Vet 101: Choosing a Healthy Dog

It is impossible to know everything about a dog before you take her home, but there are ways of making a general assessment about her health.

To get a sense of a dog’s physical health, spend some time observing her. A healthy dog is not lethargic. Her coat should be glossy – with no hair loss or red, scabby areas – and free of fleas or ticks. There should not be any discharge from her eyes or nose. (Some dogs with “pushed-in” faces, like Pekingese, may have some clear discharge coming from the inner corner of the eyes.) The dog should not be coughing (explained later in this article). Her gums should be pink. Her ears should not be inflamed and there should not be any black debris in the ear canal. Her bowel movements should be firm (if she has been weaned). To make sure the dog can hear (as deafness can be a problem with older dogs and some purebred puppies, such as dalmations), clap your hands or jingle car keys outside the dog’s field of vision and see if you get a response.

When you get a dog, it may have previously been in contact with any number of other dogs, some of which may have been ill. Kennel cough is one ailment frequently seen, and is typically recognized by a dry, hacking cough. This viral/bacterial infection is so named because if one dog in a kennel has this, then many of the dogs around him will contract it. This is because of its ability to aerosolize and reach other dogs. It is similar in nature to Strep throat in people. If left untreated, kennel cough can progress into pneumonia, with dire results, but if caught early enough, antibiotics and cough suppressants usually do the trick.

Another condition often present, but not usually seen by the owner, is that of intestinal parasites. People assume that if they can’t see worms in their dog’s stool, then they must not exist. This is not true. Nearly all dogs coming from a shelter, a rescue group, or even a breeder have been exposed to parasites such as roundworms, hookworms, whipworms, or giardia. These parasites live in the intestinal tract, feeding off of the “host” (dog), passing microscopic eggs while continuing to grow. Another danger is that some of these parasites are contagious to people, especially those with weakened or immature immune systems (elderly people and young children). Fortunately, there are broad-spectrum deworming medications that clear a dog of these loathsome critters.

If you are getting a large breed of dog, you should be aware of hip dysplasia. This is a condition wherein the bones of the hip don’t form a solid joint, allowing the hip to often pop out (luxate). Initially, at a young age, this is not a problem for the dog, but over time the hip becomes very arthritic and leads to pain, lameness, and sometimes paralysis. Older dogs that have hip dysplasia are slow to get up, or maybe just walk or sit “funny” (walk sideways or sit with a leg sticking out). Depending on the severity of the condition, it may be controlled with medication, or it may require expensive surgery.

If you do not think the dog you are looking at is in peak condition, discuss your concerns with the breeder or shelter staff, as well as a veterinarian. Request a written guarantee that allows you to return the dog if a veterinarian determines that she has a serious problem or one that would be costly to correct.

by Dr. Steve Velling, DVM
Dr. Velling is the primary DVM at Ashburn Village Animal Hospital in Ashburn, VA.