Caring for your puppy’s health

Bringing your puppy home for the first time is a brilliant feeling; there’s the excitement, the anticipation, the trepidation and, of course, the love. The trepidation is justified because raising a puppy is a huge responsibility and maintaining puppy health is not joke.

puppy healthWe now know that it requires a lot more than providing food, shelter and affection. Maintaining puppy health requires research into the breed, puppy classes, ongoing socialization and a basic understanding of how puppies learn. This is important for you to provide the proper care and grounding required for a happy and well-adjusted dog.

We’re going to look at some guidelines to help you get through the beginning stages of your puppy’s life at home so you can provide the best care possible to maintain your pup’s health – and your sanity.

First, a safety note on puppy health

Puppies are delicate babies and when they first come to your home they also feel very stressed. It’s very important that you give the pup time to settle on their own. Try not to overhandle puppies or pick them up all the time. Ensure your kids do the same. If your kids overhandle the puppy or keep picking her up even when she’s tired and or is full after a meal, your puppy may associate children with discomfort and irritability and can become nippy and reactive.

All interaction between puppies and children should be supervised. Children must learn correct greeting and handling behavior.

Puppy proofing

You wouldn’t dream of bringing home a newborn baby without baby-proofing your home. Give your puppy the same consideration. Like babies, puppies are tactile explorers; they paw everything, sniff everything, bite everything, lick everything and scratch everything just to see what it does. Nothing is off limits. It’s up to you to manage the environment so your puppy can reach any valuable, favored or dangerous items. You also need to and provide legal chewing alternatives.

For puppy health you need to get down to puppy level. Get down on your hands and knees and look for potential temptation and danger. These include sharp corners, cupboards easy to open, electrical cords, window blind cords, open bins, laundry hampers, shoe storage, and poisonous house plants. Don’t forget about toilet paper, which is huge fun to shred, and remote controls, mobile phones and the fence surrounding your property.

Once you’re sure you’ve thought of everything, you can bring your puppy home. However, keep a close eye on her for the first few weeks because she’s guaranteed to find something that you overlooked.

Puppy space

Puppies need a safe place where they can’t get into trouble if you have to leave them alone for a while. You can create a space using baby gates or buy or make your own puppy pen. Put in her bed, blanket, some toys, chews and her food and water. You can also make a ‘toileting’ section using a patch of roll-on lawn on a big tray or sheet of plastic. This way she learns a substrate preference which makes house training that much easier. She can have her meals in the pen, play and nap in the pen and generally be safe. As a safe place, she is not to be disturbed during meals or nap time and it should never be used as a punishment.

Choose where your puppy will sleep, but remember as you start, so shall you carry on. If puppy starts off sleeping on your bed, that’s where she will expect to sleep for the rest of her life. Getting her to sleep anywhere else will prove tricky. You can put a bed or crate in your room and encourage her to sleep there. You can use a bed or crate in any room in your house, but make it comfy. Puppies should always sleep inside and not outside in a kennel, laundry or garage.

Feeding puppy

corgi puppy

Puppies have special nutritional needs so their bones and bodies grow at the right rate. You need to buy puppy food suitable for your pup’s size. That means large breed, medium or small breed puppy food. Get food wrong and your puppy will grow too fast for the bones to develop properly. Or you could retard growth as a result of nutritional deficiencies. This could lead to long-term health problems

Find out what food your puppy is being fed wherever she lives before you bring her home. If it’s good quality you can feed her the same. If you want to change the food then gradually introduce the new food to her meals so that her tummy can adjust.

Puppies have small tummies (although they don’t know it), so they should get small meals often. They should get at least three meals a day, but your puppy might do better with four meals a day.

You don’t have to feed your puppy from a bowl. You can use interactive feeders such as Kongs, Buster Cubes, treat balls and other puzzle food dispensers that will increase feeding time, and stimulate your pup mentally. Mental stimulation is vital to growing healthy brains and staving off boredom, which prevents problem behaviors.

Puppy socialization and training

Puppies go through a critical learning period which ends at 16 weeks. During this period their brains grow to approximately 80% of their adult size. They learn at an amazing speed and form associations with everything.

You need to introduce your puppy to as many new stimuli as possible, including different people (height, race, age, facial hair, hats, walking sticks, etc.), different animals (cats, rabbits, chickens, guinea pigs, etc.), different environments (the beach, mountain, parks, restaurants, schools, etc.) and anything that she is likely to encounter in your house in her lifetime. For example, winter puppies should be exposed to sun hats and tennis rackets. Summer puppies should be exposed to snow boots, skis and you wearing heavy coats, hats and scarves. Don’t forget about things like umbrellas, kids’ toys, the dishwasher, blender, lawn mower, and different floor surfaces. You can get a CD which includes thunder, fireworks, music, hooting, etc.

All experiences should be kept positive, so don’t be afraid to help the process with lots of treats.

Think of it as stress immunization. The more novel experiences your puppy survives now, the more confident she’ll be in novel situations going forward.

puppy yawningThis is also the best time to attend puppy classes to build the foundations for obedience and teach your puppy the basics, such as recall, walking on lead (heel), sit, down, settle, leave it and stay. Ongoing training is to get you through adolescence and keep her mentally stimulated throughout life.

Puppy ID

It’s important that your puppy have obvious identification. The easiest is a tag with her name, your contact details, and other important information, whether she is blind or microchipped. You can get tailor-made collars with their details embroidered in eye-catching colors.

Microchipping your puppy is also very important. Microchip numbers are registered on national databases, so you can be reunited with your dog no matter she is lost or ends up. They are especially important in case your puppy loses her tag or collar and whoever finds her can’t contact you.

Puppy health care

One of the first things to do before you bring a puppy home is find a good vet. You can ask breeders, shelters, friends and family for advice, or hop onto pet-related community forums and ask for recommendations. Visit the clinic to see if you like the look and feel of the place and ask questions about the puppy health care available.

Puppy vaccinations

Young puppies are vulnerable to certain diseases which can be fatal if they are unvaccinated, including parvo and distemper. When you get your puppy, she should have had the first shot in the puppy vaccination schedule (about 8 weeks). The second vac is given at about 10 weeks and the third at about 12 weeks. The vaccinations cover the major dog diseases: distemper, parvo, hepatitis and leptospirosis.

Veterinarians may recommend you don’t take your puppy out until she’s had all or at least two of her vaccinations. Trainers and behaviorists recommend you take them out much sooner to optimize the critical socialization period. Just ensure that you don’t let them walk anywhere that could be contaminated, like dog parks. You can carry them or sit with them in the car and they can still get the benefits of novel experiences.


puppies yawning

Aside from preventing unwanted puppy births, sterilization has several health benefits for male and female dogs. It can prevent various cancers associated with the reproductive system (testicular and ovarian), as well as breast cancer. In females it can prevent uterine infections, especially pyometra, which is very dangerous, and false pregnancies which can lead to infected mammary glands (mastitis).

The best age to sterilize your puppy is hotly debated from a puppy health and behavioral perspective. Hormones are essential for bone growth and temperament development, so early sterilization can affect physical development and hamper certain traits, such as self-confidence. On the other hand, late sterilization increases the risk of cancer and can allow certain sexually mature-related behaviors (marking and aggression) to become learnt and more difficult to manage.

Generally, most veterinarians recommend sterilization when your puppy is 6 months old, depending on breed. Many shelters sterilize puppies at 3 months old and some even go as low as 2 months, which is not recommended. A modern trend is to wait until pups are around 12- 14 months old.

Puppy dental care

Most dogs have periodontal (gum) disease by the time they’re two or three years old. You need to implement a dental care regimen as soon as possible. Young puppies more readily accept having their teeth brushed. In addition to brushing teeth, you can give your puppy dental care treats (Dentastix), toys designed to clean teeth and gums (Kong has rope chew toys) and feed them dry kibble and biscuits.

Puppy grooming

The level of grooming required depends on your puppy’s breed; for example, a pit bull puppy requires less brushing than a Yorkie. However, you may want to brush your puppy regularly just to get them used to the feeling of being touched and handled all over. All puppies should get used to having their nails cut, as long nails can affect foot placement and growth, not to mention they don’t provide much grip so your pup can slip and slide on smooth floors.

Puppies shouldn’t be bathed often because it strips their coat and skin of essential oils and can cause dry skin and lead to allergies. The only time your puppy should be bathed is when they roll in something particularly disgusting that can’t be wiped clean with a damp towel. Always use a shampoo especially formulated for puppies.

You should also check and clean your puppy’s ears regularly to prevent infection. Use moistened cotton wool balls to clean ears.

Puppy tick, flea and worm treatment

All dogs need regular tick, flea and worm treatment, but puppies need products that have been formulated for their sensitive bodies. Spot-on drops and sprays may be best for your pup before you move onto tablets.

Puppies should be dewormed once a month until they are 6 months old and every 3 months thereafter.

sleeping puppyA safety note: Never give your puppy human medications, even if your friend swears by a certain antihistamine or anti-inflammatory. Always consult your vet first.

Exercising puppy

Puppies need exercise in moderation. Too much repetitive exercise, like walking or running, can damage joints and growth plates, which can result in permanent or long-term injuries. You should never take your puppy jogging until she is at least 18 months old, although 24 months may be better. Until your puppy is about 6 months month she will need two short walks of 10 -15 minutes each – slow walks with plenty of time for sniffing. Older than 6 months and you gradually can increase the time until you’re walking for about 45 minutes. Long hikes should be saved for when your puppy is at least two years old.

Vigorous, interactive play with you and other dogs is an important form of exercise. It doesn’t have the same repetitive movement of walking or running, so it’s safer on joints and bone plates and also allows your puppy to practice polite canine behavior. Fun games include hide and seek, find it, chase, fetch and tug.

Signs of a sick puppy

It’s immediately obvious if a puppy isn’t feeling well. The first sign is usually loss of appetite – if a puppy doesn’t want to eat it’s a big indicator that something is not right. A lethargic pup is also not a happy pup. If you see these signs, you might want to call your vet, especially if they are accompanied by any of the following:

  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Nasal discharge
  • Eye discharge, swollen or heavy eyes
  • Constipation and infrequent urination
  • Pale gums (although some pups have naturally pale pink gums, sometimes called Puppy pink)
  • Weight loss or very slow weight gain
  • Wheezing, coughing, sneezing and difficulty breathing
  • Swollen tummy that is painful to touch

It’s a good idea to learn some basic first aid so that you can help your puppy, and perhaps save her life in an emergency.

puppy in field

Handy courses include puppy CPR, treatment for heatstroke and hypothermia, how to induce vomiting in case your pup ingests poison or stumbles across your chocolate stash, and even first aid for electric shocks (puppies have been known to chew wires and cables) and drowning (they can drown in puppy pools or even inappropriately sized water bowls).

It’s a very good idea to get puppy health insurance as soon as you bring your puppy home. Getting health insurance when your dog is still a puppy means that you don’t have to worry about any exclusions due to pre-existing conditions, which means more extensive coverage later on in your dog’s life.