Arthur Hazelwood knows fully about the rewards of senior pets. In the evenings, he's greeted at home by two of them – Onyx, a 9-year-old Labrador, and Rio, a 14-year-old Belgian Teruren. During his workday, as senior director of the ASPCA Adoptions Center in Manhattan, four-legged elders of all backgrounds are on his mind as he looks to match them with loving, permanent families.
And those cats and dogs, from low-key domestic shorthair cat Snuggles, 12, to exuberant pit bull mix Romeo, 9, need their advocates.
"The majority of folks coming into the ASPCA are looking for puppies and kittens," Hazelwood says. Finding a permanent place for the older canines and felines can be more difficult but, he notes, there are plenty of benefits to accepting a more seasoned animal into your home.
As with any relationship, it's all about finding the proper fit. For some, that may mean a playful puppy or crazy kitten; part of Hazelwood's job is to let potential adopters know of the pluses of more mature adoptees.
"Kittenhood and puppyhood present their own challenges. Yes they are very cute. Yes they are very lovely. And they are extremely beautiful when you see them sleeping. But then they wake up," Hazelwood says. "And they are very active and they get into everything."
As much as potential adopters should consider breed indicators to help determine a good lifestyle match, age comes into play as well. Since an older animal is more likely to be housetrained, that might be a better fit for someone who works full time or doesn't have easy access to the outdoors. (Picture it: Walking down five flights at 4 a.m. when 4-month-old Fido has to pee.) Older pets, with more developed bladders, can "make life a little bit easier in an urban environment," Hazelwood says.
Another potential benefit is having a clearer sense of what kind of a pet you'll end up with, as you'll have "a better idea of what their personality is likely to be," says Stephanie Janeczko, president of the Association of Shelter Veterinarians. "When it's a very young puppy or kitty, they are still gong through personality devlopments." That mellow cat you're looking forward to may be a wild thing longer than you and your nerves may like.
So for some potential adopters, the benefits of a senior pet are very much tied to the fact that the animal is well past the puppy and kittens months. "Their behaviors are a bit more well known, and a little bit more predictable," Hazelwood says. "That being said, it doesn't mean you can't teach them new tricks, but they're not as exuberant. Except of course now we talk about Romeo," he says, laughing as he watches the large dog bound across a fifth-floor ASPCA conference room. "There are going to be outliers."
That there are outliers perhaps just parallels what many of us know from the human world: the 90-year-old grandmother who still takes her daily two-mile walk, the centenarian dedicated to tilling his own garden. The range of possibilities is there.
"I would like to encourage people who are consider adopting to not be put off by age," Janeczko says. "It's really just a number and it's about the best fit."
For those open to adopting an older pet, that best fit just requires some research.
"The issue with adopting any pet is the consideration of what you're getting into," Janeczko says. While individual shelters will vary in terms of the information they'll have about an animal, Janeczko suggests potential adopters be proactive and ask questions.
Beyond personality traits, medical issues and their related costs may be a concern. Some shelters and organizations offer "safety net" programs to help with those costs, while others may provide limited pet insurance. Adoption fees are often lessened for older pets; at the ASCPA, cats aged three and over are free, while the cost for dogs is reduced with age.
While many shelters can certainly provide information about a pet's health – the ASCPA's 11-year-old Shih Tzu Perla is a golden girl with limited vision – Janeczko emphasizes the importance of having a plan in place with your veterinarian. Still, "while some medical issues may be likely, that doesn't mean that a senior pet is unhealthy," she says.
As with people, preventative care is key, as is planning ahead for the inevitable no matter what age your pet is.
Determining what age category a pet falls into, whether or not the term "senior" applies, is somewhat debatable.
For larger dog breeds, Hazelwood says, the senior tag can be applied around ages 7 to 8, while smaller pooches might not warrant the silver S until 10 or 11. It's more "breed and size specific," he says.
The American Association of Feline Practitioners outlines six categories for cats: kitten (up to six months), junior (seven months to two years), prime (three to 6 years), mature (seven to 10 years), senior (11 to 14 years) and geriatric (15 to 25).
Overall, though, Janeczko says, "there are different words that get used," resulting in "a fair amount of inconsistency."
Whatever label a Romeo or Snuggles or Perla receives, maybe it's only useful in a more general sense. For the ASPCA, November is Adopt a Senior Pet Awareness Month, 30 days when maybe the spotlight can go on these elder statesmen and families wanting to expand might consider taking them in.
"I have a very soft spot for older animals, especially for older dogs," Janeczko says. "There's something very gratifying about being able to give that pet a very wonderful life."