Every dog is special and unique, and they depend on us to meet their needs. In return for basic care, we get from these furry bundles of joy a never-ending supply of unconditional love, constant happiness to see us, and tireless loyalty. Even if you haven’t welcomed Fido into your home yet, it’s a good idea to get a sense of what it takes to care for your new best friend. Below we have compiled a list of things that are essential to keeping your dog safe and healthy and will provide a solid foundation for a long, happy life with your dog.
Identification and Licensing
No dog owner wants to experience that sickening feeling when you realize your dog has escaped the yard. If this happens, it is important that your dog has some sort of identification so he can be returned when found.
Every dog should have a collar and ID tag. A buckled collar is preferable to a choke chain, and it should be fastened securely so it will not slip off when grabbed. ID tags can be purchased at kiosks at most pet stores or online and should include a current address or phone number. If you do not enjoy hearing the jingle of ID tags, you can have your dog’s collar embroidered with her name and current phone number.
Microchips are a high-tech solution to dog identification. About the size of a grain of rice, a vet usually injects a microchip under the loose skin between a dog’s shoulder blades, and it remains there for the dog’s lifetime. A microchip carries a code to identify your dog, and you provide your current information to the microchip registry. Vets and shelters use a universal hand-held scanner to detect the microchip and read the code, and then call the appropriate registry for your contact information. Puppies as young as eight weeks old can be microchipped.
Tattooing is a permanent means of identification, and is usually done by a vet on the inside of the hind leg or belly (under anesthesia if necessary). The tattoo is a series of numbers or combination of letters and numbers, and this is registered along with your contact information in a registry such as the National Dog Registry, ID Pet, or the AKC (for purebred dogs). Federal law does not permit laboratories to use tattooed dogs.
Whatever form of identification you choose, it’s important to make sure the information is current.
In most states, it’s required that people have their dogs licensed. If your city government requires that your dog is licensed and registered, doing so may not only help you avoid a fine, it will help your dog be returned more quickly in the event he goes missing. Most dogs are found within 3-4 blocks of their home, and your city hall will have your contact information on file if your dog is found with the license tag. In order to apply for a license, you must provide proof of rabies vaccination. The average price of an annual dog license is $10 to $20.
Annual Health Check
Preventive care is important because a vet can help detect and sometimes prevent a disease or life-threatening illness from reaching an advanced stage, saving you and your pet from needless suffering and a larger financial burden. Take your dog to the vet for a full check-up, vaccines, and a heartworm test every year. At the annual exam, your vet will also take a fecal sample to check for intestinal parasites, and give a deworming medication if necessary. Your vet should also prescribe you a heartworm prevention medication that is generally administered by mouth once a month. You may also consider health insurance for dogs, which can save money.
Vaccines are your dog’s frontline defense against deadly diseases and are divided into core and non-core vaccines. Core vaccines are those that every dog should receive and include rabies (required for all dogs by law), canine distemper, canine parvovirus, and canine adenovirus (often administered in a combination vaccine). For puppies, vaccines are administered at 8, 12, and 16 weeks. After that, depending on the vaccine, your dog may get a booster shot every one to three years. Follow your veterinarian’s guidelines based on the particular vaccine they administer.
Heartworms are transmitted to dogs via mosquitoes. Once inside the dog, heartworms begin to live inside of and fill the heart, lungs, and associated arteries, causing severe lung disease, heart failure, and damage to other organs in the body.
Signs of heartworm disease may include mild, persistent cough, reluctance to exercise, fatigue after moderate activity, decreased appetite, and weight loss. Advanced cases may include heart failure and a swollen belly due to excess fluids in the abdomen.
Once your dog has heartworms, treatment is an expensive and prolonged process. It is MUCH easier to administer a heartworm prevention tablet to your dog once a month! Heartworm prevention medication is regulated by the FDA, so it is by prescription only.
Fleas and Ticks
Fleas and ticks are two of the most common pet care concerns in America, and prevention is the best defense against these bloodsucking parasites.
Fleas are wingless insects that feed on blood and can jump up to two feet high. They live anywhere from 13 days to 12 months and during this time can produce millions of offspring. If your dog has fleas, you will most commonly find them on the dog’s stomach, the base of the tail and the head. Common symptoms include excessive scratching, licking, or biting at the skin, hair loss, or scabs and hotspots. When checking your dog, look for “flea dirt,” black pepper-like specks in the fur, that is actually dried blood excreted by the flea. Fleas also carry tapeworm eggs, which they share with your dog.
Ticks wait in grassy, woodland areas for your dog to trot by and when your dog passes closely enough, they hop a ride. Your dog may not even notice that he has been bitten, but ticks can transmit many diseases through their bite, including Lyme disease, Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, and tick paralysis. They can be as small as a pinhead when they bite and then swell to a larger size as they feed on your dog’s blood. If you see a tick on your dog, remove it with a pair of tweezers, grasping the tick as close to your dog’s body as possible and pulling straight out. Wear gloves if you have them on hand, and do not touch the tick with your bare hands as any contact with the tick’s blood can transmit an infection to you or your pet. Throwing a tick in the trash or flushing it down the toilet will not kill it. Put the body in a Ziploc or old glass jar, and do not crush the tick as it’s body fluids can infect whomever it comes in contact with.
The best way to deal with fleas and ticks is through prevention. Current methods include combined flea and tick preventive treatments that come in either oral monthly tablets or topical adulticides that get applied to your dog’s coat, between the shoulders, and down your dog’s back, once a month. Depending on the brand you choose, these treatments may also prevent future infestation.
If your dog already has fleas, you can treat immediately with a flea shampoo and a flea collar. Keep in mind that these are temporary measures.
Spaying and Neutering
Spaying or neutering your dog is the only option for responsible pet owners. According to the Humane Society, there are roughly 70 million stray animals living in the U.S., with 6 to 8 million of these finding their way into U.S. shelters each year. Nearly half of all animals that arrive in U.S. shelters are euthanized because of a lack of space and adopters.
The North Shore Animal League’s SpayUSA estimates that one unspayed female dog and her offspring can breed as many as 67,000 dogs over the course of 6 years. Consequently, the number of stray dogs is cascading out of control, which is one of the reasons California recently passed a law banning the breeding of any dogs in puppy mills. By law, all dogs sold in California pet stores must come from shelters or rescue groups.
Spaying and neutering also provides your dog with many health benefits. In females, spaying helps prevent uterine infections and mammary and ovarian cancers if done before your dog’s first heat. In males, neutering can help prevent prostate and testicular cancers.
The behavioral benefits of neutering include a decreased drive for your dog to mark his territory in undesirable places (like the inside of your house!). He might be less likely to mount other dogs and people, and it can reduce aggressive behavior if done before your dog becomes an adult.
Medicines and Poisons
Never give your dog a medication that has not been prescribed by a veterinarian. If you think your dog has ingested a poisonous substance, call your veterinarian or the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center for 24-hour animal poison information at (888)426-4435.
And last, but not least… Always see a veterinarian if your dog is sick or injured.
Feed your dog a nutritious diet every day.
Start by picking a food that has a high-quality meat as the first ingredient (chicken, turkey, beef, lamb, etc.), not meat by-products. Meat by-products are the parts of the animal not fit for human consumption, and grain by-products are the part of the plant left over from milling. Commercial pet food companies have historically used these by-products as “filler” to fill the space in the bag. By-products have a lower nutritional value or no nutritional value, and should never be the first ingredient in your dog’s diet. Generic and grocery store brands are generally much lower in quality than name brands.
Also choose a food that is appropriate for your dog’s life stage (puppy, adult, senior), as manufacturers adjust their formulas (vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, etc.) to meet the specific needs of a dog’s life stage.
8-12 weeks old: 4 meals per day
3-6 months old: 3 meals per day
6 months-1 year old: 2 meals per day is best
Feeding two meals per day is best for adult dogs, and you should leave the food in the bowl for about 30 minutes each time. Free-feeding, where you’re always keeping food in the bowl and leaving it out all day, is discouraged. Free-feeding can encourage a dog to eat too much, and if you have more than one dog, you won’t know who’s getting most of the food. Monitoring a dog’s food intake is important because a sharp drop in appetite may be a sign of illness, while constantly overeating will lead to obesity. You can feed your adult dog once per day, but feeding once per day has been linked to bloat and other digestive issues.
Store your dog’s food in a dry location to avoid mold, and check the expiration date on bags of commercial food when purchasing.
Have clean, fresh water available to your dog at all times. If your dog will be spending a lot of time outside, make sure their water is not frozen in the winter and not too hot in the summer.
Grooming: Coat and Skin, Nails, Teeth
Coat and Skin
Regularly brushing your dog’s coat will help control shedding while also distributing the naturals oils in your dog’s skin that keep his coat soft and shiny. If your dog has longer hair, pay particular attention to the hair behind the ears and elbows where mats tend to form.
There are many opinions on bathing. Some people bathe their dogs once a week, while others argue that you shouldn’t bathe your dog more than a couple of times per year or you’ll strip the oils from their skin and coat. The truth is, if you’re using a gentle shampoo, this shouldn’t be a problem.
I personally bathe my dog whenever he gets smelly, which usually depends on how much time he is spending outside or playing with other dogs. I find the easiest way to bathe him is to take him to a self-service wash where you put your dog in an elevated tub so you’re not bending over, and they have all the products you need ready and waiting. The best part is that they clean up after you when you’re finished!
If you’re looking for straight up convenience, take your dog to a groomer once a month or so, and they will take care of bathing, trimming your dog’s coat if necessary, and even clipping their nails.
Most dogs do best if their nails are clipped every two to three weeks. Many people fear nail clipping for fear of cutting the nail too short, but maintaining your dog’s nails is essential to good health. If a dog’s nails get too long, they splay the toes, impede your dog’s movement, and can cause pain and limping.
If you decide to do it yourself, it is a good idea to have a supply of styptic powder on hand. If you cut the nail too short and your dog starts bleeding, applying the styptic powder will stop the bleeding quickly, allowing you to release your squirming dog without getting blood everywhere. One popular brand is Kwik Stop, but any brand will do.
If you don’t want to do it yourself, you can always seek help from your vet’s office or groomer. And if your dog is getting a lot of vigorous exercise on pavement or concrete, you may not need to trim their nails at all as they will wear down naturally. My husband takes our dog for a run or bike ride every day. Our pooch is three years old and we have never had to trim his nails!
Teeth and Gums
Keeping a dog’s teeth clean is often overlooked, but is an important part of keeping your dog healthy. Bacteria that build up on the teeth can migrate up under the gums (periodontal disease) and in advanced cases this bacteria can enter the bloodstream spreading the infection to the heart, kidneys, or liver. Teeth should be clean and white and gums should be a healthy pink. Once the teeth look dark yellow or brown at the gum line or the gums are red and inflamed, you can anticipate problems. Signs of dental problems include bad breath, bleeding or inflamed gums, loss of appetite, depression, and irritability when touched or petted on the head.
The easiest place to start a healthy dental routine is with daily tooth brushing. You can use a human toothbrush, finger toothbrush, washcloth, or your finger with a gauze over it, but make sure you use a CANINE toothpaste as your dog will swallow the toothpaste and a human toothpaste is not designed to be swallowed.
Vets generally recommend a crunchy kibble over soft or wet food because the crunch of the kibble helps clean the teeth. And a good, long chew on a bully stick, rawhide, or knucklebone can also scrape away some of the plaque build-up.
You will eventually want to set up a once a year dental cleaning at your vet’s office, where they remove all the plaque build-up on your dog’s teeth, just like when you go to your dentist for a cleaning. For your dog, this is done under anesthesia. Is this expensive? Relatively, yes. But so is having your dog’s teeth pulled once their teeth have started to rot. And tooth extraction can then lead to problems eating. To take the sting out of veterinary costs, we finally, with our current dog, signed up for a wellness plan with our veterinarian. It essentially pro-rates, or budget bills you, for your yearly dog care costs (annual exam, vaccines, dental cleaning, heartworm test and medication, etc.). Is it one more monthly bill? Yes. But I, personally, find it far preferable to the big bill at the end of the vet visit that can sometimes feel like a punch in the gut.
Please note, you can do anesthesia-free dental cleanings, but these are purely cosmetic treatments, and only the visible parts of the teeth are cleaned. They do not scale the teeth up under the gumline where bacteria begin to fester and lead to the cascade of bigger problems.
Dogs, and puppies in particular, are denning animals and feel most secure in small, snug areas with a low roof. This is why training crates are so successful. The crate is a good bedroom/house training aid, but your dog shouldn’t be left in the crate for hours on end. The size of the crate should be big enough for your dog to stand up and turn around in.
Wire mesh crates provide better ventilation and visibility than plastic ones, are easier to clean, and typically fold up for easy storage and transportation. Some wire mesh crates also come with dividers so the crate can grow with your dog if you get your dog as a puppy and need to keep increasing the crate size.
If you keep a blanket or mat pad in your crate for extra warmth and softness, make sure it is washable and that you wash it often.
Whatever you choose, you will want to make sure your dog has a warm, quiet place to rest away from drafts.
If your dog will be spending a lot of time outdoors, provide her with shade and plenty of clean, cool water in hot weather, and a warm, dry, covered shelter when it is cold.
To carry a puppy or small dog, place one hand under your dog’s chest, with either your forearm or other hand supporting the hind legs and rump (similar to a football carry). Never attempt to lift or grab your dog by the forelegs, tail, or back of the neck. If you do have to lift a large dog, lift from the underside, supporting his chest with one arm and his rear with the other.
ALWAYS keep your dog on a leash when you are outside of your house or enclosed yard. It just makes sense. Even when you think you know your dog, and your dog will always come when called, and your dog would never hurt a fly, the truth is, you can’t predict the behavior of other people, especially children, and other dogs. Your dog needs to be on lead if you find you need to control a situation.
The only time I have EVER released a dog from a leash was when I owned a 150 pound Neopolitan Mastiff and a very large German Shepherd, who was off-leash in a park with his owner, charged us across an acre-long field. The Shepherd’s charge was aggressive, and I had enough time to think about what was about to happen. I knew that I couldn’t control the situation with the Shepherd off leash. It would take the Shepherd’s owner minutes to catch up across the field and I needed my dog to be able to defend himself (not to mention making sure I didn’t get mauled when the dogs collided). Luckily, when the Shepherd got close, he skidded to a stop, took a second to reevaluate the challenge, and turned back around. My point is, the Shepherd’s owner thought he knew his dog and could predict his behavior, but he couldn’t, and all the apologies in the world did not excuse his irresponsibility for having his dog off-leash and scaring the “bleep” out of me. Please. Keep your dog on a leash.
If you want your dog to enjoy some freedom when you’re out and about, get a retractable leash. At the very least, you can lock it from extending further and wrap it around a tree if your pup won’t come back to you at your command. In a large park, you could also use a long line, which is generally used to train hunting dogs. It does not extend or retract (just one long line), but you can purchase them up to 50 feet in length, giving your dog room to roam, sniff, trot, run, etc.
Dogs need physical and mental stimulation every day. The proper amount of exercise depends on the breed type, age, and overall health of your dog. And I can tell you first hand that providing enough exercise for your dog can also prevent household destruction and other behavior problems common in under-exercised dogs. A good place to start is 30 minutes of physical activity per day, while adult herding and sporting dogs may need upwards of 60-90 minutes per day.
Taking your dog for a daily walk is the easiest place to start.
For more vigorous activity, you can take your dog for a run or a bike ride, or take him to an enclosed field for a good long session with a Chuckit! Dog Ball Launcher. If your dog has been properly socialized, take him to a dog park and let him run and play with other animals.
When it’s freezing cold outside, you can have him run up and down the stairs, play keep away or tug-of-war, or get him on a treadmill (to do this your dog should be properly treadmill trained).
To boost your dog’s mental stimulation, give him a puzzle toy filled with small treats, or fill a Kong with frozen peanut butter. Do 10 minutes of obedience training to give him a job and give his mind focus, or play a game like hide-and-seek.
Dogs are social animals, and socialization is one of the best ways to ensure they become a friendly, confident adult. Dogs who are raised without sufficient exposure to new people, places, sounds and objects can become fearful of many commonplace situations, including meeting new people.
Just taking your dog out in public and walking him around will help him grow more comfortable with the world and people around him. It gives him a chance to take in the sights and smells, hear different sounds, and meet and greet new friends.
Dog training classes are a great place to meet other dogs and people in a safe, controlled environment.
Handle your dog’s body parts on a daily basis, giving praise and small food rewards for relaxing. As the dog becomes more comfortable, have other people start to handle your dog as well. This activity will help tremendously with building your dog’s confidence for things like nail clipping and vet exams.
A well-behaved dog is a joy to be around, but good behavior doesn’t always come naturally. Teaching your dog the 7 Common Commands – Sit, Stay, Come, Down, Heel, Off, and Leave It – will improve your relationship with your dog and your neighbors, and help her become a good citizen in your community. Start encouraging good manners no matter how young or old your dog is. Puppies can be enrolled in obedience classes as soon as they have completed all of their vaccinations.
One final note on the etiquette of poop.
When you have your dog out and about in public, and your dog poops, whether it be in someone else’s yard, on the sidewalk, or in the street, please clean it up. No one appreciates having to clean up someone else’s dog poop in their yard. It’s just bad manners. And no one appreciates stepping in someone else’s dog poop when they’re simply trying to get some exercise walking down the sidewalk or street. They then have your dog’s poop attached to them for the remainder of their journey as a reminder of your bad manners, get to smell it the rest of the way, and with a cherry on top, get to clean it off their shoe once they get home.
Dog poop contains various bacteria and parasites that can spread to people and other dogs by stepping in their poop or just walking barefoot in the area around where a dog has pooped. Whether your dog has pooped in your yard, or someone else’s, it’s best to keep it picked up.
Manufacturers make little poop bag on rolls that are easy to carry along on walks, or you can just take a couple of old plastic grocery bags with you when you head out the door.
Our dogs give so much to us. As owners, we all want to do what we can to keep our best friends healthy and safe. Meeting a dog’s basic needs includes not only food, water, and shelter, but also love, nurturing, and affection. Providing your dog with security, comfort, and lots of love will build a solid foundation for a long, healthy life.