Pets are important members of our families, and behavior problems can break down the special bond we feel with them. Preventing behavior problems is the best strategy for creating a happy, lifelong bond with our companions. Genetics, along with environmental experiences, play a role in the development of each pet personality and their behavior.
For puppies, one of the most important behavior prevention strategies is proper socialization. The socialization period of a puppy, when they are most open to new experiences, is between approximately 3 weeks to 12 weeks of age. This timeframe is the sensitive period for socialization, though socialization should continue beyond just this sensitive period. Puppies who are not properly socialized during 3 weeks to 12 weeks of age are more likely to have problems with fearfulness of strangers, fear of unfamiliar dogs, objects, and environments.
Attending a puppy class during the sensitive period for socialization and practicing various positive interactions during this same timeframe and beyond is the best preventative against developing behavior problems later on in life. Puppy class, rather than a dog park, is a safe place for puppies to socialize. Puppy classes have vaccination requirements for those attending, and your puppy is less likely to experience an aggressive dog that could injure and cause a negative experience.
Experiences for puppies should include positive interactions with people of different sizes, genders, ethnicities, and respectful children. This is also the time to introduce puppies to other species of animals, like cats, different walking surfaces, and introduce them to the noises and objects of everyday life (vacuums, umbrellas, bicycles, etc.). Providing treats, toys, and gentle handling during the interactions with your puppy help to make it a positive experience. This is also the best time to acclimate them to handling their feet, ears, brushing teeth, etc. This helps them to have less stressful nail trims, ear cleanings, and home dental care in the future.
Kittens also have a sensitive socialization period between 2 weeks to 7 weeks of age. Similar to puppies, this is the open window of time when kittens are most open to new experiences. It is important, however, to continue to expose them to new, positive experiences throughout their lives. Providing treats and toys, and having kittens practice meeting and being handled by a variety of people in a positive manner, helps them to have a personality that more easily adjusts to stress and life changes. Kittens should also experience brushing, handling paws and clipping nails, handling ears, and brushing teeth. They may not accept these at first, but keeping the exposure sessions short, repeating them, and pairing the sessions with something positive like a treat can help make them positive.
Socializing kittens in this sensitive window can help prevent fearfulness, and also encourages a cat to be more active and inquisitive, rather than hiding. Socialization can also make trips in the car with your feline friend more bearable in the future – think a quiet cat that is happy to go in a carrier to the veterinarian vs. a cat that hides when the carrier comes out and yowls in the car the whole ride.
It is helpful to acclimate kittens to carriers right away, and practice taking them on short car rides (drive-through or around the block) with tasty treats and toys in the carrier. Leaving the carrier out in your home for your kitten to use as a sleeping place will make it less likely he/she will hide vs. if you only bring the carrier out for trips to the veterinarian. In addition, providing one more litter box than the number of cats in the home (spread out on different levels and rooms throughout), and scooping boxes daily can help to prevent inappropriate elimination.
Older puppies, kittens, cats, and dogs can also be socialized if they are beyond the sensitive periods, though it can take more time, and they may never be as accepting of new things as they would have been if they were socialized at a younger age.
If your pet is having a behavior problem, please call. In many cases, it is best to rule out an underlying medical cause (like inflammation of the urinary bladder or bladder stones in a cat urinating inappropriately outside of the litter box), before assuming an unwanted behavior is a behavior problem. In some cases, our veterinarians can help improve basic behavior issues through recommendations on behavior modification and positive reinforcement. More complex behavior problems, like aggression towards people, may be better handled by referral to a boarded veterinary behaviorist.
For more information on socializing puppies, and for a puppy socialization checklist at the end of the article: https://drsophiayin.com/blog/entry/puppy-socialization-stop-fear-before-it-starts/
For more information about socializing kittens: https://drsophiayin.com/blog/entry/kitten-socialization/
Sarah Wise, DVM
River Hills Pet Care Hospital