HOUSTON — The small, mixed-breed dog, no longer wanted by its owners, was tossed from a moving car, rolling over and over until it landed in a crumpled heap of dirt and matted hair.
A person witnessing the cruel abandonment retrieved the gray and white mutt and took it to the Houston Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. There, sitting in a kennel awaiting medical treatment, the dog caught the eye of Bloyce and Barbara Tarpley.
The recently retired couple had moved south from Oklahoma to be closer to their daughter and grandchildren. But with no work, they found themselves increasingly lonely at home.
The lonely dog and the lonely couple were a perfect match. The Pekingese-poodle mix, now known as Daisy, does tricks on command, is kept spotlessly clean and sleeps on the Tarpleys' bed.
New Joy in Their Lives
The Tarpleys have new joy in their lives, thanks to a program created to unite dogs and cats with the elderly.
"We felt like we needed something else in our lives," Barbara Tarpley said.
"I think everybody needs something to love. She's with us all the time. She really was the answer to us."
The Purina Pets for People Program is now available to people over 60 years old at 106 shelters in 90 cities throughout the United States. It began as a program of the Humane Society of Missouri in St. Louis three years ago, with the Ralston Purina Co. eventually picking up sponsorship.
"The program was very successful on two counts," said Kathryn Wright, a Humane Society worker who now is executive director of Pets for People. "The shelter's adoption rate increased, which is important to an animal shelter considering the large numbers of homeless animals received.
"Also, it received a great deal of positive media attention, which increased adoptions and donations to the shelter. We are finding the increase in adoptions and donations to be holding true throughout the country for all participating shelters."
Under the program, specially trained employees at local animal shelters work with elderly people to select a dog or cat suited to them. The animal must be at least 1 year old.
For each animal adopted, the program pays the animal shelter $100 to cover the adoption fee and the cost of having the animal spayed or neutered. Many of the initial costs of pet ownership, such as veterinary exams and shots, a starter supply of pet food, water and food bowls, a collar and leash are also supplied.
Applicants for the program go through an orientation session on the benefits and responsibilities of pet ownership, and are evaluated on their abilities to care for and afford a pet.
At least 5,000 animals have been adopted under the Pets for People program, which is expected to donate $1 million to participating animal shelters this year.
"All the adopters add is love," says actress Audrey Meadows, chairman of the program's advisory board. "If I had to describe the Pets for People Program in one sentence, I would say it is the giving and receiving of love."
Pets for People is a vital program because of the large numbers of homeless animals and the growing number of elderly people living alone, Wright said.
"Animal shelters on a nationwide basis receive approximately 10 million homeless animals a year. Of that, 1.5 million are adopted annually," she said. "Pets for People enables shelters to increase their adoptions of these homeless animals. In particular, the program has been very successful in placing animals 1 year of age and older. Animals of that age traditionally are harder for shelters to place, versus puppies and kittens.
'A Win-Win Situation'
"Second, the senior citizen population segment in our country is the fastest growing population segment. In addition, the number of senior citizens living alone is significant--out of 26 million, 9 million live alone.
"Therefore, this matching of senior citizens in need of companionship with homeless pets is truly a win-win situation for both parties."
And, Wright said, there is growing medical evidence of the numerous benefits of pet ownership.
"Studies strongly suggest pet ownership can improve the overall mental and physical well-being of individuals of all ages, including senior citizens," she said.
Studies conducted at the University of Maryland and University of Pennsylvania in the late 1970s showed pet ownership increased a heart attack victim's chances for survival. Researchers Dr. James Lynch, Dr. Aaron Katcher and Ericka Friedman also learned the presence of a pet could significantly lower the blood pressure of a person talking to or resting next to the animal.
Perhaps the most important aspect of pet ownership for the elderly is that it gives them a feeling of purpose and responsibility -- a feeling that he or she is needed.
Studies of people who adopted pets under the program showed 97% felt happier, 76% felt safer and 75% felt healthier. Nearly 100% said their pets were good companions or friends, and 93% said they felt less lonely since adopting a pet.