Saving Sandy: Lessons in the Beauty of Adopting a Senior Pet

by Amy Phariss | Photography by Morgan Masson & Mollie Tobias

Years ago, my children began what all children eventually begin: they began asking for a pet. We started small: two fish and a crab. The crab spent his entire life sitting on a spatula stuck outside the fish tank, apparently not at all interested in water. He died one day, a few months after we brought him home, and my son said, “I think he
was depressed.”

The two fish also eventually ‘died’. One was buried in our backyard in a ceremony filled with the angst and tears that only a 9-year-old girl can bring to the table, and the other fish was returned to PetSmart before a move north, which I believe we actually lied to our daughter about. It was not our finest parenting moment. 

So when my children asked for a dog, an animal that could poop in the yard and slobber on the walls and tear up shoes, I recoiled. I couldn’t imagine taking care of yet another living thing. Two children and an Army husband had me tapped out, and I was certain that if I consented to getting a dog, I’d be in the backyard (probably in my bathrobe), picking up dog poop at the crack of dawn and threatening my children with over-zealous punishments if they didn’t help me out. 

I said no over and over again. Then, I said no more. 

My family showed me sad pictures of dogs in need of homes on Facebook, on television, on handmade flyers they found in the neighborhood. 

I shook my head.

Then, one night while putting my son to bed, I said, “Isn’t our life lovely? We are so warm and safe and have everything we need.”

He agreed, with one caveat. 

“The only thing I need is a dog at the end of my bed. Then my life would be perfect.”

And there, in the dark of my 11-year-old’s bedroom, my mother’s heart softened just enough to say yes.

We headed to Caring Hearts for Canines, a non-profit canine rescue in Southern Pines. We specifically went to look at a 4-year-old Lab, all golden and fluffy. I had images of my children frolicking with a Lab in the backyard, me in a 50s housewife dress serving my husband a Tom Collins in a snapshot of Leave it to Beaver bliss. The reality was far less dreamy. That Lab had the energy of a three-year-old after two sheets of birthday cake and an orange soda. The dog ran up and down the yard of the shelter, and all I could think was: dear Lord….no. 

Just as I began perspiring, watching my son furiously pet this rambunctious Lab and look at me with hope-filled eyes, a volunteer walked in with a dog so quiet, so calm that she looked like royalty. While the Labrador maintained her zest, this dog looked upon us all with what can only be described an air of discernment. 

I loved her immediately and said, “Can we talk about this dog?”

That night, with our daughter still wearing her ballet leotard, we brought Sandy home, and our lives have been forever changed. 

What drew me to Sandy, beyond her dignified persona, was her age. She was, at the time of her adoption, 8 years old. She had a gray face, and when she moved, it was with the gracefulness of a woman of a certain age. My sister had just adopted a pair of Labs who were older, one of them blind, and I saw the beauty of adopting older dogs. They blended into her home, flopped on the kitchen floor, Duke leading Casanova around the house with his still-working eyes. They didn’t tear up shoes, cover anyone in slobber or run circles around houseguests, so I figured that if I had a chance at all of becoming a legit dog-mom, an older dog might just be the ticket. Sandy fit the bill perfectly, and in the year she’s been with us, my only regret is that we didn’t find her sooner and don’t have the rest of our lives to love her. 

There are many reasons to adopt older animals, something I’m not sure I would have considered if I hadn’t watched my sister’s experience. Adopting older pets may be particularly appealing for those of us who have less energy than we did in our youth, when we could take dogs on long runs (hahaha…..I could never do that) or haul a puppy to a lake and keep up with it for hours. As we all live longer and turn the corner on the second half of our lives, a pet with a similar pace and appreciation for life might just be the best decision we’ve ever made. 

No Puppy Phase 

While some people adore the puppy phase, many of us don’t have the time or energy to care for a pet who is still hauling our unmentionables outside or gnawing on the edge of the sofa. Older pets are often house-broken, so the all-night-potty-parties of puppyhood aren’t a thing with many older dogs. Older animals can be far less demanding that younger animals, which might just be right for your stage of life or particular situation. 

Socialization

Many senior pets have lived with families, spent time with children and have lived with other animals. This means they’re often better socialized and have less anxiety around people and animals. When searching for an older pet to adopt, reputable organizations can help match you with a dog who is good, for example, with other dogs or who is used to being around children. This can be helpful if you have grandkids who visit often or still have children at home.

Less Expense

One of my worries with adopting an older dog was the expense. Would an older dog cost more for veterinary care? According to PetMD, the opposite is true. Puppies cost far more to adopt than older dogs, as puppies need multiple rounds of vaccinations, deworming and often spay/neuter surgeries. For many adult dogs, these issues have already been addressed. Also, adoption fees are often less for adult animals, as they are less in demand. Adoption fees for younger animals can be significantly higher. 

What You See is What You Get

Older dogs come with a bit of background and history, which isn’t a bad thing. It means owners can know a little ahead of time about the dog’s temperament, likes and dislikes, fears and openness to other animals and people. Adopting older animals can mean fewer surprises. An animal’s personality is much clearer as an adult, which can be comforting for people (like me) who are new to pet ownership. 

The Love and Gratitude

People say older animals and rescue animals know they’ve been helped. I didn’t know if I believed that until we rescued a pet, but I believe it now. Sandy looks at us with eyes that tell a story, the details of which I don’t know but the heart of which I can feel. She says thank you every single day with those eyes, when she reaches out with her paw, when she rests her head against my leg and pushes her nose underneath the arm of my chair. According to the American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA), “Too often, senior pets are euthanized or live out their final days in discomfort and loneliness in shelters because of their age.” Sandy was one of these dogs, spending more time than others in the shelter awaiting adoption. My sister’s dogs were those dogs, their owner having died, with nowhere to go. Animals, like humans, are aware of kindness and are grateful to be loved, and older pets have their own way of showing that love and gratitude. 

Our entire family knows how lucky we are to have found Sandy, and we appreciate the time we have with her, knowing she’s older and realizing she has fewer years left to spend with us. We look at her in much the same way she looks at us: with gratitude, love and appreciation. Adopting an older animal has been a blessing for our entire family and enabled me to enter into the pet-owning world in a way I could manage. I’m so grateful for Sandy’s calm demeanor, life experience, patience with a 12-year-old boy and willingness to tag along in our lives without even realizing she’s become the center of it. 

Senior pets are often the last to be adopted, putting them at increased risk for euthanasia. 

Dogs and cats are considered seniors at 7-10 years old. 

According to the ASPCA, senior dogs make up about 12% of intake at shelters, but the adoption rate is lower than for all other ages combined. 

Senior dogs are adopted at about a 25% rate; while younger dogs have a 60% adoption rate. 

Approximately 1.5 million shelter animals are euthanized each year, but 3.2 million shelter animals are adopted each year, with an equal split between cats and dogs. 

The primary reasons senior dogs end up in shelters include divorce, death of owners, economic hardship (the family can’t afford to continue care), conflict between pets and children, senior dogs are given up in exchange for puppies and Animal Control involvement (hoarding cases, abuse/neglect, puppy mill raids).  

Cats and dogs are not the only animals up for adoption. Horses, rabbits, chickens, hamsters, birds and other animals also need loving homes. Websites like www.adoptapet.com allow you to search based on pet type, including reptiles/amphibians, small animals, farm animals, horses and more.