Tips from a Vet: How to Keep Your New Puppy Healthy

Adopting a puppy can be overwhelming, so let's talk about getting her a good start on a long life.


New puppies are lots of fun. Responsible care of a new puppy is also lots of work. After many years of writing for Dogster, I am confident that the folks reading this are responsible dog owners who want to do that work. I am often queried by readers and editors at Dogster headquarters about new puppies in the house. What steps do owners of new puppies need to take to give their new pets every possible advantage in life?

Do your homework

By the time your new puppy comes home you hopefully have already done one of the most important things: homework. Pre-adoption investigation should include assessment of what type and size of dog is best for your family. If you have chosen to purchase a purebred dog, you owe it to yourself and your pet to know the breeds and choose one that is appropriate for your circumstances. The puppy you choose also should be expected to grow into a dog that will have an energy level appropriate for your time and activity level.

If you’re buying a purebred dog, investigate the breeder extensively. There are many excellent, ethical breeders out there who are working to produce dogs who are free of the hereditary health problems that are common to certain breeds. And then there are puppy mills and back alley breeders who simply crank ’em out at the highest possible volume. Good breeders will have references. You should talk to them. Good breeders will be happy to discuss the steps they are taking to confirm the health of their bloodlines. You should have that discussion, and you should be familiar with the health problems that are common in your chosen breed.

In genetics there is a phenomenon called hybrid vigor. This means that in theory the offspring of two purebred dogs from different breeds (such as Labradoodles) should be less likely to suffer the problems common to Labradors and Poodles — at least for one generation. In my experience, however, this theory does not apply to designer breeds. For instance, Schnoodles are cute as can be, but in my experience they are prone to both glaucoma (Schnauzers) and luxating patella (Poodles). If you’re buying a hybrid breed, extra diligence is indicated.

Know your puppy’s history, and see the vet sooner rather than later

The person from whom you obtain your puppy should be able to give you specific information about your new pet’s history. Which vaccines has he or she had? When and by whom were they administered? Has he or she been dewormed? If the person can’t answer these questions, you should assume that your puppy is not coming from a responsible source and you should reconsider the adoption.

I recommend that you take your puppy and the health information provided to the vet at your earliest possible convenience. Don’t wait until your puppy is next due for shots or treatments. It is best to establish a relationship with your vet early. This will allow your vet to confirm that the treatments and vaccines already administered were appropriate, and to determine a schedule for follow-up visits that is best for your puppy. It also will allow you to discuss any questions you have, and to discuss microchipping your puppy as a way to permanently identify him or her as yours.

Vaccinate your puppy

Although there is a lot of talk of over-vaccination in adult dogs, no person who has performed serious investigation into the matter doubts the importance of vaccines in puppies. The most important vaccine, called the DHPP or DA2PP, protects against parvovirus and distemper virus. Puppies who do not receive this vaccine are at extreme risk of illness. The rabies vaccine also is important and is required by law in most developed countries. Your vet should be able to help you work out a vaccination schedule that is appropriate for your puppy’s circumstances.

Treat your puppy for parasites

A unique quirk of the roundworm lifecycle means that almost every puppy is born with worms. These worms can cause diarrhea and poor growth. They also can spread to humans and cause serious illness, especially in children or people with compromised immune systems. Your vet can discuss a deworming protocol that can keep your puppy and your family safe.

Puppies also are susceptible to microscopic parasites called coccidia. These organisms commonly cause diarrhea in puppies. They are often detectable in stool samples — your vet will likely request such samples.

Finally, remember that puppies are susceptible to heartworm. The American Heartworm Society recommends that puppies be started on a preventative no later than eight weeks of age. Many heartworm preventatives also eliminate roundworms and other intestinal parasites and thus provide a double benefit.

Think about spaying or neutering your puppy

Many experts are no longer toeing the line of the mantra that “all puppies must be spayed or neutered as early as possible no matter what.” In fact, sterilization of dogs has become an ever more controversial subject among veterinarians. You should start thinking early about whether and when to spay or neuter your puppy. There is a wealth of information available about the benefits and risks of spaying and neutering; a good place to start is my recent article on the subject.

After doing some investigation, a large majority of dog owners decide that spaying or neutering is appropriate for their pets. But you owe it to yourself and your pet to perform that investigation.

Train and socialize your puppy

Don’t be confused by the fact that this topic has come up near the end of the article. Training and socializing your puppy are among the most important things you can do for his or her health. Euthanasia for behavioral reasons is among the leading causes of death in young dogs.

Even minor behavioral issues can get in the way of an ideal relationship with your pet. Your dog will be happier, you will be happier, and everyone who encounters your dog will be happier if he or she is polite, appropriately sociable, and well-trained.

Training and socialization are so important that I recommend puppy classes to all owners of puppies — even highly experienced ones. These classes are tremendously beneficial to puppies and their owners. They’re also fun, and they’re a good way for owners to socialize as well (I know quite a few people who met at puppy classes and later got married).

Attention owners of little dogs: Training and socializing is just as important for your pets. I know many people (not in the veterinary world) who view Chihuahuas as nothing but yappy nuisances. This is because too many Chihuahua owners don’t think they need to train and socialize their dogs. I have met a lot of Chihuahuas in my day, and I can tell you that those that have benefitted from training and socialization are model canine citizens; it is a pleasure to be in their company. Resolve to make your dog a model citizen, regardless of his or her size.

Remember as well that poorly trained dogs give ammunition to the dog haters of the world. The dog haters would like to see dogs banned from parks and other public areas. They would like to see limitations on the number and type of dogs that can be owned by people. They would like to see dogs banned from neighborhoods, apartment buildings and condo complexes. Don’t give these people ammunition. Train and socialize your dog.

Enjoy your puppy

Last but not least, don’t forget to have fun. Owning a dog is one of life’s most rewarding experiences. You and your puppy are going on a long, fun journey together. Enjoy the ride.

Read more about puppies:

Got a question for Dr. Barchas? Ask our vet in the comments below and you might be featured in an upcoming column. (Note that if you have an emergency situation, please see your own vet immediately!)

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