would have Welly live to 100 if he could be in good health). But for dogs and cats who are growing older in shelters, the golden years don't always glitter.
The sad truth is that senior pets often wait much longer for new homes than their younger counterparts. According to a survey by Petfinder.com, one of the largest online databases of adoptable pets, the typical pet spends about 12 weeks on the site before finding a new home -- but senior pets' profiles remain there nearly four times as long. To help turn those statistics around, Petfinder has named November Adopt a Senior Pet Month, dedicated to educating people about the benefits of adopting older pets from shelters.
At Petplan, we hear from countless families who have adopted senior pets, and the consensus is always that the pros outweigh the cons. Pet parents report that their older pets are already housetrained, past the puppy chewing stage, and usually calmer and lower-energy than their younger, more playful counterparts (who never stop squirming!). One group in particular seems to benefit greatly from the addition of a senior pet to the household: senior citizens.
We've all read the research that says being a pet parent improves a person's health and wellbeing, and pairing senior pets in need of a home with senior people in need of companionship can provide immeasurable benefits to both parties. Pets get the loving home they deserve, and senior pet parents exercise their minds, bodies -- and hearts -- by adopting a new friend.
For many older individuals, a companion animal provides essential social contact they would not otherwise experience. In one study of elderly dog owners who lived alone, 75 percent of males and 67 percent of females said their dog was their only friend. Studies of elderly people have also documented that dog owners spent an average of 1.4 hours per day outside with the dog. Since regular exercise plays such a central role in physical wellbeing -- including helping to avoid hip fracture and increasing cardiovascular function -- the benefits of pet ownership for senior citizens are obvious.
Personally, I need no convincing; I've seen my own mother transformed after adopting a senior pet. At 70 years old, she had become lonely and isolated -- even more so after her beloved cat died. I encouraged her to adopt a new pet, but she resisted, hesitant to make a 15-year commitment to an animal at her age. Eventually, it dawned on us that an older pet in need of rescue might make the perfect companion, and so Tilly came into our lives.
At 5 years old, Yorkie mix Tilly is as enthusiastic and excited about her new home as a puppy would be (but far less work!), and she has infused my mother with an enormous amount of energy and a new outlook on life. It has been truly marvelous watching my mother return to the social, outgoing person she was in her younger days, thanks to the companionship Tilly has provided. And those daily walks and snuggle sessions have resulted in real health benefits: my mother has lost weight, her blood pressure is down and she's fully engaged in life again. It all really begs the question, "Who rescued who?"
During Adopt a Senior Pet Month this November, think about whether an older person in your life could benefit from bringing home a senior pet of their own, or perhaps consider supporting one of the many programs that match senior pets with people. A good starting point is the Pets for the Elderly Foundation, which helps facilitate pet adoptions for senior citizens. There are also many service animal organizations that bring companion pets to nursing homes and elder care facilities for therapeutic visits. Supporting one of these groups (or even volunteering with your own pet!) can help keep a senior citizen happy, healthy and feeling loved.
As for our senior pets, more and more groups are popping up to advocate for their adoption from shelters, and awareness campaigns like Adopt a Senior Dog Month are helping to change people's perceptions around older and elderly homeless pets. Facebook pages like Silver Hearts, Senior Pets for Senior People and Senior Pets NYC help advertise and network on behalf of older pets in need of new homes, and expose people to the many joys welcoming a more mature pet can bring.
Whether they have two or four legs, senior citizens have a lot of love to give, but they often experience loneliness or abandonment as they get older. As my mother and Tilly have taught me, senior pets and senior citizens can complement one another perfectly, and change each other's lives for the better. For them, there's a whole lot of living left to do -- and together they make each and every day count!