Pet Connection by Dr. Marty Becker, Kim Campbell Thornton and Mikkel Becker

Old Is Gold

Organizations and special programs help to save senior and special-needs pets, among the most vulnerable animals in shelters

By Kim Campbell Thornton

Andrews McMeel Syndication

When Michele Hoffman was fostering for rescue groups in Southern California, she would go to shelters to pick up litters of kittens or young adoptable cats. One day she saw a beautiful blind cat and asked what would happen to her.

“She’ll be euthanized,” was the reply. “Nobody wants cats like that.”

Hoffman left the shelter with that cat, too. Soon afterward, she founded Milo’s Sanctuary; 15 years later, it has helped to rescue, place and give a lifetime home to approximately 1,800 senior or special-needs cats.

“I decided that these cats deserved a wonderful home just like anyone,” she says.

Old dogs and special-needs dogs face challenges in finding homes, too. They often end up in shelters or with rescue groups because the person who loved them has passed away or moved to a nursing care facility, says Lisa Lunghofer, executive director of the Grey Muzzle Organization. They may also land in shelters for the same reasons as younger dogs: a change in family circumstances, an owner’s lack of time or money, or behavioral issues that go unaddressed. Grey Muzzle isn’t a shelter but instead raises funds -- more than $1.5 million since it was founded by Julie Dudley in 2008 -- to help rescue groups provide care, comfort, homes and hospice for old dogs.

“We frequently hear that a Grey Muzzle grant gave a senior dog dental and veterinary care that helped make him more adoptable, leading to the dog quickly finding a forever home,” Lunghofer says. “Our grants also help keep old dogs in good homes. When her beloved senior dog, Bella, needed veterinary care that 89-year-old Arlene could not afford, she reached out to the Elder Paws Senior Dog Foundation in California. Thanks to a Grey Muzzle grant, Bella got the care she needed, and this loving senior couple was able to stay together.”

Milo’s Sanctuary and Grey Muzzle are part of a trend toward ensuring that vulnerable animals have access to care and adoptive homes.

“I think there is a growing subpopulation of adopters who specifically seek older and special-needs animals to adopt,” says Martha Smith-Blackmore, DVM, veterinarian for Boston’s Animal Care and Control Shelter. “I think the motivations are multifactorial, but at its root is the heart of what it means to ‘rescue’ an animal. Who are the most at-risk shelter pets? The elderly and those with special needs.”

Programs aimed at senior animals include seniors-for-seniors adoption efforts and lifetime care for unadoptable animals. Matching senior humans with older pets -- often at reduced adoption fees -- is one way to place animals in homes where they will be loved, and owners can worry less about a pet outliving them.

Adopting a senior dog or cat can be a rewarding experience for people or families of any age, though. With mature pets, what you see is what you get. They are usually housetrained and past the destructive stage. Their personalities are already formed, and they may have experience with children or training in manners or how to walk on a leash.

“All dogs are individuals, but senior dogs tend to be more laid-back and easier to live with than younger dogs,” Lunghofer says. “People who have adopted senior dogs tell us they would do it again in a heartbeat.”

And whether they are adopted at 3 years -- considered “older” in many shelters -- or 13 years, they often have more years of life and love left than people expect.

“Older and special-needs pets have as much love to give as any other pet,” Dr. Smith-Blackmore says. “Opening your heart and home to these individuals is the definition of kindness.”


Does pup need to

put on some pounds?

Q: My new puppy is 5 months old and a little on the skinny side. Can you give me some tips on fattening her up? Should I cook for her or just feed her more of her regular food?

A: I’m betting that your puppy isn’t too skinny but instead is just right. When we picture puppies in our minds, the image is usually of a roly-poly fuzzball, but when it comes to growing puppies, being on the thin side is better. Puppies need to grow slowly and steadily. Putting on too much weight too quickly stresses their still-developing bones and joints and can lead to orthopedic problems such as hip dysplasia later in life.

A good rule to live by is “Watch the dog; don’t watch the bowl.” In other words, how the dog looks should tell you whether you’re feeding the right amount. A healthy puppy in good shape looks muscular but not fat.

To gauge your puppy’s overall condition, give him an “eye exam” followed by a hands-on test. Eye your pup from above; he should have a visible waistline when you look down at him. Then put your hands on him, thumbs along the spine and fingers spread downward. You should be able to feel but not see his ribs. If you can see his ribs, feed more.

I’m a big fan of feeding puppies with puzzle toys instead of bowls. Having to put forth some effort for their food keeps dogs from eating too much or too quickly. Put your dog’s normal amount of food in it and let him push, roll or manipulate it in other ways to get the food to fall out. Keep several and rotate them to keep your pup interested and challenge his brain and body. -- Dr. Marty Becker

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Clue to pup size is

proportion, not paws

-- Can paws predict a puppy’s size at maturity? Not necessarily. Big feet don’t necessarily mean that a puppy will grow to be a large adult. A better clue is the pup’s overall proportions. Puppies who are well-proportioned at an early age typically grow into small or medium-size dogs. It’s the gangly, awkward puppies who are most likely to be big dogs a few months down the road. If a young puppy looks as if he hasn’t grown into his body, his head seems too large for his body, his tail looks longer than the rest of him and he’s constantly falling over his paws, don’t be too surprised if he weighs a whopping 90 pounds when he’s 8 months old.

-- When your cat rubs up against you, he’s not merely expressing affection. Cats want their possessions -- and that includes you, your sofa, favorite toys and maybe the dog -- to smell like them, so they deposit sebum from scent glands on their heads to mark whatever they’re rubbing with their own special scent.

-- Dogs may be the canary in the coal mine when it comes to male infertility. A recent study found that environmental contaminants in the form of two man-made chemicals negatively affect the quality of sperm in both men and dogs. Both chemicals have been detected in commercial dog foods, and one, DEHP, is common in household items ranging from carpets to toys. The other, PCB153, used in products such as surface coatings and paints, is banned globally but remains widely detectable in the environment, according to researchers. An earlier discovery that dogs in homes experienced a decline in sperm quality led to the hypothesis that chemical pollutants in the environment, including homes, could be the cause of a decline in male sperm quality as well. -- Dr. Marty Becker, Kim Campbell Thornton and Mikkel Becker


Pet Connection is produced by a team of pet-care experts headed by "The Dr. Oz Show" veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker and award-winning journalist Kim Campbell Thornton. They are affiliated with and are the authors of many best-selling pet-care books. Joining them is dog trainer and behavior consultant Mikkel Becker. Dr. Becker can be found at or on Twitter at DrMartyBecker. Kim Campbell Thornton is at and on Twitter at kkcthornton. Mikkel Becker is at and on Twitter at MikkelBecker.