New Puppy FAQ: Vaccinations, Worms, Illnesses, and Other Common Puppy Concerns

WebMD veterinary expert answers commonly asked questions about bringing home a new puppy.

By Sandy Eckstein
WebMD Pet Health Feature

Reviewed by Audrey Cook, BVM&S

The puppy has finally arrived. His bed and bowl are waiting. Puppy food is in the cupboard. And there's a whole box of new puppy toys ready. So what else do you need to know? That's what we asked Will Draper, head of the Village Vets, a large, multi-veterinarian practice in Decatur, Ga. Draper is a general practitioner with interests in dermatology, internal medicine, and surgery.

Q: Do I need to puppy proof my house? If so, how do I do it?

A: Puppies are like children. They love to learn and they're inquisitive. And just like with children, you have to keep things picked up that they can chew on and swallow. So keep toys picked up, and don't leave food where they can get to it, especially things like candy or other foods that could make them sick. Keep trash cans secured or they will get into them and eat bones and beer bottle tops and other things that are dangerous. I can't tell you how many beer bottle tops I've taken out of puppies' bellies.

The biggest thing we see in our emergency room with puppies is that they've swallowed something. They swallow balls, a sock, a piece of a plastic toy. Puppies love to chew on plastic.

Q: How soon does my new puppy need to see a vet?

A: As soon as possible. Many breeders and adoption agencies will have something like a 48-hour guarantee, so you want to get it done in that time. But even without that, you still should get the puppy in within a day or two. That way, if there's something wrong, we can catch it early and get it before it becomes a big problem.

It also gives us a chance to talk with owners about what it takes to raise a puppy. We need to talk about worms, feeding, vaccinations, the financial aspect of owning a pet, and everything else they can expect over the life of their dog.

The owner should bring in their list of questions, too. You need to ask your vet every question that comes to mind. You can't ask too many questions. Your veterinarian should be willing to block out time for that.

In my practice, we really want to educate people on the responsibility they are taking on and everything that goes along with it. Understand that this is a lifelong commitment. This cute puppy is going to grow up and that's going to require a lot of patience and a financial commitment. A lot of people don't understand how expensive it can be to properly care for a dog.

Q: At what age should my puppy start his vaccinations? Why is this important?

A: Vaccinations are usually started at about eight weeks. Then they get a series every three weeks until they're 16 weeks of age. Most puppies get three to four series of vaccines, and after that it's just the yearly vaccines.

The puppies get a natural immunity from their mothers, but by the time they are 6 to 8 weeks old, they're losing that and they become very vulnerable to all the diseases and illnesses that are out there. That's what the shots help protect against.

Q: How dangerous are distemper and the parvo virus to my puppy?

A: Distemper and parvo are the most dangerous viruses that can affect a puppy. They are potentially deadly. They are the main reason puppies are vaccinated early. Distemper is especially deadly. If we catch parvo early, there's a good success rate with treatment.

Q: What other illnesses are common in puppies?

A: Intestinal worms -- hookworms and roundworms -- are pretty common. Demodectic mange is very common with puppies. Gastrointestinal issues are pretty common in puppies, both diarrhea and vomiting. Their intestinal system and colon are still growing and are easily disrupted.

But in general, if they receive good care, most puppies are pretty healthy. I'd say less than 10% of the puppies we see are really sick, and then it's usually because the owners are people who really shouldn't own a dog in the first place.

Q: Do all puppies have worms?

A: Not all puppies, but it is very common for puppies to have roundworms or hookworms, either passed in utero or through a mothers' milk. Because worm infection is so common, we normally deworm puppies just to be safe. Fecal samples might not show parasites, but it's so common that it's almost irresponsible not to deworm a puppy.

Q: Can puppies have heartworms?

A: Puppies can be infected any time after birth. But heartworms take six months to mature, so even if a puppy right out of the womb is bitten by an infected mosquito, he wouldn't test positive for heartworms until he's about six months old.

People should talk to their veterinarian about getting their puppy on heartworm preventative as soon as possible.

Q: Can I flea dip my puppy or put other flea products on him if he has fleas and ticks?

A: You have to be very careful. Most flea and tick products aren't safe for puppies and some could even kill them. It's best to talk to your veterinarian if you have this problem. The vet can give you something safe for your puppy and tell you how to administer it correctly.

I can't tell you how many puppies we've seen at our emergency clinic that have been poisoned by over-the-counter flea and tick products that their owner bought at the supermarket or a big box store. We never recommend over-the-counter flea and tick products because the kind of medication they use isn't as safe as the products the FDA has approved to be sold by veterinarians.

Q: What should I feed my new puppy, and why did he develop diarrhea right after I brought him home?

A: He has diarrhea because he's stressed. You've changed his environment. He's left his siblings and his mother. Stress affects an animal's gastrointestinal system before it affects anything else. Generally, they get over this in the first week.

Also, any abrupt change in a puppy's diet is going to cause the puppy some gastrointestinal upset. So try to find out what the breeder or adoption agency was feeding him and try to keep him on it. Or, if you have to change it, try to do so over a four- or five-day period by mixing the old food with the new food. If you change it quickly, you'll have problems.

And feed your new puppy a puppy-based diet, which is generally higher in protein and helps aid in their growth and maturing.

Q: Is it OK to put a collar and tag on a small puppy? And why do I need to check the collar often?

A: Yes, it's good to keep a collar and tag on your puppy for identification purposes in case it gets lost. But you have to check it almost daily because puppies grow so quickly that the collar can end up choking him if it's not adjusted as he grows. We have had to surgically remove collars from a dog's neck. People put a collar on a puppy and then forget to adjust it, and as the dog grows the collar doesn't. And these aren't just dogs that are outside tied to a tree. I've seen it happen to dogs that slept with their people every night. The owners just didn't think to adjust the collar. It's something people overlook.

A good rule of thumb is you should be able to fit your index and your middle finger under the collar pretty easily. It needs to be tight enough that it doesn't slip off, but lose enough that the puppy has room and isn't choking. If you have a collar on your puppy, just be sure you check it regularly.