Puppies - from a vet's perspective

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Puppies - from a vet's perspective

In this article we answer some of the most common questions about looking after a new puppy.

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Are you thinking about getting a puppy, or are you about to welcome a new puppy into your family? In our article all about puppies you will find answers to the common questions that owners ask our vets, including information on:

  • Vaccinations
  • Worming
  • Microchipping
  • Feeding
  • Teeth
  • Exercise and socialising
  • Neutering
  • Pet insurance

What vaccinations should my puppy have?

We recommend that all puppies are given an initial course of vaccination injections, starting at around 8 weeks of age. The vaccines must be given 2-4 weeks apart. These should be followed by an annual booster vaccination. Annual vaccinations are needed to boost the body’s immune response because the level of protection naturally declines over time. Certain vaccinations, such as Leptospirosis, are repeated annually, whereas the parvovirus vaccine booster is repeated every three years.

Some of the diseases mentioned below are treatable, however some can be fatal, which is why it is wise to vaccinate against them to help protect your puppy. Unfortunately, there is still only symptomatic treatment for most viruses that affect dogs today. As vets, we know that ‘prevention is better than cure’. Vets frequently see unvaccinated puppies with parvovirus, which is sadly fatal in up to 90% of untreated cases. The University of Glasgow website has further information on Parvovirus. Kennel Cough is another extremely common illness that we see in dogs of all ages. These and many other diseases can be prevented, or the signs of the disease minimised, by vaccination.

The following three vaccinations are given together in one injection as part of a normal vaccination protocol and will help protect your puppy against:

  • Parvovirus - a viral infection that causes painful and severe diarrhoea and vomiting leading to dehydration, with over 90% of untreated cases proving fatal. It is a highly contagious virus that mostly affects puppies, although adult dogs can be infected too.
  • Distemper - a viral infection that has symptoms such as vomiting, diarrhoea, respiratory and neurological disease, which can also be fatal.
  • Canine Hepatitis - a viral disease that causes severe damage to the liver and kidneys. It can be fatal, however it is now rare due to vaccination.

An additional vaccination is also administered at the same time:

  • Leptospirosis (the canine equivalent of Weil’s Disease) - a bacterial infection that can cause liver and kidney failure. It can be caught from swimming in or drinking water exposed to rat’s urine e.g. puddles, canals and ponds.

When should I worm my puppy?

Puppies are curious and are therefore at high risk of contracting several parasites such as roundworms, tapeworms and lungworms whilst they are out and about exploring their new environment. They can pick up worms in a number of ways: from other infected animals; from their mother if she is infected while pregnant; eating worm eggs contained in faeces, urine or grass.

Roundworms are the most common worms in puppies. It is important to note that they can infect humans as well. They cause varying illnesses from mild abdominal pain to blindness, and can even cause death.

Tapeworms are less common than roundworms but the risk is increased if the puppies have fleas or have been fed a raw diet. The main way that puppies get a tapeworm infection is by ingesting fleas that are carrying tapeworm eggs. However, tapeworm eggs can also be found in raw meat. In Wales, there is a high risk of a particularly dangerous tapeworm, which can also infect humans. It causes hydatid disease in humans, which is serious and difficult to treat, so regular treatment for tapeworms is recommended. (Similarly in Europe, where there are also tapeworms that can cause disease in humans, your dog must be treated within 24-105 hours prior to entry into the UK.)

Lungworm (canine angiostrongylosis) is a life-threatening disease of dogs caused by angiostrongylus vasorum. Vets are now seeing significantly more cases of the disease than in the past years. It is passed on by dogs accidentally eating slugs or snails - for example when a slug or snail is sitting on a bone or a favourite toy! As yet it is unclear why there has been an increase, but the worm is known to favour warmer temperatures. Foxes can also be infected, and the increase in urban fox populations might be another reason why vets are seeing more cases, as infected foxes spread worm larvae in their stools.

Do I need to microchip my puppy?

Since 6 April 2016 it is compulsory to microchip all dogs in England, Scotland and Wales. A tiny microchip (the same size of a grain of rice) is injected by your vet or a qualified person under the loose skin on your puppy’s neck. This gives your puppy their own personal identification number. Puppies must be microchipped by 8 weeks of age, so this means that they should be microchipped before they go to their new owner. The breeder should be the first registered keeper of the puppy. The breeder should pass on the microchip paperwork to the new owner when the puppy goes home.

Having your puppy microchipped is the first step; owners of dogs and puppies over the age of eight weeks must then register their pet’s microchip details on one of the authorised databases. These databases are run by private companies. It is your responsibility to keep your details up to date, for example, if you move house or change your phone number. Owners who do not comply face a fine of up to £500. If your puppy gets lost and is handed in to a veterinary clinic, animal rescue, the police or the local authority, they have hand-held microchip scanners that can “read” the barcode on the microchips. Once your dog’s unique number has been found and verified against the national database, you will hopefully be quickly reunited.

As well as being microchipped, it is also a legal requirement for dogs to wear a collar with a tag that shows the owner’s name and address on it when in a public place.

What should I feed my puppy?

It can be difficult to choose the right diet for your puppy or dog when there is such a huge variety of pet food available. Your puppy’s needs will change throughout its life. Different species and breeds may require different diets. A large breed puppy (over 25kg when an adult) requires a large breed puppy food. This is important as there is a link between joint disease and what your dog was fed as a puppy. The breeder should tell you what your puppy has been fed. We would recommend that you continue feeding this diet for at least the first week after bringing the puppy home before weaning them onto the complete diet of your choice. Most manufacturers will advise you how to swap, and Hills have an excellent article on their website about how to do this.

The best option is to use a scientifically formulated puppy food. Use the manufacturers feeding guide to enable you to supply the correct amount of calories and nutrients. Puppy diets contain high quality protein to support healthy tissue and organ development, and high levels of essential minerals such as calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, zinc and iron, as well as vitamin D to help build strong bones and teeth.

Puppies have small stomachs so feed them small amounts at regular intervals. Up to four months of age a puppy should be fed four meals a day, reducing to three meals a day until six months of age, and thereafter two meals a day. Puppies are best fed in a quiet place. Avoid feeding them immediately before or after exercise and allow them to ‘rest and digest’ after eating. To prevent travel sickness, avoid feeding your puppy immediately before travelling.

Your puppy will need constant access to fresh, clean water from a clean bowl. Choose food and water bowls which are easy to clean; ideally use stainless steel or heavy pottery bowls. Throw out any uneaten food after your puppy has finished so that it doesn’t attract flies, or start to go stale or mouldy.

Treats are useful for training purposes, or they can be given on a very occasional basis. On days when you do give treats, remember to reduce the amount of food given in your dog’s main meal. Make sure that the treats are suitable for your puppy’s age and size, and only give them chews that they can easily enjoy and digest. In order to reduce the risk of skeletal and joint problems, it is important that your dog stays slim. Remember that the amount of food stated on the feed pack is only a suggestion; feed the appropriate amount for your puppy.

When do puppies get their adult teeth?

Puppies lose their baby teeth between 3 and 6 months of age. Start checking your puppy’s mouth each day. You can feed a small treat as a reward afterwards. This way, as your puppy grows up, it will get used to having regular dental checks. If you notice a fractured baby tooth or a baby tooth persists longer than normal, then these teeth are likely to need removing by your vet. Tooth brushing helps to prevent the build-up of plaque, periodontal disease and bad breath. Start to introduce teeth brushing slowly, once all of their adult teeth have come through. Dog toothbrushes and specially-flavoured dog toothpaste are available from most pet shops.

When should I start to exercise and socialise my puppy?

When it comes to exercise, there is no specific recommendation. Puppies need much less exercise than adult dogs. Studies have shown that dogs with less muscle mass are at higher risk of suffering from hip dysplasia. The same studies found that puppies with more freedom growing up had less risk of being affected. However, they also showed that puppies under three months of age that used stairs every day were at slightly higher risk of hip dysplasia. Therefore, a good rule of thumb is five minutes of exercise per month of age, up to twice a day, until your puppy is fully grown. We would also recommend trying to avoid stairs until your puppy is three months of age. The Kennel Club has further information on their website.

Socialisation is one of the most important things you can do for your puppy as it helps them become friendly and outgoing. It is important for them to meet people and other animals, and experience lots of everyday sights and sounds, especially in the first few weeks of life.

 A well-socialised puppy is more likely to grow up to be a confident and friendly with people and other dogs. Not done properly, it can lead to problems as adults, such as aggression. Vets will usually recommend that every pup goes to puppy classes to learn socialisation skills. However, puppy classes on their own are not always enough and training should continue beyond this age (14 or 16 weeks). The earlier they start socialisation the better. Ideally, your puppy should come from a breeder where they have been raised amongst everyday sights and sounds, like the vacuum cleaner, TV, radio and washing machine etc.

Full social competence is acquired through interaction with adult dogs as your puppy grows to adulthood. Confidence in social situations is what enables your puppy to have good interaction with unfamiliar dogs that they meet out on walks and new experiences in daily life. Make sure that you stay calm and relaxed in all situations too because puppies and adult dogs are very sensitive to body language and will pick up on any anxiety that you may have. If your puppy seems anxious or afraid when doing or seeing something new, just calmly end what they’re doing. Don’t try to comfort or reassure them as they will associate this with something to be afraid of; be positive and happy, and do something different. Adaptil have some really good advice and a check-list of experiences for your puppy to be slowly exposed to over time.

Should my puppy be neutered?

Neutering your dog has many health benefits. Female dogs can be neutered at any age, but for the greatest benefit, it should be done under one year of age (except in giant breed dogs, which should be discussed with your vet). This will reduce the risk of mammary cancer, one of the most common cancers in bitches, as well as prevent false pregnancies and pyometra, a dangerous infection of the uterus. Spaying cannot be done during their season. Many owners worry that their pet will become obese after neutering, however neutered dogs require less food, therefore obesity can be prevented by correct feeding. Male dogs can be castrated at any age, however castrating them once they are fully grown is often better and should be discussed with your vet. Neutering protects against prostatic disease, testicular cancer and reduces the risk of them fighting or roaming. Neutering can help to prevent behavioural problems, as long as they have not become a learnt behaviour prior to neutering.

Should I get my puppy insured? 

Pet insurance provides cover for veterinary fees if your dog is injured or becomes sick. There is no National Health Service (NHS) for pets and TV programmes rarely highlight the associated costs of treatment. An affordable and reliable pet insurance policy can therefore provide peace of mind in the event of an emergency.

Further advice about owning a puppy can be found on the Blue Cross website:

Buying a puppy

Caring for your puppy

Basic healthcare in dogs

Sources and additional reading:

About feeding large breed dogs (PDF)

Study in English on activity and hip dysplasia

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