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Social Networking for puppies and kittens

One of the leading reasons for surrendering dogs to shelters is due to a variety of bad behaviors, many of which could be prevented with socialization at an early age in the puppy.  Of these behaviors aggression lead the list, but not far behind was fear of unknown people, fighting with other dogs, and over activity (1) I attended the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior's annual meeting in St. Louis in July, and there were a number of sessions focusing on the reasons for pets being surrendered to shelters.  Many veterinarians are aware that bad behavior breaks the human animal bond.  Understanding which behaviors, and how to prevent those problems from starting will save millions of lives.  In summary, the majority of owner surrendered dogs were aggressive, but over active, inter dog aggressive, and fear of unknown people were close behind aggression as reasons for relinquishment.  The majority of these problems can be prevented by socializing a puppy beginning the first day the pup gets home.

The fundamental reason that these behaviors happen is that the pet is not  used to lots of different experiences at a very young age.  For both dogs and cats there is a time period where everything is wonderful, fun to explore and there is no fear.  Getting a kitten or puppy out and about to meet people, ride in cars, meet other dogs or kittens, hear the vacuum cleaner, motorcycles and young children in this developmental stage is very important.  This open age for the puppy is 3 weeks to approx. 14 weeks of age.  For kittens it is about 3 weeks to 8 weeks old.

Many people get a new puppy or kitten and enjoy the pet at home for those first few weeks. Unfortunately the new pet does not come in for a check up right away. Precious time to properly advise new owners about getting that pup or kitten used to all the noise and surprises of life is lost.   That first puppy or kitten visit is not just about shots, but more importantly about feeding, training and socialization. The first weeks are essential for getting that pet out and about and socializing. I recommend a kibble from one new person each day for the first 2 months.   Even trying to that will get that dog out to parks, rides in cars, and many places in a positive manner.   Just visiting the veterinary office for a "hi" is very helpful to create a positive experience to that clinic for both pups and kittens.  Advising new pet owners about socialization does not have to be complicated, and you don't have to know a lot about behavior to do it right either.  There are articles archived in our publications and many of the veterinary behaviorists have resources on their sites.   Your staff should also echo this message of meet and greet  to clients with young pets.    

In the past, veterinarians were educated to tell clients to not allow the puppies or kittens to get out and about until the vaccination series was over.  Now new research had pointed that there is not any increased risk of a pup or kitten picking up disease while during the young ages as they are going through the vaccination series (2).  Actually, meeting and greeting other people, places and pets helps to strengthen their immunity to disease.   Here is our professional challenge - get the message to new owners to bring their pet into the vet for a friendly visit.  This visit will focus on and advice on proper socialization based on the age of the new pet not shots or worming etc. Even if the fun visit is then followed a few days later by a health visit, that pet will have a much better association with the clinic since it started out positive.

One way we can get clients in the door right after purchase or adoption  is to have a good relationship with the breeders, shelters and rescues to stress that this pet needs to like coming to the veterinary clinic.  Consider making that first fun visit free - or minimal cost and even primarily a tech visit.  A tour of the clinic, with lots or rewarding/praise for the puppy or kitten will go a long way when they come in for shots or surgery.

Have a few products that makes adjustment easier.  Dap helps puppies sleep much better at night and settle in the crate.  Feliway helps a new kitten know that this new place is theirs since it is "premarked". Often a new kitten is the companion for an older cat.  The Feliway helps the introduction period as well. Open up the puppy kit/kitten kit and give it away at the first fun visit.  These kits are free, and getting all the information at one visit may overwhelm a new owner.  The booklets inside are well written and full of photos and accurate information.  Have your staff read them as well to point out the most important pages.

Socialization saves lives and families. The veterinary staff should be the most active resource for new pets for total health care.  Most new owners are getting information from the pet store because that is   the first stop before or after getting a new pet.  Work together with that store to get those puppies and kittens in for a fun visit.  Working together with trainers, pet stores and groomers will help keep that pet in the home for many years.  All of these businesses benefits as well as ourselves. The most important benefit is to the families.

Familiarize yourself with the puppy socialization position statement at www.AVSABONLINE.org    See some examples of puppy classes on my blog at www.drsallyjfoote.org   Read the articles in the proceeding from the AVSAB 2011 meeting on my website.  Dr. Sophia Yin has just released an excellent book "The perfect puppy in 7 days".  Her book has excellent photos and an easy to read a follow section on all the opportunities to help a puppy socialization.  It is an easy read for clients and staff.   You can find her book on her website ww.drsophiayin.com

Good luck and please comment back to me about your thoughts.  Socialization is crucial for health pets.

Sally J Foote, DVM  CFBC-IAABC
Okaw Veterinary Clinic Tuscola IL
drsally@drsallyjfoote.com

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