Updated February 25, 2019
A lot of new dog owners are surprised at how quickly they fall in love with their new pet. And while this is a wonderful feeling, there is a flip side to that coin: Because you love your new dog so much, you can experience quite a bit of anxiety as you try to keep your dog healthy.
But don’t worry – you don’t have to wrap your new pet in bubble wrap and raise him in a sterile environment to keep him healthy.
In fact, keeping your dog healthy is not terribly difficult. You obviously can’t do much about genetic or inherited diseases, but by following the 12 rules below, you can drastically reduce the chances of your dog falling ill or suffering a serious injury.
1. Feed your dog a nutritious, high-quality food
As the saying goes, “you are what you eat,” and this applies to your dog too. Dogs fed the canine equivalent of junk food and TV dinners often experience nutritional deficiencies, food allergies, and intestinal upset.
Additionally, many low-quality dog foods are made with unhealthy, even dangerous, additives; so, it just makes sense to select a high-quality dog food.
The best foods feature a whole protein at the beginning of the ingredient list, provide the nutrition recommended by the AAFCO and feature no artificial flavors, colors, additives or preservatives.
It is wise to limit your food choices to products manufactured in the USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand or Western Europe, as these locations have stricter safety- and quality-control procedures and guidelines in place.
Some dogs suffer from itchy skin and poor coat health when fed foods with refined grains, such as corn or enriched wheat, so you may want to look for grain-free dog food formulas.
The very best foods not only feature high-quality proteins and healthy carbohydrates but supplemental ingredients, which provide things like omega fatty acids, chondroitin, glucosamine and antioxidants.
2. Ensure your dog gets sufficient exercise
Generally speaking, active dogs are healthy dogs. Exercise provides a wealth of health benefits, which influence almost every aspect of your dog’s biology.
Dogs who get sufficient exercise tend to remain a healthy body weight, develop stronger muscles and enjoy a better quality of life.
To a large extent, your dog’s breed will determine the amount of exercise she needs. For example, pugs and Pekingese require little more exercise than they will get walking around your home and going out to the bathroom several times per day.
Conversely, Huskies, Retrievers, Rottweilers, and other high-energy dog breeds will need 1 to 2 hours of moderately high intensity every day.
Exercise can take any number of forms, and it is probably beneficial to mix up your routine from time to time, to ensure your dog exercises her muscle groups in different ways.
Long walks are the type of exercise most dogs get, but jogging and swimming burn far more calories in the same amount of time, while agility drills and retrieving games provide mental stimulation while your dog gets her exercise.
READ MORE: 9 Fun Ways to Exercise With Your Dog
3. Be sure your dog receives all of the necessary vaccinations
Historically, many young dogs died from illnesses that are pretty rare in the modern world. Things like distemper and parvo often cause serious illness or death in young puppies, so it is important to protect your puppy from these diseases.
You’ll need to discuss the appropriate vaccination schedule with your veterinarian, but most puppies will require three rounds of shots in their first few months of life.
Adult dogs also need yearly boosters, which help to provide continuing protection and limit the spread of these diseases.
Your veterinarian will recommend a good vaccine schedule for your dog, but most will recommend that your dog be vaccinated against the following illnesses:
- Canine parvovirus infection (“parvo”)
- Canine influenza
- Canine parainfluenza
- Canine adenovirus-1
- Bordetellosis (“kennel cough”)
- Lyme disease
There are a number of factors that will influence your vet’s recommendations regarding the proper vaccines for your dogs, including her age, medical history, body weight and general health.
Geography can even be an important factor: In some areas, vets may recommend that you vaccinate your dog against rattlesnake venom.
4. Visit your veterinarian regularly
Even if your dog appears completely healthy, it is important to visit your veterinarian regularly. Not only do most adult dogs require yearly booster shots, but they also require examinations of the joints, heart, eyes and other biological systems.
Regular examinations can provide your vet with the chance to catch some of these problems at an early stage, which can make any necessary treatment more effective.
By taking your dog to the vet regularly and from a young age, she’ll grow very comfortable with vet visits over time, which will make things easier for all parties involved.
Additionally, because most vet visits won’t involve anything painful or undesirable, she’ll be less likely to associate the vet office with negative emotions than if you only take her in when she is sick or in pain.
Minimally, you should take your dog in for a checkup once per year; but a twice-per-year schedule is preferable.
5. Keep your dog leashed whenever outdoors
Unfortunately, thousands of dogs die every year when they run out into traffic, and countless others wander off, only to become disoriented and homeless.
This is particularly disheartening because such occurrences are very easy to prevent – you simply need to keep your dog leashed whenever playing or walking in a non-enclosed space. Even the most attached and obedient dogs can experience a “SQUIRREL!!!” moment, so don’t be lulled into a sense of false comfort. It only takes a moment for your dog to escape, where a litany of unthinkable horrors may befall her.
For an extra level of protection, many owners have their vet install a subcutaneous microchip in their dog, which can be used to identify her, should she become lost.
There are also a number of GPS dog tracking devices to help keep track of your canine. Check out our complete guide to the best GPS dog trackers.
6. Use care and caution when providing people food
There’s probably nothing wrong with giving your dog the occasional French fry or a few carrots from your salad. But excessive amounts of people food often lead to a number of behavioral and health problems.
Not only will your dog begin begging for your food (and potentially refusing her own), she may suffer nutritional imbalances if fed too much food from your plate.
Additionally, some human foods, including chocolate, many sugar-free candies, walnuts, grapes, onions and garlic, can cause serious – potentially fatal – illness in dogs.
Accordingly, it is simply wiser to avoid feeding human foods to your dog – it is just too easy to make a mistake or instill bad behaviors.
7. Clean your dog’s food and water dishes daily
Even the highest-quality food and water dishes become coated in a layer of bacteria within a few hours of being used.
And while dogs have robust digestive systems relative to our own, some of these bacteria can cause serious illness: Your dog’s body may, for example, be able to neutralize most of the Salmonella strains she encounters, but the wrong one may confound her immune system, leading to serious illness.
Given this, it is important to wash your dog’s food and water dish on a daily basis (and twice daily washings are appropriate if you feed your dog twice per day).
Wash them by hand, using plenty of soap and hot water and then run them through the dishwasher if possible. Dry the dishes (yes, even the water dish) completely before reusing them, as dampness helps to support bacterial growth.
It is also wise to use ceramic, glass or stainless-steel dishes, as these have very smooth surfaces, which do not provide as many places for bacteria to hide as wood or plastic dishes do.
8. Protect your dog from temperature extremes
Temperature extremes can represent both a long-term and acute hazard for dogs. While minor cases of hypothermia or hyperthermia cause no long-term damage, it only takes a brief exposure to very high or very low temperatures to result in death.
In most cases, you’ll need to do nothing more than use common sense and observe your dog’s behavior to avoid temperature-related health problems. Just be sure that you recognize the signs of serious problems – including incoordination, excessive panting, lethargy and seizures, among others.
You’ll also want to do the obvious things, like provide plenty of water during hot weather, and shield your pet from strong winds and rain when it is cold.
Note that different breeds have different temperature tolerances, primarily based upon their physical traits.
For example, many short-haired, thinly built breeds, such as whippets, greyhounds and Rhodesian ridgebacks, are comfortable in higher temperatures than longer-haired, stocky breeds are. But these double-coated, stocky breeds are typically better adapted for cold temperatures making them suitable outdoor dog breeds.
READ MORE: The 5 Best Outdoor Dog Houses for Large Dogs
9. Take care of your dog’s dental health
Although a lot of dog owners fail to do so, it is important to brush your dog’s teeth on a regular basis.
Not only will this help prevent tooth loss, but it will also help keep your dog’s gums healthy, which may help her avoid heart disease as she ages. Additionally, dental problems are often quite painful, which can have profound effects on your dog’s quality of life. In some cases, dogs may stop eating if their pain is too severe.
In addition to brushing your dog’s teeth regularly, it is wise to feed her a dry kibble to help scrape her teeth clean. Many owners also provide dental treats to their dogs, which helps not only scrape the teeth clean, but it also helps to keep her breath fresher too.
Some chew toys are even designed to help keep your dog’s teeth clean as she plays. Your vet should also play a role in your dog’s dental health, so make sure you take your dog in for regular visits.
10. Provide your dog with safe toys
Most dogs will live happier lives if given plenty of time to play with a good dog toy.
Toys provide mental stimulation, help provide a way for dogs to work out frustrations or anxieties and give something they can truly sink their teeth into.
But while a good chew toy is a wonderful tool for enhancing your dog’s life and combating behavioral issues, a poor-quality chew toy is nothing more than an expensive choking hazard.
Cheap chew toys frequently fall apart quickly, and large pieces may become lodged in your pet’s throat or intestinal tract. Either scenario can quickly prove fatal and may necessitate a traumatic (and expensive) surgery.
Accordingly, you’ll want to stick to only the highest-quality, most durable chew toys to keep your dog safe. This is particularly important for large or strong-jawed breeds, such as Great Danes, pit bulls, Rottweilers and German shepherds.
11. Do not allow your dog to become overweight
As with humans, obesity often leads to a number of health problems in dogs, ranging from diabetes to heart disease to hip, spine and knee issues.
Simply put, dogs who significantly exceed the bodyweight appropriate for their breed and height live shorter lives and suffer more illnesses.
Fortunately, keeping your dog at an appropriate and healthy weight is usually pretty easy. You simply need to feed your dog the appropriate amount of nutritious dog food and ensure that your dog receives enough exercise for her breed.
Injuries and digestive problems can sometimes complicate matters, so don’t be afraid to reach out to your vet for advice about keeping your dog’s body weight in the appropriate range. You may, for example, need to take your dog swimming, if running creates too much impact for her joints and bones.
Don’t forget to consider the calories your dog receives in the form of treats – many owners fail to realize that a treat or two per day may represent 20 percent or more of your dog’s daily caloric target.
This is generally more of a problem with small dogs than large dogs, but large dogs often suffer more from the ramifications of obesity than their smaller counterparts do.
12. Familiarize yourself with the symptoms of a medical emergency
Some of the most frightening ailments that befall dogs are those that are both sudden and serious.
Dog bloat – a condition in which a dog’s stomach fills with air and twists – is one of the best examples of this type of emergency, but a variety of other illnesses can also necessitate rapid action to save your dog’s life.
Minimally, you should make sure that you have your vet’s contact information loaded into your phone and know the quickest route to the nearest after-hours emergency clinic, so you can move quickly in the case of a problem.
Many owners also derive some comfort from enrolling in a dog-centered first aid course. This can help you better understand the signs and symptoms of an emergency and know what to do should one occur.
It is also wise to have a first-aid kit on hand so that you can help treat minor wounds at home, or potentially stabilize your dog for transport to the emergency facility.
While no list of healthcare guidelines can be exhaustive, we’ve tried to cover the most common and serious health conditions and complications that afflict dogs. What do you do to keep your dog healthy? Can you think of any rules or health-care tips we missed? Let us know in the comments below.
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Forrest is a lover of dogs, the wild outdoors, deep mysterious conversations… and coffee. He is the owner of several websites, including Canine Weekly. He resides in Austin, Texas.