They grow up so fast: When is it safe to take your puppy out on the town?


File photo. File photo.

It’s a common conversation with new puppy owners. Here they are, giddy with excitement over their new addition, but I can see the fear in their eyes. “How long should I wait to take her out? Six months? Ten? I don’t want her catching anything.”

I wouldn’t want to suggest that there are no dangers out there. Puppies are still developing, and they are more vulnerable to illness than adult dogs. But that doesn’t mean the poor things need to grow up in hermetic bubbles. In fact, there are a lot of reasons why you shouldn’t hide your puppy away from the world. Those early months are an important window for socialization with people and animals, and the more she meets, the better adjusted she’ll be in the long run. It’s a shame to let fear get in the way of such an opportunity. So how do you keep your puppy safe? All it really takes is a bit of knowledge and some common-
sense caution.

At a glance, it seems like there are so many things to avoid. Puppies get all these shots for nasty infections like parvovirus, distemper, and rabies. These aren’t the sniffles we’re talking about. They are awful, fatal diseases. Aren’t puppies at risk until that schedule of vaccines is finished at four or five months old? Well…yes and no. It’s true that immunity isn’t considered complete until the entire course is completed. But it’s also true that your puppy isn’t going to catch any of those things from a dog that is properly immunized. Put simply, you have nothing to fear from animals that are treated as well as your own. And that gives you a significant advantage.

So what places are safe, and what places aren’t? I recommend avoiding uncontrolled and unpredictable environments until a puppy is completely finished with her vaccine schedule. Charlottesville has some great dog parks and off-leash hiking trails, but without knowing what dogs have been there recently, it’s best to avoid them until yours is completely protected. Without a tether to keep her close, it’s too easy for a curious puppy to slink off and find trouble.

Friends and family are a good starting point if you’re looking to expand your pup’s horizons without venturing too far from your comfort zone. More than likely, the other people in your life are responsible pet owners, which means that you don’t have much to fear. Don’t get me wrong—even well-attended dogs can pick up the occasional bug, but it’s not the end of the world if your puppy comes down with a little cough. She’ll be O.K. The important thing is that the heartbreaking heavy-hitters like parvo are nowhere to be seen.

Once you’re feeling a bit more confident, pedestrian areas like the Downtown Mall are pretty ideal for giving your puppy a chance to strut her stuff. It can be busy, but it’s a controlled kind of chaos where things are clean and visitors are likely to be friendly and healthy. Is it completely without risk? No, but as long as you keep your wits about you, there’s no need to panic. If you see something that gets your Spidey sense tingling, just scoop your puppy off the ground and head the other way. Otherwise, it’s a great place to meet and greet strangers. And it’s worth noting that meeting and greeting strangers is totally normal when you have a puppy around, even if it feels a bit weird when you don’t. Another canine superpower.

It’s good to be aware of risk. But there’s a wide gulf between something requiring a bit of foresight, and something being utterly fraught with danger. Luckily, raising a puppy is the former. There’s a whole world out there, and your puppy is itching to see some of it. Honestly, the biggest problem you’re likely to face is that it can be hard to walk more than a few feet per minute with everybody stopping to coo at the adorable furball at the end of your leash. Really, there are worse things.

Dr. Mike Fietz is a small animal veterinarian at Georgetown Veterinary Hospital. He received his veterinary degree from Cornell University in 2003, and has lived in Charlottesville since.

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