BY ANNA McHUGH

Old animals are the last to be adopted from shelters, if at all, and the first to be euthanised because they’re homeless – even if they may live a good few more years.

My parents both lost their fathers when they were very young, so I never had grandfathers. But life made up for it by giving me two stellar grandmothers. Both parents reminded me that their mothers weren’t at all like that when they were little, and that old age had mellowed them considerably. But I didn’t care. My two grandmothers were my own personal fan club, and I am easily the richer for it.

Neither woman was perfect: one had an appalling temper and threw hysterics in the dining room. She stamped and wailed and made the sideboard full of wedding china dance an uneasy fandango until one day the whole lot went eggshells.

The other had more enthusiasm than aptitude for cooking (chicken a la banana, anyone?) and knitted me mohair jumpers which were frequently too small for my chubby self. But they had both suffered widowhood and then worked very hard to support children through private schooling, university, and on into their own parenthood. When they were old, they had every right to put their feet up and be good to themselves, but they threw their energy and a prodigious capacity for love into their grandchildren.

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Old pets are like this. They often get a bad rap: old dogs smell, are grumpy, diabetic, or can’t do much. Old cats smell, sleep, and have short tempers. Old animals are the last to be adopted from shelters, if at all, and the first to be euthanised because they’re homeless – even if they may live a good few more years. Nobody goes ‘awwww…’ at them or tries to pat them; they’re as far removed from a cuddly puppy as my grandmother’s nut-and-cranberry (jam) roast was from a normal dinner. But senior pets have a lot of value.

One photographer who recognises the value of senior pets is Pete Thorne. The Old Faithful Photo Project is Thorne’s loving document of the value and attraction of older, uglier, wiser, and more faithful dogs. Thorne’s work has been featured in all kinds of media, and the adjectives chosen to describe his photos remind us of the value of an older animal: soulful, regal, wise, gentle all come to mind.

The way we treat older people is the way we’re likely to be treated ourselves; and the way we treat older animals reflects our deeper attitudes to ageing, loss of self-sufficiency, physical attraction, loyalty, and character.

Sometimes Thorne photographs dogs who have lived with their human companions for many years, and it’s clear that these have had more than an owner/pet relationship. For many of the older people who bring their dogs to be photographed, the dogs have been a constant in times of bereavement, illness, and distress. For dogs who don’t have a home, a beautiful photo is often a great advertisement for the shelters and pet-rescues which house them.

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The way we treat older people is the way we’re likely to be treated ourselves; and the way we treat older animals reflects our deeper attitudes to ageing, loss of self-sufficiency, physical attraction, loyalty, and character. If children (and adults too) get frustrated or neglectful of a senior pet, they’re probably dismissive of senior humans. When we unravel that thinking, it’s pretty clear that people who are neglectful or dismissive of the old are likely only to value what’s new, young, shiny, and impressionable.

It also means that people miss out on sharing those experiences unique to age and seniority: hearing stories, experiencing a settled pace and attitude to events, finding beauty in imperfection, observing the resilience of age, and the wisdom of character. All of these qualities can, and should, be found in senior pets.

Building a good relationship with older animals

It’s worth considering how to have a good relationship with an older animal, because there are more of them than ever before. As veterinary medicine improves, animals live longer. Age-related health problems will still crop up, but by knocking your own pace back a bit, there’s no reason why you can’t have a really satisfying relationship with an older animal. This includes fostering or adopting older animals; don’t automatically dismiss them in pet rescues or shelters in favour of the cute babies. The Seattle Vet Association points out that the values of taking on an older animal include:

  • A more laid-back lifestyle
  • Fewer demands
  • The wisdom of the ages
  • A distinguished look
  • They may be just like you!

The same goes for older humans too – some of your best relationships might come from a new friendship with an older person. Who knows – maybe you could put a senior human together with a senior pet!

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