LOS ANGELES -- Sunny was 16 when she was left at an animal shelter by the family she had lived with all her life. The 75-pound bulldog-pit bull mix had cancer and infected eyes, and shelter workers figured the family probably couldn't handle medical costs.
"She was so sad and depressed, lethargic, sick looking. She wouldn't even lift her head for a treat," said photographer Lori Fusaro, who was taking pictures of old dogs at the Los Angeles shelter that day in June 2012.
Those who rescue and care for old pets say it seems more are being left at shelters for health reasons and more owners are facing personal age or health problems and can't keep their pets.
Fusaro, 44, had always avoided adopting older dogs because she didn't think she could handle it when they died. Sunny changed her mind. "No old dog should be left to die alone, unloved and brokenhearted on a concrete slab in a strange place," she said.
That day, Fusaro adopted Sunny and started making plans for "Silver Hearts," a photo book of old dogs that she hopes will encourage people to consider such animals. She plans to turn proceeds over to rescue organizations that save aging dogs.
When she took Sunny home, Fusaro figured she had a couple of weeks, perhaps months at most. She never imagined Sunny would live long enough to be part of "Silver Hearts."
But Sunny rebounded and was soon eating, playing and loving trips to the beach. It's been over a year and Sunny is 17 now.
Fusaro's book is about 80 percent finished. She used shelter dogs, dogs of friends, Facebook, Sunny and her other dog Gabby.
To photograph dogs for shelters, Fusaro has to spend time with them, play with them and put them at ease, said Jan Selder, director of field operations for Los Angeles Animals Services.
If people don't get hooked on the photos, they won't come in to the shelter to see any pets, Selder said.
Abby was an old, blind cocker spaniel when animal control found her on the streets of New York seven years ago. At the shelter, she just stood in a corner and barked. She was deemed unadoptable and put on the euthanasia list. An adoption organization took her from the rescue and called foster worker Val Sorensen in Stratford, Conn.
At home, Abby stood in place and barked because she didn't know where to go. It took three weeks of bumping into walls and doors to learn her way around, find her food, how to get to the backyard and how to get petted. Sorensen said she had to remember not to leave anything in her path.
"After three weeks, she started wagging her tail. If you open a jar of peanut butter she will come running from the other room," Sorensen said.
Sorensen jokingly refers to the dog these days as Ancient Abby since she's between 16 and 17 now. She's slowly going deaf but she's yet to miss any peanut butter.
Sorensen is co-founder of Wigglebutt Warriors, a fundraiser for rescues. The group's primary fundraiser in 2014 will benefit Oldies But Goodies Cocker Spaniel Rescue in Newington, Va., which helps old and special needs cocker spaniels.
"Adopting a dog that is deaf or blind doesn't mean they won't still have a great quality of life. I wish more people would adopt older or special needs dogs," Sorensen said.
Patrice deAvila of Portand, Ore., has always adopted older and medically needy cats
Persian cats Murphy and Newton were 6 when she got them two years ago. They came from an abusive home. Murphy had half his tail cut off, which caused neurological and hip problems. Newton, a feral cat, lived behind the stove for nearly three months before he decided to come out. "We are still taking baby steps, but last week, he allowed me to pet him. I hope he can be a lap cat in six months," she said.
It's hard to say goodbye to any of them, but every once in a while, you lose a soul mate, she said. For deAvila, that was Oliver, who was with her nearly five years.
"He met me at the door every single time I came home. If I was crying, he would reach up with his paw and touch my tears. He always slept on my shoulder. He had respiratory issues and would snore and snort all the time. For a long time, I couldn't sleep because it was so quiet without him," deAvila said.
She does it because it is the right thing to do, she explained. A kitten will likely get adopted, but the older cats will be put down.
Fusaro agreed, even though the time will come soon when Sunny will break her heart. "I want her time here to be as happy as it can be. I didn't want to open my heart for that kind of pain but how much sadder and more horrible for me would it be to leave her at the shelter. It will be terrible to lose her but much worse to leave her to die alone."