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Veterinary Forum July 2008 (Vol 25, No 7)

Clinical Report — The importance of puppy and kitten socialization

by Sophia Yin, DVM, MS (Animal Science)

    When I was attending veterinary school in the early 1990s, the following message was burned into my brain: "Keep your puppy or kitten at home and away from other animals until she is fully vaccinated." So everyone sequestered kittens and puppies from the outside world and only gave them glimpses of it in the form of occasional visitors. While this recommendation may seem reasonable for the medical health of the pet, it contributes to poor behavioral health and can ultimately lead to early euthanasia.

    The need for socialization is real

    "Puppies and kittens that are not exposed to stimuli they will see later in life — other animals, kids, grocery carts, people with motorcycle helmets — are at risk for becoming fearful and/or fear-aggressive," explains Lisa Radosta, DVM, DACVB, owner of Florida Veterinary Behavior Service in Royal Palm Beach.

    This fear develops because the sensitive period for socialization in puppies and kittens occurs during their early weeks — before they are fully vaccinated — which is approximately 3 to 9 weeks of age for kittens and 3 to 12 weeks of age for puppies. During this period, young animals need to learn how to accept other animals and objects as being friendly or safe. As each animal matures and becomes more mobile, its default setting switches to fear of new objects and animals, an important trait that is needed to avoid predators and potentially dangerous situations.

    Lack of adequate socialization can, therefore, lead to fear aggression directed toward unfamiliar people or animals as well as fear of environmental stimuli, such as cars, loud noises or inanimate objects. In fact, inadequate socialization is probably the number one cause of behavior problems in pets, with the most common problem in dogs seen by veterinary behaviorists being fear-related aggression and in cats being inappropriate elimination and aggression between household cats.1

    A large percentage of behavioral problems could be prevented with early socialization classes, says Radosta. "If kittens attend kitty kindergarten, they learn to accept other animals and how to interact appropriately with the owner and strangers. Cats also learn to enjoy their carrier, so they are easier to transport, and learn to accept simple procedures, such as toenail trims and tooth brushing."

    Overall, early socialization can prevent cats from becoming stressed when changes occur in their environment, such as new work schedules for owners, visits from strangers or the introduction of new animals into the household. Socialized cats adapt more readily to changes rather than turning to unacceptable behavior, such as urinating outside the box or fighting with newly introduced pets.

    Behavioral issues affect more animals than veterinarians might think, says Kersti Seksel, BVSc (Hons), MRCVS, FACVSc (Animal Behavior), DACVB, CMAVA, DECVBM-CA, of Sydney Animal Behaviour Service in Australia. "More dogs and cats are euthanized each year because of their behavior than die from infectious, metabolic and neoplastic diseases combined. It's the largest cause of preventable death of puppies and kittens." Seksel, who has taught puppy preschools and "Kitty Kindy" in Australia for 18 years, adds that vaccinations are important, but having dogs and cats live harmoniously in the community to their full life expectancy also is important.

    Research confirms that early socialization can make a difference, says Margaret Duxbury, DVM, assistant clinical specialist"behavior at the University of Minnesota College of Veterinary Medicine and Veterinary Medical Center. "Puppies that attend reward-based training and socialization classes are more likely to be retained in their adopted homes than those that do not attend such classes." A study conducted by Duxbury and her colleagues2 also found that puppies trained to wear a head collar that allowed undesirable behaviors to be interrupted and redirected experienced a higher retention rate.

    AVSAB and AAFP support early socialization

    Many veterinarians may refrain from recommending early socialization because of the threat of infectious disease, but with proper precautions, the experts say, pets can be socialized before receiving the entire immunization protocol for infectious diseases.

    In its recently released "AVSAB Position Paper on Puppy Socialization," the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior (AVSAB) cites that "it should be standard of care for puppies to receive such socialization before they are fully vaccinated."

    Regarding her puppy and kitten classes, Seksel says she has not encountered any problems with infectious diseases to date because some vaccinations and the initial deworming have been completed and provide sufficient protection.

    Wayne Hunthausen, DVM, director of Animal Behavior Consultations in the Kansas City area, agrees: "In the past 5 to 6 years, we have trained 500 to 650 puppies a year, and none has developed parvovirus or distemper." Radosta reports similar findings.

    In general, all puppy and kitten participants must have started their vaccination series 7 to 10 days before the first class, which means receiving a minimum of one set of vaccines before that time as well as a first deworming, according to the AVSAB position paper. The pet also should continue receiving vaccinations and remain up-to-date during the balance of the classes. The American Association of Feline Practitioners (AAFP) Feline Behavior Guidelines also recommend that kittens attending class need to test negative for FeLV and FIV.

    Any puppy or kitten that is coughing or sneezing or has vomiting or diarrheal issues should be sent home, the experts stress. In addition, Hunthausen says that he requires pets adopted from shelters to be in their new home for 2 weeks before attending classes.

    Radosta also suggests that veterinarians can take control of the classroom environment by having, for example, the puppy or kitten classes in the clinic lobby, "where you know you can disinfect and you know who has entered," adding that this approach can enhance the client"veterinarian relationship.

    "Pets walk into the hospital and know it means [they are getting] cookies. It makes our lives easier, and the animal's medical care is better for the next 15 years because we can handle them without sedation or muzzling. And owners are happier and more confident with their veterinarian because they see that their pet is calmer."

    Hunthausen recommends that in addition to classes, owners practice "safe socialization," such as bringing the puppy or kitten to friends' houses or inviting friends to visit. However, outings should be limited to neighborhoods and areas where the risk for infection is low, which means avoiding dog parks and areas that are not sanitized.

    Taking such precautions and socializing pets both through veterinarian-run classes and independent at-home activities can help cultivate companions that are both healthy and well adapted to living harmoniously with humans.

    For more information:

    For more information on kitty kindergartens, download the AAFP Feline Behavior Guidelines from www.aafponline.org/resources/practice_guidelines.htm.

    For the complete AVSAB position statement on puppy socialization, go to www.avsabonline.org; at the Main Menu, click on Position Statements and then under PDF Versions, click on Puppy Socialization Statement.

    For videos and photos of puppy classes, go to www.AskDrYin.com/dogclass and for videos and photos of kitten kindergartens, go to www.AskDrYin.com/kittyclass.

    To help clients and staff learn more about socialization of puppies, recommended reading and videos are available from the Animal Behavior Resources Institute at www.abrionline.org.

    1. Denenberg S, Landsberg GM, Horwitz D, Seksel K. A comparison of cases referred to behaviorists in three different countries. In: Mills D, Levine E, Landsberg G, et al (eds). Current Issues and Research in Veterinary Behavioral Medicine (presented at the 5th International Veterinary Behavior Meeting). West Lafayette, Ind.: Purdue University Press;2005:56-61.

    2. Duxbury MM, Jackson JA, Line SW, Anderson RK. Evaluation of association between retention in the home and attendance at puppy socialization classes. JAVMA 2003;223(1):61-67.

    References »

    NEXT: Cover Story Extra — Can dogs outgrow their allergy?

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