Choosing a healthy puppy

The best time to acquire a puppy is at 8 to 12 weeks of age. At this age a puppy should be well socialized, will have received the first series of immunizations, and should be weaned and eating solid food. The breeder can usually make a good guess about whether a puppy is of show or breeding quality. But keep in mind that picking a future champion at 8 weeks of age is a problem, even for breeders with considerable experience.

Most puppies 8 to 12 weeks old tolerate the stresses of being shipped by air, especially if they can travel accompanied in the cabin in a soft-sided carry bag made for pets. For toy and small breeds it is best to rely on the experience of the breeder when considering this option. Even better, try to avoid flying a puppy and plan to drive to and from the breeder if it is at all possible.

If possible, visit the kennel and make your own selection. An experienced breeder will guide you based on what you want in a puppy, the puppy aptitude test results, and the breeder’s experience from living with the puppies for their first crucial weeks. Be prepared when, on the appointed day, you find yourself standing before a litter of bouncing puppies and find that all appear to be equally lovable.

Most puppies look healthy at first glance, but a closer inspection may make some puppies more desirable than others. Take your time and go over each puppy from head to tail before making the final decision.

Print this page and carry it along: Finding a healthy puppy.pdf

Begin by examining the head.

The nose should be cool and moist. Nasal discharge or frequent sneezing is a sign of poor health. Brachycephalic breeds, such as Pugs and Pekingese, often have nostrils that collapse when the dog breathes in. This is undesirable.

Check the puppy for a correct bite.

The correct bite for most breeds is a scissors bite, in which the upper incisors just slightly overlap the lower ones. An even bite, in which the incisors meet edge to edge, is equally acceptable in most breeds. If the scissors bite is exaggerated so that the head of a match can be inserted between the upper and lower incisors, the bite is overshot and probably will not correct itself. In a dog with an undershot bite, the lower incisors overlap the uppers. This is characteristic and even required in some brachycephalic breeds, such as the Bulldog.

The gums should be pink and healthy looking. Pale gums suggest anemia, possibly caused by intestinal parasites.

Feel for a soft spot on the dome of the skull.

If present, the fontanel is open. This is not desirable. In toy breeds, an open fontanel can be associated with hydrocephalus.

The eyes should be clear and bright.

If you see tear stains on the muzzle, look for eyelids that roll in or out, extra eyelashes, or conjunctivitis. The pupils should be dark and have no visible lines or white spots that may indicate congenital cataracts or retained fetal membranes. The haw (third eyelid) may be visible. This should not be taken as a sign of disease unless it is swollen and inflamed.

The ears should stand correctly for the breed, although in some breeds, such as German Shepherd Dogs, the ears may not stand up fully until 4 to 6 months of age. The tips should be healthy and well furred. Crusty tips with bare spots suggest a skin disease such as sarcoptic mange. The ear canals should be clean and sweet-smelling. A buildup of wax with a rancid odor may be caused by ear mites. Head shaking and tenderness about the ears indicate an ear canal infection.

Feel the chest with the palm of your hand to see if the heart seems especially vibrant. This could be a clue to a congenital heart defect. The puppy should breathe in and out without effort. A flat chest, especially when accompanied by trouble inhaling, indicates an airway obstruction. It is seen most commonly in brachycephalic breeds such as Pugs, Boston Terriers, and Pekingese.

The skin of the abdomen should be clean and healthy looking. A bulge at the navel is caused by an umbilical hernia. This can correct itself sponta- neously, but may require surgical repair.

The skin and hair around the anus should be clean and healthy looking. Skin irritation, redness, hair loss, or adherent stool suggest the possibility of worms, chronic diarrhea, or malabsorption.

A healthy coat is bright and shiny and has the correct color and markings for the breed. In long-coated breeds, the puppy coat may be fluffy and soft without a lot of shine. Excess scratching and areas of inflamed skin suggest fleas, mites, or other skin parasites. “Moth-eaten” areas of hair loss are typical of mange and ringworm.

In male puppies, push the foreskin of the penis back to confirm that it slides easily. Adhesions and strictures of the foreskin require veterinary attention. Both testicles should be present in the scrotum. If one or both are absent, they may come down before 6 months of age. However, if the puppy is intended for showing and breeding, don’t take a chance, since a dog with one or two undescended testicles cannot be shown and should not be bred.

In female puppies, examine the vulva. Look for pasted-down hair around the vulva or vaginal discharge – signs of juvenile vaginitis. This is a common problem. It usually resolves spontaneously after the first heat cycle.

Next, examine the puppy for soundness and correct structure. The legs should be straight and well formed. Structural faults include legs that bow in or out, weak pasterns (the area between the wrist and the foot), flat feet with spread toes, and feet that toe in at the rear. Two inherited bone and joint diseases that may be present in puppies younger than 4 months of age (but are usually not discernable on puppy selection exams) are canine hip dysplasia and patella luxation. Certification of the puppy’s sire and dam by the OFA, PennHIP, or GDC is highly desirable in breeds with a high incidence of these diseases.

The puppy’s gait should be free and smooth. A limp or faltering gait may simply be the result of a sprain or a hurt pad, but hip dysplasia and patella luxation should be considered and ruled out. Patellas can be examined at this age, but this should only be done by an experienced breeder or veterinarian.