Challenges to conventional thinking are rarely met with open arms, and the concept of early spay-neuter, despite its huge potential as a weapon against animal overpopulation, has been no different in this regard.
Spay a kitten at 8 weeks? Neuter a puppy at 10 weeks? The concept of such surgery on animal babies is shocking to many -- an ironic position in a society that accepts the relatively benign procedures of removing dewclaws and docking tails on infant puppies and the painful practice of ear cropping on slightly older ones.
But the humane community, charged with the task of killing millions of unwanted animals a year, kept this ball in play. The effort is paying off: Last month the nation's premiere veterinary group, the American Veterinary Medical Association, endorsed the concept of early spay-neuter.
"Overpopulation is the No. 1 animal-welfare problem in this country," said the resolution's sponsor, veterinarian Peter Theran Weymouth, Mass. "If we can spay animals before they have a chance to have the first litter, we would eliminate a lot of the problem."
The challenge now is to get rank-and-file veterinarians and the animal-breeding community to accept -- and practice -- early spaying and neutering. Few veterinarians offer the options currently, and many are downright negative about the procedures. And while reputable breeders sell non-show-quality puppies and kittens on contracts requiring traditional spaying and neutering, it remains to be seen if they will take the important, but more expensive, step of altering animals before they are sold.
The action by the AVMA -- hardly a group to act impulsively -- will go a long way in building acceptance for this important advancement in the fight against animal overpopulation.
Q: We saw an ad in the paper and picked out a Lab pup when he was 3 weeks old. The breeder says he's ready to go -- at just over 5 weeks. Isn't that a little young?
A: Yes, it is, and by about two weeks. Many animal behaviorists believe the perfect time to put a puppy in its new home is the 49th day -- at the end of its seventh week.
Puppies go through specific stages of development in the first weeks of their lives, and the way they are handled during that time has a lot to do with the dog they will become.
They need to be with their mothers to learn the patterns of acceptable behavior and discipline that will serve them the rest of their lives. They need to spend time with their littermates to understand how to live in a group, and how to get along with other dogs. And they need to be socialized -- around people, dogs, noises and strange objects -- so that they can learn to adapt to life in the modern world.
These lessons are best learned in the litter, and a careful breeder knows how to enhance a puppy's development at the critical stages between 3 and 7 weeks of age.
The period from 5 to 7 weeks is probably the most important one in a dog's life, and should be handled carefully. Puppies need to see new things and hear different noises, and they must be allowed to explore and play. It is at this stage that a good breeder makes sure the puppies are well socialized, for a puppy who has little experience with people during this critical time may not be that responsive to family members when he's grown.
By the end of the seventh week this critical period draws to a close, and the puppy -- with his early lessons learned well -- is ready to join a new household.
A proper puppyhood is so important to the development of a perfect pet that it's best to avoid those puppy sellers who are ignorant about the importance of socialization on puppy development.
Look for the breeder who keeps the puppies in the bosom of the family -- not in a garage, kennel or barn. For your family you want the puppy that has been welcomed into human society from the moment of its birth.
An excellent book for anyone interested in the stages of puppy development -- and puppy raising in general -- is "How To Raise a Puppy You Can Live With," by Clarice Rutherford and David Neil ($6.95; Alpine Publishing, 1901 South Garfield, Loveland, CO 80537.)
Letters and questions may be sent to Gina Spadafori, McClatchy News Service, P.O. Box 15779, Sacramento, Calif. 95852.