They say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, which may be true: but you can give them hope for a better life.
For the past three decades, Sherry Lynn Polvinale and her husband have made it their mission to give older and impaired dogs a place to live out their golden years surrounded by cuddles, treats and playtime.
“I decided to only rescue senior dogs and cats, and and love them to the end of their lifetime,” Polvinale said. On any given day, as many as 30 dogs and cats can be found in her Gaithersburg, Maryland “pet retirement home.”
What started out as something of a personal mission while her husband was still alive turned into a full-fledged lifetime commitment when they officially founded the House With A Heart Senior Pet Sanctuary in 2006.
“I was having lunch with two friends and the question on the table was ‘If money was not a problem, what would you do with your life?’” Polvinale said. “I knew immediately that I would want to care for senior dogs and cats and give them dignity and love and the best medical care possible until their last day.”
Today, more than 50 volunteers help Polvinale through her typical 18 to 20 hour days full of caring for animals with failing organs, creaking bodies, and doggie dementia, many of whom have been abandoned by people who could no longer care for their aging critters.
The house she shared with her late husband has added new features in its new role — a climate-controlled “Potty Patio” protects frail pets from harsh weather as they do their business, and a “Rascal Room” gives the noisiest residents a place to bark to their heart’s content.
New arrivals get a complete medical work-up, often involving visits to a cardiologist, eye and dental specialists, and other veterinary specialists. Then, it’s good food and lots of love from Polvinale and the volunteers. She says the transformation can be “phenomenal.” These pups may have been counted down, but the founder and her volunteers never count them out.
“One of our greatest fulfillments is to watch a resident who came in looking like they don’t have long to live change like a caterpillar into a beautiful butterfly,” she said. “All it takes it a little love, good medical care, food, grooming and lots of attention.”
Not all the pets are elderly; some are young with serious health problems. Piper the beagle was just six-months-old and wasn’t expected to live much longer when she arrived, but HWAH’s supporters raised $15,000 for the little dog’s much-needed liver treatment.
“Piper is a young pup,” Polvinale said. “She is now a bit over a year old, and the source of joy and laughter every day. She may not live as long as ‘normal’ for a Beagle, but every day with her is a gift.”
Polvinale isn’t just changing lives of dogs and cats, she’s inspired others to provide love and care for senior animals. The HWAH blog features dozens of personal stories people share about the senior animals they’ve adopted, and how they’ve supported the organization in return.
“I started out making blankets, wanting to make 40 and have now donated 210,” Christine F. wrote. She’s been inspired by HWAH to volunteer with a senior dog rescue in San Francisco and adopt a 13-year-old dog of her own.
Another HWAH supporter identified only as Bianca wrote about her family adopting Nancy, a 12-to-16-year-old blind and deaf Chihuahua.
“I cannot tell you how many people said to us, ‘Why? Why did you get her? She’s just gonna die soon!’” Bianca wrote.
“They don’t understand. Nancy deserves to be loved and held and fed chicken and cuddled and have her enormous ears rubbed and whatever else she wants.”
Polvinale’s work is as much about changing peoples’ attitudes about senior animals as it is giving them a happy life in their twilight years.
“If I could have one of my dreams come true, it would be that we could start a movement of animal-loving people that would, at least once in their lifetime, commit to adopting and loving an ‘end of life’ senior dog or cat and making their last months or years special and happy.”
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