Caring for “gray muzzles” in shelters and at home


When people consider adopting a pet, they often think of puppies or kittens. They’re cute, warm and fuzzy, and their new family gets to watch them grow up from day one.

But it takes a lot of time and effort to make that puppy a part of the family. When you take on the privilege of caring for an older dog or cat, that work is already done. In essence, you can skip right ahead to the golden years. And as many will testify, it’s an extraordinary experience.

Portland resident Lindsey Ferguson adopted a senior dog, Gizmo, while in college. “I knew from volunteering in the shelter that senior dogs had trouble finding homes,” she says. “It was mostly because people didn't like the idea of getting attached and then losing them so quickly. But the truth was that they were the best-behaved dogs in the shelter. When it came time for me to start fostering, I requested an older dog.”

DNA testing showed Gizmo was a purebred Lhasa Apso. The shelter estimated his age at 10, but he lived 10 more years after finding his forever home with Ferguson. 

Many shelter animals are stray or abandoned, with no known medical history. Age is often a guess. Also, what is considered senior can vary by breed, based on average lifespan. While in shelters, senior animals often need unique care that can increase the shelter’s budget. In years past, shelters didn’t try too hard to place senior dogs or cats, but that is changing.

“Where our shelters used to be overcrowded now we’re at a point where some of our shelters are actually seeking out adoptable animals,” says Kim Alboum, Shelter Outreach and Policy Engagement Director at the Humane Society of the United States. “The messaging about spay/neuter and adopt don’t shop and visit your local shelter have worked.”

Along with this evolution has come increased services and resources to help place harder to adopt pets. “People have a special place in their hearts for the seniors,” says Alboum. “Many times we have shelters step right up to take in seniors because they pull at the heartstrings of the community.”

Senior dogs often have joint aches and pains, so they need comfy beds with support. They also need food formulated for their life stage.

“Many times senior dogs at shelters have lost their owners but were previously well-cared for, so we see obesity,” Alboum says. “And with senior animals we see dental issues. Dental care can be very expensive for shelters, so they do expect that their budget is going to be higher when they have more senior animals.”

According to the ASPCA, about 1.5 million animals per year are currently being euthanized in the US. Alboum says there was a time when closer to 14 million animals were euthanized annually. The likelihood of a senior animal being adopted was very slim. “But now far fewer animals are being euthanized, and these animals now have a really good chance of being adopted because they’re housebroken, they’re trained, and they’re just incredible pets,” she says. “These ‘gray muzzles’ as we call them are really special.”

Sasha Elliott, Community Engagement Manager for Greenhill Humane Society in Eugene, says Greenhill offers reduced or fee-waived adoptions for any seniors in their care, including dogs, cats, and small animals such as rabbits. 

“Unlike puppies or kittens who require extensive training and activity, senior pets fit into your life — they’re already great dogs and cats,” Elliott says. “Whether you’re looking for a companion to go on long walks with, or someone to relax with on the couch or porch, a senior pet can be a great fit.”

Tina Aarth and Joe Martinez, adoption coordinators at Animal Aid in Portland, love their senior dogs. “We love being able to help them find their soft landing,” says Martinez. “After a lifetime of human companionship, the isolation of a kennel can be extremely depressing.”

Two key features of Animal Aid’s successful senior placements are in keeping their animals in foster care for as long as it takes to get them adopted — sometimes for several months or even years, along with medical support. 

“Many senior dogs have problems with their kidneys, hearts, joints, teeth, etc.,” Martinez says. “The Animal Aid Cares fund allows us to adopt dogs with ongoing medical needs into loving homes where the cost of vet care might be overwhelming. We do this by paying half of the animal's medical costs for the first year, and sometimes longer.”

Seniors at Animal Aid get more frequent vet check ups and whatever dental procedures or other medical treatment may be needed while waiting for their “furever homes.” At foster homes, seniors can have a more comfortable life while awaiting their new family, and, as in the case of Ferguson and Gizmo, that foster home may become their forever home. 

At home with Gizmo, Ferguson says routine was key. He had health problems that required twice-daily medication, so they kept to a schedule. “That made it easier to identify new problems and to monitor improvements,” she says. 

The extra vet care can be expensive, so Ferguson kept a rainy day fund and worked with her vet to manage her budget. Ferguson says she prefers senior pets because they are easier to care for and don't require the exercise and attention puppies or kittens do.

“There are far fewer unknowns with a senior pet,” Ferguson says. “And for the most part they just want a comfortable spot to nap and a belly rub.”

Animal Aid *

Greenhill Humane Society *

The Humane Society of the United States *


Vanessa Salvia's love for animals began as a child, when stray kittens just seemed to follow her home (who thankfully, her family accommodated). She lives on a sheep farm outside of Eugene OR, surrounded by dogs, cats, horses, chickens and kids.