Too Many Puppies Are Acquired at Too Young an Age
A recent UK study finds disturbing numbers of dogs being adopted before 8 weeks.
Posted Sep 01, 2020
The early life experiences of puppies reverberate throughout their adult lives and influence their physical, emotional, and social well-being. Like human babies, puppies are easily damaged when maternal care and attachment is disrupted and or when important developmental processes such as socialization are interrupted or chaotic.
One of the most important events for a puppy who is destined to become a pet is being taken from his or her mother and transferred into a human home, which usually occurs not as a gradual process over time but as a discrete, abrupt event. This abrupt removal from a puppy’s natal environment and the severing of a pup’s ties to his mother and his littermates is fraught with the potential for harm to mothers and puppies alike.
Over the past several decades, ideas about the ideal time to transfer pups from their natal environment and into human homes have shifted. Scott and Fuller’s influential 1965 book on the social development of dogs recommended 6-8 weeks of age as the best time to remove a dog from the litter and “make it a pet.”1 The ideal time to “make a dog a pet” was understood, in this context, as the ideal time from the human dog owner’s point of view. Since then, greater attention has been given to what is best for the dogs themselves and research has suggested that waiting until pups are a bit older is less likely to result in emotional trauma and consequent behavioral challenges.
The consensus now is that “sweet spot” for adoption is when puppies are between 8 and 12 weeks of age. During this period, puppies are within the critical socialization window and are young enough to form a primary social attachment to their human companion/"owner." But they are old enough that weaning will typically have occurred, so that removing them from their mother’s care will not cause lasting emotional damage. Puppies are vulnerable, but not too vulnerable; healthy emotional development can still take place.
Although there is some debate about whether letting puppies remain with their mothers until 10 or 12 weeks of age is even better than taking them at 8 or 9 weeks, research is unambiguous about the increased potential for lifelong damage that comes with taking puppies from their mother at too young an age—with “too young” being any time earlier than 8 weeks old. A great deal of research bears out the problems of taking puppies from their mothers and siblings too soon.
To take just two examples, a 2014 study by researcher Rebecca Sargisson found that one of the key factors predisposing dogs to separation anxiety is having been separated from their litter before 60 days of age.2 In a 2011 study exploring whether early separation resulted in behavioral problems in dogs, Pierantoni, Albertini, and Pirrone compared adult dogs who were separated from their dam and littermates and adopted between the ages of 30 and 40 days with adult dogs that had been taken from the litter for adoption at two months. They found, “The odds of displaying destructiveness, excessive barking, fearfulness on walks, reactivity to noises, toy possessiveness, food possessiveness and attention-seeking were significantly greater for the dogs that had been removed from the litter earlier during the socialisation period.”
“These findings indicate,” they conclude,” that, compared with dogs that remained with their social group for 60 days, dogs that had been separated from the litter earlier were more likely to exhibit potentially problematic behaviours, especially if they came from a pet shop.”3 Indeed, the evidence against too-early adoption is so strong that a handful of U.S. states and European countries prohibit breeders and/or pet stores from selling puppies younger than 8 weeks old. (Here is a nice overview of state laws on the minimum age of sale for puppies.)
In light of this information, it was disturbing to see a study published earlier this month in Veterinary Record suggesting that as many as one-quarter of all puppies in the UK were acquired before 8 weeks of age.4 The research team, led by Rachel Kinsman, found that despite recommendations of veterinary groups and welfare organizations and even despite legal restrictions on the sale of puppies under 8 weeks of age, many prospective owners are still acquiring puppies too young.
The research team tried to tease out which factors were most likely to be associated with too-early acquisition. They found that owners who had visited their pup at least once before acquisition were more likely to take the puppy home before 8 weeks, and owners who intended their puppy to become a working dog were also more likely to acquire before 8 weeks.
They found that as the number of dogs within a household increased, so did the chances that a puppy would be acquired before 8 weeks of age. Puppies were more likely to be acquired prior to 8 weeks if they were of unknown breed composition. Finally, annual household income was associated with adoption practices, with the odds of a puppy being adopted before 8 weeks decreasing as household income increased.
The researchers also asked respondents whether they had viewed the mother prior to acquiring her puppy. Another common piece of advice given to humans wanting to acquire a puppy is to always visit with the mother—to see what conditions the puppy was raised in, to ensure that the puppy wasn’t sourced from a puppy mill, and to make sure the mother is healthy and behaviorally stable—all of which increase the chances of raising a well-adjusted and healthy dog.
Two aspects of puppy adoption that the researchers in this study did not examine and which receive relatively little attention, despite their ethical significance, are the impact on the mother and on littermates/siblings. Waiting until pups are older before taking them from their mother is certainly better for dog mothers. It is almost certainly better for littermates, who rely on each other for key aspects of social development such as play behavior.
Continuing to build a more nuanced understanding of the impacts of separating puppies from their parents and their siblings will help us, their human companions, better understand how to live with them in ways that avoid causing lifelong harm.
1. Stephen Spotte, Societies of Wolves and Free-Ranging Dogs (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), p. 58, discussing John Paul Scott and John F. Fuller's Genetics and Social Behavior of the Dog (Chicago: University of Chicago Press).
2. Sargisson R. Canine separation anxiety: strategies for treatment and management. Vet Med (Auckl). 2014;5:143-151. https://doi.org/10.2147/VMRR.S60424
3. Pierantoni, L., Albertini, M., Pirrone, F. (2011) Prevalence of owner-reported behaviours in dogs separated from the litter at two different ages. Veterinary Record 169, 468.
4. Kinsman, RH., Casey, RA., Knowles, TG., Tasker, S., Lord, MS., Da Costa, REP., Woodward, JL., Murray, JK.
(2020) Puppy acquisition: factors associated with acquiring a puppy under eight weeks of age and without viewing the mother. Veterinary Record 187, 112.