Little Furry Paws

30 06 2009

Kara Bertrand
Humber College Student
Written: November 2007

This article was written for a magazine class at Humber College. Please note this is my first attempt at feature writing.

His big, brown eyes peer out from behind the cage doors, the eyes of a soul that has seen too much pain for someone so small. Slowly he lifts his paw towards you, in the hopes of reaching out to something he’s never actually had before. When you reach out to reciprocate, he recoils, repelling to the other side of his cage, now only peering at you with his head on the ground. His face is speckled with white fur, and you know he doesn’t move as fast as he used to. Across the hall is someone much younger, and he watches in sorrow as it receives all the attention.

An older dog in a shelter, such as the Humane Society, is a common thing. Many times, these dogs have been passed over numerous times in exchange for a puppy. It is estimated that older dogs spend triple the time waiting for a home in a shelter than a puppy. Some of these dogs have spent their entire life moving from home to home, with regular shelter intervals in between. More often than not, these animals just ended up getting the short end of the luck straw. Shelter workers know the reality that faces every mature dog that is brought in, oftentimes putting in a great deal of effort to find a great home for the animal.

“When an older dog comes in, we think ‘how can we get this animal out of here to a good home,’” says Kathy Innocente, community relations and fundraising representative at the Kitchener-Waterloo Humane Society.

The Humane Society, be it in Kitchener or in Toronto, has a lot of roles.

“We are here for the basic animals needs of Kitchener-Waterloo,” says Innocente. This covers injured and stray animals, adoption centres, and even holding dogs for women’s shelter families. “If a family is displaced and a woman and children have to leave their home, we’ll hold them and wait until they can provide a home on their own,” she says.

For Innocente, education is at the top of the priorities list for the role of the Humane Society in the community. Trips to schools are a common event for the Humane Society to attend. Proper dog care and teaching children to be responsible is a key cornerstone for an educational trip to a school. Teaching against animal cruelty is saved for when the children are a bit older.

There are other options for those wishing to adopt an older dog in Ontario. Adopt-A-Dog/Save A Life, Inc. is a registered non-profit charity serving Toronto and Southern Ontario. Instead of providing shelter for animals, they provide foster services for dogs without homes. These fostered animals are then adopted out for a more substantial fee than the Humane Societies – tending to range around $275 for a dog. Mary Anne Marcuz, a volunteer with Adopt-A-Dog/Save A Life, Inc., has a different view on shelters.

“Shelters play a great role in the care of dogs but it is a stressful place for a dog. So we like to avoid shelters,” says Marcuz.

Marcuz estimated that the percentage of older dogs (over 4 years old) in foster homes with Adopt-A-Dog/Save a Life, Inc. is 80 per cent. She mentioned that these numbers are due to the charity being a rescue and not a shelter – older dogs are more likely to be picked up through a rescue such as this.

The adoption process is quite different for the Humane Society versus Adopt-A-Dog/Save A Life, Inc. At the Humane Society, an animal can go home immediately after the application process and an interview; at Adopt-A-Dog/Save A Life, Inc., there is a bit longer of a waiting period. The charity starts off with a phone call in response to an interest in getting a dog.

“If it sounds like a certain dog would be a good match for them, a volunteer would do a home visit – we like to meet them in person – to make sure there are no obvious problems that would cause trouble for the dog,” says Marcuz.

This includes holes in fences, broken gates, issues with other members of the family, plus more. The charity also does vet references if the family has had a dog in the past, further making sure the home is a great match for the animal.

After the adoption takes place, Adopt-A-Dog/Save A Life, Inc. will even follow up to make sure everything to going well with the new dog. “We feel very committed to the dogs, and we, of course, like to follow up after the adoption,” says Marcuz.

The Humane Society, in contrast, begins its adoption process when a family takes interest in a dog at the shelter.

“The vast majority of the people that come in here, it isn’t the first time we’ve seen them. So we know they’re serious,” says Innocente.

The family can then go in to a ‘Quiet Room’ in order to spend more time with the animal and be councilled by the staff. They then fill out the application and have an interview with the staff. If everything looks great, the dog can go home with its new family that day.

Getting an older dog used to a new home takes a little longer than for puppies.
“Any shelter dog tends to have a longer period of adjustment because they’ve been displaced from a family they’ve been with,” says Innocente.

It is usually about 3 months. According to Marcuz, it depends on how their past has been. If they were from a neglectful or abusive house, it may take a bit longer to get used to the new place.

There are myths that surround the adoption of older dogs; myths that often keep families from adopting older animals.

“A lot of people are so reluctant to adopt an older dog because they think they’re set in their ways,” says Marcuz. “It’s a real myth. Dogs adapt to their surroundings and they respond well to a consistent routine. Once they get past the initial adjustment period, they do settle in nicely. For the most part, they’re fine.”

Marcuz mentioned that having an older dogs means less work than a puppy. “My husband and I favour the older dogs because they don’t have that great need of tons of exercise like the younger ones need,” she says. “More calm, and more content. They’re past that puppy stage, which is a lot of work. It’s nice to get an older dog who is more calm and relaxed.”

The sad reality of an older dog in a shelter is the possibility of euthanization. However, the Humane Society is very careful with this issue.

“We’re going to exhaust everything we can before euthanization,” says Innocente. But she says that euthanization is an “evil that you can’t get away from.”

Putting a dog down is used as a last resort in response to a very ill animal with no chance of survival, or for aggressive animals who have been violent several times. With aggressive animals, Humane Society workers exhaust all possibilities and work with them very hard before thinking of putting them down. Much sensitivity must be used in a situation as this.

“Some come in with a lot of baggage on their own because of the way they were treated before,” says Innocente.

It is important to know the difference between Humane Societies and city pounds (in Toronto, all city pound centres are known collectively as Toronto Animal Services.) According to the Toronto Animal Services website, “Toronto Animal Services enforces the City of Toronto bylaws as they relate to animals living in the City of Toronto. We care for all animals impounded under the bylaws.”

Animals at Toronto Animal Services are more likely strays, and animals who have suffered terrible experiences through abuse and neglect. The Humane Societies of Ontario exists mainly to prevent animal cruelty and promote the protection and humane care of all animals. Another large difference is that Toronto Animal Services receives government funding, but not enough, and are drastically under funded. Humane Societies are not government funded, and rely solely on public donations. There is no doubt, however, that either type of shelter is lacking in the compassion and care of all animals that enter its walls.

The Toronto Humane Society has a chart on their website that compares the statistics between them and Toronto Animal Services from 2002-2006, further exemplifying the Humane Society’s views on euthanization. In 2005, 9,477 dogs and cats were admitted to the Toronto Humane Society, while 6,070 were admitted to Toronto Animal Services. 7,126 animals (75%) were adopted from the Toronto Humane Society while 1,590 (26%) were adopted from Toronto Animal Services.

More alarming is that 883 (9%) of the animals that were admitted in 2005 to the Humane Society were euthanized while 3,074 (51%) dogs and cats were euthanized at Toronto Animal Services. That’s half of the animals admitted that year. Statistics such as these are heart-breaking, pointing to the crisis that faces animals that enter Toronto Animal Services on a daily basis.

An obstacle that emerges from the myths of older dogs is having to care for an animal whose health is not as strong as it once was. Older animals tend to move slower, and larger dogs’ joints tend to wear out as they get older. As a dog ages, the chance for cancer increases, as does the chance of developing other incurable diseases. The majority of older dogs need dental work, but rarely do they receive this expense. Marcuz points out, however, that “a dog can get sick at any age,” and that disease does not discriminate between young and old.

The most important thing to do for an older dog is give them regular wellness check-ups at their veterinarian.

“As dogs get older, it’s good to do not just a check-up visually, but regular blood work, mostly on a yearly basis,” says Marcuz. “Vets will test their blood and make sure everything is good.”

Along with making sure the dog is healthy with regular vet check-ups, it is critical that the dogs’ day-to-day life is comfortable. Lisa Rodgers, a sales representative at PetsMart, has some pointers when buying food, treats or toys for an older dog. She recommends higher end food for animals, likely organic.

Marcuz echoes this notion: “Very good, holistic, or organic food that doesn’t have a lot of fillers so you want to be sure they’re eating healthy food so they don’t put on a lot of weight.”

Rodgers recommends Science Diet or Iams for higher-end dog food. Dogs aged 2 to 7 should eat adult food, while dogs aged over 7 should eat senior food – both kinds have different nutrients needed for different ages. As far as treats go, Rodgers says that soft treats are best.

“Geriatric Kongs” are much softer than regular Kongs and are easier to eat for older dogs. Treats for hip and joint care are also highly recommended by representatives at PetsMart.

“We tell our customers that it is best to start on this from puppy age,” says Rodgers. She points out that making sure feeders are low to the ground, allowing an older dog to eat comfortably.

Marcuz also states that having a big cushy bed for an older dog will ensure the dog wakes up happy and relaxed every morning. “Make sure they’re in a warm place. We would never recommend that they are left alone outside even if your yard is fully fenced,” says Marcuz. “Definitely we recommend a dog is left in the house if you’re not home.”

Regardless of how prepared shelters workers are for the arrival of all kinds of animals from all kinds of backgrounds, it is never easy to be faced with an animal who was severely abused or neglected.

Innocente says that there were nights when she’d cry herself to sleep after a hard day. “Things stick with you. It just makes you think. It makes you think what people are capable of doing to animals.” She points to a syndrome that affects individuals who care for sick animals and people: Compassion Fatigue.

Innocente says that workers at the Humane Society are sent to conventions to learn how best to deal with the condition. Compassion Fatigue occurs when an individual has burnt out from helping those unable to help themselves, and oftentimes turn off to the emotional distress that used to impact them.

“These workers go through and see a lot of things,” she says. There is no way to avoid becoming emotionally attached to the animals according to Innocente, and the only cure is to push on, knowing that every animal helped is a life saved.

Every animal in every shelter needs love, and every animal deserves it. Some have had terribly distressing lives at the hands of humans, and some have lived happily with one loving owner their whole life. All it takes is one look, one look to fall in love with big brown eyes and furry little paws. And maybe, just maybe, that life will be completely changed outside of those metal bars.