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

Are you seeing a lot of gray muzzles on your adoption floor? Some shelters are finding that growing numbers of older pets are in need of new homes for a variety of reasons. Puppies and kittens have become relatively scarce, and the aging human population means that more older animals are being surrendered to shelters because their owners can no longer care for them, or are moving into assisted living.

For whatever reason an older pet finds its way into an adoption program, the reality remains that that any shelter working in community that aspires to saving all healthy pets needs to meet the challenge of placing these old friends into new, loving homes. The common perception is that people don't want older animals, and because of this belief, few shelters do much to promote them. But is it true that these animals are not wanted? Is the public the problem, or is it the shelters?

Some organizations have found that with just a little extra effort, even a 15 year old cat or a pair of older labs are easy to place - it's just a matter of bringing the shining qualities of these pets to the public's attention - and tapping into those souls who get tremendous joy from helping a pet who really needs them.

They key to matching senior animals with new homes, is to understand who is likely to adopt an older pet, and the reasons they have for doing so. Many people are particularly touched by older animals' stories. Some senior pets have lived their whole lives in happy homes, and are now bewildered to find themselves in a shelter; for others it may be their last chance to find a loving home of their own after a string of disappointments. Whatever their story might be, older pets have an undeniable ability to elicit compassion, love and generosity.

Dwight Lowell, proud adopter of a number of older dogs, generally ranging in age from seven to thirteen, explains "there's something about looking into the face of an older dog. The dog may never have had a happy day in his whole life. The thrill of taking that dog out of the shelter and giving him the happiness all dogs should have; to give the dog the experience of love and happiness for however long they have left - it's very gratifying."

The desire to give an old pet a loving home for the rest of their days is a strong motivation for many people. Jay recently adopted Tyler, a ten year old, 65 pound, mix of Burmese Mountain Dog and Anatolian Shepherd from the Berkeley-East Bay Humane Society. "My previous dogs had all been puppies" Jay says, "I just wanted to get an older dog this time. So many dogs need human companionship and affection, even if they are old and rickety. To give them a great place to live for the last years of their lives is a wonderful feeling."

Older dogs can be desirable pets due to their low-key personalities as well. Saia, who adopted Tasha, 13, and Sam, 8, - two older labs that had lived together their whole lives says "I was looking for an older dog, 8-10 years of age (though not for two of them!) because older dogs tend to be passed over and yet they're mellow and have so much love to give."

Dogs aren't the only older animals that make great new friends, and senior cats have their fans as well. "We have a real soft spot in our hearts for old kitties" Mary Grisafe, who along with her husband, adopted Rags, a 15 year old cat. "What attracted Rags to us was her age...old cats are real sweet hearts. (Older) cats really seem to appreciate it when we adopt them."

Feline or canine, it's clear that older animals have their fans. People feel that adopting a senior pet gives them a chance to really make a difference in an animal's life, and that in return the animal has a lot to offer them as well. Rags' owner Mary sums it up "(Older pets) are so sweet and mellow, they just want a place to be. I highly recommend it."

Dwight Lowell agrees, "These wonderful companion animals are so very grateful to those fortunate enough to be able to bring them into their homes. There is no more satisfying experience than receiving the love that only a shelter dog can give to their new human companions. They know they've been saved and they thank you every day."

Some organizations are building on the experiences of people like Dwight, Mary and Jay and making an extra effort to help older animals find new homes. Special programs to adopt out senior animals have been effective, and there are even organizations that focus exclusively on finding older pets new homes. In talking to some of these programs and organizations, we learned that a focused marketing program, and in some cases incentives for adopting a senior animal, can make it easier to place older animals in loving new homes. Read on to find out the new tricks that can help you help older animals.

The Berkeley-East Bay Humane Society's Golden Paw Program, and the Oakland SPCA's Silver Muzzle Club (https://www.eastbayspca.org/SSLPage.aspx?pid=696) are two examples of special efforts to place seniors. By creating a special program just for older animals, these organizations are helping to draw attention to older pets by creating a brochure to highlight the benefits of owning an older pet, or giving them their own section of their website.

Getting the word out on your organization's website can offer big rewards for relatively little effort. Senior pets with medical issues can be a challenge even for organizations that regularly promote older animals, but as Mim Calrson from the Berkeley-East Bay Humane Society (BEBHS) found out, some online outreach can really do the trick. "We just had a couple adopt a 15 year old cat with kidney problems. They saw the cat on our website and drove from Auburn (a two hour drive) to adopt him. They just wanted to give him a good quality of life in the time he had remaining."

In addition to introducing older pets to potential adopters in your own publications and website, taking the seniors on TV or radio programs that spotlight adoptable pets can be a wonderful opportunity to match older animals with new families. Brenda Barnette of the King County Humane Society says "We may have a 15 year old cat with cancer on his ear tips that we'll spotlight on TV, and he'll fly out the door."

Matching seniors with seniors is another way to help older animals find new homes. The San Diego Humane Society and SPCA waives their adoption fee when people over 60 adopt animals over 7. The Berkeley-East Bay Humane Society (BEBHS) also offers an incentive to match older animals with older people by reducing the adoption fee 50%. Other incentives are offered to people of all ages when they adopt an older animal from the BEBHS. Anyone who adopts an older pet gets 20% off vaccinations for life at the humane society hospital, free behavior advice and a free starter food packet.

One of the most important ways that marketing senior pets can help find them homes, is to educate people about the many benefits of owning an older animal. The Senior Dog Project (http://www.srdogs.com), a website that promotes the adoption of older dogs, has created the "Top Ten Reasons to Adopt an Older Dog" (http://www.srdogs.com/Pages/adopt.ten.html).

Among the top ten you'll find:

  • Older dogs are housetrained. You won't have to go through the difficult stage(s) of teaching a puppy house manners and mopping/cleaning up after accidents.
  • Older dogs are not teething puppies, they won't chew your shoes and furniture while growing up
  • Older dogs can focus well because they've mellowed. Therefore, they learn quickly.

The list was adapted from the Labrador Retriever Rescue's "Top Ten Reasons to adopt a Rescue", and is available to other organizations on the Senior Dog Project website for printing or re-posting on your own website.

Sherrie Franklin founded Muttville, an organization dedicated exclusively to finding new homes for older dogs, and started taking in older animals about four years ago. Sherrie attributes her success with placing older dogs to her outreach efforts. "It's all about selling the dog," she says "telling his story in a compelling way, happy or sad."

In short, if you're seeing more older animals in your shelter, there is no reason for all those grey muzzles to make you nervous - plenty of people want to adopt them. With a focused marketing program that includes stories about people who have adopted older pets from your organization you can help those animals find loving homes, and help their new owners fill their lives with gratitude, love and a great new friend.