Puppies and kittens! My goodness how cute and exciting and entertaining. You just want to cuddle and play and show everyone your adorable new family member, with their soft baby fur and big cute eyes and clumsy movements. But is this in their best interests? Many people think they know the answer to this. I used to think I knew the answer. But it turns out there are very few black and whites. Let's have a chat about the factors to consider.
Firstly, contagious diseases. It's the main thing people talk about. Vets talk about it. The standard advice is: new pets should be kept at home until 2 weeks after their third baby vaccination. So what diseases are we talking about here? Where would they pick them up?
For dogs, the big one is parvovirus. Puppies get it from the faeces of a dog that has the disease. It is terribly contagious, and only a tiny amount of that poo can infect many many healthy dogs. And there is no effective treatment. We give supportive fluids, antibiotics for secondary bacterial infections and painkillers as needed, but it is a hard slog, and many don't make it. There's no two ways about it, it is a horrible disease. It only came into existence relatively recently (less than 50 years ago) as a result of a random mutation of an everyday gastrointestinal virus.
For cats, the big one is cat flu. Cats get it from saliva or respiratory secretions from another cat who has the disease. While not as life threatening as parvovirus, the concern with cat flu is that it can become latent (like a cold sore) and reappear at times of stress or immunosuppression for the rest of the cat's life.
Both dogs and cats are vaccinated for a variety of other conditions as well, but these are the two that are common at the moment in this area, and have serious consequences.
Vaccinations work by stimulating the immune system to produce antibodies against these diseases, without exposing the pet to the disease itself. However, baby puppies and kittens do already get antibodies from their Mother when they are born, to protect them for the first little while until their own bodies start to get more capable. Somewhere between 6 and 16 weeks of age though, these antibodies from their Mum die off, and the little one has to produce their own to be safe. So that's why we start off with their first vaccine at approximately 6 weeks of age.
So those diseases are a concern. But there is another factor I'd like to mention. Brain development. It happens in sequential stages, and can't be reversed. What does this mean? Well, for the first 3 weeks of life, puppies and kittens care only about food and warmth pretty much. Then, once their eyes and ears open, they will start to investigate. This is the start of a new phase of brain development. They are kept safe by their Mum with their siblings while they explore and learn about their surroundings. Now, their main response to everything they come across is curiosity. They want to investigate and become familiar with their world. This stage lasts from 3 weeks to approximately 12 weeks. Of course there are variations around that for individuals, but that's the rough timing. Things they encounter during this period will become their comfort zone. After approximately 12 weeks, their brain moves on and becomes fearful of things that are unfamiliar. This is necessary for survival - animals need to be wary or they will be eaten by predators, injured by nature etc.
So you have a window of opportunity, from 3 weeks to 12 weeks, that only happens once in a lifetime, to shape what a puppy or kitten is comfortable and relaxed with. Older pets can certainly learn, and become gradually acclimatised to new things, but it is slower and harder and less lasting.
What does your pet need to be comfortable with, in order to have a happy rewarding and healthy life? Lots of things! People for a start. Old people, young people, babies, children, men, women, people from diverse ethnic backgrounds, people with tattoos, people in wheelchairs, men with beards, women wearing hats, people pushing strollers, vets, trainers, groomers etc etc. Then there's experiences. Crowds, cars, maybe the beach, other dogs at a distance, other dogs up close, the park, motorbikes, vacuum cleaners, televisions, storms, rain. Objects: brooms, rakes, ironing boards, chairs that scrape on the ground, leaves that blow in the wind, balloons, stairs, doggy flaps. And then there's treatment: toe nail trims, hydrobaths, hair cuts, giving flea spot on, giving tablets, cleaning ears, feeling belly, etc etc.
Am I going overboard here? I don't think so. I could name a patient who is afraid of each thing on this list. Some of them are afraid of multiple things on the list. Some are important (can't give tablets = misses out on medical treatment), others less important (your dog may not need to meet an elderly person) however the more you are comfortable with, the happier your life will be. I can't tell you how many times people have commented to me that they didn't have their dog as a puppy but they must have been abused by men, because they are always afraid of unknown men. Or that they must have been hit, because they are always afraid of their broom. Not necessarily. It's more likely they were just not exposed to these things at the right time of their brain development. But just think, you could save your pet so many frights by having them accustomed to these every days things from when they are little. And the more times a pet is afraid, the jumpier they get, until they end of scared of shadows, because they're all on edge.
The absolutely most important thing here is to be comfortable with people. Many pets are euthanised each year for behavioural reasons, and most relate to fear of people. Fear is almost always the underlying cause when bites occur. In fact, the number of pets that are euthanized for behavioural reasons is much higher than the number that die from contagious diseases contracted as a pup or kittie. Behavioural problems have risen noticeably since we started recommending that puppies and kittens be isolated until fully vaccinated. Because you only get that one window of opportunity in their brain development for easy assimilation of new experiences, and it overlaps with the time of developing immunity from vaccines.
Worth considering, isn't it? As I said, not so black and white anymore. But here are a few compromises I'd like to suggest. Take your pets to low risk places. I wouldn't take my pup to the super busy off leash dog park, because there could be unwell dogs there. But I would certainly take them to visit family dogs. Any healthy happy vaccinated dog who has nice manners would be a good choice. Preferably on private land, so you know that there aren't any infectious deposits hiding in the grass, left behind by a parvo-carrying stray. The more variety the better.
Similarly for kittens, I wouldn't take them in to the local shelter to meet and greet all the kitties in there. But I would buy a carrier and cart my little kitty over to my sister's house, to visit with her well adjust vaccinated adult cat, and friendly dog. I would also invite everyone I know to come and visit my new family member, play with them with fun toys and give them treats. And if your pet is small enough to carry, you can take them just about anywhere. You will get plenty of attention!
They're not going to catch anything serious from people, so hand them around. Have a puppy party. Definitely attend puppy preschool, and kittie kindergarten if you have one available. Do all of this within their comfort level. Make it happy and fun. Give them a break for naps and rest. But work hard at this. It's your one chance to make the biggest difference possible for their future. A study done at a University in England concluded that puppies should be handled by 100 different people by the age of 8 weeks, and then by another 100 more different people by the age of 12 weeks.
Here are my kids hard at work handling a friend's puppies :-)
And finally, there is one other thing that I am doing to try and help. Ask your vet about this too if you need to. I am using a brand of vaccine that stimulates them to be producing antibodies earlier than previously. So they can become immune to the serious contagious diseases before they are too old and move in to the next stage of brain development - wariness and fear. But that won't help anyone unless you, my lovely pet owners, get out there and share the cuteness around! It's a win-win - everyone LOVES a puppy or kitten cuddle!
Dr Amy Coles