Adopting Littermate Puppies: Don’t Do It

by Mark Wilson

With cats, the more the merrier: littermate kittens entertain each other and wear each other out so a single cat isn’t clawing at your furniture all the time. Littermate cats are fine because cats are generally solitary animals and don’t bond with humans that much. Dogs are different. They’re pack animals, so they bond with each other. They’ve also been bred for 10,000 years to bond with humans.

Littermate syndrome breaks all of that. When you adopt two puppies from the same litter—or even two puppies from different litters that have been brought up together and are of the same age—they bond to each other more than they bond to their humans. This isn’t the way it’s supposed to work. Because they’re so bonded to each other, littermates experience tremendous anxiety when they’re separated.

So why not just keep them together? If they don’t like it, then why separate them?

First, one of the puppies will become dominant and the other submissive. This means that the submissive dog will generally be dependent on the dominant one and won’t have a chance to develop into his own doggy-person. The dominant dog, as well, will get an over-inflated sense of himself. He’s a badass compared to his submissive littermate, but once he gets out into the world, he’ll find that he’s not such hot stuff. Rather than learn how to socialize with other dogs, he’ll become frightened and wait for the opportunity to get back to his submissive buddy.

Second, the bond between the two littermates will be stronger than their respective bonds to their human and to other dogs. At their worst, littermates will ignore commands from humans and will spend all their time at the dog park with each other instead of with other dogs.

Sorry, that’s not the worst case scenario. The worst case scenario happens a few years after you get them. The dogs become increasingly aggressive and fight each other, leading to actual injury, especially if they’re both male. They’ll also increasingly ignore their humans and run amok. Because why would they pay attention to humans when they’ve got each other?

The first rule of littermates is that you do not get them. The second rule of littermates is … well, you know. But if you have them already, the remedy for assuaging littermate syndrome is to separate them basically all the time. Separate walks, separate training, separate sleeping (and separate crates if you’re crate-training), separate feeding. You’re essentially working twice as hard to undo the reason why you got littermates in the first place; i.e., to keep them together. With littermates, you’re actively working to keep them apart.

And that’s dumb. It’s like the story of that famous wrestler who was drowning but refused to take off his heavy gold accoutrements as he flailed in the water. He died.

Once a dog is matured—that is, after a year or so—you can get another dog because the first one has bonded to its humans and has an identity all its own. There’s no problem with having multiple dogs, provided they’re in different stages of development.

The seed of this issue comes from experience. My friends were coaxed into getting littermates by a foster boarder. In retrospect, someone with dog experience should have known better, meaning this boarder was either negligent in not knowing about littermate syndrome; or, if he did know, really irresponsible in pushing littermates on them.

My friends had no idea what littermate syndrome was. For the first week and a half, they crated the dogs together (bad idea), let them hang out together all the time (bad idea), sleep together (bad idea), and walked them at the same time (bad idea). They noticed a lot of play-fighting, but chalked it up to “that’s what puppies do.” The fighting seemed more aggressive than the play-fighting at the dog park, but then they thought, “Well, dogs in a pack play differently with each other than they do unfamiliar dogs.”

One of the dogs injured himself (unrelated to fighting; he basically banged his arm into the wall while running really fast). Because the two of them fought so much, the injured dog had to be crated so that he didn’t further damage the arm. This is when we realized there was a problem: he howled and howled when he was put into a crate by himself. It wasn’t the crate; they had been in a crate before and did just fine, but they were together. It was only when one of them was separated from the other that the howling started.

They mentioned this problem casually to a neighbor who also just got a puppy. The neighbor mentioned that he and his girlfriend had thought about getting littermates, but the Humane Society they got the puppy from refused to give them littermates and then explained littermate syndrome to them. That’s where my friends first heard about it.

If puppies seem excessively bonded to each other, it might seem cruel not to take both of them, but the excessive bonding actually lets you know that something is wrong. In the future, it’s not like the dogs will be able to be together all the time. There will be times when the dogs will be separated: if one has to go to the vet, for example. This separation results in terrible anxiety that does the dog no good. They also need to be trained separately so that they each know how to respond to commands and also won’t be distracted by each other. And finally, problems will arise in the future that you can’t predict. Many of the articles we read about littermate syndrome ended with, “And I had to give one of them up.”

It’s possible to raise littermates, but it’s difficult and time-consuming. And the best option for everyone—dogs and humans alike—is just not to do it in the first place.

Sources of Actual Information