SASSY: Seniors Saving Senior Dogs by Barbara Ross

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Photo courtesy of SASSY

Contributor Barbara Ross is the SASSY Program Director.

Saving Animals by Supportive Seniors and Others Young-at-Heart (SASSY) is the senior program of Great Plains SPCA in Kansas City. SASSY provides support and resources to nourish the relationship both between senior citizens and their dogs and between senior dogs and their human companions. The idea for the SASSY Program began in 2008 when a group of senior women having lunch (average age 85) were discussing the many benefits of pet ownership. They worried about their friends who had pets and were unable to care for them. The ladies recognized a need to make people more aware of available senior pets in local shelters and to address the obstacles that prevent seniors from adopting. Thus, SASSY was formed with the dual objectives of removing some of the barriers of continued companionship for adopters of senior pets and promoting pets appropriate for senior adopters. This allows seniors to lead a fuller and more productive lives, and the pets to find a permanent and loving home.

SASSY merged with Great Plains SPCA in 2011. Great Plains SPCA’s mission is to save, protect and improve the lives of animals, while strengthening the relationship between pets and their human companions. Great Plains SPCA is the most unique and comprehensive animal welfare organization in the Kansas City Metro area. The no-kill agency serves 35,000 pets annually, more than any other agency in the region. No matter what their size, shape or story, Great Plains SPCA believes all dogs and cats deserve the chance to live long, healthy lives. With the right combination of love and support, people and pets can build a bond unlike any other. In order to create a better future for pets and the people who love them, our team of experts works tirelessly to provide a full circle approach of care through comprehensive and affordable medical care, adoptions and pet reunion services, innovative community betterment programs, and more.

As the senior program for Great Plains SPCA, SASSY uses a unique approach to animal rescue that creates a win-win result for shelter pets and lonely seniors. Much has been written about the advantages of pet ownership for the elderly. Studies show that pet ownership reduces blood pressure, cholesterol, stress, depression and anxiety. Pet owning seniors thus visit the doctor less frequently. Doctors are also finding that loneliness can be the most serious disease that seniors face. The companionship of a pet can provide unconditional love, friendship and self-esteem for an elderly person. Pets also need and rely on their owners for every aspect of their care. It becomes obvious that placing a pet with a senior is good medicine!

SASSY dogs visit retirement and assisted living centers. Photo courtesy of SASSY
Despite the many benefits that come with pet companionship, seniors often reach a point where they feel that they can no longer meet the needs of their pets or feel that they cannot adopt. They might be limited in mobility, and therefore no longer able to walk or bath their pet. They may no longer have a car, which makes it difficult to get food, supplies or veterinary care. Unfortunately, many seniors feel that their only choice is to give up their pet or that adoption is not an option. This can have a catastrophic effect on their physical and mental health.

Prior to merging with Great Plains SPCA in 2011, SASSY assisted with scores of mobile adoptions and other animal-related events throughout the Kansas City community. Additionally, through SASSY, helpful resources have been made easily accessible for home-bound seniors with pets. Today, more than 220 men and women, seniors and juniors make up SASSY’s membership. SASSY members make a tax deductible membership donation of $40 per year and volunteer to support the program through three major initiatives:

For many seniors, their pet is their lifeline. When unable to provide nutritional dog food for their companion, they will share their own meal with their pet. The dog eats inappropriate food and the human does not get the needed nutrition. SASSY helps seniors obtain pet food, both physically and financially. SASSY’s partners, such as Meals-On-Wheels and other community programs, deliver pre-packaged single-meal pet food packets to qualified seniors, ensuring that pets receive their much needed meals. The individual meals are prepared by SASSY volunteers.
SASSY realizes the financial burden that pet medical emergencies can cause, especially for seniors on a fixed income. Many have budgeted for the maintenance medical care (shots, etc.) of their pet but have not allowed for emergencies. To assist with these situations, SASSYfund was created in 2010. Recipients of these funds are identified by a Great Plains SPCA veterinarian as responsible senior pet owners. The senior is not faced with relinquishing their companion and the pet receives needed medical care. 
Although many retirement centers allow residents to have small dogs, many seniors have to give up their pets when they move. Because we know that “once a dog lover, always a dog lover”, SASSYangels was created.  SASSY volunteers take senior dogs on regular visits to retirement and assisted living centers. While the dog greets and sits with the residents, the volunteer reads pet stories and re-lives with residents their experiences with companion animals. Residents with pets bring them to the meetings and can share resources they might need. In one instance, a resident that had not spoken for two years reached down to a dog and said very clearly, “Hello doggie.”

SASSY volunteers work to keep dogs in the homes of senior citizens by providing access to resources such as mobile veterinary care, dog walkers, food delivery and mobile grooming. This helps maintain the continuing companionship and keeps the animals out of shelters.

Unfortunately, many older dogs still arrive at Great Plains SPCA through owner surrenders, animal control, and transfers from high-kill municipal shelters. Each animal that comes to Great Plains SPCA receives a complete physical and assessment from one of our veterinarians before becoming eligible for adoption. These wonderful dogs often have health challenges that can serve as a barrier to adoption. Conditions can include: obesity; dental, skin or eye disease; arthritis; heartworm and other bodily function limitations. 

Our generous partnership with The Grey Muzzle Organization allows the Great Plains SPCA veterinary team to address health issues with senior dogs before they are offered to the community for adoption. In 2013/2014, procedures provided by the grant included:

  • Dental cleaning and extractions
  • Removal of masses
  • Radiology
  • Urinalysis
  • Total body function blood work
  • Cardiology consult
  • Heartworm treatment
  • Injections and medications

Beau. Photo courtesy of SASSY
Once ready for adoption, the SASSY program promotes the senior dogs and educates their new owners about caring for a senior pet. Our goal is to get the senior dogs placed in loving homes quickly and to provide the support necessary for lasting companionship. The first year of our partnership with Grey Muzzle allowed for the treatment of eight senior dogs and decreased the average length of stay for senior dogs in the shelter.

Beau, a 10-year-old Standard Poodle, is one of our success stories:

Beau had lived with one owner all his life in a high-rise apartment building.  When his owner’s health required that she move in with her daughter in another state, Beau was suddenly without a home. When he came to Great Plains SPCA, Beau was very quiet, had bad gum disease and also needed multiple teeth extracted. He had also developed a large tumor on his tail that needed to be removed. Following oral treatment and surgery for his tail, Beau is living in a forever home with three other dogs (two 10 year olds and a 3-year-old Labrador Retriever). His owner reports that once Beau realized that he could be off-leash, he seemed to be in his second puppyhood, playing with the other dogs and wagging his tail 24/7. He especially has bonded with the young Lab and they share a bed, even though each has their own.

For more information on the SASSY program at Great Plains SPCA, contact Barbara Ross at [email protected] or visit

For information about all of the wonderful organizations that The Grey Muzzle Organization supports, see Who We Help.

The Grey Muzzle Organization improves the lives of at-risk senior dogs by providing funding and resources to animal shelters, rescue organizations, sanctuaries, and other nonprofit groups nationwide.

About the Contributor: Barbara Ross has been the SASSY Program Director since 2008 when SASSY was formed. In 2011, SASSY merged with Great Plains SPCA. Prior to SASSY, Barbara was the Director of Working Solutions Retention Specialists, a training program for all levels of staff in both not-for-profit and for-profit organizations. She has a love for senior dogs and shares her home with three of them. She says that they teach her more than she could ever teach them.