Puppy Problems and Kitten Conundrums

Vaccination and Socialization of New Pets

There is no possible way you could resist the soft fur and playful demeanor of that puppy up for adoption at the Washington Animal Rescue League. And that kitten sitting in the New York Ave Shelter just had to come home with you.  But now what?  Many spontaneous decisions to adopt a young animal come from the heart, but you need to use your head to help keep that new family member on the path of health.

Age matters

Young Puppies and kittens are irresistible. They are also a lot of work and require some basic knowledge of immunology.  Adopting a 6 month old cat or dog who has already been tested and vaccinated will make your life a whole lot easier.  However, who can ignore the allure of a tiny fuzzball that fits in one hand?

A cat or dog’s immune system is basically provided by the mom if they are nursing (colostrum).  Once they are weaned, the residual colostrum continues to serve as the immune system as the actual immune system develops.  The immune system matures at around 16 weeks.  Most vaccine protocols are based around this.  Start a vaccine protocol too soon and the vaccine can interfere with the temporary defense provided by mom.   Vaccinating before 8 weeks is at best useless but could even be harmful. 

We at AtlasVet recommend starting vaccines at around 8 weeks and continuing them so the last one coincides with a mature immune system.  Why is this important?  Well, a vaccine is really just a small amount of the virus or bacteria.  The point of any vaccine is to have a healthy immune system so the vaccine gets recognized.  The more mature the immune system, the better the vaccine response.  And the better the vaccine response, the stronger that animal will be to fight off the virus or bacteria in the future.  Boosters every 3 weeks make sure that we stimulate the immune system as it develops and repeated boosters give the immune system a better chance of recognizing the “bad guys” faster.

Puppy Playtime?

One of the most frequent questions we field at AtlasVet is:  When can I socialize my puppy?   For me, given the information above, this is easy for puppies:   After 16 weeks.  This way your puppy has a mature immune system and will better be able to fight off whatever they encounter.  Yes, vaccinations are important and we vaccinate for the most serious of transmittable viruses.  But your chances of running into distemper or parvo virus (dangerous viruses) at Congressional Cemetery or Lincoln Park are very slim. However, there are a bunch of “minor” gastrointestinal and upper respiratory viruses out there being carried by healthy dogs.  Inevitably, your new puppy will be exposed to these in any group situation (think a kid in pre-school) but why expose them to this with an underdeveloped immune system?  However, many dog trainers feel strongly that socialization should occur before 16 weeks.  Heather Morris of Spot on Training relates, “The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior has a strong position on this subject (socialization) and believes it should be the standard of care for puppies to receive socialization before they are fully vaccinated.  Early socialization and positive training can go a long way to preventing behavior problems and improving bonding between humans and dogs.”  For more reading, please see the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior’s position statement on puppy socialization:   http://avsabonline.org/uploads/position_statements/puppy_socialization.pdf   There may not be a perfect solution but a conversation should be had by every pet owner with their veterinarian and training professional about the pros and cons of early socialization.

Kitten Collective

The question of socialization with kittens revolves around viral testing.  Many stray cats in shelters can harbor crummy viruses like FIV (Feline AIDS) or FeLV (Feline Leukemia).  Unfortunately, testing for FeLV is not always accurate because of the nature of the virus (it basically can “hide” from testing).  The recommendation is to test a kitten at adoption and test again in 2-3 months to ensure a negative test.  This is not a problem if this is the first cat you are introducing to your home, but presents a major problem to a cat owner who already has cats in their home as we recommend keeping cats separated until the second confirmatory test.  For more about FIV and FeLV please check out the American Association of Feline Practitioners website:  http://www.catvets.com/cat-owners/disease-and-conditions/felv

The key with any new puppy or kitten adoption is to 1) make sure you get fully informed of the pet’s vaccine and testing history from the adoption agency or shelter, 2) set up an appointment with your veterinarian to ask about puppy and kitten vaccine protocols and socialization strategies and, 3) then make the best, well informed decisions for you and your new pet based on the above information and your specific environment.

Here is to enjoying your new pet!  See you ‘round the Hill!

Dr. Matthew Antkowiak is a 1997 graduate of the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine.  Dr. Antkowiak is one of the owners of AtlasVet (the Atlas District Veterinary Hospital) at 1326 H St. NE and he resides in Capitol Hill. Twitter: @atlasvetdc, Website: www.atlasvetdc.com,  Facebook: www.facebook.com/atlasvetdc