How to Keep a Puppy Healthy (essential puppy care)
You’ve brought your new cute bundle of fluff home. It’s all too easy to be overwhelmed by all the decisions that need to be made to keep your puppy healthy and happy.
The choices you make in looking after your puppy in the first few months of life can make a huge difference in keeping them healthy. Not just while they’re your either, but also well into adulthood and even old age.
Taking these nine puppy care steps will help prevent the most common diseases, protect them from harm, as well as keep your puppy mentally stimulated and happy.
How to Keep A Puppy Healthy
Start with a healthy puppy that’s right for you
Feed a high quality, appropriate diet
Socialization + training
1: Choose the Right Puppy
Step number one is to start off with a healthy puppy from the very beginning, and one of a breed that's right for you. It is really important that you research the right breed.
Do they have the right energy levels?
Are they the right size?
Do they have the right temperament to suit your lifestyle?
The right breed
This is really important, and a decision that’s often not given the importance it warrants.
Mental problems and behavioral problems are real and serious issues that can arise if the wrong breed choice is made, especially earlier on in life.
Did you know that behavioral problems are the biggest cause of death and rehoming in dogs under the age of 3 years? If you choose the wrong breed, then this statistic is more likely to include your new puppy.
If you need help deciding, I’ve written a whole article all about choosing the right dog breed for your family.
You also need to know the health problems that your new puppy is likely to face because of their breed. so that you can be prepared to monitor them for signs of these developing and to take action when needed.
Do you have a Westie? They are prone to allergic skin disease and get really itchy. A Pug or French Bulldog? Their airways are really narrow and surgery is often needed to help them breathe properly. A Daschund? It’s their backs that you need to be careful of, with slipped discs being very common.
When it comes to actually buying that puppy, research where you are going to get them from. You have a number of options but you want to find a reliable source. This could be a breeder with an excellent reputation. It could also be a rescue shelter, who only re-home puppies that are completely healthy, and that have typically also been vaccinated and vet checked to boot.
Visit the puppy when they are young and when you can see them with their mother. Check out their home environment.
Never simply meet someone on the side of the road after answering an ad in the local paper or online.
Whatever the source, you should also ideally make sure your new puppy has a vet check either just before or just after you bring them home so you know from the very outset that they are healthy.
If you want to learn more, head over to my article all about how to buy a healthy puppy.
2: Avoid Overfeeding
My second step is to not overfeed your new puppy.
Obesity is a massive problem. We are in the middle of a pet obesity crisis, with over 54% of dogs in the US being classed as overweight or obese!
The life expectancy of an overweight dog can be reduced by up to two years. Being overweight also makes diseases like arthritis and diabetes more likely to become problems in older age (and in young fat dogs too).
Obesity has a massive impact on reducing both the quantity and quality of life as well as overall body health. Its impact should not be underestimated.
So how can you protect your puppy from piling on the pounds?
Learn how to condition score your dog. This simple 3-step process lets you know if your dog is a healthy weight, overweight, or obese.
Know how much you should be feeding. That can often be found on the side of the feeding packet, although these tables do tend to overestimate the amount of feed your dog in my experience. Once you know how much to feed, be consistent. Give them a set amount at each meal time and never simply leave the food bowl permanently topped up.
If you’re unsure, ask your vet team:
What should your puppies ideal weight be?
What should you be feeding them?
How much should you be feeding?
3: High-Quality, Appropriate Diet
This brings me on to step three, which is to feed a high-quality, appropriate diet. You should be feeding a complete and balanced puppy diet appropriate to your dog's size.
Small breeds are those that are less than 10 kilos or 22 pounds when they become adults. Large breeds are those that are over 25 kilos or 55 pounds when they're adults.
This is really important because for large breed dogs especially. If they grow too quickly they are more likely to get bone and joint problems which can cause a massive impact on their comfort levels and their quality of life as they get older. Feed a large breed diet to a small breed dog and they are likely to become deficient in certain essential nutrients.
The other thing we want to think about is also avoiding boutique diets, and those with peculiar ingredients. There have been recent problems here when it comes to the grain-free diets causing heart failure, with other diets also being implicated.
Finally, you might be concerned about the other more recent recall of some diets due to contamination with deadly levels of vitamin D, and as a result considering feeding your puppy a raw diet.
Rather than going into great detail here, if this is you then I’d encourage you to check out my free complete guide to raw versus kibble diets for dogs ebook.
My fourth puppy care essential is simply to vaccinate.
Parvovirus, distemper, infectious hepatitis...these are puppy and dog killers that are able to be prevented with vaccination.
Every puppy should be vaccinated.
We start puppy shots at six to eight weeks, depending on a puppy’s situation and lifestyle. The primary course then typically involves giving three vaccines that end at about 16 weeks of age.
We also have vaccines that protect against rabies, leptospirosis, Lyme disease and kennel cough (or canine cough). The need for these are more dependent on the region and the area you are in the world, but also the lifestyle risks of your puppy.
You can read more in my post do puppies need shots.
5: Socialization and Training
Remember that I said behavioral problems are one of the leading causes of euthanasia and re-homing in young dogs less than three years of age?
As well as choosing the right puppy for your family, socialization in the first 16 to 20 weeks of a puppy’s life is absolutely essential. Proper socialization helps prevent phobias. It helps dogs cope with strange situations later on in life, and helps reduce the likelihood of other behavioral problems.
Socialization is so important that I believe you should have a plan to socialize your puppy safely and effectively in place before you even bring them home (like this one). Socialization is that important!
Ongoing training is also important. You need to work on your down/sit/stay. Work on recall. This is a really big one for safety when you're out with your puppy. Having a reliable recall can stop them from running across a busy road or getting in harm's way. Training is also fun and a great way to bond with your puppy!
Another part of training is to get your puppy used to being examined. Having their mouth open, having their ears looked in, having their legs poked and played with, having their coat examined. If they are comfortable with this at home, if they ever have a wound, you need to check their ears because they’ve started head-shaking, or you simply want to cut their nails, they are not going to panic when you start handling them. It also makes vet visits much less stressful!
6: Parasite Control
Intestinal worms, fleas, ticks, and heartworm are all potential problems in all ages of dogs. Your puppy though is much more sensitive to parasites. Partly because they are smaller, but also because it takes fewer parasites to cause a problem.
I’ve had the misfortune to see puppies that have become anemic and die from severe flea infestations. I’ve seen large intestinal worm numbers result in complete intestinal obstruction. Both problems that are both simple and cheap to prevent.
Ticks and Lyme disease is another problem, with numerous other tick-borne diseases being a potential risk depending on where you live. In a similar way, you may need to protect your dog from heartworm, lungworm, sandflies...it’s a long list.
Your vet will be able to advise you of the specific risks facing your puppy, as well as the best way to minimize problems from ever occurring.
7: Dental Care
Dental disease is one of the biggest contributors to reducing a dog's welfare over the course of their life. It has that great an impact and is something that, just like obesity, is often overlooked.
80% of dogs will have some dental disease by the time they get to the age of three!
While your dog is a puppy, the best thing to do is to start brushing their teeth. They have baby teeth which will fall out, however, if you get your puppy used to having their teeth brushed at an early age, they are much more likely to accept it than starting to brush later in life. They are simply going to accept that tooth brushing is a part of daily life.
There are other things that we can do to keep a dog’s teeth clean. These include chews, gels, and different diets. But tooth-brushing is undoubtedly best so, while your dog is a puppy, get started.
8: Regular Exercise
As a rule of thumb, exercise your puppy for about five minutes for every month of life, twice a day.
Regular is better than your pup being a weekend warrior. Couch potato in the week with a huge run or hike at the weekend.
Make exercise a regular everyday event (and twice daily is even better). There is nothing worse than a puppy or a dog who is sitting in the house getting bored, not doing any activity in the week. But then, the weekend they go and make up for that by doing a 10 kilometer run next to the bike. We have to avoid that.
I also find that most pups will self regulate the amount of exercise they do. The rule of thumb for five minutes for every month of life is just that, a rough rule of thumb. Some puppies will be able to do a lot more. Some won't be able to manage even that amount.
Puppies will generally self-regulate as long as they are not being stimulated to exercise. This is a very important point. If you are getting them excited and encouraging them to run and play by throwing the ball for them, or having them join you on your run or bike ride, They will keep going until they drop. The same thing will happen if they are playing rough and tumble with an older dog. They will keep going despite exhaustion.
This will not be good for their developing skeleton!
If instead, you just let them go at their own pace, they will stop running when they are tired. They start to walk slowly next to you or come and lie down at your feet. They are unlikely to overdo things.
Exercise is also really important, not just for fitness, but also for mental stimulation. When your puppy is out playing and exploring they are going to get so much more stimulation than they would by staying at home.
They are also going to be much happier when they are back home, left to their own devices simply because they are going to be tired. They won’t have any pent up energy and will be much happier sleeping or resting.
9: Mental Stimulation
Boredom and a lack of stimulation are a very common reality for a lot of puppies and dogs. Especially those left at home while you’re out at work all day. If your puppy is not getting exercised then this boredom will be even worse.
Boredom can lead to destructive behavior and other problem behaviors.
To tackle this, consider not feeding your puppy in a food bowl. Instead use activity toys, stuffed kongs, treat balls, licki mat, or snuffle mats. These feeding and treat strategies will make your dog think, engage their brain, and take up more of their time. You can find all of my personal recommendations over on my Amazon page.
Boredom is a really common problem that I see and it definitely leads to bad behavior. You are not going to have a happy dog if they are bored.
Those are my nine steps for how to keep a puppy healthy. Taking the time to go through them and consider how to implement them with your puppy is time well spent. They will keep them healthy long into adulthood and set them up for as happy and healthy a life with you as possible.
Our Pet’s Health: because they’re family