Matching Pets with Senior Citizens

Barb Cathey, President and Founder


A winning program in the 2007 Maddies Fund Marketing Competition submitted by Pets for Seniors, Edwards, Ill.

Since our first match between a senior dog and a senior citizen in August of 1999, Pets for Seniors has rescued over 700 older dogs and cats from euthanasia at Central Illinois animal control facilities and found them homes, most with senior citizens who had given up having companion animals despite the proven physical and emotional benefits.

We have received many inquiries from shelters across the country who have tried offering an adoption fee discount, or even waived the fee if a senior citizen would adopt one of their older animals. They say that they have spread the word through many media outlets but with little success. How has the Pets for Seniors program become so successful?


When we decided to target a segment of the population who had given up having pets, we first had to find out why. We found that it wasnt all about money after all, someone who couldnt afford to pay even a fraction of an adoption fee probably couldnt really afford to properly care for a pet. Some of the senior citizens would never be receptive to owning a pet again they wanted to spend their time traveling, or they had moved to a place that didnt allow pets, or maybe they were actually happy to be rid of the responsibility. We would not force an animal on a person who really didnt want one. However, we knew from our conversations that there was a large population of seniors who missed having a pet and would love to be able to have one again but.

How would they even begin to find a pet? They didnt want to visit a shelter, it made them sad. What if they got one and it didnt work out? They wouldnt want to return it to a shelter; it might be euthanized. What if it made their life miserable? What would they do?

The initial expense is so high. Its not just the adoption fee or selling price, but what about the vet visit to get all the rest of the vet work done? Theres also the beginning supplies: food, a collar and leash, a bed, toys, etc.

What if they couldnt get it to a vet or a groomer? Some seniors had given up having a pet because they no longer drove; some anticipated the day that they may have to give up their car.

What if they had to spend time in a hospital or nursing home? Some stays can last weeks or even months. They wouldnt know what to do with their pet. Paying board could cost a fortune if the stay was prolonged.

What if their pet needed emergency surgery or veterinarian care? What if they didnt have the money at the time? Or even if they could pay for it, what if it needed after care that they couldnt provide?

What if they reached a point where they could no longer care for the animal? What would happen to it? Would it have to go to an animal control or be euthanized?

Our marketing plan is simple: We back up the adoption of our older pets by offering solutions for the problems that keep senior citizens from having pets. If a senior citizen 60 years or older (55 or older if disabled) wants to adopt a dog or cat, our organization:

  1. Will help them find a compatible pet from our shelter or another. When we began the organization in 1999, we found all our animals at other shelters. We would visit shelters and become familiar with their older or handicapped pets. When a senior was interested, we would take several compatible choices to their home for what we called an interview. If they met one that they wanted to adopt, we would pay most of the adoption fee, bathe or groom the animal, take it to the vet for any remaining vet work it might need, and deliver it to their home.

    In 2003 we received a grant from Daras Canine Foundation that became the seed money to construct a shelter. This building is small, but it houses up to 12 dogs and numerous cageless cats. It features an isolation room with proper exhaust for new or sick animals, an outside cat porch and an exercise yard for the dogs. Volunteers come daily to walk the dogs. Many of these volunteers are from the local RSVP (Retired Senior Volunteer Program, where senior citizens are the volunteers). The benefit of this building is that it allows us time to evaluate the animals so that we can determine if a match will be compatible, or if the animal has the qualities that most seniors want in their pet, such as being calm and housebroken. The animals that flunk out of our PFS program are adopted to qualifying non-seniors.

    We are proud of the fact that we still work with other shelters. We rescue animals from animal controls all over Illinois and surrounding states. These are animals that have been offered for adoption by the facility, but have been passed over, usually because of their age or a handicap. We will sponsor the adoption of older animals from other shelters to senior citizens by paying most of the adoption fee and offering the adopter the same services offered to the animals adopted from our shelter. Among the shelters that we work with are: Peoria Animal Welfare Shelter (Peoria, IL), TAPS No-Kill Shelter (Pekin, IL), The ARK (Lacon, IL), and Foster Pet Outreach (Peoria, IL). We have taken older animals from animal control organizations which have included: Peoria Animal Welfare Shelter (Peoria, IL), Tazewell County Animal Control (Tremont, IL), McClean County Animal Control (Bloomington, IL), Warren County Animal Control (Monmouth, IL), Chicago Animal Care and Control, Mason County Animal Control (Decatur, IL) and many more.

    If an animal is chosen and it doesnt work out, we will always take the animal back and either refund the seniors portion of the adoption fee or let them try a different animal. The animal returned is not euthanized and we find it a more compatible home.

    In addition to offering a 50% discount off the adoption fee for pets in our shelter, we will pay at least 50% of another shelters adoption fee. We also provide start-up supplies that have been donated to us for that purpose. These include collars and leashes, beds, dog coats, toys, litter boxes and litter, food bowls and food.

  2. Makes sure that the animal is spayed or neutered, given all vaccinations, wormed, given flea protection, tested for heartworms/or Feline Leukemia/FIV, micro-chipped, and given a dental, if needed. The adopter doesnt need to pay for any initial vet costs. Pets adopted from other shelters are eligible for any of the services mentioned above that the shelter they have come from may not do.
  3. If needed, provides free transportation to take the pet to a veterinarian (of the adopters choice) or a groomer. We will even give a bath or toe nail trim and ear cleaning for a small donation or no fee. A few senior adopters rely on us to drop off food or kitty litter periodically because they dont drive.
  4. If an adopter needs to spend time in a hospital or nursing home, we will take care of their pet at no charge until they are home and able to take it back. We have taken care of dozens of adopted pets under these circumstances, including one that stayed with us almost 11 months and another for four months. Most stays average a few days to two weeks and we have a system in place to keep an animal from ending up in a permanent state of limbo.
  5. We have started an emergency fund for unexpected veterinary emergencies. Although we are not yet able to help enough seniors to make this fund widely known, we hope that someday we are able to give no interest loans for medical pet emergencies allowing the senior to pay it back at a rate they can easily afford.

    We are available to help with a pets aftercare if needed. In one case we took care of a dog for two months following cruciate surgery. The care after the surgery required the dog to be kept quiet and for to be carried outside to relieve itself. The owner could not manage this and also had stairs that the dog would have to have gone up and down.

  6. If an adopter can no longer take care of its pet, permanently enters a nursing home or passes away, we will always take the pet back, even if it was adopted from another shelter. Because we are making age-compatible matches, this has not often happened. When it has, we have been able to readopt the pet. Only two have had to be euthanized because of terminal health conditions.

Other: We are available to help in any way we can. We have stood in for owners who could not face being present for a pets euthanasia, kissing it good-bye and stroking its head. If an owner could not afford cremation through a vets office, we have buried it near the shelter in the country by the pine trees.

We have searched for lost pets. Weve crawled around in dirty attics to find a newly adopted cat that went into hiding. Weve been able to negotiate some discounts at veterinarians for our senior adopters. All we ask for in return is that the senior citizen adopt an older or handicapped dog or cat.

This is our successful marketing plan.

The Maddies Fund Marketing Competition was for members, and the purpose was to find effective marketing strategies for adopting hard to place dogs and cats.

The Maddie’s Fund mission and purpose is to help the nation’s most needy dogs and cats that, for one reason or another, have ended up in animal shelters. Established in 1999, the foundation awards millions of dollars through grants to animal welfare coalitions to end the killing of healthy and treatable shelter dogs and cats.