The Top 5 Health Threats to Puppies

Last Updated on December 5, 2023 by Dogster Team

It’s been my experience as a veteran veterinarian that most people spend more time looking for the right Range Rover than the right Rover. With vehicles, people look for award winners, typically consult online resources, ask trusted mechanics for a recommendaion, and often visit multiple dealerships to look at several makes and models before choosing the best fit for them.

With pets? Too often, it’s “one and done.” At a shelter, breeder, or adoption event, the first look at those big, dancing eyes combined with the first whiff of puppy breath, and you find yourself signing the papers and thinking about the need to pick up dog food.

There is a better way of choosing a pet for both the pet and the pet owner. I’ve been practicing for more than 35 years. In mid-2015, I saw my first case of distemper in 30 years. A litter of puppies and their mother had been flown to Northern Idaho from Southern California and broke with this serious, often fatal disease just shortly after arrival. Several of these small mixed-breed puppies died of this preventable disease.

Our family adopted one of the survivors, who spent a week in intensive care at the Washington State University College of Veterinary Medicine at our expense — a total of more than $4,000! Yes, it was worth it, as we just love QT Pi, but it brings up the point that we should know some of the diseases and conditions that affect puppies, so we can make a choice based on logic and not just emotion.


I reached out to my colleague and friend, Dr. Nancy Kay, who is board certified in internal medicine and the author of Speaking for SpotHere are the top five diseases, conditions, or threats she worries about when it comes to puppies:

1. Infectious disease

Dr. Kay doesn’t consider pups to have full immune protection against the more common infectious diseases until they have completed their puppy vaccination series at 4 months of age.

2. Congenital (birth) defects

A thorough physical examination at the time of puppy vaccine visits is the best way to detect birth defects.

3. Intestinal parasites

Most pups develop intestinal parasites, particularly roundworms, at a very young age.

4. Trauma

Puppies who are not well supervised commonly fall prey to a variety of traumas, such as being dropped, hit by a car, or injured by another animal.

5. Gastrointestinal upsets

Just like young children, puppies love to put anything and everything, including very inappropriate things, into their mouths.

German Shepherd puppy by Shutterstock.
German Shepherd puppy by Shutterstock.

Normally, this is the place in an article where I, along with an expert, would probably give you the telltale signs you should look for when choosing a puppy that could indicate a potential illness, injury, or defect, or what you want to see before adoption or purchase. The “want-to-see” list would probably include things such as clear eyes and a moist nose free from discharge, no cough, firm stool, healthy looking skin and coat, normal appetite, and playful/active.

However, Dr. Kay made a strong point that this self-assessment is typically flawed because pet owners don’t have the training and experience to detect potential problems or look past obvious problems to potential ones. For example, 95 percent of people would never try and diagnose what’s wrong with a vehicle; they just take it to the automobile repair shop for analysis and repairs. Same for a puppy. Dr. Kay and I strongly encourage having a potential new pup examined by a veterinarian before he or she ever sets foot in your house. If the pup has a serious problem, it will be discovered before the puppy might have exposed your other pets to disease and in time to get treatment.

What is the single most underrated threat to a puppy’s health? I’m tempted to say something like distemper virus. After all, I just saw this deadly disease again after decades. But the biggest threat to puppies isn’t a disease at all. It’s behavioral issues. Again, Dr. Kay and I agree that many people don’t realize that the time to begin teaching good manners is the moment the puppy is adopted. Unfortunately, all too often when the untrained pup becomes a rowdy young adult, the result is banishment to the backyard or relinquishment to the animal shelter.

More about distemper

Distemper in dogs is very similar to measles in humans (they aren’t transmissible from one species to another, however). Just as you’ve read that measles infections are increasing in humans because of lower childhood vaccination rates, we’re seeing the same for dogs. More dog owners are not vaccinating their dogs as recommended or at all. this puts not just the pet owner’s individual pet at risk, but all the dogs in the community because of something called “herd immunity.” Simply put, by following your veterinarian’s recommendations for vaccinations, you’ll help protect all dogs.

Puppy blood profile

Dr. Fred Metzger, DAVP, and owner of Metzger Animal Hospital in Pennsylvania, said that doing this test, especially prior to a surgery like spay and neuter, allows the veterinarian to detect certain diseases early and also makes anesthesia safer because we can detect and correct certain problems like low blood sugar, which is common in small and toy breeds.

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