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New Family? How To Help A Senior Dog Adapt

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Last year my husband and I did something incredibly rewarding: adopted a senior pet. We wondered if Peach, a little 8-year-old Poodle rescued as a stray, would find it challenging to adapt to life in a new home with us and our Labrador Retriever mix, Rio. But the adoption coordinator suggested I feed Peach canned wet food right out of my fingers the first night, and it worked like a charm: we were instant BFFs. Peach hikes or walks several miles with us each day and curls up on my lap every chance she gets. She’s a special part of our family.

Though dogs and cats aged 7 and up can make fantastic companions, they are often the last to be adopted at shelters – if at all. So in honor of Adopt a Senior Pet Month, I spoke with experts about tips for helping older pets adjust to a new forever home with as little fear, stress, and anxiety as possible.

Lisa Lunghofer, Ph.D., executive director of The Grey Muzzle Organization, a nonprofit that funds programs that help older dogs, said senior dogs’ capacity to show love, loyalty, and gratitude is “truly amazing.” Often, they find themselves homeless through no fault of their own; their owners move somewhere that doesn’t allow pets such as an assisted living facility, or they have a lifestyle change such as divorce or deployment.

“One of the wonderful things about adopting an older dog is that most senior dogs have lived in a home before and come with some basic training,” she said. “Still, it’s important to be patient and understand that your senior dog—like any newly adopted dog—will need to get used to their new environment. During the transition, spend as much time as possible with your new companion and provide a safe, comfortable place for him to sleep. When bringing a new dog into your home, you’ll want to establish a routine for going outside, taking walks, and feeding. Give your dog time to adjust to new surroundings and cherish every moment with your new best friend.”

Sherri Franklin, founder and CEO of Muttville Senior Dog Rescue, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that rescues and rehomes more than 1,000 senior dogs every year, said bringing an older dog home is much easier than introducing a puppy since they are often already housetrained and typically settle in more quickly – without chewing up shoes or computer cords.

To help make the transition as smooth as possible, she suggests the following:

  • Before entering the house, show the new dog the spot outside where they should potty.
  • If you have other dogs, introduce the dogs in the yard instead of inside.
  • Before bringing the new dog indoors, remove the resident dogs’ bowls, toys, or other potential sources of conflict.
  • Feed pets in separate rooms or as far apart as possible. Franklin says, “Older dogs may take a little more time to eat, and you want to keep everybody feeling safe and secure.”
  • Read your animals. If the dogs seem uncertain of one another, keep them separated until their comfort levels increase.
  • Feed cats up high, where the dog can’t access their food.
  • Make any changes to your resident pets’ routines well before bringing home the new dog.
  • Don’t overwhelm the new dog with affection – let them come to you.
  • Find out what the senior dog has been eating from the rescue organization or shelter. Feed the dog her usual diet and gradually transition to something else if need be to avoid digestive issues.
  • See a veterinarian to make sure the dog doesn’t have dental pain. “Dental health is more than just for health: it’s for their behavior and personality, too…and if a dog has teeth that are ready to fall out, you don’t want to feed them kibble right then,” Franklin says.
  • Consider supplements such as glucosamine to promote joint mobility and increased comfort.
  • Be patient the first week while you learn each other’s habits and signs. “It absolutely gets easier and will be totally worth it.”

Franklin says there’s a senior dog for every kind of person – they’re all individuals with distinct personalities.

“There’s an active senior dog, a mellow senior dog, there’s a senior dog who loves children, there’s a senior dog who sleeps with cats, and there are senior dogs who just want to sit in your lap,” she says. “It will change your life in such a great way.”

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This article was reviewed/edited by board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Kenneth Martin and/or veterinary technician specialist in behavior Debbie Martin, LVT.

MY OLD DOG: Rescued Pets with Remarkable Second Acts” by Laura T. Coffey, with photographs by Lori Fusaro

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