Dear Dr. Eisenberg:
I recently visited West Suburban Humane Society and fell in love with several older pets. I seem to be drawn to their sad eyes staring at me. What is your opinion about a new pet owner adopting an older dog or cat? Are there certain problems that I should be aware of? What are some of the benefits of adopting an older pet?
Looking Past Age
Dear Looking Past Age:
The "senior" pets that you see at the humane society will make excellent pets when chosen by the right adopter. The decision to adopt a particular pet is usually based on numerous factors. The pets' age is only one of them. Other variables include lifestyle of the adopter, home environment, allergies, work schedules and prior experiences with certain breeds.
For many families an older pet makes a terrific choice because they are housebroken, well behaved and not overly attention demanding. Older dogs often will find areas to sleep or rest away from the noise and distractions of small children. For many parents, the addition of an older dog will not feel as though they are rearing another newborn, i.e. sleepless nights, messes to constantly clean, and rearrangements of daily routines. For families with busy schedules an older dog is often able to adjust to longer periods of being left unattended and doesn't have the destructive tendencies a younger dog may have that has too much energy needing release.
Veterinarians use the term "senior" to refer to dogs usually seven or older and cats that are ten years or more of age. A "senior" pet is a descriptive term, not a disease. Pets are classified as "senior" because certain changes may begin to occur in the body as it slowly ages. Pets may develop a heart murmur, cataracts, and dental disease. Liver and kidney function may begin to diminish. The musculoskeletal system may begin to show signs of pain and discomfort. Often this period is promoted by different pet food manufacturers as a time to switch diets to make adjustments to the bodies changing needs. The smaller breeds of dogs may live up to eighteen years while the giant breeds may be quite old at the age of seven or eight. While the oldest cat on record is 34 years old, most are doing well when they make it to their late teens and early twenties.
Keep in mind that people adopt pets for many reasons. Among the most important is the desire to establish a bond that enriches both lives. Studies are very clear on the benefits of the human-companion animal bond. When this bond is established, it is the quality of this relationship, not the quantity. No one knows their own longevity, let alone their pet's lifespan.
It is the fear of losing someone (including pets) that often inhibits people from adopting an older dog or cat. The fear that they will love this animal and then it will be over too quickly. I have seen numerous times where an older pet has outlived its younger counterpart in the same household. Human life is no different. A new adopter must not be thinking in terms of "how long will this dog or cat live after I adopt it" but, instead, be focusing on the question, "will this pet enrich my life and vice-versa." Once the mind-set has changed it is simpler for one to more readily adopt an older pet.
Thanks for your letter!