A Clean Bill of Health


Finding a Health-Conscious Breeder


The ideal breeder is aware of breed-specific health concerns and performs the appropriate testing. Such breeders are more likely to belong to the national parent club for their breed. To find such breeders, go to www.akc.org/breederinfo/breeder_search.cfm. Many parent clubs have a breeder referral page, or a page with listings for local breed clubs.


While a breeder who follows the parent club recommendations for health testing is ideal, in the real world they can be scarce or their puppies may already be spoken for. That doesn't mean you can't get a healthy puppy from a breeder who doesn't test.  In fact, most hereditary health disorders still have no reliable screening tests, so even well-intentioned breeders can do nothing but avoid mating affected dogs. Ask what health problems relatives of your prospective puppy may have had. Don't discount a litter because some relatives have had health problems; but do be cautious if the breeder shrugs them off as the norm for the breed, or says the breed has no health problems when your research indicates they do.


Finally, remember that even health problems that are a concern in a breed are nonetheless uncommon. Even without testing the chance of getting a healthy dog is high in most breeds.


Evaluating Puppies


Besides evaluating the pedigree and parents, you'll also want to examine the puppies. Check the following:


  • The skin should not have parasites, hair loss, crusts or reddened areas.
  • The eyes, ears, and nose should be free of crusts and discharge.
  • The nostrils should be wide and open.
  • None of the puppies should be coughing, sneezing, or vomiting.
  • The area around the anus should have no hint of irritation or recent diarrhea.
  • Puppies should be neither thin nor pot bellied.
  • The gums should be pink, not pale.
  • The eyelids and lashes should not fold in on the eyes.
  • By the age of 12 weeks, males should have both testicles descended into the scrotum. Undescended testicles have a greater chance of becoming cancerous, and neutering such dogs is more involved. 
  • Avoid any puppy that is making significant breathing sounds, including excessive wheezing or snorting.
  • Puppies should not be limping or lethargic. If they are, ask to see them again the next day in case it is a temporary limp or the puppy is simply sleepy.


You should make any sale contingent on a veterinary exam performed within three days. The veterinarian will listen to the heart, test for parasites, and check for more obvious breed-specific problems that may be detectable at that age.


Most puppies will come with a short health warranty that may only last a few days. Some breeders may also warrantee against certain hereditary health problems that may emerge at a later date. Understand what a warranty covers, and what remedies it offers. For example, one that requires you to return the dog for a replacement is probably one that you will never take advantage of. At the same time, remember that puppies are living beings, not machines. Although breeders can confidently warrant against problems that DNA testing has cleared, or against problems that would show up in early puppyhood, even the most carefully bred puppies will sometimes develop hereditary problems.




Sometimes we don't pick our next dog; they pick us. And sometimes all those ideas of health tests and pedigrees and vet checks go out the window when our eyes meet those of a dog in need. Although dogs in shelters or with rescue groups may not always have benefitted from the best of backgrounds or care, they can nonetheless be the best choice you can make. 


For a purebred rescue, national parent clubs often have rescue groups that can match you with an in-need dog of your breed. Many rescue groups do extensive rehabilitation and temperament testing, as well as home checking, to make sure the dog will find his forever home with you. Shelters may do less testing and rehabilitation, but are able to offer dogs for lower adoption fees. You can locate dogs of various breeds in shelters throughout the country by searching PetFinder. Be aware that many shelters label dogs as breeds according to their best guess, which is often far from accurate, so don't put too much credence in labels.


Dogs find themselves in shelters or rescue for many different reasons. Very often they are wonderful dogs whose families lost interest or could not keep them. In other cases they were a bad fit between dog and person. In some cases they had health problems that proved too challenging to the former owners. These problems often include allergies, spinal problems, blindness, or problems requiring costly treatment. Often a rescue group will foster such a dog and pay for treatment until it is ready to be placed. Nursing a dog in need back to health is particularly rewarding, but find out ahead of time all that is entailed.


Shelters will usually check for parasites, including heartworms, and will spay or neuter the dog before adopting it out. Rescue groups will do the same, but may do more extensive health checks and treatments. Most rescue groups -- like responsible breeders -- are also available to give advice throughout the dog's lifetime.


Along with good luck, good health is the result of good genes and good care...so give your dog, no matter what his genes, the best of care for the best of luck. 


Used with permission from the AKC Canine Health Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to advancing the health of all dogs and their owners by funding sound scientific research and supporting the dissemination of health information to prevent, treat, and cure canine disease.


Image: Tambako the Jaguar / via Flickr