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06-09-2011 | Article

Early separation from litter linked to behavior problems in dogs


Free abstract

MedWire News: Dogs that are removed from the litter too early may be prone to developing behavioral problems, especially if they were bought from a pet shop, suggest Italian researchers.

In the study, puppies that spent less than 60 days with their dam and littermates were more likely to exhibit potentially problematic behaviors such as excessive barking, fearfulness, and attention-seeking.

"Early separation from the dam and littermates, especially when combined with housing in a pet shop, might affect the capacity of a puppy to adapt to new environmental conditions and social relationships later in life," suggest Federica Pirrone (University of Milan) and colleagues.

Pirrone's group examined the impact of age at separation on behavior among 140 adult dogs. Half of the animals had been separated from their littermates and dam for adoption between 30 and 40 days of age, while half had been taken at 2 months.

Each dog's behavior was assessed by its owner using a standard questionnaire.

Writing in the journal Veterinary Record, the researchers report that the most commonly reported problem behaviors were "attention-seeking" and "reactivity to noises," occurring in 67.9% and 60.0% of dogs, respectively.

Significantly, all problem behaviors were more prevalent in dogs that were separated at 30-40 days than in those separated at 60 days.

Such behaviors included destructiveness (33 of the early separation group vs 11 of the non-early separation group); excessive barking (44 vs 15); fearfulness on walks (37 vs 5); toy possessiveness (24 vs 3); reactivity to noises (57 vs 27); food possessiveness (21 vs 5); attention-seeking (61 vs 34); aversion to strangers (42 vs 17); stranger aggressive (16 vs 3); owner aggressive (12 vs 6); play biting (20 vs 2); tail chasing (10 vs 1); paw licking (17 vs 7); shadow staring (7 vs 1); pica (16 vs 7); and house soiling (18 vs 7).

Interestingly, in the subgroup of dogs obtained from pet shops (50% of the total), those bought at 30-40 days of age had a significantly higher prevalence of problem behavior than those bought at 2 months of age.

By contrast, dogs obtained from other sources did not differ in their behavior according to the age at separation.

Finally, after adjusting for multiple variables, the youngest dogs (18-36 months) had the highest likelihood of displaying destructiveness and tail-chasing.

"If veterinarians educate the public about responsible dog ownership and the problems attendant with premature adoption, this may strengthen and encourage enforcement of animal control laws against irresponsible marketing of poorly bred and behaviorally compromised animals," the researchers conclude.

"Based on this information, behavioural intervention can address the development of problem behaviors and improve the dog's relationship with the owners, ultimately reducing the number of dogs that are relinquished or abandoned."

By Joanna Lyford