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 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

This article is excerpted from “Dog Owner’s Home Veterinary Handbook” with permission from Wiley Publishing, Inc.