Marvelously Mature

September 2011

Audience: Executive Leadership, Foster Caregivers, Public, Shelter/Rescue Staff & Volunteers, Veterinary Team

Senior pets may have an advantage in the pet adoption stakes. While they can linger in shelters and foster homes longer than frisky young kittens, organizations that focus on senior pet adoption get older dogs and cats into great homes by making their maturity a selling point.

In 2007 and 2008, Maddie's Fund held marketing competitions to reward shelters and rescue groups doing an extraordinary job of promoting the adoption of senior and other hard-to-place pets. This year, we went back to our finalists and asked them to respond to an extensive survey about senior dog and cat adoption programs, and sheltering senior pets.

Seniors: A Better Fit

One of the biggest demographics for targeted senior pet adoption is senior citizens. Seventy percent of the respondents said that their most successful adoption campaigns for older pets focused on older people, with 20% reporting that older adopters specifically mention that older pets were a better match for their personal energy level.

To capitalize on the appeal of senior pets for senior people, some groups hold adoption events at senior living facilities. Others bring pets to the home of a senior for an introduction.

The other big demographic: child-free homes. Thirty percent of those surveyed identified single people and couples without children as the most responsive to the quieter, less-demanding nature of pets in their golden years.

And although it's a subjective evaluation, 40% of survey respondents said that "big-hearted" and "compassionate" people were more likely to fall for their charms of older dogs and cats.

Takeaway: Many seniors and child-free homes prefer older pets because they fit into their lifestyles better. Focus your adoption efforts on both those groups, and keep an eye out for signs that someone is particularly motivated by compassionate concerns, too.

Selling Seniors

Nearly three-quarters of the respondents say they focus on the fact that, with senior pets, adopters already know what they'll be like in personality, size, looks, and behavior - unlike with puppies and kittens. They focus their outreach on this "what you see is what you get" factor.

Around 50% say they focus on the gentler nature of seniors, using words like "calmer," "settled" and "easy-going."

Forty percent stressed that seniors are less work than puppies and kittens.

However, since more senior and child-free adopters report being drawn by the "calmness" of senior pets than the benefit of knowing what the pet is like in adulthood, it might be better to shift promotion focus to emphasize the former above the latter. However, both are effective strategies for organizations with a special focus on senior pet adoption.

Additionally, 40% emphasize the "feel good" factor of providing an older pet with a home, in a perfect statistical match with the perception that 40% of senior pet adopters are motivated by compassion.

Somewhat surprisingly, only 20% say that a pet's own individual story is a main marketing tool in finding homes for seniors. The other 80% are missing a powerful opportunity to use each older pet's story to create interest and, in many cases, raise funds to provide for senior pets.

Last, a word about language. The experts in senior pet adoption avoid the word "old," with 70% using the word "senior." Thirty percent use "older" or "mature," with a few going for terms like "wisest residents," "grandma" or "grandpa."

Takeaway: In order of priority, successful programs stress the advantages of the personality, behavior and gentle nature of senior pets, the fact that "what you see is what you get," and the warm glow the adopter will get from opening heart and home to a mature cat or dog. But many adoption programs are missing the chance to use pets' individual stories to find homes and improve the marketability of senior pets in general.

Working through Obstacles

The number one obstacle to finding homes for senior pets, cited by 80% of respondents, was adopter concern over potential health issues. Sixty percent said adopters were also concerned that they might lose the pet too soon after adoption.

Successful senior adoption programs focus on mitigating those concerns with extensive veterinary evaluation and care of the pets - something rarely done with younger pets who can also have unforeseen health problems.

Eighty percent of respondents said the special services they provide to senior pets include dental work and cleaning; grooming was cited by half the groups who replied; senior blood panels, full veterinary checks to screen for potential medical issues, and treatment to address known medical conditions prior to adoption were each provided by 30% of the respondents.

Last, while the majority of adopters were concerned about the health care costs of senior pets, only 20% of the respondents used reduced or waived adoption fees for older pets.

Takeaway: Addressing concerns over health care issues, including cost and concern of losing the pet soon to illness, can lower obstacles to senior pet adoption. And don't overlook the power of offering a reduced or waived adoption fee, as well as fundraising programs designed to pay vet bills for senior pets after adoption.

Sheltering Seniors

Fifty percent of respondents said that senior pets remain in shelters or foster homes for several months before adoption, while 10% said length of stay was no different for older and younger pets.

Twenty percent said that cats remained longer than dogs by far, with some taking up to two years to find homes.

Ten percent said that big dogs also had longer stays than small dogs.

Interestingly, while most senior pets linger longer in shelters and foster homes than younger pets, they are almost never returned to shelters. When they are, it's often because their caregiver has passed away or become unable to care for the pet due to illness.

Responders also reported that their organizations take special care with older pets, both in terms of monitoring and evaluating their health and emotional well-being while sheltered, and by giving them special treatment based on their age.

It's a good thing, too, because 30% reported seeing depression and signs of stress caused by a kennel environment in senior pets, including 20% who saw older pets being annoyed by the high energy levels of younger pets.

Twenty percent said that finding a foster home for those pets is the ideal solution, while others relied on enrichment activities like walks and grooming, along with keeping the seniors in a quieter area separate from younger pets, to reduce stress.

While many of the groups that responded to the survey are finding homes for many senior pets - some place more than 400 a year - there is still plenty that can be done to get those sweet old dogs and cats into good homes. Let's learn from each other's experience, and get the job done!

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