Congratulations! You’ve added a new furry addition to your family. By now you have probably heard the word SOCIALIZE, especially if you have a dog. Socialization is the most important factor to raising your new pet. However, this term is used too loosely sometimes, and not enough for our feline companions.
Dogs and cats can learn new tricks and house rules at any age. Yes, you can teach an old dog a new trick. However, to prevent behaviour issues like fear, anxiety or aggression, there is a very specific window of opportunity for socialization. This window is even shorter for cats. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure! Correcting fearful or aggressive behaviour will be much more difficult than preventing it.
Socializing your pet means introducing them to all kinds of people and animals and even objects and sounds that they might be exposed to in their adult life. A puppy who has never seen a man with a beard may react fearfully and even aggressively if he sees this for the first time as an adult.
To socialize a dog does not mean to bring them to a dog park or a crowded event. This can have the opposite effect. When we talk about socializing, what we need to emphasize is POSITIVE socializing. The goal is to give your puppy or kitten as many positive encounters as possible so that they grow up to be well adjusted adults, able to deal with new people and new situations. If we overwhelm them by introducing too much at one time, or if the encounter isn`t positive (like say a large hyper dog trying to play roughly with your small puppy) this can leave a lifelong negative association for them.
Instead, plan a play date with a friend or family member`s dog who is calm, healthy and up to date on vaccines. Ideally start with a dog that is about the same size as your puppy and as he becomes confident around dogs his own size then start to introduce him to other breeds of dogs as well. Once your puppy is up to date on the necessary vaccines you can sign him up for puppy classes or basic training. The instructor can provide you with plenty of the most current training tips and more importantly, your pup will learn in a `real life` environment with distractions and get to socialize with other dogs.
Cats are very territorial, socializing with other healthy cats that are up to date on their vaccines should ideally be done between 2 and 7 weeks of age. After this time frame a cat may become very stressed in the presence of unfamiliar cats as they can perceive this as a threat to their environment. Introductions between felines need to be done very gradually to ensure the two accept one another. If you would consider adopting a playmate for your cat, it`s best to adopt 2 siblings right away rather than try and introduce another cat later on. This way your kitten will have another feline to play and burn out her energy with instead of your hands and feet. Kittens should also be handled by humans during this crucial age. If you find a kitten who hasn`t had any human contact, this doesn`t mean you shouldn`t adopt them. They may be a bit more shy and require a little more patience on your part. When interacting with your kitten, never encourage them to play with your hands or feet. It`s cute now, but a kitten who grew up playing with your hand will soon enough be a cat who thinks jumping and attacking your hands is OK. Instead direct her attention towards toys. Fishing-pole style toys work great. Whenever play is directed at your hand, or your puppy is play biting, yell OW! Loud enough so she is startled and proceed with a `time out` by crossing your arms and avoiding eye contact. Never use physical punishment during this bonding period. They will in time learn that if they don`t play gentle, you won`t play at all. Be consistent by making sure everyone in the family is on board.
If you have adopted a new kitten, invite friends and family over to meet the youngster one at a time. This way your kitty won’t get overwhelmed by a crowd of people and will get used to people coming into their territory on occasion. Have a special treat that your guests can offer your kitten so she associates guests as a good thing. This will prevent her from pulling a disappearing act when you have guests over once she`s older. A common behaviour problem in cats growing up in a single-owner household is that they are not used to strangers and panic when guests come over. Imagine the stress your cat would face if you get married, have kids, etc. Properly socializing your pet means preparing them for anything they may face in the future. Remember to keep the experiences positive. Have the guests offer treats and toys to your kitten.
Get your pet used to being brushed, having their ears cleaned, nails trimmed, etc. If you are not comfortable doing any of these yourself at home, then touch their ears and feet on a daily basis. Brush them daily, always with a positive distraction such as treats.
Pets should also be socialized to the various sounds of everyday life. The vacuum for example, is a sound that causes some dogs to attack it, and cats to climb curtains or walls in an attempt to flee. With positive reinforcement, you can desensitize your pet to the vacuum monster. It is helpful if you have someone else vacuum while you work on this. At least it will give you an excuse to pass off the vacuuming to someone else for a few weeks! Start by having the vacuum running in a closed room on the other end of the house while you feed or play with your pet. If they appear comfortable with the far away sound, you can move the vacuum to a closer room. After a few days/weeks, if they still appear comfortable you can move the vacuum closer each time working your way up to having it run in the next room with the door open. Eventually the goal would be to feed or play with them while the vacuum is in the same room.
You should have your cat`s carrier out in plain sight at all times. You can take the top off at first, leave a soft blanket and some catnip. She should get used to seeing it around and not bolt when you pull it out of storage once a year. Once she is comfortable lying in it, place the top on but leave the door off. You can put a few treats inside. When she is used to going in, you can close the door for a few seconds while she eats. Eventually you also want to try lifting the carrier gently while she’s inside. When she is very comfortable with that, take the carrier to the car and back. Always make it rewarding for her with her favourite treats. If she does well travelling to the car, try turning the car on for a few seconds. Eventually, work up to taking a drive around the block so she gets used to the car. Cats who only see their carrier and go for a ride in the car once a year to see the vet can become extremely stressed. To make life easier for the both of you and to help you easily get your cat in her carrier and in the car in case of emergency, get her used to these things young and keep it a positive experience with treats!
Lastly, bring your kitten or puppy to your veterinarian for ”happy visits”. Drop by and have the receptionist offer your puppy a treat. Make it a weekly routine and have them weighed. Going to the vet will quickly become a fun experience and won`t be a stressful struggle when they really need to go. We would be delighted to do some happy weigh-in visits with your new puppy or kitten. Don’t hesitate to drop by or schedule a visit for your little one.
Gabrielle Vachon, Certified Animal Health Technician