Choosing the Right Puppy from a Litter

By Ryan Llera, BSc, DVM; Lynn Buzhardt, DVM

Are you getting a puppy? What kind of dog do you want: big or small, long haired or short haired, pure bred or sweetly mixed? Have you located a litter of available pups? Do you know how to pick just the right pup from the litter to call your very own? There are a lot of factors to consider when getting a new dog including home size, time allowance for play and exercise, and healthcare costs.

How do I choose a healthy pup?

In order to select a healthy puppy, it is important to do your research:

1. Talk to the owner. Ask about appetite and eliminations. Do all the pups eat dry puppy food? Have they vomited or had diarrhea? Have the pups been treated for intestinal parasites? (All pups should be dewormed every 2 weeks starting at 2 weeks of age.)

2. Observe the litter mates in action. Do they all play together or is there a quiet one that retreats to a corner? Is there one pup that always seems to come out on top of the heap? If you want an assertive pet, that one may be for you. If you want a more docile friend, retrieve the pup from the corner. This does not mean that you will not have to socialize them or consider further training though.

3. Survey their overall appearance. Do the puppies' coats shine? Are they dull or flaky? Do you see any bald spots or sores? Pups should have healthy coats that shine with no areas of hair loss or redness.

4. Watch them move. Do they hop around on all four legs? Does anyone limp? Pups have a clumsy gait, but should bear weight evenly on all of their limbs.

There are one or two that I really like – what should I look for?

After assessing the litter as a whole, focus on a single pup. Separate him from his siblings and give him a closer look. Pay attention to these areas.

1. Eyes. Eyes should be clear with no redness or drainage. There should be no hair loss around the eyes. The pup should not squint or rub at his eyes.

2. Ears. Ears should not have an odor or discharge. The ear flaps should be covered in healthy hair. Scratching at the ear is a sign of trouble.

3. Nose. It is okay for the nose to have a slight clear discharge, but discolored drainage is not normal. The pup should breathe easily and noiselessly from his nose.

4. Head. The top of the head may have a small soft spot. If the soft area is larger than a dime, this could indicate future problems associated with “open fontanelles” which are openings between the bones/plates of the skull.

5. Mouth. The pup’s gums (mucus membranes) should be moist and healthy pink in color. The top and bottom teeth should align, although some breeds commonly have a breed-specific under-bite (e.g., Bulldogs, Boston Terriers, Pekingese).

6. Body Wall. Look at the pup’s belly for a protrusion around the navel. This could indicate an umbilical hernia. If anything pokes out in this area, it could mean surgical correction may be necessary.

7. Skin. You already looked at the puppies' coats while surveying the litter. Now take a closer look at the individual puppy. There should be no areas of hair loss, no pustules (pus-filled bumps or pimples), no redness, and no flaking.

How do I know what the puppy’s personality will be?

Although accurate temperament testing is not possible at a very young age, you can get a general assessment of your pup’s personality. Does he seem interested in play? Does he sniff or nudge your hand when you hold it out and welcome your touch? Is he comfortable around people or does he cower when you approach? See if the puppy will roll over on his back for a belly rub. Pups that will remain in that position are typically easygoing, while pups that resist being rolled onto their back often have a more independent nature. Do not force the dog to stay in that position, as it can be stressful.

When should we see the veterinarian for the first time?

Bring your new puppy to the veterinarian for a “pre-purchase exam” as soon as possible. Even though you may have already paid the owner, this is called “pre-purchase” because most reputable breeders and adoption organizations will allow a probationary period (often 72 hours) before the agreement is finalized. It is a good idea to schedule a veterinary appointment the same day you pick up your pup to promptly identify any existing problems.

After your cursory exam, your veterinarian will investigate further by listening to the pup’s heart, looking at his eyes and ears under magnification, assessing his teeth and gums, palpating his abdomen, checking his lymph nodes, identifying hernias or open fontanelles, looking for fleas and ticks, and testing for intestinal parasites. Your veterinarian may also update immunizations and prescribe parasite preventatives to prevent heartworms, intestinal parasites, fleas, and/or ticks.

What do I do when I bring my pup home?

Bring a clean towel from home and rub the mother dog and a couple of litter mates with it. Wrap your pup in this familiar scent to ease his transition to a new home. When you walk through the front door for the first time with your pup, take a minute to acquaint him with his new surroundings. Let him explore the house, sniffing as he goes along. Sit with him quietly, providing lots of hugs. Then try a little playtime to further cement your new bond. Take him on a walk to show him where he will eliminate or introduce him to potty pads.

"If you and your veterinarian think it best to change foods or alter feeding schedule, do so gradually.”

Designate an area of low traffic flow where he will eat and sleep. This may also be where you set up his crate. Have clean food and water bowls ready. Feed your pup the same food at the same times his previous owner did for the first day. If you and your veterinarian think it best to change foods or alter feeding schedule, do so gradually. Most pups eat 2 or 3 times a day. Monitor food intake the first few days though it may seem decreased the first few days as he adjusts to his new home and make sure he drinks plenty of water.

When bed time comes, cuddle him a little, place his towel next to him in his bed, leave a soft radio on or other white noise, and tell him good night. Hopefully, he and you will sleep well so that you can enjoy the first of many fun-filled days together.

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