How to Choose a Healthy Puppy – Dr. Joanna de Klerk

The following is an excerpt from "First-Year Puppy Health Care" by Dr. Joanna de Klerk. For more information visit the books Amazon Page.

Author Credit: Dr. Joanna de Klerk

How to Choose a Healthy Puppy

It goes without saying that choosing a healthy puppy will help ensure a longer, happier relationship with your dog. Although that sounds like common sense, some caring individuals may be drawn to a sick or weak puppy out of sympathy. In those cases, it’s vital to consider the work, cost and possible heartbreak of adopting a sick little animal. In addition, choosing a puppy out of sympathy can perpetuate irresponsible breeding, as reputable breeders that are Kennel Club registered work hard to only breed healthy dogs. Therefore, in supporting a registered breeder, you are playing your part in preventing animal suffering on a wider scale.

If you are adopting a puppy from a rescue organization, the same considerations apply. Some puppies in a rescue may require initial veterinary care before they are put up for rehoming, but all dogs will have been thoroughly assessed as far as possible. So, in adopting from a reputable shelter, you should still have the assurance that your puppy is in excellent health, and if he has any conditions that are evident, then these should be disclosed to you. When the parents are not known, however, certain genetic conditions such as hip dysplasia may not be detectable without genetic testing or until your puppy is fully grown.

Research the Breeder

It’s important to adopt a breed that is most suited to your lifestyle, whether that’s a dog that needs a lot of exercise because you’re constantly active or one who doesn’t mind being alone part of the time because your work sometimes requires long hours. A bit of research right from the start will ensure you and your dog are a good match.

If you have decided on a pedigree dog, and know the breed that you are looking for, your first step is to find a breeder. If you know people who own dogs of that particular breed, ask the owners for the name of the breeder who produced their dog. Buying from a reputable, trusted breeder will help ensure you get a healthy, happy puppy.

Another ideal place to start your research is the Kennel Club website for your country. Here you will find a list of registered and approved breeders for the breed that you have in mind. In selecting a Kennel Club registered breeder, your dog will come with a comprehensive puppy pack, containing your contract of sale, your dog’s registration certificate and pedigree, immunization record, worming record, and advice for the continuation of care, socialization, exercise, and training. You will also receive a contractual guarantee, detailing any conditions that may apply if you need to return a puppy. A Kennel Club registered breeder will commit to supporting you throughout your dog’s lifetime, with advice and, if necessary, assistance in rehoming your dog should unforeseen circumstances arise.

It’s worth bearing in mind that good breeders often have a waiting list for their puppies, and you may not be able to purchase right away. If you have identified a breeder whose dogs really appeal to you, however, the right dog will be worth the wait.

In some cases, the owner of a Kennel Club registered pedigree female may decide to breed a single litter from a dog with a friend’s good quality Kennel Club registered male. This informal arrangement may well result in a litter of healthy puppies that can be registered with the Kennel Club, but if you choose your dog this way, you will not necessarily have stringent health testing and guarantees or breeder support should you need it. Casual breeding also compromises the strict breed standards put in place by the Kennel Club to ensure the breeding of healthy dogs. Breeders that are not registered with the Kennel Club may still have to be licensed and inspected by the local authority if they are producing more than a certain number of litters annually, and selling their dogs for profit.

Many prospective owners prefer the idea of a cross-breed. Cross-breeds are sometimes healthier dogs, as they are less susceptible to genetic conditions from inbreeding; a benefit known as ‘hybrid vigor.’ Within this category are purposely bred ‘designer dogs,’ which are usually a cross between two distinct breeds, such as a Poodle. They still command a price tag that can be even higher than that of a pedigree dog and often come with their own set of health issues. Also, in the cross-breed category are dogs that have a long history of totally indiscriminate breeding, resulting in a unique character, if indeterminate genetics! Neither designer breeds, cross-breeds, or Heinz-57 mongrels are recognized by the Kennel Club, so in choosing a healthy puppy you will have to rely on observation and inspection.

Wherever you find your puppy, the correct highest standards for breeding should always include prioritizing hygiene, space, and the health and welfare of parents and puppies. You should always be allowed to inspect the premises used for breeding, even if the litter is presented in a front room with the mother and siblings present. Puppy farms may look domestic and happy, while squalid kennels or sheds out the back contain the breeding stock, and fester disease. Inadvertently purchasing from a puppy farm may result in your acquiring a sickly dog while fostering the continued suffering of an overbred bitch that will never experience family life, fresh air, good health or a break in her pregnancies.

If you have decided to rescue a dog from a shelter, it’s unlikely that you will have any information on the breeder, even if it is a pedigree dog. When dogs with a registered pedigree come into a rescue, their papers are usually withheld for client confidentiality, and to prevent exploitative breeding. Just like with a breeder, it’s important to do the research to ensure a rescue organization is reputable, as the health of your rescue puppy is likely to depend upon whether it has received appropriate care in the shelter, or if it has been exposed to unsanitary conditions and disease. You should look at the application process to ensure that it is sufficiently stringent to indicate that dogs are placed with the right family, and you should expect to have a home check as well as pay an adoption fee. In return, your dog should come with a vaccination record, a microchip, and a clean bill of health from a vet, having been treated for internal and external parasites. If the puppy has any health conditions, these should be made clear to you from the outset. You may also be required to neuter your puppy when he or she is old enough. The rescue should offer Rescue Back-Up (RBU), which requires the new adoptive owner to return the dog to the rescue if at any point they can no longer care for it. The rescue organization’s commitment to the future of your dog is a measure of how much confidence you can have in its standards for animal welfare.

What Questions to Ask

Once you have identified a dog breeder who has a litter available for sale, next comes the exciting part; meeting your puppy for the first time. Usually, you will have the happy task of choosing your puppy from the litter, but occasionally a breeder may prefer to assign his puppies to owners he feels best suit individual dog personalities. If this is the case, you should respect the breeder’s expert knowledge of the puppies he has bred and raised. You may even find that the breeder has just as many questions for you as you have for him! This is a good sign and indicates that the breeder has his dogs’ best interests at heart, and therefore implies they will be in optimum health. No breeder will mind you coming in with a list of questions; in fact, it will reassure them that you are fully committed to the dog.

Make sure you ask the following things:

  1. Can I see the puppy with its mother? (All reputable breeders will agree to this.)
  2. Can I see the mother’s pedigree?
  3. How old is the mother?
  4. How many litters has the mother had?
  5. What is her temperament like?
  6. Has she been screened for inherited conditions and can I see the certificates?
  7. Who is the father?
  8. Can I see his pedigree?
  9. What is his temperament like?
  10. May I contact the owner of the father (if he belongs to a different owner)?
  11. Can I handle all of the puppies in the litter?
  12. Has the puppy been registered with the Kennel Club (if pedigree)?
  13. How old is the puppy?
  14. Is the puppy fully weaned?
  15. Is the puppy healthy?
  16. Has the puppy started his vaccinations? Can I see his vaccination card?
  17. Has the puppy been wormed?
  18. Is the puppy microchipped?
  19. What is the puppy being fed?
  20. What socialization has the puppy had?
  21. May I see where the dogs are kept, where they sleep, and where the puppies were born?
  22. May I have the details of your vet?
  23. Can I return the puppy if it has any health problems, or things don’t work out?
  24. Can I visit several times before bringing my puppy home? (A good breeder will encourage this.)

Viewing the Parents

As already mentioned, you should always see the puppy with its mother, and if the breeder uses any excuse to prevent this, then you should consider walking away. If the puppies are under six weeks when you visit, the mother will still be feeding them. She should be relaxed, but if she appears defensive, she’s just being protective of her puppies and it’s not necessarily an indicator of a bad temperament. After six weeks, when the puppies are weaned, the mother may not be kept with her litter, but it’s important to still see her as she will give you an idea of how the puppies will look when fully grown.

The mother should appear in good health and of appropriate age. The American Kennel Club rules do not allow the registration of a litter from a mother younger than eight months, or older than 12 years. British Kennel Club guidelines require the mother to be over one year of age, and under eight years of age, in order for the puppies to be registered. The mother should also not have bred more than four litters or had more than two caesarian sections. She should not have bred more than one litter per year.

Though your puppy also has 50% of his genetics from his father, you may not have the opportunity to visit him personally. This is because male stud dogs often live elsewhere. The breeder may be happy to give you the details of the father’s owner for you to make an appointment to see him, but where this is not possible, you should still be able to see photographs of the father and view his pedigree. You should look carefully at the pedigrees of both parents for any names that crop up multiple times, as this indicates inbreeding, which can increase the risk of genetic health conditions. Some repetition in pedigree dogs is normal, so long as it’s not excessive.

If you are intending to show your dog at any level above Companion Dog Shows at the local fair, then both parents will need to be Kennel Club registered pedigree dogs, so that your dog can also be registered with the Kennel Club in order to qualify for participation in Championship Shows.

As most genetic conditions will not reveal themselves until the puppy reaches adulthood or beyond, Kennel Club registered breeders will carry out screening to ensure that they are only breeding from healthy parents. Each breed has its own list of genetic conditions to which it may be predisposed, and the Kennel Club website lists these, so you will know which certificates to ask the breeder for. Before asking for the certificates, ensure that you read up on what a good result is on them. Some genetic tests will simply produce a ‘positive’ or ‘negative’ result for the disease, whereas others produce a score, for example, elbow dysplasia, which should be as close to 0 as possible, and hip dysplasia, which should be as low as possible.

The advantage of choosing a registered breeder who screens both parents is your assurance that your puppy is not a ticking time bomb for a genetic condition. Buying a puppy without this paperwork could result in health issues later in life, even if the parents seem fine, because some dogs may be carriers of a condition without showing symptoms themselves. When two parent carriers breed, there is a 25% chance of the puppy being clear, a 50% chance of being a carrier, and a 25% chance of developing the condition.

You should ask to see the certificates for the health screening procedures both parents have had. Even if the father is not present, the breeder should still be able to produce his certificates.

Viewing the Puppies

Sometimes you will not be able to view the parents; for example, if a litter has been dumped and taken into rescue. In this case you will have to rely on physical inspection of the puppy to ensure that he is healthy. And even when you have seen the parents, along with their pedigrees, screening certificates and veterinary records, there are still important factors to look out for in selecting a healthy puppy from the litter.

The first consideration is whether you wish to have a male or female. In general, males are more boisterous than females and slightly larger when fully grown. There will be different health issues relating to each gender; for example, males may be susceptible to prostate problems, and females to a womb infection known as pyometra, mammary tumors and hormonal issues associated with their seasons. Whether you choose a male or female, neutering or spaying your dog will prevent these issues if you do not intend to breed from him or her.

All the puppies in the litter should appear lively and be interacting with each other. Many people say that rather than picking the first puppy that comes to you, or the sad one in the corner, you should look for the dog in the middle of these two extremes. A very confident dog may turn out to be dominant, and a quiet dog may have anxiety or health issues. So, if you want to play it safe, you should look for the middle ground. The breeder should allow you to handle all the dogs, not only to see which puppy you connect with, but to check that they are physically healthy.

When you pick up a puppy, you should check that he is clean, especially around his bottom, and that he doesn’t smell. His coat should feel plush and silky with no scabs or encrustations, and his eyes should be bright and clear and free of any discharge. His ears should also be clean and not smell. His nose should be cold, clean and slightly wet, and his gums should be pink. His tummy should be plump but not hard or distended, which may indicate a worm problem, and he should not have any fleas. The puppy should not have any visible ribs and should not be limping or have labored breathing. You should check his tummy for a lump indicating an umbilical hernia, and if he is a boy, you should feel for two testes in the scrotum. Be aware that up until eight weeks of age, both testicles may not yet have dropped, so this may be something to check back on when you collect your puppy.

Although you may visit your puppy for the first time from around five weeks of age, the breeder should not allow you to take him home before he is eight weeks and fully weaned. Under UK law, a puppy must be microchipped by eight weeks. Other countries such as the USA may not legally require microchipping, but it’s a good idea to help ensure a swift reunion if he ever goes missing.

Having taken so much care in selecting a healthy puppy, you will be off to the best possible start. That said, pet insurance is definitely something to consider. This will ensure that your dog will always receive the medical care he needs, and there will not be any nasty financial surprises around the corner.

To read more from "First Year Puppy Health Care" by Dr. Joanna de Klerk, or purchase on Amazon, visit the link below:

Ready, Set, Puppy! Is a participant in the Amazon affiliate program and thus receives a small commission from sales generated from certain links on this page. To read more click here.