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Senior dogs and cats make great pets with less stress for their owners

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — It’s yet another way that animals suffer from human prejudices: Being perceived as “too old” means a huge number of loyal companions gets passed over in shelters simply because people want babies. That’s why Albuquerque’s Animal Welfare Department is launching a campaign to raise public awareness about the many superiorities of “senior” pets.

Tammy Fiebelkorn adopted Ruby, now 16, and Mr. T, a yellow-crowned Amazon parrot she estimates is 65 years old. Fiebelkorn has been an advocate for older pets ever since she adopted a 12-year-old dog who turned out to be “the best dog” anyone could have. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

“With cats, they average 20 to 25 years” of life, says AWD director Paul Caster. “Everyone wants a cute little kitten, not knowing what that involves. But when you get one at 7, they’re pretty settled. They mostly want to sit in the window, though they still like to play.” For many people, he says, that’s probably a better lifestyle fit.

With dogs, lifespan is generally longer in smaller breeds. Some can live to 15 or even 20. And then there’s temperament. “If people start looking at Labrador retrievers, they don’t even stop being puppies until age 7,” Caster says.

Using the slogan “Young at Heart Senior Pets,” the AWD shelters and Lucky Paws, the adoption store at Coronado Center, are offering a reduced adoption fee of $5 for any animal over the age of 7, compared with the usual $40. That includes spay/neuter, all required vaccinations, a microchip, and a voucher to visit a veterinarian. The program started last month and will continue indefinitely, Caster said.

Suzy was adopted when she was 18, “old, sad and confused,” says Tammy Fiebelkorn. But she learned to trust the family, especially Fiebelkorn’s parrot, with whom she liked to share dinner and the couch. She died at age 21. (Allen Winston/Winstonfoto.Com)

The objective is not to just get them out of the shelter, he added. AWD already does a good job at finding homes for the adoptable animals that come in, with an 87 percent live-release rate last year. The lower price is simply meant to draw attention to good pets that might get overlooked in the rush to find a puppy or kitten.

“We call them ‘seniors’ because by that time they’re adults,” Caster explains. “At 7, you’re talking about an animal that has an unlimited amount of love to give, and most of the time has manners. And you don’t have to worry about what they’re going to grow up to look like.”

Unfortunately, animals over age 7 take much longer to get adopted, and the stress of living in the shelter is hard on them. “We see a lot of older pets coming in who have been strays for a while, or left behind when families move,” Caster says. AWD averages 40 to 50 animals a day coming into the shelters who have been found on the street.

Sprinkles was adopted when she was 18, surrendered because she was old and sick. Because of serious health issues that had been untreated for too long, Tammy Fiebelkorn says, she only lived another five months. “But, the time she did have was filled with love and joy.” (Allen Winston/Winstonfoto.Com)

Tammy Fiebelkorn adopted a dog from AWD three years ago that had been abandoned by his family at age 13. Ruby is actually on the younger end of the many senior dogs that she has adopted over the last decade.

It all started when she was volunteering at the Boulder Valley Humane Society in 1997, and kept seeing one dog that nobody wanted because she was 12. Molly ended up being “the best dog anyone ever lived with,” Fiebelkorn says. At age 12, “she was already potty-trained, she was calm and really happy to have a home.” The dog lived with her for eight more years.

Since then, Fiebelkorn has adopted 12 to 15 senior dogs, most of them over the age of 15. “Puppies always find homes; seniors don’t,” she says. “And it’s really heartbreaking to see someone who should be sitting on a couch and getting belly rubs, sitting at the shelter and waiting and waiting.”

Senior animals can have more health and hygiene issues, she admits, but “I don’t think that’s a reason not to give someone a home. Even if you adopt a puppy, you don’t know what’s coming next or what you’re getting. A pee pad is not that terrible to have by the door in case of emergencies.”

By contrast, she is fostering an injured puppy right now that is “really trying my nerves,” Fiebelkorn adds. “He has so much energy, and it’s so much work.”

For just this reason, older people are often better suited to adopting older dogs, says AWD spokeswoman Desiree Cawley. Her father adopted a senior dog after he was widowed, and “that gave him back life,” she says. “They go for walks together, and when he goes home he’s greeted by his dog. They take the same arthritis medicine! It’s brought him so much comfort since my mom passed away.”

She hopes the Young at Heart program will lead to many more such happy endings. “Two seniors together – it’s a nice bond.”