This week’s topic was suggested by a friend—Kim Campbell, who lives in British Columbia, messaged me: “Have you ever done an article on seniors getting a dog? Where to get one, based on how many rescues won’t adopt to them?” Some rescue organizations and animal shelters have upper age limits on older adopters, although the ‘too old’ may vary from organization to organization. We haven’t discussed that topic here yet, so I asked animal professionals and animal lovers online about their experiences and thoughts on the subject.
These were my questions:
Do you work in rescue? Does “your” rescue have age limits? Do you know someone who’s been turned down for an adoption due to their age, specifically for being “too old” to adopt? Has it happened to you? In your opinion, is it a good policy? Why or why not? Also, do you work with a rescue that does adopt to older individuals, maybe even through a special program that helps pay the fees? Tell us about it!
Lani Robinson (Washington) Dogs don’t care. They just want someone to love and take care of them. My in-laws were 94 and 104 when they passed away. They always had a rescue dog. Having a pet contributes to senior longevity; pets provide companionship and exercise.
Karen Schlosberg (Massachusetts) I would be devastated if that happened to me. And then I would go and adopt outside of a formal shelter.
Tiffany Copley (Ohio) As long as they have a backup plan and are able to care for the dog, it’s fine with me. I helped my Grama get her last two dogs—both times she was “too old” and got denied by quite a few places. So one was a direct re-home, and one was a from a breeder who died.
Marcy Britt (Washington) Depends on the senior and the dog. How fit is the human? Does the human have a plan in place for the dog if something happens to the human? Can the human give breed-specific exercise and understanding?
Shelly Keel (California) As a trainer, I feel it is more important to get the right fit: match the person to a dog that fits their lifestyle, experience, and goals for life with the dog. Sedentary person (any age) and active dog? No go. Fearful/cautious dog and person who wants an around-town or therapy-dog pal? No go. Lots of examples, but you get the gist.
Tiffany Mitchell (Iowa) I’ve never volunteered with a rescue that had that specific rule. I’m more into trying to find a good match (the dream is a perfect match), so . . . being realistic on matching with allowances/grace for knowledgeable adopters.
Shelley Bueche (Texas) I disagree [with a “too old” policy] but I do think certain breeds/mixes are better [for seniors]. I love the Seniors for Seniors programs. There are also programs with Meals on Wheels offering pet-care assistance for MOW clients, as they learned that clients would often feed their pets before themselves.
Jackie Pritchard (Ontario) I am a trainer and have had some of the most amazing elderly clients. Having been involved in rescue for a very long time, I have always found it very disheartening when excellent potential adopters are turned away simply due to age.
Photo by Steven Cogswell
Dale Ward (North Carolina) Age of the person, age of the dog, or both? I’m at the point in my own life where I’m thinking I’ll soon be too old to get another puppy. I do think it totally depends on the individuals, both human and canine. I have had many older clients who got puppies or young dogs that were really too much for them. Some think because they owned X breed (usually large dogs) in the past that they can do it all over again, only to realize that their physical abilities have lessened and that they are having lots of trouble coping. Adopting an older dog often works really well for these types of individuals. I [have worked with] others who did just fine. Having a blanket age limit is far too general, in my opinion. But placing a Lab or GSD puppy with people in their 80s is probably not a great idea in general. There are always exceptions. However, is there ageism at play here? Tough question.
George Guba (New York) I placed a dog with a friend’s mother in March 2020. The dog will be 12 on New Year’s Eve, [my friend’s] mother turned 94 earlier this year. The year before, she had lost the last of the whippets (at age 16) that she had bred. I have a verbal agreement with the daughter and mother—both people who have always been true to their word; I’ve known them for nearly 25 years—that if anything happens to her mother, [my friend] will take the dog. The daughter keeping him was her own plan from the start. He gets along well with her dogs. He is an only dog at the mother’s home. Most of my whippets live to age 14 or 15.
Sara Maynard (Trinidad and Tobago) We’ve had elderly people adopt middle-aged/ older dogs (not pups) from our shelter, but there must be a commitment from family members to keep the dog in the event that the person dies. All animals at our shelter have an adoption form with a clause that should the person be unable to keep the animal, the dog must be returned to the shelter; they are not allowed to re-home the dog themselves. However, if they find a suitable replacement home, they can let us know and we will do a home check to verify that all is okay, then they can do the private adoption and we supply adoption papers for the new owner.
On a personal level, my mother is 84 and we adopted a five-year-old dog for her about six years ago. The dog keeps my mother company and forces her to get up and go out. However, the grooming, vets, and purchasing of food, etc., is done by me, which is not a problem. I think once the extended family agrees to assist, it’s beneficial to the person. My step-sister’s mum is in her late 90s and also adopted a small dog as a companion; my step-sister does the same for her mum’s dog [as I do for my mum’s].
When we discuss animal care, if the person adopting the animal assures us that arrangements have been made in the event of disability or death, once we feel secure that this is the case, no further discussion is needed. Often when an older person (I’m talking 80-plus) comes to adopt from our shelter, they are brought in by a relative, so the open discussion is in front of all parties. Our coordinator is a life coach, so her skills are invaluable in assessing potential adopters, and most of our core committee members are 60-plus. I would say that up to age 80, we would not question the ability of someone to care unassisted for an animal.
When younger, I worked in a male-dominated field, but I was lucky enough not to run up against people who thought I could not perform my job due to my sex. I also had a strong father who taught me to stand on my own two feet. He didn’t have me until he was 50. My husband is 23 years older than me, and my daughter is an OT who works with various types of disabilities, and also older people who want to keep their independence. That kind of thinking flows over into our daily lives and, in my case, into the protocols developed for our shelter. We just placed one of our five-year-old rescues with a 94-year-old woman. Again, the family discussed the adoption together and made commitments to keep the dog in the event of illness or death. I would say it goes on a case-by-case basis.
Micha Michlewicz (Maryland) It’s not really age, but personal limitations and abilities that are the deciding factors.
Can you accommodate a sufficient care level for the dog you have/want to get?
Can you handle their strength (still an issue with even the best training), energy level, fitness needs, training (this is not a one-and-done), medical care, and other components of caring for a dog?
Everyone should have a back-up plan in case they need a temporary or, sadly, a permanent new home for the dog.
Marilyn Marks (Connecticut) Every adoption needs to be one that will benefit both dogs and owners. A greater deviation from average of either one (dog or human aspect) requires assistance of various kinds. If only the system worked that way! People who are elderly may need help (support, accommodations) caring for themselves, let alone for a pet. In those cases, a really special (calm, sensitive, etc.) animal needs to be found and/or helpers recruited to compensate where skill is lacking. Each adoption needs to be assessed, and each placement made based on that assessment.
Em E Wolf (Colorado) We get emails [at “my” rescue] all the time from people who either are too frail or unable to handle their dog, or from their relatives because of a death when a dog is left behind. I like looking at the age of the dog, guessing at its life expectancy, then looking at the person and making a guess if it’s a good fit—also, asking if they have made plans for the dog in case of death or illness. We have adopted out middle-aged dogs with medium energy levels to older, fit people. My dad is 88 and extremely active; three years ago, he adopted a two-year-old Shih Tzu with behavior issues. They are perfect together. (I keep in the back of my mind that if my dad doesn’t live to 100, I may need to take Percy-the-resource-guarding Shih Tzu.) But it was a good fit since my dad is very active and in great shape, and Percy was out of options in a shelter and he is only 20 pounds. They are actually a sweet story because my dad escaped the Holocaust as a child, and Percy was out of options because of behavior issues that kept him continually being returned to the shelter—and they fit flawlessly together.
Trish McMillan encourages what she calls “conversational adoptions.” I think any hard-and-fast rule doesn’t serve all parties. Better to look at both human and dog and see if a happy fit can be made. It is always, at the end of the day, a well-educated leap of faith when adopting out a dog. People under age 45 may have children and return their dog due to baby/dog interactions . . . you just never know. We try to look at the whole picture, the needs of the human, and the needs of the dog. In fact, we just adopted out a dog this afternoon to a lovely, active retired couple in their 70s. Their entire life will be that dog. Do we have a crystal ball? No. But they are devoted and loving and can meet [the dog’s] needs for the near future and hopefully beyond. One never knows. We just do our best.
However, we do get multiple emails every month (at minimum) from people who say, verbatim, that they realized they are “too old” for the dog they have. Perhaps they are just summarizing frailty or other issues they are experiencing, but it’s the most common age-related dog-surrender request email we get, second only to “I had a baby and can’t keep my dog any more” (which is also pretty age-related if you think about it). The topic is a good conversation. Our rescue tries to make each placement a good fit for the dog and the person without blanket rules because they don’t serve anyone (in our experience). Conversational adoptions make the most sense. We just adopted out an 18-month-old fairly active Lab mix to the most lovely retired couple in their 70s. They for sure were 70 years young! Enjoying every minute of their retirement. And now they have a dog to accompany them.
Lynn Cashion Kosmakos (California) Let me tell you about Martin and Wally. Martin was a very active 72-year-old whose adoption application was turned down by a S.F. Bay Area GSD breed rescue because of his age. So he pulled a one-year-old from the public shelter and brought him to a group beginning obedience class I taught.
Wally the dog was a handful and a half. He knew nothing, feared everything, and bit. To Martin’s great credit, he worked daily, patiently, and intelligently. Wally responded well over the next year, then was able to expand his horizons. Three years later, Martin and Wally are a certified Wilderness Search team with the California Rescue Dog Association (CARDA).
Flacortia Rosiea (Alberta) No matter what age you are, you should have an arrangement for your dog(s), should you die. Choose a trusted friend, family member, or breeder, and discuss the unthinkable. If you are alive, you are at risk of dying.
Sara Maynard (Trinidad and Tobago) 100% agree. My animals are in my will and I have let my animal-welfare friends know my wishes, as I think it will be tough for my immediate family to do what is needed for the animals I have. They will feel they can handle the situation when, in some cases, that might not be true. All my animals are rescued and most have special needs (health-wise, food, medication, behavioral issues, etc.), which is why I adopted them. Not everyone will be able to deal with their care, so it’s important to make sure the people around you know what to do in the short term (if you have an accident, for example), or long term, if death or an illness leaves you unable to function.
Marni Dlin (Alberta) I think seniors should be allowed to adopt any animal that suits their lifestyle. I prefer to adopt senior dogs and cats. Everyone, young or old, should have a plan implemented if they pass away before the pets. I see breeders selling puppies to anyone all the time. Those dogs often end up in rescues. I have friends who have passed away very young and other friends who are active well into their 90s. Most important is that the person can afford medical bills (although lots of rescues will help) and that everyone has a plan for what happens if they pass away. I just don’t think age should be the only deciding factor. That is ageism.
Inna Krasnovsky (New York) I plan to compete in dog sports into my “senior years.” Everyone is different, and I believe that all people, regardless of age, should be given the chance to access their situation and make the decision that fits their life. Also, what if having young dogs and doing fun stuff with them is how you stay young and healthy? I also think that everyone, regardless of age, should have a plan for their animals. Anything can happen to a pet owner.
Christine Hale Vertucci (Illinois) A couple in their 70s adopted a puppy I fostered about six years ago. The husband passed away a couple of years ago, but the family still tells me about how much joy the dog brought to him in his final year and how much they love her (they have adult daughters who help care for her). She’s having a great life, and it was a really good placement.
Lonnie Evans Pearson (North Carolina) My 88-year-old step–mother-in-law adopted a five-year-old dog because she will take care of it, walk it, and feed it. In her later years (50s and up), she has always adopted adult shelter dogs and I support that because she is great for them and with them. She is in good health. My 83-year-old mother-in-law in a wheelchair adopted a four-year-old cat. (I suggested an older cat.) She ended up passing away within eight months of the adoption and one of her caretakers took the cat home with her to join her other two cats. I think if there is a plan for the animal if something happens to the adopter, they should be able to adopt a pet.
Jenny Julian (Oregon) I own a nonprofit rescue. I do not have age limits. I do match older dogs with older folks, but the reality is that anything can happen to any of us at any age, potentially leaving a beloved pet in a shelter. To avoid this, I have moved to quarterly check-ins with my adopters, most of whom already send updates and stay in touch.
I recently placed a nine-year-old small dog on a small farm with a couple in their 70s. The man has a dementia that makes having a cuddly dog to love and walk especially life enhancing and may keep him functional longer. That pup will hopefully live out his life there, but if not, he will come back to me. I also have a small dog placed with a woman who is not old but may well not outlive her dog due to MS and its complications. He will return to me if he needs to, by agreement.
I believe that, if treated well in every home, dogs live in the moment and do fine with transition.
Adopting a Dog at Almost Any Age
▪ Look online for information about dog adoption programs in your area.
▪ Read the adoption contract, which often appears on an organization’s website.
▪ Visit the shelters that offer adoption programs for which you would be eligible.
▪ Organize a support team to be your back-up for the life of the dog you adopt.
▪ Involve your support team in shelter visits and your search for your new dog.
▪ Acclimate your new dog to your support team and their households, slowly and surely, so that the dog feels safe with them, eventually even comfortable. Your support team can give you the freedom of a safe and happy place for your dog to stay for a few hours, overnight, or even longer when your dog can’t go with you.
NEXT WEEK: More experiences and thoughts from animal professionals and animal lovers on the topic, “Too Old To Adopt?”