A Clean Bill of Health

You want to make sure that your dog is as healthy as possible, whether you are buying a dog as a pup or an adult or from a rescue or breeder. Even if the dog has special needs, it’s important to be aware of what’s involved. Speak to your vet, breeders, and rescue groups before you make a decision. Give your dog the care he needs for a healthy life.

This saying applies to both dogs and people. You can have an unattractive dog, a dog who doesn’t like to fetch a ball and a dog that has dropped out of obedience school, as long as your dog is healthy. How can you be sure that your dog is healthy, with the fuss about purebreds and hereditary disease? There is no dog that will not be at risk of developing health problems. It is important to reduce this threat. No matter which breed of dog you choose, it’s important to know how to make a good health decision.

What causes hereditary health problems?

Many people believe that a mixed breed is the way to go. In order to create pure breeds, populations with similar genetic makeup were limited. Unfortunately, a smaller gene pool increases the likelihood of two identical recessive (two copies) genes pairing in the same dog. This chance is lessened by some breed crosses in their first generation, but many recessive gene combinations are common among all breeds. Unfortunately, these pairings can sometimes lead to health issues.

Inbreeding increases the risk of bad recessive genes combining in one dog. It is therefore a better idea to choose a pup from parents who are not related. Online pedigree software will calculate a coefficient of inbreeding for the pedigree. Geneticists recommend staying below a COI (Coefficient Of Inbreeding) of 10 percent for a 10-generation lineage for optimal health. Inbred and non-inbred can both have health issues.

Certain traits in certain breeds can increase the risk of health issues. Some breeds are more susceptible to respiratory problems because of their flat faces. Toy and large breeds are more susceptible to problems with the knees, while heavy or large breeds can be prone to hip dysplasia. These problems are common in dogs with flat faces, big or small sizes, and mixed breeds. Avoiding extremes of body types or exaggerated characteristics, like giant size, long backs, droopy or bulging skin or eyes, should reduce the risk for some diseases.

Health Testing

The “shots and wormed”, once considered the standard for healthy puppies, is no longer the case. Breed-specific DNA testing, blood tests and eye exams, as well as radiographs, may be required of breeders who are conscientious before mating their dogs. Some breeds require specialized testing before puppies can be placed in a new family. If a breeder claims that puppies have undergone “health testing”, make sure you get the list of tests covered. In many cases it means a puppy was examined by a vet for obvious problems and parasites, but not for breed-specific issues.

Health tests for specific breeds: The tests that you choose will depend on the breed. You’d want to do a hearing (preferably BAER or brainstem audio evoked reaction) test on a Dalmatian pup (and the parents), and you would also like to run a hip dysplasia check in Golden Retriever parents. A DNA test is recommended for a Miniature Poodle or its parent. Greyhounds are not expected to have any of these tests. It doesn’t necessarily mean that the Greyhound breed is healthier; it just means there aren’t any reliable tests for its health issues.

To find out if your dog breed qualifies as a “CHIC Breed,” you can visit the Canine Health Information Center. CHIC’s parent clubs agreed on health screening tests that all breeding stock of their breed should go through before producing a pup. Check the parent club ‘s website to find out more about the recommended health screening tests, and the best way to interpret the results. Check out the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals’ statistics and databases for hereditary diseases.

Tests of phenotype: Certain tests are conducted based on a dog’s “phenotype”, that is any sign the dog might show. Some of these tests include joint radiographs and eye exams, as well as blood tests, heart examinations, hearing test, and MRIs. These tests are often expensive and the cost of the puppy will reflect this. Normal phenotypic results from the parents can’t guarantee that your puppy is free of disease in most cases. However, they increase the chances.

Tests of DNA: The DNA or Genotype tests are usually more conclusive. There are a variety of tests available to diagnose a wide range of diseases. Some DNA tests can be used to ensure that a dog with a recessive disease or a dog carrying the disorder will not produce affected puppies when bred.

Find a Breeder Who Is Health-Conscious

Breeders who are ideal for breeding will be aware of the breed’s specific health issues and conduct appropriate tests. These breeders tend to be members of the parent club that represents their breed. To find such breeders, go to www.akc.org/breederinfo/breeder_search.cfm. Breeder referral pages are available from many parent clubs, as well as pages listing local breed clubs.

In the real world, a breeder that follows parent club guidelines for health tests is ideal. However, they may be hard to find or the puppies might already have been spoken for. It doesn’t necessarily mean that you won’t be able to get a puppy healthy from a breeder who does not test. Even well-intentioned breeding companies cannot do much to prevent the mating of affected dogs, as there are no screening tests for most hereditary disorders. You can ask about any health issues that relatives of the puppy you are considering may have experienced. Do not discount a puppy’s litter just because some of its relatives had problems. Be cautious, however, if your breeder dismisses these problems as being the norm or claims that the breed is free from health issues.

Remember that health issues that may be a problem in one breed, are not common. The chances of getting a dog that is healthy are high even without testing.

Evaluation of Puppies

You’ll want to check the parents and pedigree of the puppy. You should check the following:

  • There should be no redness, hair loss or crusts on the skin.
  • If you have crusts or discharge in your eyes, nose, and ears, these should be removed.
  • Your nostrils must be open and wide.
  • The puppies shouldn’t be sneezing or coughing.
  • An irritation of the area surrounding the anus or recent diarrhea should be absent.
  • The puppies should not be thin or pot-bellied.
  • Pink gums are preferred to pale ones.
  • Eyelids and eyelashes shouldn’t fold over the eyes.
  • Males must have their testicles lowered into the scrotum by the time they reach 12 weeks of age. Undescended testicles are more likely to become cancerous and require a longer process of neutering.
  • Any puppy making excessive breathing noises, such as wheezing and snorting is to be avoided.
  • If they are, ask to see them again the next day in case it is a temporary limp or the puppy was simply sleepy. Ask to be seen again by the following day, in case the limp is temporary or the pup is just sleepy.

Any sale should be contingent upon a vet exam within 3 days. The vet will check the dog’s heartbeat, look for parasites, and detect any breed-specific issues that are visible at this age.

Some puppies come with only a brief health guarantee that can last just a couple of days. Breeders will also offer a warranty against hereditary problems which may arise at a future date. Know what the warranty includes and how it can be used. You will probably never use a warranty that asks you to send the dog back for a new one. Remember that puppies are not machines, but living creatures. Breeders may be able to confidently guarantee against genetic problems, as long as the DNA tests have cleared them, and against those that will show in early puppyhood. However, sometimes even carefully bred dogs can develop genetic problems.


Sometimes, we are not the ones who choose our dog. They do. All those health checks, pedigrees, and vet check ideas can be thrown out when we see a dog that is in desperate need. Even though dogs that are in rescue or shelter groups might not have had the best care or backgrounds, you may still be able to make the right choice.

If you are looking for a purebred dog rescue, many national parent clubs have rescue groups who can help match you up with a dog in need of your particular breed. Rescue groups often conduct extensive temperament and rehabilitation testing as well as home checks to ensure the dog finds his forever home. Shelters do less rehabilitation and testing but can offer the dogs at a lower price. Search Petfinder to find dogs in various shelters across the nation. You should be aware that shelters often label their dogs according to the best guess they can make, and this is not always accurate. So don’t place too much faith in these labels.

Shelters and rescues are the home to many dogs for a variety of reasons. They are often wonderful dogs who were abandoned by their families or were unable to keep them. Other times, the dog was not a good match for their owner. Some dogs had serious health issues that were too difficult for their former owners to handle. Problems such as allergies, spine problems, blindness or other conditions that require expensive treatment are common. Rescue groups will often foster and treat such dogs until they are ready for placement. It is rewarding to nurse a sick dog back to health, but you should know what is involved.

Before adopting a dog, shelters check it for heartworms and other parasites. Rescue groups may perform the same tests and treatments, or they might do an even more thorough job. Like responsible breeders, most rescue groups are available for advice at any time during the life of the dog.

Good health and luck are a result of both good genes as well as good care. So give your dog the best care, regardless of his genetics.

This image is used with the permission of the AKC Canine Health Foundation. The foundation, which supports the distribution of health information and funds sound scientific research, is dedicated to improving the health of dogs, their owners, and the community by funding and supporting health-related projects.