Vienna resident Rita Altman spends a few days a week volunteering at the Fairfax County Animal Shelter in Fairfax. (Shamus Ian Fatzinger/Fairfax County Times)

The Fairfax County Animal Shelter is tapping the talents of the county’s growing senior citizen population and giving older adults opportunities to enjoy the companionship of animals with its new Pets for Seniors program.

The initiative features volunteer recruitment and adoption incentives specifically targeted to seniors.

“One reason we targeted seniors is because pets are good for seniors,” said Kristen Auerbach, community outreach program manager for the shelter.

Studies have shown that seniors who own pets tend to have better mental and physical health.

“I think I get more out of it than I give,” said Rita Altman, who has been volunteering at the shelter since 2004. “It’s like therapy for me.”

Altman, who has pets in her home, said volunteering at the shelter lets those who can’t care for an animal at home spend time with animals. A primary task for shelter volunteers is socializing animals, taking them out of enclosures for exercise and giving human interaction.

Auerbach said the shelter needs volunteers to help in the cat room; socialize other small animals, such as rabbits and guinea pigs; and walk small dogs. Volunteers also can work the front desk and help with administrative tasks, depending on their interests and abilities, Auerbach said.

“The bottom line is that everybody’s resources are finite,” shelter director Tawny Hammond said. Volunteers “allow us to take the mission beyond just the basic. They’re helping save lives. They’re helping improve the quality of life for these animals.”

The shelter is in the final stages of a major expansion, which will double its size and create dual lobbies. While the shelter is expected to get some new staff positions, Hammond said, the volunteer needs will increase with the size of the shelter.

“If we get our volunteer program where we want it to be, I think there is nothing we can’t do together,” Hammond said. “I think it’s going to be very powerful.”

The initial effort to recruit senior volunteers was successful, filling two volunteer orientation sessions to their 35-person capacity, Auerbach said.

“I’ve been so inspired by the people who have reached out to volunteer,” she said. “People are bringing real skill sets that will help us operate.”

The other component of the initiative is adoption incentives for seniors who adopt pets. Every Wednesday through August, people 55 and older who adopt a pet can have the animal spayed or neutered free. Those who adopt pets 7 or older won’t pay adoption fees.

It can be harder to find homes for older pets, which often are a great match for older adults, Auerbach said.

“They are often completely trained pets, and they often fit in well with a senior’s household,” she said.

The shelter also has a new adoption follow-up program that will provide support to seniors, as well as other adopters, if they have any questions or concerns following the adoption or need help finding resources for animal care.

“It’s a win-win situation both for the senior animal and the senior,” said Altman, who adopted a 15-year-old cat last year.