Taking a puppy out is one of the activities that new pet owners are most excited for! Walkies are not only fun but also improve dog-owner relationships and are an essential part of puppies’ socialisation period. So what could we possibly be waiting for?
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Vaccinations – should we wait?
In the UK, there are four core vaccines that are recommended to every puppy; distemper, hepatitis, parvovirus (usually administered together in a combined vaccine) and leptospirosis.
How late the vaccination course is complete depends on how early it is started. Usually a puppy can be vaccinated from six to eight weeks of age and have the last vaccine against distemper, hepatitis and parvovirus at 10 weeks. For most vaccine brands, immunity against these viruses is achieved one week after the last vaccine. The course of leptospirosis vaccines can end at between 10 and 12 weeks of age; depending on how many strains the puppy is vaccinated against (L2 versus L4), and immunity against this bacteria is achieved three weeks after the last vaccine.
This means, at the earliest, a puppy is only fully protected against all four agents at 13 weeks of age!
Stages of socialisation – what happens at what age?
There are several stages of dog’s brain development, socialisation being one of them. During the “socialisation window”, from 3 to 12 weeks of age, puppies learn what is normal, acceptable and comfortable in their social life. During this period, puppies should be made familiar and have positive experiences with strangers, other animals, different surfaces, sounds and sights, being manipulated and touched on their faces, bellies and paws, having their nails clipped, coat groomed and teeth cleaned, and this will increase their confidence and well-being as adults. By missing this stage, we risk raising a dog that will become fearful, anxious and/or aggressive towards anything outside their usual routine. Changes outside this period, although possible, are usually more challenging.
So what can we do to ensure our puppies are well socialised and become calm, balanced adult dogs without exposing them to dangerous and potentially life-threatening infectious diseases? Well, fortunately there is a happy medium!
Before their vaccination course is complete, you can and should carry them outside, without putting them on the floor. You can let other people hold them for a cuddle too. They will be exposed to the different light, sounds and smells that a good walk in the park can offer.
If you have friends and family members that have vaccinated pets (dogs or other species), it is not only safe but recommended you take your puppy to their house (or vice-versa) for play dates. If you can, it is ideal to expose your puppy to dogs, cats and humans of different genders and ages; as long as you do so in a protected environment, usually indoors.
The Lepto problem
The vaccination against leptospirosis usually ends later and it takes longer for puppies to develop immunity against it too. This bacterium is transmitted via contact with infected urine (usually from rodents, farm animals or other dogs) or urine-contaminated substances (such as water, food or soil). Although this can happen anywhere, the risk is higher in rural areas. Or even any areas with rivers, lakes or streams, that can transport the bacteria and infect dogs who drink the water. There is a low risk of coming in contact with leptospirosis if dogs are walked on the lead in urban areas away from watercourses and vermin. Rats tend to haunt areas around dustbins, refuse, underpasses etc, and this is where the highest risks are.
A puppy off the lead will run into these places to follow the exciting smells. So we cannot call any area truly safe. However, one week after a dog has been vaccinated against distemper, hepatitis and parvovirus, which can be as early as 11 weeks of age, I consider it fairly safe to walk dogs in city parks, on a leash. This is dependent on where you live. Therefore, always ask your vet’s recommendation before making the decision of walking your puppy outside.