By Katie Marsico
With a 21-month-old daughter at home and a son on the way, I often surprise people when I tell them that I consider myself a mother of five. After clarifying that three of these “children” are furry and four-footed, I still sometimes receive another look of shock and skepticism when I explain that my canine babies aren’t babies at all. Buster, my eldest, is a 13-year-old Terrier mix who came to us in August 2002, and Boomer, a slightly hefty but completely lovable 7-year-old Beagle, made his way into our family in December 2005. Though we are also the proud guardians of a 7-year-old Chihuahua that we took in when she was just about a year old, our other two dogs were adopted well after they had matured past puppyhood.
Looking back, I can honestly say that, yes, having senior pets has meant less headaches in regards to potty training, teething, and the need for sturdy furniture to withstand endless romping. But the benefits extend far beyond pragmatism. Bringing senior animals into my home has provided me with exposure to unconditional love, gratitude, and companionship that I wish more people would be open to experiencing.
Practically speaking, any companion animal requires time and patience, but my husband and I both agreed that puppies need more of those commodities than we are equipped to offer. After struggling to potty train my daughter, there’s not a lot of emotional stamina left over to herd a frisky pup outside. Not to mention that “outside” for us does not include a fenced yard of any kind. Our dogs will have the occasional accident indoors but are generally satisfied, albeit a bit worn out, from a few longer walks at different intervals during the day. Whether it’s Boomer’s baying or Buster’s whining, each one came equipped with a little warning signal to tell us “Take me out now, or grab the mop!” I’m convinced that these subtle hints are born of age and experience. And it’s not just senior dogs that are well-adjusted and able to roll with the punches.
Pat Pierce of Waterford, Virginia, recently adopted two senior cats. Serena is an 8-year-old Flame Point Himalayan, and Hazel is a 10-year-old Domestic Medium Hair. Though the animals were already adults when Pierce brought them home, they made a smooth transition from shelter cats to prized family members.
“They adjusted incredibly well,” Pierce says. “Plus, they didn’t have all that kitten energy that needed release. It’s not that they’re inactive. Serena enjoys a good bit of running around. Hazel, on the other hand, would just rather wander about and get petted from time to time.”
While my senior dogs share the same happy balance of play and relaxation as Pierce’s cats, that’s not to say that senior animals are lukewarm in their level of affection. Just as with people, the older a pet is, the more life they’ve lived. And as memories can be bittersweet, adopted adult animals often seem to have an intrinsic gratitude about them, a sense of appreciation for a gentle back rub and a safe place to sleep. I’ll often be engrossed in a project at my computer desk when I feel someone licking my toes and nuzzling my ankles. Typically, it’s only a few moments later that Buster is curled up around my feet. As for his and Boomer’s relationship with my daughter, suffice it to say that the affection they show her often puts me to shame. They give her their entire unadulterated attention and demonstrate a level of patience that is beyond me and so many other adults that I know. Karen Trush of Third Lake, Illinois, can also attest to the immense emotional rewards of being a guardian to a senior pet. Trush adopted her Siberian Husky Leah when she was 6 years old. Leah was formerly abused and therefore took some time adjusting to her new family, but she ultimately proved to Trush that some things in life are worth the wait.
“Leah gives totally unconditional love,” Trush says. “Her personality is simply amazing. It’s true she thinks the world should and does revolve around her, but she’s beautiful, bright, and affectionate—an absolutely wonderful dog.”
Is age really just a number?
Like Trush, most guardians of senior pets find themselves singing their animals’ praises. But while we have the ability to give older pets a second chance, skeptics might ask whether we can also stop the clock. The popular fear voiced by potential adopters seems to be, “How soon will I have to say goodbye?” This question admittedly began to plague me after Buster was diagnosed with cognitive dysfunction syndrome, which is similar to doggie Alzheimer’s. Initially, I couldn’t help regretting that I didn’t have more time with him. I’m ashamed to admit that I began to wonder if health problems are inherent to pets in their golden years.
Trush experienced the heart-stopping horror of watching Leah collapse due to an autoimmune disorder less than a year after she had been adopted. But the canine’s spirit and her family’s determination to see her recover have meant a new lease on life for Leah. Thanks to her guardians, the Husky turned 11 in June.
“Leah ultimately needed a splenectomy and a blood transfusion,” Trush says. “She’s permanently on medication, but she’s doing great. We just did what was necessary and are proud we were able to help save Leah’s life.” While some guardians experience health hurdles with senior pets, others like Pierce say they haven’t realized any special challenges. Frustrating as it may be to admit, perfect health is often a variable of chance in both humans and animals. Some cats and dogs overcome unbelievable odds and horrific pasts to live to a ripe old age, whereas certain kittens and puppies are diagnosed with heartbreaking maladies after only a few months of life.
Bearing that in mind, I now try to focus on Buster and his wonderful personality rather than his illness. I try to see that he’s lived a hard but largely wonderful existence and realize that his being sick is merely a bump on the road he’s traveled with us. I have no guarantees about my time with him or anyone else in my family. I am certain, however, that adopting him was one of the best decisions we ever made. Among so many other things he and Boomer have taught me, I’ve learned that their ages are simply a question of digits, whereas their lives are prizes of great value that we’ve been lucky enough to share.