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An 81-year-old hoped to adopt a puppy but was refused. Is that age discrimination?

Q. My 81-year-old friend went to an animal shelter to adopt a puppy and was refused because of her age. The shelter thinks she will not live long enough to care for the puppy as it matures. Her claim is age discrimination. Do you think there are some legitimate reasons for the refusal? S.N.

Let’s begin with some definitions. According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, age discrimination involves treating an applicant or employee less favorably because of his or her age. A puppy does not qualify. However, the term “ageism” brings in another perspective. It “refers to the stereotypes (how we think), prejudice (how we feel) and discrimination (how we act) towards others or oneself based on age,” according to the World Health Organization.

Although the situation you describe may be one of ageism, there are some nuances here. California has pet adoption requirements. Among them are that the individual must be 18 years or older and that “the adoption center has a right to turn away anyone who isn’t deemed fit for adoption.”

The question is how to determine if someone is fit.

Stanley Coren, psychology professor emeritus at the University of British Columbia who is known for his books on dogs, dog history and more, argues that denying an older adult a companion pet (including puppies and kittens) is “without much merit.” He writes that we should not assume that older people are too fragile or disorganized. This description could also apply to those in mid-life who are advancing their careers and busy with family demands causing them to be too distracted or even disorganized to care for a dog at any age.

Coren questions how to determine if a person is too old. At age 65, life expectancy is age 83. At age 70 it’s age 85 and at age 80 it’s 88.5 years. Note these are averages only and everyone ages differently and at different rates.

Here are some considerations in adopting a puppy in later life, as suggested by Baxter Senior Living:

Puppies are not cheap. In addition to the initial cost, there are shots, food, vet visits, toys and even obedience training.

They require energy and stamina. There may be days or weeks of interrupted sleep, required puppy supervision to avoid this new companion from chewing on your furniture or shoes, being able to chase your puppy as it runs out the front door or just cleaning up after an in-door accident. Puppies are rambunctious and require vigilance and attention.

The environment counts. A senior living community or apartment may or may not be pet-friendly. If planning to move to such a community, check if dogs are allowed.

Your availability. Determine if there is someone who can care for the puppy if you are away for an extended period of time. Travel and an extended social life might have to be put on hold or modified.

Now, to the benefits:

Puppies boost the health of older adults. The Mayo Clinic reports that owning a dog in particular can improve heart health, mood and diet of older people. Owners are more social, report better sleep, and reduced pain and stress. The hard work in the early days of puppy raising can pay off by enhancing one’s long-term health and well-being.

Puppies are motivators for exercise. Having a puppy gives you a reason to exercise. They need to expend their energy, explore the outdoors, get used to a leash and need to go outdoors to take care of their business. All of this can keep one moving.

Puppies provide a purpose in later life. Without a job and children away, a common complaint among older adults is having a sense of purpose. Caring for and being responsible for a puppy can fill the void while bringing lots of joy and satisfaction watching the puppy grow into a mature, obedient and loving dog. They also counteract loneliness.

A puppy offers more years of companionship. Having an older dog often means having less time together. A puppy can provide 10 or more years of companionship.

A missing fact – We do not know if the shelter asked for the name of a person to care for the puppy if needed. If the prospective puppy owner refused and subsequently was denied adopting the puppy, that refusal may be justified. And what age should be necessary? My guess is at age 80, but we know that everyone ages differently.

One last thought: Did your friend consider adopting an older pet? Many are in need of loving homes, too.

Thank you S.N. for your good question. Know that an act of kindness a day – to an animal, person or cause – will make for a better world.

Helen Dennis is a nationally recognized leader on issues of aging and the new retirement with academic, corporate and nonprofit experience. Contact Helen with your questions and comments at Visit Helen at and follow her on


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