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Pets sign up for college, and aging owners relax


COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Rusty the llama has a place in line for a new home among the "Aggie" students.

He's enrolled with 28 dogs, 15 cats and a pony named Cocoa under a Texas A&M; University program to care for the animals at the behest of their owners.

The new home, operated by the university's College of Veterinary Medicine, is set up not only to care for the pets but also to study how the animals age and how they bond with people.

The Stevenson Animal Companion Life-Care Center home, which opened in March using private donations, is touted by its directors as unique among university settings.

The center's goals are to reassure aging pet owners that their animals will be provided for when they can no longer manage them and to share its research with other veterinary colleges.

"We want to learn more about a population of animals about which we know too little," said Dr. John A. Shadduck, dean of the College of Veterinary Medicine. "Observation of the aging process in animals should provide information about geriatric problems in both man and animals."

Under the program, a pet owner arranges to have his animals move to the center, where they will remain under a veterinarian's care.

Through an endowment -- the amount of which varies -- a person enrolls his pet and transfers ownership to the center after he can no longer care for the pet or when he dies.

"In my 40 years as a veterinarian, I have met many elderly people who are concerned about what will happen to their pets after they've gone," said Dr. E. W. "Ned" Ellett, director of the center and professor emeritus at the veterinary college. "Some elderly folks are reluctant to get a pet because they're afraid they might outlive them."

None of the animals is in residence yet, but the center can accommodate up to 60 animals at one time, officials said.

A pet owner must agree to several requirements before an animal is admitted. Besides providing the animal's full medical history, the owner must agree to transfer ownership, enroll the animal in the center's wellness and behavior program and provide an endowment to the college.

Dr. Ellett said the endowments set up so far had amounted to $25,000 for a dog or a cat and $50,000 for a horse or a llama. The center's operating costs are paid with the interest accrued from the endowments.

"The furnishings are like what you'd expect to see in a home where people live," Dr. Ellett said. "We want to maintain these animals in conditions as much like their previous homes as possible."

Inside the center, there is room for about 60 animals, and at least four horses can fit comfortably in a fenced area behind the center. Dr. Ellett said expansion was planned if enrollment required it.

In the visiting area and playroom, there are two bay windows with seating areas for dogs and cats to use and plush chairs and couches for people to use when visiting with the animals. One couch has an embroidered pillow that reads: "Your dog loves you when nobody else does."

The dogs' sleeping area is decorated with photographs of different types of dogs and plenty of chew toys, as well as a self-feeding dish filled with biscuits.

The cat room is painted in a soft pastel color and filled with scratching posts, cat toys and places for cats to perch in every window -- to get a bird's-eye view of the trees.

Dr. Ellett said routine data collected during the checkups could reveal much about the aging process.

The animals will not be used for experiments of any kind, he said.

Dr. Sally Knight, associate director of the center in charge of the behavioral program, said the center would give the animals as much attention as they got at home.

She said she planned to have elderly people living in retirement homes, students and volunteers come visit with the animals, which would also provide her the opportunity to observe how the animals react to visitors.

"It's tough to leave your best friend," Dr. Ellett said. "And to many people, their pets are more to them than that."

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