Welcome to “Debarking Pet Myths,” our monthly series that addresses common myths, misconceptions and old wives’ tales about dogs and cats.
Many myths exist about adopting senior dogs, especially those that have been surrendered to an animal shelter. The reality, however, is that older dogs make great companions, including for families with young kids. Here, we’ll dispel several common myths about senior dogs and explain why you should reconsider an older dog if you’re looking to add a new member to your family.
First, let’s clarify what’s meant by the phrase “senior dog.”
At what age does a dog become a senior dog?
It’s no secret that dogs age faster than people. A dog’s life span depends on its size and breed, although good nutrition and appropriate preventive veterinary healthcare can help promote your pet’s longevity and quality of life. In general, the larger the breed or size of the dog, the shorter the lifespan.
Like us, dogs age gradually and there’s no exact age at which they become seniors. However, most veterinary experts consider dogs to be “seniors” when they reach the last 25 percent of their lifespan. In most cases, dogs can be considered senior when they are between 5 and 10 years old. Giant dogs like Great Danes reach senior status around 5 years old, while small dogs such as Chihuahuas are considered seniors around 10 to 12 years old. If you’d like to know how old your dog is in “people years,” check out this chart.
Veterinarians also make distinctions between senior dogs and geriatric dogs. Senior dogs are likely still healthy or just beginning to show signs of aging. They’re mature, not ancient. Geriatric dogs, however, are at the older end of the aging continuum and often — but not always — experience more health-related issues.
So about those senior dog myths…
Myth 1: Older shelter dogs have behavioral problems that make them difficult to adopt.
This simply isn’t true. Senior dogs are surrendered to shelters for rehoming for several different reasons, some of which have nothing to do with bad behavior. Many older dogs that end up in shelters had human companions who died or had to move to an assisted living facility or senior living center that doesn’t allow dogs. Maybe the owner lost his or her job, then the house and can no longer afford the costs that go with owning a pet. Sudden disruptions in lifestyle, such as divorce or serious accident or illness, can lead some dog owners to give up their cherished companions. There are plenty of reasons why pet owners part with their dogs. Many of them are sad; few of them are because of the dog.
Myth 2: You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.
Of course you can teach a senior dog a new trick or two. In reality, older dogs often remain curious, fun loving and trainable. A mature dog may need a little more time to learn new tasks, just like some (older) people. The right motivation is needed.
While some people may believe a puppy is easier to train, others believe a senior dog may be less difficult. Older dogs may have more focus, patience and self-control than younger dogs. Plus, older dogs come with valuable problem-solving skills gained by experience. And if you’re really lucky, you may find a senior dog that was trained by the previous owner, which means you could have a well-mannered companion.
Myth 3: A senior dog won’t bond with new owners.
Not true. Dogs are social creatures by nature and, although dogs have a wide range of personalities, many of them are people-pleasers. Some senior dogs adopted from a shelter will require some time to warm up and settle into their new home. But others will make themselves at home right away. They can also be more affectionate than young dogs and may be more apt to stay at your side rather than run off to play.
Myth 4: Senior dogs have more expensive veterinary bills.
There’s a kernel of truth to this myth. But let’s be clear: Old age is certainly not a disease. However, aging is associated with a number of chronic diseases. Yes, some older dogs may develop or may already have an age-related health problem at the time of adoption. But if the senior dog received routine preventive veterinary care up until the time of surrender, the dog will likely be healthy. A reputable shelter will tell prospective pet parents if a pet has an underlying medical condition. Plus, these shelters work closely with their local veterinarians and may even have a veterinarian on staff to give surrendered animals physical exams. In addition, pets with health issues are treated and their recovery monitored until adoption.
Remember, too, that puppies require substantial veterinary care during their first year of life in order to be healthy. And puppies can have health problems just as easily as senior dogs. Anyone who adopts a dog, regardless of that pet’s age, must be ready for veterinary bills and medication costs — that’s just part of owning and caring for a dog.
Myth 5: You won’t have much time together.
With pet ownership, as in life, there are no guarantees. You could have a senior dog for 12 months or 12 years, depending on the dog. Puppies and young adult dogs can be lost to accident or disease before they reach their golden years.
The fact is, dogs have shorter lifespans than people. Any time you open your home and heart to a pet, you risk heartbreak. That’s just reality — and it really hurts when it happens. Knowing the unconditional love and companionship of a devoted dog not only fills our lives with happiness, but makes us better people. As author, television personality and dog show host Roger Caras said, “Dogs are not our whole life, but they make our lives whole.”
It’s unfair to assume that an aging dog is unworthy of adoption simply because he or she may be less playful, untrainable, too expensive or, worst of all, not have enough lifespan left. When you adopt a senior dog, you’re giving an older dog a second (or third) chance at a happy life and possibly even saving that life. Remember, too, that dogs have a way of finding the people who need them.