Every good vet will tell you that prevention is better than cure. So in addition to a nutritious, balanced diet, you can make sure your puppy thrives by providing regular exercise, regular veterinary check-ups and effective dental care.
Keeping fit is as important for your puppy as it is for you. A healthy exercise regime will help puppies to stay full of energy, keep in shape and build a strong immune system so they are less likely to fall ill. At the same time, they should never be over-exercised. If you are not sure how much to exercise your puppy, consult your vet. This is particularly important if you own a breed known to have orthopaedic problems (e.g. Labrador Retriever) or a large or giant breed, as their requirements may be different from smaller or toy breeds.
Initially, playing free in the garden or a park will be all a puppy needs (make sure he/she has had all the required vaccinations before being allowed into areas where other dogs have been). Your breeder may give you a safe exercise programme to follow - and if they don't, just ask for one or consult your vet/vet nurse. Apart from keeping your pup in top condition, exercise also provides a vital way to socialise and play freely with other dogs and people and is an opportunity to start training your puppy. Avoid extremely rough play, especially with larger breeds, as it can damage growing joints.
Start to train your puppy to walk properly on a lead without pulling, even if they will rarely be walked on a lead. A head collar may help you teach them kindly, but never use a choke chain: they're long out of date and can be very dangerous, especially with puppies. Have a chat with your vet/vet nurse or dog trainer on the best methods of lead training. A puppy-training class is a great way to learn such techniques as well as meeting other puppies and their owners. Ask your vet to recommend a local class: they may hold some themselves.
Remember that variety is the spice of life, so keep exercise interesting. Trudging around the block three times every morning and evening is boring for your puppy, not to mention you. Playing chase games with balls and toys can really help retain your puppy's interest. Never throw sticks as they can cause serious injury. If you live in the country, include some road walking to keep your puppy's nails trim and improve behaviour on the lead.
If you own a breed used to a lot of exercise then consider a specific class/form of training. For example Border Collies are excellent at obedience and agility as well as exciting games such as fly ball, and Labradors and Spaniels make excellent retrievers. Even terriers can learn to be great little agility dogs. Ask your breeder about this, or research a local training club. This is also a great way to meet other dog owners.
Also, think about trying other forms of exercise. Is there a canine swimming pool near you, for example? Some breeds, such as Newfoundlands and Retrievers, love to practice their doggie paddle. Remember dogs can get into trouble swimming in ponds/lakes/rivers/the sea due to depth changes and currents so stick to a hydrotherapy pool.
Visiting the vet
Before you even pick up your puppy you should identify and register with a local vet. Once you pick up your puppy arrange an appointment and tell them it's a new puppy health-check, as they may want to allocate a bit more time than the usual 10-minute consultation. Once you get to the surgery, carry your puppy from the car if possible and keep your puppy on your lap and away from other dogs; do not put your puppy on the waiting-room scales or allow them to sniff any other dogs. This is especially important if your puppy is unvaccinated, or hasn’t completed the vaccination course, as they could be susceptible to diseases from other dogs. To try and avoid any negative associations, it's worth taking along some treats, and asking the vet and nurses to reward your puppy during the check-up so he or she is happy to go to the vet’s.
At the first consultation, the vet will give your puppy a thorough examination and discuss vaccination requirements with you, so take along the details of any previous treatments (vaccination certificates should have been provided by the breeder/rescue centre). Your vet will also want to have a chat with you about worming and fleas (again a breeder/rescue centre should provide details of previous treatments), microchipping and neutering, as well as answering any questions you have about health care, feeding, exercise or grooming. Remember to ask for details of puppy parties and dog-training classes held at the surgery or nearby. If your puppy is not already insured, discuss this too, as policies have different advantages and disadvantages.
Every so often puppies fall ill. The earlier a problem is identified and treated the better. It's important to give your puppy regular home health-checks yourself and get them used to being examined. It is always better to be safe than sorry, so if you suspect anything might be wrong with your puppy, consult your veterinary practice immediately. Here's a list of what to be look out for (list not exhaustive, if in doubt consult your vet):
- regular assessments by your vet are recommended, but you can assess your dog’s body condition at home. For easy reference, use the Body Condition Chart
. Run your hands around the flanks and abdomen. At ideal weight you should be able to feel, but not see, their ribs quite easily, with a thin covering layer of fat. The waistline behind the ribs should be visible when looking down from above, with their abdomen noticeably tucked up when viewed from the side.
Click here for more information on how to check your puppy's body condition.
- should be clear of any thick brown (or green) wax and shouldn't smell. Your puppy should not scratch their ears or shake their head. Some long-eared breeds (e.g. Cocker Spaniels) benefit from regular ear cleaning with special ear cleaners but consult your vet and always use a veterinary recommended product. Don't clean too vigorously, and never use cotton buds or try and clean too deeply into the ear canal unless instructed by your vet as damage to the eardrum can result.
- should be wide open, bright and clear rather than runny, red or sore. Your puppy should not shy away from light as if it hurts their eyes.
- there should be no crusting of the surface, nor any runny discharges, bleeding or change in colour. Consult your vet if you notice any signs you are worried about. A lot is often made of the ‘wetness’ of the dog’s nose but this can vary with the weather, for example. A very dry or crusty nose could indicate a problem.
- bad breath can mean a digestive upset or dental problems. Teeth should be white with no excess tartar (which looks thick and brown). The gums should be pink, not red or swollen. Consult your vet or veterinary nurse to arrange regular dental check-ups and learn how to clean your dog’s teeth at an early age as this is best way to prevent future problems.
Skin and coat
- skin can be pink or black, depending on your puppy's natural pigments, and free of any scruffy dandruff or sores. Little black dots in the coat could indicate fleas, so discuss flea control with your veterinary practice. The coat should be thick (depending on breed) and shiny with no broken hairs. Hair can be shed all year around, but it's normally worse in summer and autumn - you'll need a good vacuum-cleaner. All dogs should have a regular brush, and this is even more important to prevent a matted coat in long-haired breeds. This will also reduce the amount of hair shed in the house. Shedding hair should not leave any bald patches and excessive scratching should prompt a visit to the vet’s. Some breeds like Poodles and Yorkshire Terriers don't shed, but need clipping regularly, often by a professional dog groomer, so remember to include this is your budget if you're unable to do this yourself. Most dogs do not need bathing frequently, but occasionally (and when they have rolled in something smelly!) a gentle dog shampoo properly rinsed out is appropriate.
Nails - should be smooth and can be white or black. Nails that are roughened and break easily may require attention. When checking the nails, remember the dew claws found on the inside of the leg just below the wrist. Some dogs have them on the front legs only; some have them on both front and back; and some don't have any at all. Ask your vet to show you how to clip your puppy's nails so you can keep them in good condition at home. This can be tricky so don’t try and do this without being shown how to do it safely, as clipping nails too short can be very painful and cause bleeding.
- puppies can suffer occasional diarrhoea and vomiting if their diet is changed or they eat the wrong thing outside; if your puppy is at all depressed or the signs persist you must consult your vet.
- it is important your puppy is well socialised and trained to grow into an excellent family pet. Ask your vet about training classes in your area. If you notice any behavioural problems such as biting, chewing or crying when you leave the house, consult your veterinary practice promptly as difficult behaviour is better treated early before the behaviour has become established.
Your puppy's teeth and gums are as vulnerable to disease as your own, and could become a source of discomfort, bad breath and even result in tooth loss. A simple brushing routine can help to prevent gum disease and tooth loss, and is best started while your dog is still a puppy to get him or her used to it as early as possible. Use an enzymatic canine toothpaste from your vet’s (flavours include meat, mint and malt) and a toothbrush designed for dogs. Never use human toothpaste.
Ask your vet or vet nurse to demonstrate how to clean your puppy’s teeth. Older dogs may require veterinary attention and cleaning before you can start cleaning the teeth at home. It is important to start slowly and avoid any negative experiences: it will take some time before your dog becomes comfortable, so don’t rush it. Start by simply lifting the lips on either side of your pup's mouth before progressing to rubbing the teeth with a finger. Then start to introduce a toothbrush or finger brush. Don't bother rubbing or cleaning the inside surfaces of teeth because, unlike humans, dogs tend to accumulate plaque primarily on the outside surfaces. And after every clean, give the 'patient' lots of positive reassurance and even a treat - they've deserved it!
If your dog becomes very upset by attempts to handle his mouth (a common problem when good dental care starts later in their life) have another chat with your vet or vet nurse and ensure there are no existing dental or oral problems causing pain. Some dogs will not tolerate having their teeth cleaned and for such dogs there are a variety of other approaches and aids: oral hygiene gels, available from your vet, that contain enzymes to inhibit the bacteria responsible for plaque formation; chew toys and specially formulated dental chew products designed to reduce tartar and massage the gums. Some dry dog foods can also help scrape away plaque and tartar.
By following your vet’s advice and checking your puppy regularly, many health problems can be avoided and your puppy will grow into a healthy adult dog and a rewarding pet for many years!