Mature Dogs, Cats Help Children Learn Empathy, Responsibility

If you could choose a best friend for your children, you'd probably look for someone who plays...

By ARA Content, 2/18/2002

If you could choose a best friend for your children, you'd probably look for someone who plays well, listens to their problems without passing judgment, gives them unconditional love and stays close to them.

If those are the criteria you'd use, you might do well to choose an older cat or dog.

Even if your child or family hasn't had a pet during its early years, senior-aged dogs and cats are still a good first choice for a pet. Animal shelters and rescue organizations are full of older animals eager to please and eager for homes. And an older pet can offer several advantages. Compared to an average puppy or kitten, they are generally calmer, already housetrained, and not as likely to chew furniture, shoes or fingers.

Research is revealing that older pets have a positive impact in many other ways, as well. Robert Poresky, associate professor of Family Studies and Human Services at Kansas State University, is one of dozens of researchers who are examining the impact of having a pet in the home. His findings include evidence that children who are involved with and attached to pets develop higher levels of empathy, learn responsibility earlier, and may even have higher IQ scores than children who don't have pets.

"In one study, we found that 3- and 4-year-olds with pets were better able to understand the feelings of other children than those without pets," Poresky says. He also says there are life lessons to be learned from taking responsibility for a pet. "A dog or cat won't always do what the child wants them to do, and that can be very important," he says. "This helps kids learn that there are other perspectives and ways of looking at things."

It's not just having a pet in the home that benefits kids, Poresky says. It's the involvement and time the child spends with a pet. "The more they do together, the greater the positive impact on a child's life," he says.

Choosing a Pet

It's a good idea to learn as much as possible about a senior pet before bringing it home, says Judy Dworkin, of the Animal Humane Society in Golden Valley, Minn. "Many animals up for adoption come with histories that tell whether they've lived with children and how they get along with them. If that information isn't available, parents and children can spend time with the dog or cat in a private room to see how everyone gets along," she says. "Every animal is unique. Taking the time to see how they'll interact helps ensure that you bring home the right pet."

Senior Pet Health

Just as humans need more medical attention as they age, senior pets can benefit from additional checkups by a veterinarian. Bernadine Cruz, DVM, in Laguna Hills, Calif., recommends senior pets receive twice-annual exams for and regular blood testing to help identify diseases in their earliest, most treatable stages.

"Very often," she says, "what is key to early detection is an owner who notices subtle behavioral or physical changes in their pet and discusses them with the veterinarian."

Steve Fox, DVM, managing technical services veterinarian for Pfizer Animal Health, agrees. "Many of the early signs of medical conditions are often mistakenly attributed to signs of normal aging. Educating pet owners that certain changes can signal a health problem can lead to early detection and treatment.

For dog owners, some signs to watch for include:

-- limping or lagging behind

-- stiffness after exercise or difficulty climbing stairs

-- decreased tolerance for exercise

-- tremors or shaking

-- change in appetite

-- disorientation

-- decreased interaction with family members

-- changes in sleep patterns

-- loss of housetraining

-- change in thirst or urination

-- difficulty posturing to toilet

-- skin, hair and coat changes

-- weight changes

-- bad breath

(Many of these signs also apply to cats.)

In most cases, early detection can promote effective treatment of canine and feline diseases, says Fox. "With the diagnostic tools and treatment options now available to veterinarians, there is much that can be done to give senior dogs and cats lives that are longer, healthier and happier than ever."

See your veterinarian for information on new treatment options available for canine arthritis, cognitive dysfunction syndrome (disorientation) and periodontal disease.

Courtesy ARA Content,; e-mail:


Common Senior Pet Health Concerns

Here are some common conditions that affect senior pets. If your dog or cat exhibits any of these physical or behavioral signs, consult your veterinarian.

-- Arthritis: Limping, lagging behind, stiffness after exercise, difficulty climbing stairs.

-- Cancer: Unusual growths or abnormal bumps.

-- Cataracts and vision loss: Bumping into furniture, doors and walls; easily disoriented; cloudy eyes.

-- Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome (CDS): Disorientation (confusion), decreased interaction with family members, abnormal sleep-wake cycle, loss of housetraining.

-- Cushing's disease: "Potbellied" appearance, increased water or food intake, increased urination, hair loss, muscle weakness, changes in activity level, decreased responsiveness to attention, lethargy.

-- Diabetes: Increased food or water intake, increased urination and weight loss.

-- Gastrointestinal disorders: Vomiting, flatulence, diarrhea or constipation, decreased appetite and weight loss.

-- Hearing loss: Sleeping more soundly, apparent lack of awareness of loud noises, non-responsive to calls.

-- Heart disease: Labored breathing, coughing, sluggishness, fainting, abdominal fluid.

-- Kidney failure: Increased water intake and urination; weight, muscle and appetite loss.

-- Obesity: Weight is more than 15 percent over ideal weight.

-- Periodontal disease: Bad breath, buildup of plaque on teeth, inflamed gums, excessive drooling, reluctance to be touched on face or near mouth, decreased appetite and difficult chewing.

-- Thyroid disease

Hypothyroidism - dogs: Reduced activity, weight gain, hair loss, shivering.

Hyperthyroidism - cats: Increased appetite, water consumption and urination; weight loss; restlessness.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Pfizer Animal Health has increasingly focused efforts on meeting the special needs of senior pets. Pfizer Inc., discovers, develops, manufactures and markets leading prescription medicines for human and animals.