Preventive Health Care for Dogs

Preventive pet medicine can catch problems before they become serious, saving time and money. How does preventive medicine work? It's a lot like caring for your car, really. You routinely check the oil and the air pressure in the tires and take the car in for regularly scheduled maintenance. By doing the same thing for your dog -- examining him at home on a weekly basis and scheduling an annual veterinary exam and vaccinations -- you can nip health problems in the bud and even extend your dog's life.

Regular veterinary visits. When you take your dog in each year for his veterinary exam, the vet doesn't just give him some vaccinations and send him on his way. He does a thorough exam: palpating the body to make sure all the internal organs feel normal and there are no worrisome lumps or bumps; checking the condition of the eyes and ears; listening to the heart and lungs; checking the weight; and taking the temperature. Because dogs age differently than people, this annual physical is comparable to you having a physical exam every five or six years. This is especially important if your dog is middle-aged or older because it gives the veterinarian a chance to find and treat health problems before they become serious.

Dog vaccinations. Most folks take it on faith that vaccinations are good for a dog and protect him against disease. They're right, of course. When puppies are born, they are protected by special antibodies produced in their mother's milk, but as they get older they lose this protection. That's why they need a series of vaccinations, usually starting at six to ten weeks of age, to stimulate their own immunity against disease. The vaccinations are repeated every three or four weeks until the pup is about four months old. Then he gets annual vaccinations to protect him throughout his life. These vaccinations protect your dog against such killers as rabies, parvovirus, and distemper and against other diseases such as viral hepatitis, leptospirosis, parainfluenza, coronavirus, and kennel cough. If you live in an area where Lyme disease is common, especially if your dog spends a lot of time outdoors, the vet can vaccinate for that as well.

Neutering and Spaying

It might surprise you to learn that spaying a female dog before her first heat and neutering a male before he reaches sexual maturity can prevent many health and behavior problems. Contrary to the old wives' tale, female dogs absolutely do not need to have one litter (or one heat) before being spayed. In fact, just the opposite is true.

Spay and neuter surgeries are easy to perform on young puppies, taking less time and requiring less anesthesia thanks to new technology and new drugs. Young pups recover more quickly than older puppies or dogs, and the long-term health benefits include a much smaller risk of developing mammary tumors and no risk at all of dangerous uterine infections or testicular cancer. Dogs who are spayed or neutered before they hit puberty have a much greater chance of living a long, full life.

Another common myth about spaying and neutering is that an altered dog will get fat. The truth is that weight gain and loss in dogs runs by the same rules as for humans. Too much food and not enough exercise -- not spaying and neutering -- are what causes dogs to gain weight.

Spaying or neutering a dog also has a positive effect on behavior. If there's a female dog in heat practically anywhere in the known universe, an unaltered male dog will know it. He'll try to get out, roam far and wide, mark your furniture and other things with urine, and may become overly aggressive. An unspayed female goes through the mess of heat (estrus) about twice a year, during which she may also try to escape or become more unpredictable in her behavior. Without the ebb and flow of those hormonal tides, spayed and neutered dogs are more consistent in their temperament -- which makes training easier -- yet their zeal in protecting you and your home is undiminished.

Spaying and neutering have one other important benefit that often gets overlooked: They prevent the birth of unwanted puppies. According to the Humane Society of the United States, 25 to 35 million dogs are put to sleep each year because there just aren't enough homes for them. Even if you let your dog have a litter and find homes for every last puppy, that simply means there's an equal number of puppies somewhere else who didn't get those homes and will end up being put to sleep.

Your dog should be altered by the age of four to six months, unless your veterinarian recommends waiting longer. Spaying or neutering is a one-time investment (many animal shelters even have low-cost spay and neuter programs), dramatically lowering your dog's risk of several serious disease (including some cancers), and doubling your dog's life expectancy.

For all the tried-and-true treatment methods there are for dogs, some owners will be eager to know about alternative methods. We cover them in the next section.