“Socialization” is quite the buzz word these days—everyone from veterinarians to behaviorists to trainers to dog walkers is weighing in on this key aspect of pet ownership. But while the concept of socialization for us means office parties and weekend get-togethers, it’s different for dogs and cats. What exactly is “socialization” for pets?
According to the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA),
“socialization is the process of preparing a dog or cat to enjoy interactions and be comfortable with other animals, people, places, and activities.” Basically, this amounts to exposing pets to as many new people, places, and things as possible—umbrellas, hats, strollers, tall people, young children, balloons, wheelchairs, delivery trucks, etc.—while providing positive reinforcement like
treats or a favorite toy. This teaches the pet to like or at least tolerate various stimuli without fear and anxiety. If something in particular seems to upset the animal, the pet is allowed to leave the environment or the stimulus is removed, and counter-conditioning can be started with the help of a behaviorist.
When is the best time to socialize a pet? Dogs and cats have a “sensitive period” that is the best window for socialization; for puppies it is between 3 and 14 weeks of age, and for kittens it is between 3 and 9 weeks of age. Here at Kingsbrook Animal Hospital in Frederick, MD, our veterinarians and technicians discuss socialization with every new puppy or kitten owner at the pet’s first visit. We even send a Socialization Bingo card home with each new pet–there are prizes for completion!
Because the sensitive period occurs before most pets are finished with their vaccines, many owners worry about exposing their new fur-babies to other pets or new places. The AVMA has weighed in on early socialization versus waiting until vaccination is complete: “While veterinarians are appropriately concerned about infectious disease in young puppies, the fact is that behavioral issues—not infectious diseases—are the number one cause of death for dogs under 3 years of age. Unsocialized puppies may also fail to develop coping mechanisms and grow
up into dogs that are unable to adapt to new situations. This can severely inhibit the dog’s quality of life as well as the owner’s enjoyment of the pet.”
The relatively young age of the sensitive period might cause owners of mature pets to feel a bit disheartened—but not to worry! A pet of any age can be socialized, following the same formula; it just may take a little longer. This is because the pet has to “un-learn” current feelings about the stimulus, and “re-learn” to tolerate or enjoy it; in this case, the owner is teaching two new behaviors.
So, what are some easy ways to begin socializing a dog or cat? Start by
learning what the pet’s favorite reward is. Invite friends over, and have them give the treat or toy until the animal is comfortable and readily approaches. Slowly work up trusted friends bring their own pet along on visits. Another key is to acclimate pets to car rides. Pets that learn to associate car rides with positive, calming experiences and not just trips to the vet are much easier to socialize! For those dogs or cats who have anxiety about car trips, or who experience motion sickness, speak with your veterinarian at KAH to see how we can help make these trips easier.