Puppy care 101: A guide for pet owners
By Melanie Shapiro, DVM
Summer is a great time to bring a new furry friend into your home. In fact, the entire pandemic has been a great time for many people to dive into new puppy ownership.
In New York City, pandemic restrictions are waning, and the streets are flooded with cute fluffy paws. From retrievers, to goofy muts, to any doodle imaginable, it feels like nearly everyone has acquired a new puppy in the last 15 months.
While bringing a puppy into your home can be extremely rewarding, many people do not realize how much responsibility this endeavor entails. Having a puppy is like having a baby, and it can be overwhelming.
I have spent countless hours educating new owners and have decided to share some of the most useful information in a quick guide, or as I refer to it, my “puppy spiel.” This is not an exhaustive list of issues you may encounter with a new puppy, but it is a great place to start.
Many puppies come into new homes already partially vaccinated. It is important to bring your puppy to a veterinarian within the first few days of new ownership. This is important to establish a relationship and ensure that there are no obvious abnormal findings on their physical exam. The vaccines your puppy is due for depends on their age, the timing of this first visit, and the expected lifestyle.
Canine Distemper, Adenovirus Type 1 (Hepatitis), Adenovirus Type 2 (Respiratory Disease), Parainfluenza, and Parvovirus (DA2PP)
This is a combination vaccine that protects dogs against numerous viruses that can cause severe illness, or even be fatal. The vaccine is given starting at 6-8 weeks of age, and is boostered every 2-4 weeks until puppies are 16 weeks of age, which is when maternal antibodies are gone. The vaccine is boostered one year later, and then every 3 years.
This vaccination is required by law in most states. Rabies virus is transmitted by a bite from a rabid animal, and invades the nervous system. Rabies is fatal, and it is a major public health issue. This vaccination can be given as early as 12 weeks of age, but it is often given to puppies with their final DA2PP vaccine at 16 weeks of age. The vaccine is boostered one year later, and then every 3 years.
This is a highly infectious bacteria that causes upper respiratory infections in puppies, signs of which include nasal discharge and coughing, and can progress to pneumonia if untreated. It is the primary cause of “kennel cough.”
This vaccination is required by groomers, boarding facilities, training classes, or doggy daycare facilities, and it is recommended for friendly, social dogs who frequent dog parks, or say hi to other dogs when walking outside. This vaccine can be given in the nose, as an oral vaccine, or through an injection. It is given every 6-12 months.
This is a bacteria that is transmitted through standing water (i.e. lakes, puddles) or soil. The bacteria is transmitted by dog or rat urine, and it causes liver and kidney infections. Some dogs are asymptomatic upon infection; however, many dogs will experience organ failure and require hospitalization. The disease is much easier to prevent than treat. The vaccine is given as a series of two, meaning an initial booster as early as 10-12 weeks of age, followed by a second vaccine 3-4 weeks later, then once annually.
This bacteria is transmitted by ticks, and can affect the joints, kidneys, and heart if left untreated. This is recommended for puppies who are planning to frequent heavily wooded, tick-infested areas, or dogs who will be expected to go hiking. The vaccine is given as a series of two, meaning an initial booster as early as 10-12 weeks of age, followed by a second vaccine 3-4 weeks later, then once annually.
In 2018, there was a major outbreak of canine influenza in dogs in New York City and parts of New Jersey. Thankfully, there was a large vaccination effort at that time, and currently we do not see as much of the canine flu. This vaccination is recommended by certain boarding and grooming facilities. The vaccine is given as a series of two, meaning an initial booster as early as 10-12 weeks of age, followed by a second vaccine 3-4 weeks later, then once annually.
Taking your puppy outside
The most common question new puppy owners ask me is, “when can I bring my puppy outside? The answer is not as straightforward as one would hope, but based upon my research and experience, I recommend allowing puppies to spend time outside of their homes, and safely socialize before they are fully vaccinated. I recommend letting your puppy see some of the world after they have received at least one DA2PP vaccine.
The key socialization period for puppies is during the first 3 months of age. It is important for puppies to be safely exposed to new people, animals, and environments during this time. Inadequate socialization during this time can lead to behavior problems later in life, which can be difficult and frustrating to manage. They are also less inhibited by fear during this early phase in life.
During these early months, the immune system of a puppy is still developing; however, the combination of maternal antibodies, an initial DA2PP vaccine, and safe socialization dictated by an owner makes the risk of contracting one of these viruses small when compared to the risk of developing a behavior problem.
I would not recommend bringing incompletely vaccinated puppies to dog parks, dog beaches, human parks, or other highly trafficked areas. Instead, it is a good idea to let the puppy explore a private area, or to visit the home of a friend or family member with a healthy, known-vaccinated dog.
The key to training is positive reinforcement, meaning rewarding good behavior and ignoring bad behavior. Working with a trainer or enrolling your puppy in classes are great ways to teach puppies new tricks and behaviors. Puppies can be enrolled in classes as early as 7-8 weeks of age, and they need to have at least one DA2PPv vaccine and one deworming treatment at least 7 days before the first day of class.
There are a lot of great training books, but my personal favorite is Perfect Puppy in 7 Days by Dr. Sophia Yin, DVM.
In general, most commercially available puppy diets are well-balanced and have everything they need, which means vitamins and other supplements are not necessary. The most common brands I recommend to owners are Royal Canin, Hill’s Science Diet, and Purina ProPlan.
There are other great foods out there, so talk to your veterinarian about what makes the most sense for you and your puppy. Diets can also change as your puppy grows up if they develop certain medical conditions or allergies.
Things to avoid
I would recommend avoiding raw food diets because certain types of bacteria and foodborne illness brew in raw food diets, which can lead to gastrointestinal issues.
I also do not recommend grain-free diets. There have been newer studies over the past 3 years or so which show a possible link between grain-free diets and certain kinds of heart disease. This correlation is still being investigated, but since there is no known benefit to grain-free diets, and there is a possible (very serious) risk, I recommend sticking to a well-balanced, grain-based diet.
I do not recommend home-cooking for your puppy because it is easy to miss key nutrients and unintentionally stunt growth and development.
Puppies can start on medications to prevent certain bugs as early as 6-8 weeks of age. I recommend starting puppies on medications to prevent heartworm disease as well as parasites that live in the skin as soon as possible. They should be kept on monthly preventatives all year-round, although this is particularly important during the summer (tick/mosquito season).
Heartworm disease is transmitted by mosquitoes, and the parasite lives in the blood vessels around the heart and lungs. It is treatable, but it takes an entire year to complete the heartworm protocol, which includes painful injections into muscles and activity restriction. It is much easier to prevent than treat! In fact, both heartworm disease and treatment can lead to fatality.
Fleas can cause itchiness and skin infections, and ticks can transmit certain diseases that can lead to long-term issues. Certain mites can also invade the skin barrier and lead to chronic infections.
I could write a whole separate blog on specific types of preventative medications. Talk to your veterinarian about the preventatives they have in stock and which offer the most broad-spectrum coverage for your puppy.
Deworming and intestinal parasites
Parasites are microscopic bugs that can live in the stomachs and intestines of puppies, and they are very common. Puppies contract parasites by ingesting fecal material containing the eggs of the parasites. Most puppies are dewormed with their breeders or caretakers, which means they are given medications to address parasites that may be in the gastrointestinal tract.
It is very important to bring a stool sample to your puppy’s first veterinarian visits so that the stool can be analyzed for parasites. This is to make sure that the deworming protocol was effective, and your puppy did not accidentally come into contact with any parasites in-transit. Parasites in the gastrointestinal tract can cause diarrhea, malabsorption, and failure to thrive.
The good news is that parasites are very treatable! The treatment protocol will depend on the results of the fecal analysis and your puppy’s stool habits.
Common household toxins
The ASPCA has a great resource online for toxic plants and other household items. This is not an exhaustive list, but these were the most common toxins of 2020:
- Over the counter medications (cold medications, vitamins, ibuprofen, tylenol)
- Human prescription medications (antidepressants, anticonvulsants, heart medications)
- Human foods: grapes/raisins, chewing gum/candy with xylitol, onions, garlic)
- Chocolate (the higher the cocoa, the more dangerous it is)
- Household toxins (paint, spackle)
- Rat poison
- Veterinary products (i.e. overdose of prescribed medications)
- Garden products.
Early intervention leads to the best outcome, so it is important to call your veterinarian or a 24 hour emergency facility if you believe your pet has ingested something toxic – including anything not on this list that seems out of the ordinary!
Spaying/neuteruing your puppy
Spaying your female dog is important to prevent breast cancer and infections of the reproductive organs. Neutering your male dog is important to prevent aggression, marking behavior, and prostate issues later in life. Both are important for preventing overpopulation of pets.
In small breed dogs, spay and neuter surgeries are recommended between 6-7 months of age. In large breed dogs, these surgeries are often recommended after 1 year of age to prevent certain orthopedic and medical conditions. Talk to your veterinarian about these options in order to decide what the best time frame is for you and your puppy.
In conclusion, watching your puppy go from a tiny ball of fluff to a full grown adult dog is extremely rewarding. It is important to do research and make sure you are prepared. In addition, make sure you use your veterinarian as a resource for questions you have during the early days of puppyhood.
Melanie Shapiro, DVM is Associate Lead IndeVet for Greater New York. She’s pictured above with two puppy clients.