About ten years ago, I was on my way to a rescue to meet a Labrador named Lucy. She was four years old, bouncy, loved kids, and would have been the perfect companion for my one-year old Golden Brody.
While we were there, I saw a little black potato hovering in the shadows. That was Kekoa, they explained. She wasn’t who I had come to meet, but she sure did love meeting new people and I asked if it was okay if she came over to say hi.
Kekoa was ten or so. It was her second time being returned to the rescue. You could see in her eyes both the defeat of her return and the hope of a new family. She licked my hand gently, then gave my toddler son a very delicate kiss on the face. When she turned to leave, he ran after her. Even at two, my son knew something so many don’t:
There is no love as profound as that of a senior pet.
“I don’t want to get attached only to have to say goodbye so soon.”
First things first: People who foster pets of any age are a special kind of angel. Whether you are giving a puppy, senior, or new mother space in your home, you are doing them a tremendous service.
As an extension of the shelter system, foster families provide innumerable benefits to the community:
- The pet is able to wait for their forever family in a loving home environment, instead of a shelter that may be loud, crowded, and stressful. We know stress results in increased illness, and potentially reduces their adoptability. I mean, when would you rather go on a date? On a nice Saturday afternoon or Tuesday night after a terrible day at work? Calm environments allow us to be our best selves.
- You’re creating space for another animal at the shelter. The number one limitation in a shelter environment is space. By acting as an extension of that space, you are helping your shelter serve a larger community and reduce the number of euthanasia due to overcrowding.
- You have so much to offer. You’re watching their behavior. You know their preferences. You have a better idea than anyone else who is a good and maybe a not-quite-perfect long-term family for this pet. Making the right placement is key in a successful adoption.
These benefits apply to anyone. I know lots of people who prefer to foster animals under 4 months of age. I have a friend who likes to foster kittens because she knows she gets an endless supply of adorable little fuzzballs in her house, but she still has the flexibility of her busy lifestyle because she knows they are adopted quickly and rarely require a commitment of more than a month.
I also know a lot of families who choose to foster young pets knowing they are likely to keep one as a permanent family member- the ever present ‘foster failure’. For these families, fostering is a way to test their children’s ability to be responsible pet owners without the pressure of a long-term commitment if the time just isn’t right.
The motivations for fostering senior dogs or cats are a little different.
We all know senior pets are often the first to be euthanized at a shelter. This is a sad reality. With limited space, shelters need to allocate space to the most adoptable animals and those who are older, with health problems or a grey face are often the last chosen for adoption. This despite the fact that they are usually the most low-key, relaxed pets who are past the whole chewing thing, past the whole tearing up the yard thing, and just want a place to be happy.
It is a myth that seniors are more high maintenance than other pets. When in good health, it’s usually the opposite.
When you bring a puppy or a kitten into your home, they don’t have the life experience to know just how great you are. A senior, on the other hand? They’ve seen some things. They’ve had a life, and you have no idea how great or terrible it was, but something terrible must have transpired because they are here, homeless.
They understand the difference between their home and the shelter.
They understand what love looks like, and unfortunately what lack of love looks like.
They appreciate you in a different way.
You can make a bigger difference in one month of a senior’s life than you can in months or years with a younger pet, because those moments are just that important. Dogs and cats don’t hold grudges. They have astonishing capabilities for forgiveness. In this life, what they remember is this week. And the love you show in your time as a foster can erase years of sadness and neglect. Isn’t that amazing?
The timeline is a little more variable in a senior foster situation. Puppies and kittens are gone in a flash. They move on to something incredible — a forever home. Seniors may be with you for quite some time. It is a relationship. Your time together ends because they are adopted, or because their time on earth has come to a conclusion. Either way, you know you have provided something priceless to them.
My friend Karen fell into senior hospice unintentionally. She has the right heart for it. She has a type: anything with a huge head, preferably with lots of Shar Pei rolls. The rescue called her once with a perfect foster who just happened to be a senior, and she said yes. She says yes a lot now.
Three senior fosters so far that I know of.
I see her take these souls in knowing it is unlikely they will know any homes other than hers, and in their eyes you see the dawning realization that they are safe.
They go on car trips.
They sleep on couches.
They live the Instagram life.
Her stories have inspired other people to take in senior pets as well, because she does such an incredible job of documenting the transformation that can take place in just a few weeks of joy. That’s all you need. There’s no minimum amount of time it takes to make a difference in someone’s life.
November is Adopt a Senior Pet month, so it’s the perfect time to remember that. Whether you are adopting or foster, there’s ways anyone with the right heart can make a difference in the life of a senior. How about you?
Dr. Jessica Vogelsang, DVM