Animal-loving seniors get a hand to adopt and care for furry companions

Martha Rial, Post-GazetteLee Wrobleski, of Carrick, holds a 10-month-old male cat at Elder-ado Knoxville Senior Center, where the Animal Rescue League of Western Pennsylvania was offering animals for adoption.

There were the ever-popular bingo games and nutritious $1 lunches. As always there was the chance to chat with "the regulars" and maybe meet a new friend. But there was an added element one recent day at the Elder-ado Knoxville Center. There was the opportunity to talk to and cuddle with four cats and two kittens.

"Regulars" at the senior community center watched with bemusement as kittens played with tiny, plush toy mice. Many of the women asked for, and were granted, permission to hold the cats and pet them.

A brown tabby named "Bob," who earned "favorite" status during earlier visits, was allowed out of his crate because he is known to be a good boy who will stay out of the kitchen and away from the exit door. He walked around the main room, visiting only with people who welcomed his attentions.

The cats live in the East Liberty shelter of the Animal Rescue League of Western Pennsylvania. They're also up for adoption as part of the Pets for the Elderly program at that shelter. The 1-year-old program has been funded by a $25,000 grant from the Birmingham Foundation.

The Birmingham grant was coupled with a grant from the Pets for the Elderly Foundation, which enables seniors to take $50 off adoption fees. There may be no fee at all to an older person who adopts an older dog or cat.

The Birmingham grant also funded three veterinary "wellness clinics" at the Elder-ado, 320 Brownsville Road. Shelter staff provided check-ups, inoculations and medications, including de-wormers, to the pets of seniors.

A total of 55 animals were treated at clinics, said Betsy Goetz, Pets for the Elderly coordinator at ARL. The clinics were free to people older than 60.

"One man said he had been having trouble sleeping at night, worrying about how he would get inoculations for his cats," Mrs. Goetz said.

Six shelter animals have been adopted by Elder-ado clients, thanks to the Birmingham grant.

Leo Wrobleski, a retired steelworker who lives in Carrick, adopted a Siamese cat named Palace.

"She is so beautiful I had to change her name to Paris," after the Hilton heiress and reality television show actress, Mr. Wrobleski said. "I've owned three cats in my life. Paris is wonderful; she likes to sit on my lap."

Shelter workers try to match the right animal with the right potential owner, and cats are generally considered to be a better pet for seniors because they do not need to be leash-walked. However, two men have adopted dogs, and it seems to be working out well.

Richard Revis of Mount Oliver was envious of a friend who adopted a chubby, older Jack Russell terrier with the help of Mrs. Goetz.

"I asked if I could get a dog too, and I got a beautiful little white spitz named Billy," Mr. Revis said. "I love her. She is a sweet girl. She is perfect. And I don't hear some things, and she lets me know when someone is coming."

The Birmingham grant expires at the end of this month, but Animal Rescue League officials have feelers out and are optimistic that another group or foundation could provide money to continue the program, said Dan Musher, development director at the shelter. The Birmingham grant was only available to help seniors in the South Side, Mount Oliver, Hilltop and Mount Washington. The shelter would like to expand the program to a broader geographic area.

"It's a wonderful, wonderful program," said Rose Trauvetter, program director at the Elder-ado. "I get many calls from people who want to bring pets to the clinic. Pets are wonderful for older citizens."

While Mrs. Trauvetter welcomed the Animal Rescue League program with open arms, other centers were not interested, said Mrs. Goetz, who was hired, part-time, to get the program started. "One administrator said, 'We're not animal people here.' Then there are many people who wanted to adopt animals, but their landlords do not permit pets."

Other shelters

The Western Pennsylvania Humane Society on the North Side and Animal Friends in Ohio Township also offer reduced adoption fees for seniors.

The Western Pennsylvania Humane Society on the North Side and Animal Rescue League also have veterinary clinics with rates that are lower than private vets. However, many seniors don't have cars and have no way to get to the clinics.

It seems to be a little-known fact that both Port Authority and Access transportation systems allow small animals to ride if they are secured in carriers.

"We would have to be notified in advance," said Karin Hoesch, executive director of Access. "We generally have a no-pets policy, but if they have no other way to get to a vet, we try to accommodate them. Our concern would be they can't ride with passengers who have health problems," like asthma, that could be aggravated by animal fur or dander. "We don't get many requests."

"Not many people" bring cats or dogs on public transit, said Bob Grove, PAT director of media relations, but they are permitted on board in carriers. He said there have been no complaints.

Purina funding

Pet food manufacturer Purina provides Pets For People Program funds to the Western Pennsylvania Humane Society. Last year 250 seniors adopted older cats and dogs from the shelter through that program.

Purina had been reimbursing the shelter $50 per adoption, but has raised that to $75, said Gretchen Fieser, shelter director of marketing.

The Animal Friends Golden Age Retrievers program adopted out 125 dogs and 199 cats to 325 seniors -- people 55 and older -- in the first 11 months of last year, said Ann Cadman, health and wellness coordinator.

The animals are older, too, Ms. Cadman said, "It's matching seniors with seniors."

Animal Friends has 80 volunteers who participate with their well-trained dogs in the Pet Assisted Therapy program. The dogs and handlers visit 60 facilities, many of them nursing homes.

A new program, aimed at seniors but open to all, brings speakers and visitors to the new shelter facility in Ohio Township. Cost is $10 per session or $20 for three sessions for people over 55. Programs are from 1 to 3 p.m., with time to stroll the wooded walking trails around the shelter. Scheduled are:

On June 19, Fiona Fisher of The Rachel Carson Institute will talk about safe lawn care products for pets.

On July 17, staff from the Pennsylvania Resources Council will speak about common household chemicals that are a hazard to pets and people.

On Aug. 14, Marilyn Lynch of UPMC will speak about companion animals in senior living facilities.

Correction/Clarification: (Published May 18, 2006) The Animal Friends shelter in Ohio Township does not have a veterinary clinic that is open to the public, as was incorrectly reported in this story on seniors and pets as originally published in May 17, 2006 editions. On-staff veterinarians provide services only for shelter animals.

Linda Wilson Fuoco can be reached at or 412-263-3064.