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Twenty-one-year-old Meagan Sturm never expected to end up with a significantly older guy. But she listened to her heart when she stopped by the Sonoma Humane Society in Santa Rosa.

“I don’t know what happened,” she said. “I fell in love.”

Ned, a senior feline with long black fur, a contented purr and an irresistible gaze, swept Sturm off her feet. She knew they were a match.

A patient and customer care assistant at a veterinary practice in her hometown of Petaluma, Sturm had recently gone through a breakup with her boyfriend and was hoping to adopt a young cat to help fill the void and share her love.

“I was looking for a kitten but I walked out with completely the opposite,” she said. “Ned was just staring at me the whole time. He looked so lonely in there.”

The match between Sturm and 18½-year-old Ned was a much-celebrated moment for staff and volunteers at the nonprofit, donor-supported shelter, where Ned had been awaiting a permanent home for four years. He came into the shelter as a stray, matted and bald in spots from maggots that had eaten into his tissue.

His adoption opens space for another cat, thus saving two lives. Older pets and those with medical or behavioral needs are among the most difficult placements. The no-kill shelter is dedicated to finding homes for all adoptable animals, despite their needs or the length of their residency.

Veterinarian Dr. Sarah Reidenbach, director of shelter medicine, recently sent out a plea asking the public to consider adopting special-needs animals currently housed “beyond capacity” at the shelter.

That was after Sturm fell for Ned, who has been in his new home for two months, along with Sturm’s Chihuahua-terrier mix rescue, Marty. The trio is proof there’s great joy in adopting mature and special-needs pets.

Ned requires a monthly injection and medications twice daily, and he doesn’t have a long life expectancy, but Sturm says Ned is just as deserving of a loving home as an adorable kitten.

“I know it sounds cheesy, but he gives me purpose when I get home,” she said. “I don’t regret taking him home a bit. It was one of the best decisions of my life.”

Reidenbach says there are immense rewards in adopting animals seemingly less than perfect. Along with several senior and middle-aged dogs and cats awaiting homes, the shelter’s tenants include a blind poodle named Mopsy and Pixie, a one-eyed cat.

“You can’t be a no-kill shelter if your community is unwilling to adopt. We just become a warehouse,” Reidenbach said. “They’re saved when they’re in a home.”

Although there’s no ceiling on how long an adoptable animal can be housed at the shelter, there’s only room for a maximum of 250 animals. In a year, some 2,200 to 2,500 animals typically come through the shelter.

While darling puppies and kittens typically adopt out quickly, older and other special-needs pets can wait — and wait — for permanent homes.

Despite age or needs, “If they’re up for adoption, they still have a quality of life,” Reidenbach said. “What you realize when you adopt them is they have so much joy and happiness and life.”

Shelter staff and volunteers dedicate time to determine animals’ individual needs, personalities and quirks so potential adopters can make informed decisions. Selecting a low-key or high-energy animal, one who needs to be indoors, one with a particular temperament, one who can’t get along with other pets — each is a key to making the right commitment.

“It’s about finding the right fit,” said Jessica Kawaoka, the shelter’s adoptions program manager. She encourages people to have open minds and consider pets in special need of a second chance.

Thor, a 7-year-old gray tabby, is a charmer despite his folded right ear and disdain for other cats. The onetime stray has a feline virus and needs to remain indoors, is social and outgoing, but just needs a chance to warm up and show off his big personality.

Ladybug, a female Tortoiseshell, is an especially affectionate senior. At 13½, she’s among the oldest cats awaiting a permanent home.

Cody, a handsome 8-year-old Rhodesian ridgeback and shepherd mix, loves people and is a staff favorite at the shelter. A beloved and lovable pet, he was turned in to the shelter when his elderly owner could no longer care for him.

And at 9½ years old, Athena is a personable pit bull mix surrendered when her family went through a divorce. She requires medications for bladder control but is sweet and calm and looking to join a family again.

For animals who’ve long been at the shelter, it sometimes takes awhile for their personalities to emerge. They may be shy or hesitant at first, but those willing to meet with them and visit often end up surprised.

“These animals are so appreciative. You put in a little bit of effort and the unconditional love you get from an animal brings so much to your life,” Kawaoka said.

The shelter offers a Silver Whiskers Club with reduced adoption rates for animals older than 7; $75 for dogs, $50 for cats. Plus, donors sometimes sponsor adoption fees for harder-to-place pets.

Reidenbach and Kawaoka say seniors especially can benefit from the companionship and unconditional love provided by more mature animals.

The shelter partners with Oakmont retirement community in Santa Rosa for outreach programs matching residents with pets.

To support their efforts, the shelter addresses mobility concerns at a specialized dog training class for seniors 62 and older and those with disabilities.

The shelter also offers a pet guardianship program, “Loving for Life,” to assure pets’ safety when owners can no longer care for them.

For seniors who love animals but are hesitant to own pets, there are numerous volunteer positions to help at the shelter, from retail work to cuddling cats.

Volunteers also can help older animals and those with life-limiting conditions by serving as “fospice” parents so pets can live out their golden years in loving homes.

For Sturm, who adopted Ned knowing his advanced age and medical conditions would limit his time with her, it makes each day even sweeter.

He sleeps on her bed, has “hard-core snuggle time” and purrs like crazy. Sturm is grateful she can provide a happy end-of-life home to Ned — and grateful for the love and companionship he provides her.

For details, visit sonomahumane.org.

The Santa Rosa shelter, 5345 Highway 12 W., is open from noon-6 p.m. daily; call 542-0882. The Healdsburg shelter, 14242 Bacchus Landing Way, is open from 9 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday; call 431-3386.

Contact Towns correspondent Dianne Reber Hart at sonomatowns@gmail.com.