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The Fairfax County Animal Shelter is tapping the talents of the county’s growing senior citizen population and giving older adults opportunities to enjoy the companionship of animals with its new “Pets for Seniors” program.

The initiative features volunteer recruitment specifically targeted to seniors as well as adoption incentives.

“One reason we targeted seniors is because pets are good for seniors,” said Kristen Auerbach, community outreach program manager for the animal shelter.

Studies have shown that seniors who own pets tend to have better mental and physical health.

“I think I get more out of it than I give,” said Rita Altman, who has been volunteering at the shelter since 2004. “It’s like therapy for me.”

While Altman also has pets in her home, she said volunteering at the shelter offers an opportunity for those who can’t care for an animal at home to experience the benefits of spending time with companion animals.

One of the primary tasks that shelter volunteers do is socializing animals — taking them out of their enclosures for exercise and some positive human interaction.

Auerbach said the shelter is currently looking for volunteers to help in the cat room, socialize other small animals like rabbits and guinea pigs, and to walk small dogs. Volunteers can also work the front desk at the shelter and help with administrative tasks, depending on their interests and abilities, Auerbach said.

“The bottom line is that everybody’s resources are finite,” said shelter Director Tawny Hammond. “[Volunteers] allow us to take the mission beyond just the basic. They’re helping save lives, they’re helping improve the quality of life for these animals.”

The shelter is in the final stages of a major expansion that will double its size and create dual lobbies. While the shelter is expected to get some new staff positions, Hammond said the volunteer needs will increase with the size of the shelter.

“If we get our volunteer program where we want it to be, I think there is nothing we can’t do together,” Hammond said. “I think it’s going to be very powerful.”

The initial effort to recruit senior volunteers was very successful, Auerbach said, filling two volunteer orientation sessions to their 35-person capacity.

“I’ve been so inspired by the people who have reached out to volunteer,” she said. “People are bringing real skill sets that will help us operate.”

The other component of the initiative is adoption incentives for seniors who adopt pets. Every Wednesday through August, people age 55 or older who adopt a pet can have the animal spayed or neutered free of charge. Those who adopt “senior” pets, ages 7 or older, will have all adoption fees waived.

It can be harder to find homes for older pets, Auerbach said, and these pets are often a great match for older adults looking to adopt an animal.

“They are often completely trained pets and they often fit in well with a senior’s household,” she said.

The shelter also has a new adoption follow-up program that will provide support to seniors, as well as other adopters, if they have any questions or concerns following the adoption or need help finding resources for animal care.

“It’s a win-win situation both for the senior animal and the senior,” said Altman, who adopted a 15-year-old cat last year.

kschumitz@fairfaxtimes.com