Thinking of adopting doggy siblings?
You’re at the local shelter, ready to adopt a new best friend. As you walk through the cages, you come across two adorable puppies, the only ones left from their litter. Soon you’re laughing at their antics as they bounce around playing together.
“How perfect,” you think. “I’ll adopt both of them so they can keep each other company as they grow up together.”
Not so fast. Many rescue professionals, dog behavior experts and trainers agree it’s a mistake to adopt a pair of puppies from the same litter. The reason: The close bond between canine littermates can prevent them from learning how to interact with their human family or other dogs.
As noted animal behaviorist Patricia McConnell writes, “It seems harder to get their attention, harder to teach them emotional control, and harder to teach them boundaries. I imagine that we humans become more like party poopers that interfere in their fun with their playmates, not to mention that we are more tiring, because they have to learn a foreign language in order to communicate with us.”
How do you know if you’re looking at double trouble? Some signs of littermate syndrome include:
- Fear of strange people or dogs
- Fear of new stimuli
- High level of separation anxiety, even if apart for a short time. One example: Behavior specialist Nicole Wilde remembers two 9-year-old Husky littermates in her group class. “They were so bonded to each other that I literally could not take one and walk a few feet away to practice loose-leash skills because the other would scream.”
- Inability to learn basic commands. An article in the Bark magazine quotes veterinarian and dog behaviorist Dr. Ian Dunbar: “The two combine to produce levels of energy we can barely measure. Tension develops in training and compliance as they squeeze the owner out of the relationship. They’re always living with an enormous distraction: each other.” In the worst cases, littermates can engage in bullying and aggression that can lead to non-stop fighting. Many owners may then find themselves in the position of rehoming one of the siblings so both puppies will have a chance to thrive in a home of their own.
What if you’ve already adopted or are fostering a pair of littermates? Experts agree your main goal should be to keep the puppies from developing a high degree of emotional dependence on each other. Here are some tips to help:
- Crate your puppies separately at night. Start
- out with the crates in close proximity to each other, then gradually increase the distance between them so the puppies can no longer see each other.
- Ideally, the crates will be located in bedrooms so the pups spend time with their human family.
Set up separate training sessions so you can have each puppy’s undivided attention. While one plays in his crate, take the opportunity to heap attention and praise on one puppy so you can develop a separate bond with each one. You also should take time to walk and socialize each separately so they look to you for direction.
- Engage in separate play sessions with each puppy so each can master important skills such as retrieving toys. In an article for Whole Dog Journal, Pat Miller writes, “If you always play fetch with the two together, you’re likely to see that one pup repeatedly gets the toy and brings it back, while the other runs happily along behind. If you watch closely, you may even see the more assertive one do a little body language warning if the other tries to get the toy…The less assertive one defers to her sibling by letting go of the toy and looking away. That’s a fine and normal puppy interaction, but it can suppress the ‘softer’ pup’s retrieving behavior. Unless you make the effort to give her positive reinforcement for fetching toys when you play with her alone, you might find it difficult to get her to retrieve later on in her training.”
What About Cats?
While dog lovers should heed concerns about adopting littermates, the same is not true for cat fanciers. “In fact, the exact opposite is true for kittens,” said Melanie Corwin, My Furry Valentine’s team lead for rescues and shelters. “Many responsible rescue groups only adopt kittens in pairs because they need the emotional and physical support they receive from their littermate. Kittens bond so much during the first eight weeks, and it is harder to get them to like cats that are not related.”
Cats learn by observation, and adopting kitten pairs can help each other navigate their new home – including using the litter box. In addition to keeping each other company, feral kittens can help each other to become calmer.
In a study conducted in 1998, John Bradshaw and Suzanne L. Hall observed 14 pairs of littermates that had lived together since birth and 11 pairs of unrelated individuals that were not brought together until at least one of each pair was over 1 year of age. The results:
- All of the littermates slept together, while only a few of the unrelated pairs would occasionally do this.
- Littermates were more likely to groom each other, while the unrelated cats did not.
- Most of the littermates were able to eat next to each other, while non-littermates had to be fed separately.
Whether your preference is for dogs or cats, be sure you consider the pros and cons before bringing littermates into your home.