With this month’s attention on puppy mills we received a question about choosing a healthy puppy. How is one to know if a puppy, regardless of its source, is in good health? That’s one for the doctor.
Doc, what should a puppy buyer look for to be sure they purchase a healthy puppy?
The puppy should be clean, as should its environment. Clean means more than recently scrubbed or the puppy just bathed. Puppies should smell sweet, not have any fleas or mites or missing hair. The environment should not smell of urine.
A puppy should not have any discharge from eyes or nose, and should have clean ears and toes. Any signs of loose stool or vomiting are serious. Puppies will eat things they shouldn’t but breeders have a lot of expertise in keeping puppies from doing so. Puppies who are still nursing should have healthy stools and appetites. Puppies who are 8 weeks old may still be nursing, even though they receive additional food.
Feel the puppy gently all over to be sure he’s not sensitive about any particular kind of handling. Although we expect puppies to be roly poly they should not look bloated or pot-bellied. Even responsible breeders have to deal with intestinal parasites but well managed, the puppy should have bright shiny eyes and a shiny coat at all times.
What if the puppy just has a cold or is kept in a pen and has an accident?
Until puppies are at least 8 weeks old they should be with their mother who will clean up after the puppies as long as they are nursing. It’s true that when breeders add supplemental feedings they will have to provide for a large area so that puppies can eliminate away from where they sleep and play. This is important for house training later. There is no excuse for puppies having access to urine or feces.
A breeder who says a puppy “just has a cold” has some explaining to do. Vaccinated mothers with healthy unweaned puppies should not be exposed to any contagious dogs and other causes of upper respiratory signs are suspect as well. Buying a puppy with symptoms of illness is not a good idea. A cough or listlessness are very serious signs of poor health.
A responsible breeder would never offer a sick puppy for sale and certainly would not allow people to visit with the litter during unexpected illness. Anyone having contact with a sick puppy should wash and change clothes before having contact with other dogs or puppies.
If a breeder wants to meet you in a neutral location, rather than have you come to the kennel, this is a big red flag.
What about the puppy’s energy level?
Puppies go from zero to sixty and then crash. Puppies sleep often and hard. But when they are up, a socially healthy puppy should not be too shy or too bold. This may seem vague but people often find it endearing when a puppy cowers under a piece of furniture or jumps up and grabs their pants leg and shakes it. If this is short lived and the puppy can be encouraged to engage with a kind stranger it bodes well for the puppy’s ability to handle new people in the future. If the puppy is too afraid to come to you or set on utter destruction of clothing when there are other fun things to do, consider whether you can handle that behavior, or worse, in an adult dog. Pet dogs should be chosen for mental health as well as physical. A working dog certainly may need to be bold but those trainers purchasing a dog for work have usually chosen the breeder and the potential puppy long before birth.
What else should you look for?
The breeder should have documentation from a veterinarian on the health of the parents, including breed-specific certification for hips and eyes. Do an Internet search for the appropriate breed associations; their sites will most likely list recommended exams and certifications for your breed. The breeder should be proud to have you meet the parents, too. It’s common for the father to live elsewhere but the breeder should have a phone number for his owner and pictures, even videos, of the father to share. Any claim that the mother is “out of condition” or “too protective” of the puppies to be seen is concerning. She may be protective if you are handling the puppies; you can still meet her in another room. She may even have lost some of her peak conditioning while raising her puppies; still, she should never be so thin that her ribs can be seen or have other signs of illness.
The puppies should have been to see a vet (or the vet may have come to the breeder’s home). The breeder will have the vet’s contact information and a description of each puppy from the doctor. Depending on their age and the vet’s recommendations, the puppies may have already begun vaccinations. Many breeders prepare instructions about nutrition and the continued vaccinations for the puppy purchaser to follow at home. Ask the breeder what to do if the puppy does get sick. A responsible breeder will want to know and be involved.
Most breeders expect you to take the puppy to your own vet right way. Many require it. If you’d like to make the sale contingent on your vet’s approval, this should be arranged well in advance. A breeder will need to plan carefully so that the puppy is not separated from his mother for too long nor exposed to a clinic full of sick pets. But most breeders will be happy to make arrangements for their vet to contact your vet in advance of the sale.
I was told at the puppy store that I could get not only documents from the store’s vet but also a health guarantee for the puppy. Will a breeder guarantee a puppy’s health?
No one can actually guarantee a puppy’s health even while the puppy is still in their control. But breeders do expect a vet to examine the puppy and assure its health shortly after a sale. The breeder is also likely to stay in touch for several months if not the lifetime of your new dog. They often do include guarantees against inherited problems such as hip dysplasia.
A pet store can give you a new puppy if your vet determines that the puppy suffers from a congenital illness or was sick when you purchased her. Think carefully about this because you will be very attached to the puppy you already have and will have to return him/her if you want to take the store up on its guarantee.
There are several reasons pet stores offer this. They buy from various sources and have less control over the farms they buy from so they may get puppies with inherited or contagious illnesses. They want to take some of the risk for the buyer out of buying from an unknown source. They have access to replacement puppies.
Although it usually involves footwork and waiting, buying from a reputable breeder is one way to have the odds of a healthy puppy in your favor despite the convenience of the puppy store.