Everything You Need to Know About Adopting a Senior Pet

Senior dog photo
A senior labrador retriever dog lies down in grass in a park outdoors. Senior dogs can be loving, sincere companions.

Getty Images/Purple Collar Pet Photography

November was National Adopt a Senior Pet Month, and it was a good reminder that—especially this time of year—it's important to give a little extra love to an older animal. All pets deserve loving, safe homes, no matter how old they are, but often senior pets spend the most time in shelters.

Dogs and cats older than 9 years old can be overlooked in favor of young and energetic puppies and kittens. That doesn’t mean that senior pets don’t have a lot to offer. Older dogs and cats can be a great fit for a variety of owners. They might require a little extra care and attention, but they can be as companionable and affectionate as a younger pet—even more so in some ways.

If you are thinking about adopting a senior dog or cat, here’s everything you need to know:

The Benefits of Senior Pets

Much like older humans, older pets have gained a lot of experiences over the years. This experience and knowledge often makes for sweet, sincere companions. 

“Senior dogs, they teach you a lot about the world,” Mirah Horowitz, founder and executive director of Lucky Dog Animal Rescue in Arlington, Virginia, told The Spruce Pets in an interview. “I think there is a level of knowledge and wisdom and patience with the world that they have gained through their years that you can learn a lot from.”

These years of experience often result in calm and content temperaments. 

“You don’t have to deal with all the puppy stuff or the kitten nocturnal zoomies,” Horowitz said. “You’re much less likely to wake up in the morning and find your internet cable chewed through with a senior pet for sure.”

Logistically, older animals are often easier to adopt from shelters, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic when many shelters are facing more demand for pets than they can supply. It’s typical for senior dogs and cats to spend more time in shelters and receive fewer applications from potential adopters, so chances are you’ll be able to take home the senior pet that you want. 

Many shelters and rescues also offer discounted or waived fees for senior animals, as well as special promotions. For example, at the Animal Welfare League of Alexandria in Alexandria Virginia, adopters age 65 and older can adopt senior pets for free through the shelter’s “Seniors for Seniors” promotion. 

The Challenges of Adopting a Senior Pet

There are many benefits, but there are also several challenges that come with owning a senior pet.

A major challenge is the financial commitment. Because senior pets often face more medical issues than younger animals, veterinary bills can add up sooner rather than later. Some common expenses can include annual blood panels, supplements, medications, dental care, and end-of-life care.

That being said, it all depends on the health of the individual dog or cat. Consider inquiring about the medical history of the animal you want to adopt and asking yourself if you are willing and able to take on the financial commitment. One way to reduce costs is by purchasing pet insurance through a provider that offers plans for older dogs and cats; however they are generally more expensive than plans for younger puppies and kittens. 

Another consideration is the emotional toll of adopting a senior pet. With an older animal, it is generally understood that you’ll have less time together than you would with a younger pet. 

What Are Senior Pets Like?

With any new pet, it’s important to prepare yourself for your new housemate’s temperament, activity level, and general needs. In many ways, senior pets can be considered low maintenance and easier than puppies and kittens, but that doesn’t mean they don’t require exercise and attention.

Katherine Hansen, a resident of Hoboken, New Jersey who adopted her 15-year-old lab mix, Charles, in January 2021, said she was surprised by Charles’s activity level.

Charles the 15-year-old dog
Charles, a 15-year-old lab mix in Hoboken, New Jersey

Katherine Hansen

“He has a lot more energy than I initially thought he would,” Hansen said. “He sleeps a lot but when he’s awake, he likes a lot of attention. He’s pretty active.” 

It’s important to give your senior pet daily exercise and keep them on a healthy diet so they stay within an appropriate weight range for their size. You can exercise your pet by going on walks, playing with toys, or going to the dog park. Just be sure not to overexert them.

“Pet obesity is a real problem,” Horowitz said. “You do not want your senior pet to get overweight. It really impacts any arthritis or joint issues or ligament issues that could crop up.”

It’s common for senior pets to have certain quirks and habits that they’ve developed over the years, and like older humans, they tend to get set in their ways. This can result in a stubborn, less trainable pet.

“My senior dog, when he wants to stop and smell something, he will brace his front legs out and refuse to move, and there’s not a whole lot I can do about it,” Horowitz said. “Now, he’s a very well-trained dog, but he also knows what he wants, and I think that’s come with age.”

Other behaviors and conditions that are more common in senior pets can include sleeping a lot, snoring, achiness, crabbiness, loss of sight, loss of hearing, and loss of control over bodily functions.

What Kind of Owners and Homes Are Best for Senior Pets?

There isn't one type of senior pet owner or ideal home environment for a senior pet. Like most animals, a good fit will depend on the animal and the owner. 

Before adopting a senior pet, talk to the shelter or rescue about how your home environment might affect a senior pet. For example, if your house has a lot of stairs, you might not be a good fit for an animal with mobility issues. If the animal is blind, you’ll need to ensure your home is free of dangerous obstacles. If you have other pets, be sure to talk to the shelter about doing a compatibility test before adopting a senior pet. Sometimes, being around younger animals can even be good for a senior pet, according to Horowitz.

A lot of people would make great senior pet owners, as long as they know what they’re getting themselves into.

“I would recommend adopting a senior pet. It’s very fulfilling,” Hansen said. “It is scary to think I only have so much time with [Charles], but I'm appreciating every moment I have with him. It makes it a little more special knowing there’s not 10 years or however many.”