The Orphans Among Us
If we have been doing rescue long enough, or raising animals long enough, we all have had the experience of raising an orphaned animal. The circumstances that created the situation are often sad but, as we all know, raising an orphaned animal usually creates a special bond with that animal and we tend to love the time we spend with these orphans. This blog entry is focused on things I have learned about orphans and how to raise them.
The most important thing I have learned is that an orphan should never be raised in isolation. No, I'm not talking about the punishment type of solitary confinement that criminals experience. I'm talking about the isolation from members of it's own species that often happens when we get a tiny baby that needs a bottle to survive. These babies are usually under three weeks old when we get them and we become their mother. We lavish attention on these tiny fur babies. We adore them and bond with them, but we seldom allow them to interact with other members of their species. This is often because we just don't have a kitten or puppy of the same age or close to the same age. Older animals may hurt them so the orphan gets their attention from us but not the species that they need to learn to live with and interact with as an adult.
All animals go through critical developmental stages and those stages are never more important than from birth to about eight weeks old. These stages are what creates the adult dog or cat and what happens during the stages determines how these animals behave as adults.
Check out this web site for a brief explanation of puppy developmental stages. The same stages roughly apply to kittens. https://www.cesarsway.com/dog-behavior/puppies/the-stages-of-puppy-growth-and-development There is a wealth of information on the internet about animal and human developmental stages and I recommend doing some research if you are someone who does occasionally raise an orphan animal. You might also do a search for "Social problems raising an orphan puppy" and "Social problems raising an orphan kitten."
Some of the earliest stages bond the baby to it's mother and to litter mates. While in a litter, a puppy or kitten learns how to interact with members of it's own species. The litter mates develop a social order, develop their individual personalities and learn how to live within their species social restrictions and rules. It is this stage that an orphan misses appropriate interaction and it has a profound affect on the rest of it's life...and so very often that influence is not good.
If a puppy or kitten is orphaned in those first three or four weeks, they miss so much of the interactions needed to get along with other dogs or cats as adults. They are overly attached and social with their human but often fearful or even hostile towards their own species as adults. Since the person caring for the orphan often babies and cuddles the orphan, social order is not appropriately learned and they can easily accidentally be taught they are the boss. Aggression is a behavior to get what they want and this often causes them to lose a home later in life. They learn how to interact with humans but their lack of education about their own species often causes them to be inappropriately aggressive, isolated or fearful of their own species. They tend to not fit into multiple pet households or have difficult issues in those households simply because their mother and littermates were not available to teach them how to appropriately interact with their own species.
So how do you compensate for the lack of mom and litter mates? First, do as much research as possible to fully understand the social issues. Understand that your efforts to provide the orphan with the social enrichment it needs when tiny will mean a much better chance of success as an adult in a home.
If you orphan is actually an orphaned litter, do not hand out the babies to several homes. Keep them together. If it is a large litter and you or your volunteers cannot care for the entire litter in one place always send multiple puppies or kittens to each foster home. Two or more to each home should be the rule! While they still will not have the benefit of mom teaching them the ways of their species, they will interact and bond with litter mates and that goes a long way to helping them interact with members of their own species as adults.
Do not adopt out a pup (take out of the litter even it the litter is just two orphans) until they are eight weeks old. With kittens ten weeks is better. This gives them a good foundation dealing with members of their own species so when going into their new home they have many of the social skills they need to interact with the other animals in the new home.
If you have found or been given a single orphan, do everything possible to find another orphan of the same species to raise together. Yes, it is extra work and expense but the lifelong success of the orphan may hinge on being raised before eight weeks old with other members of it's own species. If you are a rescue, contact other rescues to see if they have orphans that you can foster with your orphan. If you are a private citizen contact rescues and offer to foster for them if they have a single orphan in need or ask them to take the orphan as they probably have access to better options that the private citizen.
If you cannot find another orphan to raise with your orphan, try to introduce it to SAFE older members of it's own species asap after the orphan is up and exploring it's world. Never leave them alone with older dogs and cats but give them time to interact gently. This isn't ideal but it is better than total isolation.
I have found that raising orphans is probably one of the most rewarding activities I can do. But we must always keep in mind that feeding them, cleaning them and loving them isn't enough. Accepting the challenge of raising an orphan means that we will determine the future of that orphan. How we care for them will influence their behaviors and their behaviors will often determine whether they succeed or fail in a home. Taking care of their social needs is just as important as taking care of their physical needs.