10 Rules for Raising a Healthy Dog
Taking care of your pet
"He is soooo cute," you thought when you first laid eyes on your dog. And—yay!—he seemed to like you too. So you brought him home—only to realize that maybe you weren't totally prepared for the work this relationship involved. Well, your mom was right (again): Owning a dog IS a big responsibility, from training to feeding to keeping it stress-free. "We don't have that many years with our dogs," says Whole Dog Journal editor Nancy Kerns. Here's how to make sure each day is filled with health—and happiness for you both.
Get an annual physical
may not think you need one, but your dog does. "Don't skimp on a in-depth vet exam every year," advises Kerns. Since "dogs age on an accelerated schedule compared to us," she says, serious illness can take hold within a year, so early detection is key. The exam should include a complete blood count, a blood-chemistry panel, a thorough dental check, and a vaccination review to ensure that your dog is up-to-date with rabies and other shots. Tip: Find a vet you can establish an easy relationship with. When you make your appointment, be sure the doc will set aside enough time to patiently answer all your questions.
Protect against pests, but with restraint
Treat your dog to prevent fleas, ticks, heart worm, and other ickies from making your dog their home, says Kerns. The health effects of infestation are far worse than pesticide side effects. That said, don't overdo it, she warns. "Use what's absolutely necessary for your environment," rather than mindlessly dosing your dog every month against pests it's not like to encounter. Tip: You can check the prevalence of pests in your area at capcvet.org.
Sweat the small stuff
Learn to watch your dog closely, and you'll be surprised by how much it communicates how it feels, mentally and physically. The position of its ears and tail, it's breathing, whether it often scratches or licks its paws can all be signs of distress. "Chronic behaviors and symptoms must be addressed," says Kerns. "Healthy dogs don't show symptoms on a daily basis." Tip: Consider starting a health notebook or a calendar, so you can track when you administer meds, change food, or notice new behaviors, like obsessive grooming.
Provide high-quality food
Nutritious mass-market food abounds, says Linda Case, author of Dog Food Logic, but some of the best products come from smaller companies that make food in their own US facilities. Sure, you can feed your dog on 15 cents a day, but making the investment in higher-priced food, say at a few dollars a day, can mean the difference between giving your dog chicken and serving it ground chicken heads (yes, gross!). Tip: Grain should not be one of the first two ingredients on the label, and the protein source should be named ("trout" not "fish," for example). Bonus: Worried about pet-food recalls? Follow the American Veterinary Medical Association on Twitter @AVMARecallWatch or its Facebook page to stay informed.
"Food is one way we show our dogs love," says Case, "so banning people from feeding their dogs extras doesn't work." Even so, just as you can't afford the effects of too many snack sessions, neither can your pup. Limit food beyond what's in your dog's daily diet—including that tiny bit of leftover salmon from your plate and even training treats—to no more than 10% of its calorie need, Case says. Tip: Make training treats small enough so your dog can down them quickly and delicious enough that they'll count as a real reward.
Don't bother with fads
What's true for humans is also true for dogs. Of-the-moment food regimens—like the wolf diet, raw-food craze, or grain-free eating—aren't worth the money or time. Yes, they can provide balanced meals, and thus aren't harmful, Case says, "but there is no demonstrated evidence of their health benefits" over other more-standard diets. Tip: Want to provide your pooch with raw food? Be sure it's pasteurized to ensure safety.
Keep your pet slender
"If you think your dog is too skinny, it's probably the right weight," Case say. Dogs with excess weight are more prone to joint problems and diabetes, among other health issues (sounds familiar). How to tell if Fluffy is chubby? "It's all about the feel," she adds. "Ribs shouldn't be visible, but easily felt." Tip: Rub your hands up and down your dog's flank. You should feel the ridges of its ribs without having to push in to find them.
Start workouts early on...
Yes, puppies are a bundle of energy, but even they need disciplined exercise like leash walks. However, don't start running and hiking with your pooch until your larger-breed dog is at least 1.5 years old. This will help avoid injuries while the growth plates in the legs and other long bones are still knitting closed. Tip: Be sure to build up your dog's endurance, just as you did your own, if you're hoping to take it with you on those marathon-training runs.
...but choose the right exercise
Ever think, "I should Spin more," and then remember how much you hate Spinning? Same for dogs. Not every dog is a runner or a swimmer or will want to play fetch. In fact, says Case, "If you haven't started your dog swimming before the age of 1 or 2, it's not going to like it"—even if it has webbed feet. "There are many more owners who want their dogs to swim than there are dogs that want to get in the water." Tip: There's no real data on the optimum cardio workout for dogs, says Kerns, "but the more you can get your dog outside—with the sun overhead and grass under its paws—the better."
Train, train, train
"Anytime you're out with your dog," says Pat Miller, author of The Power of Positive Dog Training, "one of you is training the other." Better for it to be you. Begin as early as 8 weeks, before it picks up bad behaviors, and continue even into old age to keep your dog sharp. Make training about reward, not punishment. (Old-school devices like choke collars injure and instill fear, Miller says, "the most common cause of canine aggression.") When housebreaking, "keep your puppy under close supervision and take it outside more often than he needs to go," says Miller. "Reward it when it goes to the bathroom so it learns that this is the right way to do it." Tip: "A well-trained dog has more opportunities to improve its physical health," Miller adds. Walks, fetch, and agility training are more fun for you both if your dog will come when called, wait when asked, and greet other people and pups politely.