By Jessica Remitz
Adopting a dog or cat is an exciting time for every member of the family — especially for the kids. While they may want to take home a puppy or kitten (who can resist those little faces?), there are a lot of excellent reasons to consider adopting a senior dog or cat. Here are just a few of the many reasons older pets are great for families.
“Compared to the huge undertaking it is to raise a youngster, I find that the pleasures and joys of an adult pet are so underrated,” said Gail Buchwald, senior vice president of the ASPCA adoption center. “The best kept secret is getting a pet that’s already an adult.”
Families with busy households and parents who work full time will find it a joy to have an older, experienced dog or cat compared to starting from the beginning with a puppy or kitten.
As many older pets are already acclimated to living in a home, they’re likely to know certain skills. Dogs my already be housebroken and know how to perform a “sit,” “down,” and “come,” while cats will already be comfortable using a litter box.
The best thing you can do for your new pet, of any age, is to establish a routine to help it to feel more comfortable in your home, Buchwald said. Providing pets with a consistent feeding, walking, and exercise schedule will help settle them in and bring order to your family dynamic.
According to Buchwald, once an animal has reached adult maturity, what you see is what you get. You won’t have the same surprises as you might have had bringing home a puppy or kitten whose personality is apt to change as they grow up. These non-surprises are great benefits for families with kids. While there are things you can do to help cautious or frightened dogs become comfortable with children or people of all ages, there are certain genetic predispositions we can’t control.
“Kittens and puppies can only be molded to a certain point; they have a genotype which is influenced by their environment but is unable to be completely changed,” she said. “Puppies and kittens are more unknown, but with an adult [animal], you have a known entity.” The exception is adult animals that have been through multiple homes and have been poorly trained, adds Adam G. Denish, V.M.D. “Those adult animals may be more difficult to handle.”
Older dogs can be especially tolerant and soft towards children, Buchwald said. If they have a painful condition like arthritis they may not like being pushed physically, but if they’re generally healthy they can be a great match for kids without being a hazard to them.
“You can have a nice, respectful balance between children and an older pet and have quality time together without the child or pet being overwhelmed,” Buchwald said. “If you teach a young child to live with and understand a pet’s personality … many animals will use more restraint around children.”
When juggling family responsibilities that include after-school activities, summer camps, and countless year-round obligations, it may be harder to work in the labor it takes to properly raise a puppy or kitten versus an older animal, Buchwald said. Young puppies especially require a tremendous amount of responsibility — from needing a great deal of housebreaking, training, and exercise to preventing them from being destructive. An older animal is much easier to handle from busy day-to-day.
The thought that you “can’t teach an old dogs new tricks” is absolutely not true, Buchwald said. This thinking unfortunately keeps people from adopting older animals. Dogs and cats of any age can continue learning, growing, and expanding their cognitive development. Older pets can easily assimilate new behavior and training and adjust to a new environment.
The thought that older pets are too mellow or don’t have much personality is also a misconception, Buchwald said. While older animals don’t have the same bursts of energy young animals do, they will still play with your family members and engage in behaviors typical of a young dog or cat.
Older pets have most likely had the experience of living in homes with people and have adopted certain rules that will likely stand true in your home, Buchwald said. Many shelters also complete a thorough behavioral analysis of your potential dog or cat and can give you some background information on the animal’s personality, energy level, and behavior before you take it home.
The ASPCA’s “Meet Your Match” program helps potential adopters — who have filled out a survey and assessed their wants and needs for a pet — find the dog or cat that is right for them. These analyses pair adopters who have children with pets that are kid-friendly.
While a puppy may seem manageable in size for the first few months after he comes into your home, he may not finish growing until after about two years, and can likely bowl a baby or young toddler over in a fit of excitement.
“At times, you’ll see a puppy go home with young children who are unaware of the size and structure of a growing dog,” Buchwald said. Taking home a fully-grown adult pet will ensure that you know what you’re in for when it comes to its size.
Playing a role in care-taking and training can be extremely rewarding for the kid who’s already happy to take on responsibility, Buchwald said. While a pet won’t necessarily make the kind of kid who doesn’t clean his room responsible overnight, older dogs and cats can certainly help foster a sense of self-esteem and confidence in a kid, which in turn will encourage responsibility.
Letting a child of any age participate in care-taking is a great way to build care-taking skills in a way that gives a child a sense of involvement in his or her family, Buchwald said, whether it's giving an older dog or cat their premeasured cup of food or daily supplement, taking the dog on a walk, or changing the cat's litter box, all of these actions contribute to the well-being of the family.
While some families shy away from taking a pet home that may not live more than ten years, there are some advantages to adopting a shorter lived pet. Some puppies will grow up to live on long after your kids have gone to and graduated from college. Not every parent wants to sign on for that length of time, making older age in a pet a much more desirable trait, Buchwald said.
The best thing you can do is make sure everyone in the house has the same idea and vision for what living with the pet will be like. Potential adopters will need to make sure they’re prepared to keep up with any health conditions or financial concerns that come with a senior animal, Buchwald said. Make sure you know the length of time you’ll be able to devote to a pet and commit to finding the perfect senior animal for you. And remember that one of the greatest rewards is in knowing that you gave your senior pet a wonderful home to grow old in.