We all want our dogs to live happy, healthy, and long lives. So, rather than only rushing your pet to the vet when they’re showing obvious signs of illness or injury, it pays to be proactive about preventative care.
Dogs are experts at masking pain, and timely diagnosis can save unnecessary suffering. Plus, early treatment is often less costly and complex and more effective than if you discover a problem further down the line. That’s why vets recommend getting into the habit of scheduling regular wellness exams.
How often you take your dog to the vet depends on their age, breed, lifestyle, and overall health, but there are some guidelines you can follow for most dogs.
You and your pup will get to know the vet pretty well in the first few months of bringing them home.
Dr. Jerry Klein, Chief Veterinary Officer for the AKC, recommends that a veterinarian should evaluate every newly acquired puppy. He explains that your vet might ask for a stool specimen to rule out parasites, and they will listen to the heart and lungs and check the eyes, teeth, and ears.
Vaccines for puppies will make up most of their vet visits. “Often, puppies that are bought, usually around eight to 12 weeks of age, will have already received the initial vaccine,” Dr. Klein says. Your vet will need to see the corresponding paperwork from the breeder or rescue shelter, and Dr. Klein explains that the puppies then receive further top-up vaccines (usually two) every three to four weeks until they’re about 16 to 20 weeks of age.
The standard DHPP (or DAPP) core vaccine and its boosters protect against the following five unique contagious illnesses:
“By law in North America, a puppy also has to receive the rabies inoculation,” Dr. Klein says. The exact timings of this shot vary by state, but it’s typically when they are around four months old.
During these visits, your vet will monitor how your puppy is growing, you should discuss their diet, dental health, and flea and tick preventatives, and address any other concerns you might have. You’ll also likely chat about the option of spaying or neutering your dog when they’re between six and 18 months old.
Depending on your location and lifestyle, your vet may recommend administering other non-core vaccines during this time as well. These might include shots for leptospirosis and Lyme disease. However, studies show that the efficacy of the Borrelia burgdorferi (Lyme) vaccine is highly variable, and Dr. Klein suggests you might choose not to do this unless you live in a heavily endemic area with ticks and Lyme disease.
These regular trips to the vet are an excellent opportunity to help build positive associations with the clinic and its staff. To make your puppy’s first vet visit a success, come armed with lots of treats, take things slow, and research for clinics that incorporates fear-free practices into their exams.
Adult Dog Checkups
Once your puppy matures, typically, you won’t need to make a trip to the veterinarian as often. Adult dogs typically only need DHPP and rabies vaccines every one to three years. Timings vary depending on where you live, the vaccine types, and whether they get a titer test, which checks the number of antibodies of a previous vaccine to see that it’s still providing appropriate levels of immunity.
However, even if your dog doesn’t need regular shots, arranging an annual wellness check is still wise. As Dr. Klein points out, it’s a good opportunity for the vet to examine changes you might not be familiar with.
Two of the top preventable health issues for dogs in the U.S. are obesity and dental disease, and both can be gradual, insidious problems. “When you live with an animal day-to-day, you don’t usually notice subtle weight changes,” Dr. Klein says. If gone unchecked, weight gain can lead to serious conditions like osteoarthritis, diabetes, and heart disease. He also points out that “most owners don’t really look in the mouth of their dog carefully unless they brush their teeth, and a lot of owners don’t do that.”
Among other things, as part of the annual head-to-tail physical, your vet will monitor weight changes, check your dog’s teeth, gums, eyes, and ears, look out for unusual growths, and listen to the heart and lungs. They might also run some blood work and request a stool sample ahead of time.
Dr. Klein describes the vet wellness check as “a touchstone” that’s more important than dog owners often think. “We can examine them, we have certain objective criteria we look at, we can look at the history and compare it to the present,” he says. “But we require an owner’s observation and accurate assessment of what’s happened and what’s happening to give us an idea of what to look for and to know what tests we may have to run.”
If you have any concerns or queries, jot them down in advance so you don’t forget to raise them during the visit.
Senior Dog Checkups
As your dog ages, just like humans, they’re prone to more health problems. That’s why biannual wellness checks are beneficial for senior dogs. When your dog hits this marker, depends on their breed type, size, and overall lifestyle but it’s typically considered to start earlier the larger your dog is.
“A seven-year-old Papillon is not the same as a seven-year-old Irish Wolfhound,” Dr. Klein says. He recommends toy breeds coming in twice a year when they are from seven to nine years of age. Giant breeds age more quickly and typically don’t live as long as small dogs. He suggests bringing them to the vet biannually a couple of years sooner than small dogs. However, aging for dogs is a gradual and individual process, so it’s all about paying close attention to any changes. The more information you can give your veterinarian at these wellness checks, the better.
Dr. Dani McVety, a hospice veterinarian and Founder & CEO of Lap of Love, explains that for some senior dogs, along with the regular physical exam and vaccinations, your veterinarian is going to be more likely to recommend bloodwork and X-rays to assess where your pet is at baseline.
X-rays can help detect conditions more frequent in senior dogs, like cancer or arthritis. “The blood work would give us a good picture of the internal health of the organs. We can see if there are any kidney or liver issues a little earlier,” Dr. McVety says. The vet might also discuss changes in diet and review pain management for conditions like arthritis.
Dr. McVety explains that when geriatric dogs are nearing the end of life, they often need to visit the vet more than every six months. This is when pain medication types and dosages need more frequent review to help maintain quality rather than quantity of life. Your vet can also more objectively support you when making tough end-of-life decisions.
Despite this, Dr. McVety says that “a significant percentage of clients that approach us for euthanasia have not been to the veterinarian in the past six to 12 months before they see us.”
For some owners, this might be because they are struggling to deal with the difficult decisions ahead. For others, it’s because they have concerns that their dog might be subject to invasive and expensive treatment when they just want them to be comfortable during the time they have left.
“Once you get to that point, saying the word hospice care to your veterinarian will signal to them that you’re not interested in doing all this bloodwork and X-rays anymore,” Dr. McVety says. “You really just want medications that are going to help keep your pet comfortable, and not necessarily extend life.”
Don’t Just Stick to the Schedule
Even if your dog doesn’t have an obvious illness or injury, if you notice small changes that spark concern, don’t hold off until your next annual wellness check. The signs of chronic pain can be subtle, and if you notice your dog isn’t as bright as usual, isn’t eating as much, drinking more than normal, or just not acting like they usually do, don’t be afraid to make an appointment with your vet.
“We’d rather have someone call us with what they think might be a silly question, but, in fact, may be a very appropriate observation,” Dr. Klein says. “It’s important to be on top of things, not go just by a strict schedule.”