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They deserve love!’ Last-chance pets – and the people who rescue them

They deserve love!’ Last-chance pets – and the people who rescue them

Shelters are full of old, unwanted animals no one wants. Or almost no one ... Here are the heroes giving cats and dogs their final homes

  In a car on the way back from an animal shelter, with a 12-year-old chihuahua on his lap, Steve Greig felt peace. For months, since the death of his dog, Wolfgang, he had been inconsolable. “I couldn’t make sense of it,” he says. Wolfgang had been hit by a car. Greig had the idea that he could adopt a dog that nobody else wanted, to give an animal a last chance of a loving home. The chihuahua, whom he named Eeyore, was the oldest dog in the shelter and had a heart murmur and four bad knees. Eeyore spent that car journey looking out of the window, tail wagging. “It was not a no-kill shelter, so his future didn’t look that good, but he had a new lease on life,” says Greig. “I’ll never forget it. It felt like Wolfgang had a hand in letting this dog live and it was exactly what I needed.”

It was so rewarding that he soon adopted another old dog – “and one turned into another”. He now has 11. Every so often, a shelter calls him with news of a dog that might be put down and he can’t resist. “The problem with seniors in shelters is they’re the last that are looked at. If you have a senior with health problems, they’re the last of the last.” Greig lives in Colorado, but most of his dogs have been rescued from other states – from “high-kill shelters” where dogs who are elderly, disabled or can’t find homes are euthanised.

Being older – the dogs, not Greig, although he recently retired as an accountant – means they are easier to handle, he says. “It’s not like I’ve got 11 puppies running around. They, like myself, love a routine.” The oldest is 19 and the youngest is eight, but since she is an Irish wolfhound it is as though she were a centenarian. Greig gets up early, takes them out – five can walk without problems; the others usually sit in a wagon – then back for medication and breakfast. Some need more care – one of his dogs is diabetic and has stomach problems. This means boiled fish for his meals and insulin at the same time each day. “I have to plan around that. Others are on special diets as well. A couple are blind, so they won’t go out by themselves; I have to place them outside and bring them in.” Sometimes, he says with an affectionate laugh, they get lost.

Six of Steve Greig’s dogs on a chair
One of Steve Greig’s dogs sitting on a chair wearing dark sunglasses
One of Steve Greig’s dogs sitting on a sofa wearing a superman outfitSteve Greig’s dogs in all their glory.
  • These are last-chance pets – animals who wait for many months to find new homes, or live out their final days in shelters. Sometimes, an animal’s needs are so great that it is almost impossible to find a home. Tom Whiteside at Doris Banham Dog Rescue in Nottinghamshire says they have taken dogs from puppy farms and dogs that have been used for fighting. “We’ve had dogs thrown out of vans, cars. We take in anything that’s been hurt, mentally or physically, and it’s our job to rehabilitate them. A lot of the time, it’s a success, but there are some dogs who are so mentally scarred by what they’ve been put through that they will never change.”

Sometimes, Whiteside is called by vets with a dog whose owner wants it put to sleep, or by the owners themselves. “Members of the public say: ‘I’ve got this dog and it’s being put to sleep,’ and if it’s a stupid reason we say: ‘Hold on a minute, let’s see what we can do first.’” In its latest annual survey of strays, for 2021-22, the Dogs Trust found that 240 dogs were put to sleep by the 218 local authorities who responded. Four of these were because they were banned under the Dangerous Dogs Act. The rest were for reasons of health or behaviour. Occasionally, Whiteside gets dogs from local authorities that can be rehabilitated, or are at least allowed to live at the centre.

Hélène Svinos rescued her dog Maz, a cross, from Afghanistan. He had been spotted in Mazar-i-Sharif by a friend, a vet visiting the city, who thought he had been hit by a car. Maz is 13 and has had two legs amputated. “Yesterday was not a good day – he didn’t want to walk – so you just have to roll with it, like you would with any dog,” she says.

She juggles looking after Maz and her five other dogs with her job as an A&E doctor in Manchester. Another two crossbreeds are also disabled – Bambi, who had been found on the street in Romania and doesn’t have the use of his back legs, and Inka, who is blind. She also has three springer spaniels.

Hélène Svinos’s dogs Maz (left) and Bambi
  • Hélène Svinos’s dogs Maz (left) and Bambi.

The dogs with higher needs are more work in some ways – there are incontinence problems, for instance – but easier in others. Unlike her spaniels, they can’t climb up on the kitchen counters or open the fridge. “There are so many disabled dogs that need homes,” she says. “People will criticise a rescue centre for putting to sleep a really disabled dog, but they’re not offering them a home. I just think it’s a shame, because people miss out on a fabulous dog. There’s no reason you can’t do everything with them.” She has a pushchair for the dogs who can’t walk far; they climb hills and go to the beach. “It is possible.”

Her dogs are inspirational, she says. “When you see a two-legged dog really embracing life, you can’t really feel sorry for yourself. Inka was found on a river as a two-week-old puppy, with her head on a piece of wood, trying to stay afloat. The zest for life is just phenomenal.”

The RSPCA runs the Elderly Animal Rehoming Scheme (yes, Ears), which was set up because older pets were taking longer to rehome than younger ones. The scheme helps with, among other things, medical bills. Moore finds that people who have been through the scheme often come back for another older pet. “I think there must be a special bond – ‘I’m going to look after you for your final years’ – and these animals know and appreciate that.” Anyway, says Moore, there are many benefits to an older cat or dog: “Someone might be looking for companionship that’s not too demanding.”

Helene Svinos with her dog Maz
  • Svinos with Maz.

This isn’t to say older pets are guaranteed to slow down. Chasing after her 18-year-old dog, Sue Lewis found herself laughing. “We couldn’t catch him up,” she says. “I couldn’t believe we’d got this old dog and were running after him.” Teddy – a border collie mixed with a bit of corgi, thinks Lewis – may have short legs, but he is still speedy.

Teddy and Sheba, a rough collie of similar age, have been with Lewis for just over a year. She had been working as a volunteer at the Dogs Trust when the pair came in after their owner died. When there wasn’t much interest in adopting them, and talk of splitting them up to rehome them separately, Lewis thought: “Absolutely not. They need to stay together, so home they came with me … they have brought us so much joy.”

A short way away, in the same part of the West Midlands, Libby, a 16-year-old jack russell, is pottering around the vicarage she moved into two years ago with her new owner, Alan Williams. Williams has adopted several old dogs in the past few years. “It just seems the right thing to do when a dog’s been on the shelf for a while and nobody’s necessarily that interested,” he says.

Sue Lewis with her husband, Pete, and Sheba (right) and TeddySue Lewis with her husband, Pete, and Sheba (right) and Teddy. Photograph: Fabio De Paola/The Guardian
  • Williams has found older dogs are a much better fit for his lifestyle. “When you get a dog who is 14 or 15, they’re already trained in their ways, a bit like us human beings.” Libby, who came from the animal welfare charity Blue Cross, knows what she wants. “We offer her something to eat that may be not terribly attractive and she will make her feelings known – she will go to her other bowl and tap on that.” Some days, she will walk for an hour. Other days, she will get to the end of the drive and make it clear she is not going to go any further.

Of the 152 cats at the Cats Protection centre in Derby, 23 are 11 or older. “I think people assume that they’re not going to have as long with them, or that they’re going to come with health issues, or that they won’t be as much fun around the house,” says Rachel Harris, the centre’s deputy manager. This can be a benefit if you have ever had a kitten who enjoyed shredding curtains or digging up house plants, she says: “It’s that satisfaction of giving a good retirement home to a cat who needs somewhere to curl up and feel loved and warm.”

In the past 30 years, Pete Crockett has adopted seven older cats. He has had Tia, who is about 15, for nine months. He thinks that animals in shelters, however well they are looked after, “lose a bit of spirit”. Crockett likes older cats: “They’re set in their routine. They know how to live with humans. Their roaming days are largely over and you don’t get many rodent surprises.” His cats can need extra care and nurturing – one had been injected with recreational drugs by the previous owner – “but most have been surprisingly straightforward”. They might need a fenced area of the garden if their eyesight has started to deteriorate, or a pile of books to help them up to a favourite chair. “I’m quite happy to have a cat that other people don’t want,” he says.

Annemarie Kennedy’s dog, Charlie
  • Annemarie Kennedy’s dog, Charlie.

Annemarie Kennedy, heartbroken after the death of her dog, didn’t want another, but she kept seeing photographs of Charlie, a deaf and toothless 15-year-old jack russell, popping up on social media. “He had been very badly treated and had pancreatitis. I thought: all that dog needs is a comfy bed and somebody to scratch his ears for a while, he’s not got long to go.”

That was a year ago. “He runs in the garden like he’s six, not 16, so I think we’ll have him for a while longer yet,” she says. It can be hard work – she has to get up with Charlie four times in the night to allow him to pee. “He can’t see to go downstairs by himself. He’ll go into the garden, but you have to wait at the door for him. If you close the door, he thinks he’s been put out and it really distresses him, so you have to stand with the door open. You’re there at four o’clock in the morning in the wind and rain thinking: why did I do this?”

Pete Crockett’s cat, Tia
  • Pete Crockett’s cat, Tia.

Because he has no teeth, finding food for him was tricky, but they discovered he loves porridge. Charlie, who is listening, perks up when he hears Kennedy say the word.

Although his taste in food is relatively cheap, “he has been quite expensive, but I knew that when I took him on”, says Kennedy. “You can’t get insurance, so you just have to grit your teeth and pay your vet bills. But when you see him doing zoomies round the garden, and he’s so happy, his tail’s wagging and he’s having the time of his life, it’s definitely worth it.”

Kennedy has found it rewarding to see Charlie relaxed and safe: “We don’t know all the things that happened to him, but we do know that he’s scared of men and loud noises and he doesn’t like to be on his own. You think: what horrible things happened to you? They’re never going to happen to you again.”

Alan Williams with his dog Libby
  • Alan Williams with Libby. Photograph: Martin Phelps

As for the inevitable, everyone goes into it knowing this. “It’s just the idea that you’ve made a difference for a short time to an animal’s life,” says Kennedy. Williams has no idea how long Libby has left, “but every day is a delight”. Crockett says he will mope around for a while once Tia goes, “then reach the conclusion there’s another poor old cat out there who needs a home”. Lewis thinks that, for Sheba and Teddy, “whatever time they’ve got left, they deserve some love”.

For Greig, going through mourning periods fairly regularly has given him an appreciation for life. “I don’t take things for granted. I constantly see how fleeting life is. I see them happy and doing well, usually much better than when they came in, and I feel like I’ve given them the best of whatever time they have left. I don’t mean to say that it’s not hard, but I comfort myself knowing how their lives could have been.”

His last-chance dogs have taught him a great lesson, he says. “The advice I always have if you want to make your life better? Realise that it’s not about you. The people I have seen that are most unhappy think everything is about them. Once you realise that almost everything isn’t, which is what these dogs have taught me, life is so good.”

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