So you've got Puppy settling in alright, and you're realizing this is one of the most stressful and also most wonderful undertakings you've ever engaged in. Welcome to dog ownership! If you're anything like me, you're suddenly starting to understand--against your will--why people baby-talk to their dogs and dress them up in costumes (because it's hilarious).
Now you're ready for your first vet visit. Again, if you've had a dog before, you can probably ignore or at least skim this stuff. I'm intending this for someone like me, who didn't have time to read a full book on a new dog but also was going nuts reading thousands of articles online.
First, Locate Those Papers From the Rescue/Shelter/Previous Owners, etc.
- Vaccination Records Should Be In There
One of the papers should be a record of the vaccinations Puppy has had so far, and when he received them. Your new vet will need this information to decide which (if any) vaccinations you need to get right away. If you don't have these records, my guess is you just let the vet make a suggestion about what you should do.
Vaccinations are most likely not covered by your insurance, but don't try to cut corners here. Any daycare, boarding facility, or training company is going to ask for your vaccination records first thing (and most daycares have begun requiring the bortadella vaccine every six months) . You won't be able to do ANYTHING with Puppy unless you've got these.
Talk to your vet about what vaccinations they recommend. There are the standard ones (check out this article for the first-year puppy vaccination schedule), but there are also optional ones that may be beneficial based on your area. Because vaccinations usually aren't covered by your insurance anyway, there's no reason to wait on getting any. One you might want to consider if you are going to be taking Puppy hiking a lot is the rattlesnake vaccine. I'm getting one for Chance because we do go hiking regularly, and also my parents live in Pasadena (and like, in a neighborhood, not in a cabin in the woods) and they recently found a four-foot rattlesnake living under a bush in the front yard, fifteen feet from where their little dog goes potty. There was recently an outbreak of canine flu in Chicago, and there's a flu vaccine for dogs so you might want to consider that as well if Puppy will be spending a lot of time around dogs at daycare or at the dog park.
For the next couple of days after Puppy gets vaccinated, he may be slightly "off." Maybe a little lethargic, or not eating well, etc. This is normal. If you get worried, or if he seems be having a more serious reaction, do not hesitate to call your vet.
- Puppy's Spay/Neuter Certificate Should Also Be In There
If Puppy has already been fixed, the certificate declaring so will be in this pile of papers. If Puppy has not been fixed yet, YOU NEED TO DO THAT. Please do not decide to leave your dog unfixed. You don't want to be a dog breeder. And there are so many puppies killed every single day in shelters, you don't need to be contributing to the problem.
Talk to your vet about the best time to get your dog fixed. Apparently, there is a healthy debate about what age you should neuter your young male dog--some people seem to think neutering too young can cause health problems down the line, but others seem to think that neutering before 6 months prevents Puppy from developing troublesome "male" behaviors associated with puberty. I will say that Chance was neutered at about 13 weeks, and he doesn't hump, expresses very little aggression, and doesn't mark with urine. Jury's still out, of course, on whether he will develop cancer later in life.
Decide What Issues are Crises, and Which Can Wait for 15 Days
- Pre-Existing Conditions are a Bitch
Here's the thing. Anything your vet diagnoses your dog as having had when you adopted him, or during the enrollment waiting period after you've signed up for insurance, is going to be considered a "pre-existing condition."
Thankfully, the Affordable Care Act made it illegal for human health insurance companies to exclude pre-existing conditions from coverage. Unfortunately...it had no bearing on pet health insurance companies.
So if you say to your vet, "You know, I have this sneaking suspicion that maybe he can't see so well," and your vet (who wants to make her new client happy) decides to take a closer look at Puppy's eyes and discovers the early stages of cataracts...cataract treatment won't be covered by your pet's health insurance. Whereas if you had just waited 15 days to see if maybe you were just imagining things, and THEN brought it up...it would have been covered.
I AM NOT ADVOCATING INSURANCE FRAUD. I just want you to not screw yourself by being hyper-vigilant at your very first vet visit. Because, in an attempt to be the very best pet-parent you can be, you may well put yourself in the position of not being able to afford to take care of Puppy.
- Some Things Can't Wait
Unfortunately, something horrible might happen during your waiting period that you can't ignore...and that's just bad luck. For example, if Puppy is coughing for more than three days, he might have kennel cough (from which many dogs recover without treatment) or he could have a congenital heart defect. You probably don't wanna gamble that it's just kennel cough, and end up with his heart failing or something.
It's a really tough call trying to decide what's worth taking Puppy to the vet for or not during the waiting period. My advice is to do your best to keep Puppy calm, protected, and generally indoors during the first 15 days.
Things You May Want to Discuss With Your Vet (Maybe Before, Maybe After Your Enrollment Period)
If your new dog has giardia, your very first concern at this point is probably the heinously disgusting diarrhea. Maybe Puppy's stools are just really soft and greasy. Maybe you are both suffering from the seemingly constant cloud of what I call "giardi-farts" emanating from his back end. Or maybe it's gotten to the diarrhea stage--it's just a stream of stinky, frothy, greenish-brown filth. No matter what it is, pick up the pile that Puppy excretes the morning of your vet visit and bring it in for a fecal test.
If Puppy's stools are fine, they will probably collect the fecal sample at the vet's office and you don't need to worry about it (they'll probably be doing a test anyway).
If he does have giardia, by the way, your vet will prescribe some medication (won't be covered by insurance because it's during the enrollment period), but he'll get much better in just a few days. Then, most likely, IT WILL COME BACK! This is why disinfecting all his stuff is so important after the first round of treatment. He'll get treated again (and maybe again), and finally he'll be healthy. But none of the giardia treatments will be covered by insurance...because it's a pre-existing condition. ;) But it's not something you want to wait on addressing, because he can get dehydrated and die.
Chance pees SO much. At first, I thought he must have a serious medical condition. Turns out, puppies just pee a lot. If it feels like your new dog is urinating abnormally frequently, might wanna check with your vet. But I'm just saying...some of them just pee a lot.
If Puppy end up getting put on steroids for anything, the increased-urination side effect IS NO JOKE. When Puppy is on steroids, be hyper-aware of any signs he needs to go. Because you won't have much time to get outside.
- Skin Issues
Chance had a little bald spot on his side when I adopted him, and his vet did a skin scrape for mites (came back negative, so it was probably a scar). Mange is a really common shelter puppy condition, and frequently resolves itself on its own, but sometimes it can be symptom of something worse. This might be one of those things you could wait on.
If Puppy is scratching, you may want to wait to address this to see if it clears up on its own. If it doesn't...it might be allergies. And you definitely want that covered by insurance.
*A note on bathing: It's a total old wives' tale that you shouldn't bathe your dog regularly. Chance gets SO FILTHY at the dog park that I absolutely have to bathe him every time we go. When he was diagnosed with environmental allergies (dust, pollen, trees, literally everything), my vet recommended bathing him every couple of days, and wiping him off with a wet rag every time we come in after being outside. Here's an incredibly thorough article from the ASPCA on doggie bathtime I highly recommend you read. If you're going to bathe Puppy frequently, make sure you use a moisturizing shampoo (my vet recommended Hylyt).
If you're going to be trimming Puppy's nails yourself, have your vet show you how to do it. You need to be sure not to cut the "quick" (the blood vessel inside the nail), and they can show you where it is on your dog.
You can also just take Puppy to the groomer for this. Either way, it needs to be done regularly. Overgrown nails can negatively affect your dog's stride, causing joint problems. Ask your vet how often it needs to be done for Puppy.
- Anal Gland Expression
This is a new one for me. Chance started looking at his butt frequently, and so I asked my vet what could be causing it. Turns out, she recommends that dogs get their anal glands "expressed" every month. I'd had Chance for a year and didn't know that was a thing. Apparently it's debatable whether normal dogs need to get their glands expressed regularly, but some dogs damage their glands or have malformed glands and they don't empty naturally. Sometimes, they need to be removed altogether. So especially if Puppy is worrying at his butt, or scooting across the ground, have your vet check out his glands.
By the way, a fun way to find out what anal gland fluid smells like is wait till Puppy falls asleep, then drop something really heavy on a hard floor near them. By "fun," I mean traumatizing--for both you and Puppy. But if something like that happens and you scare the living daylights out of your dog and then suddenly you smell just the worst, most rancid smell you've ever encountered...your dog emptied his anal sacs. I recommend a bath immediately.
- Dental Care
Your vet is going to tell you to brush your dog's teeth every day, at the very least 3-5 times per week. Fortunately, you read Part 1 and already purchased toothpaste and a toothbrush!! Yay you. But for real, ask your vet to show you how to do it. You may, like I did, feel like you can't possibly be doing any good, but apparently you are. My vet was super excited that Chance's gums weren't bleeding.
Also, don't be discouraged if you are brushing regularly and Puppy's teeth seem to still be getting worse. They stain easily, apparently, and also get a little bit of build-up that will eventually need to be removed professionally by your vet. But by brushing every day, you're preventing gum disease--treatment for which, by the way, isn't covered by health insurance, so you're really helping yourself, too.
Oh, you should also have your vet check for chips/cracks on Puppy's teeth if he's a heavy chewer or you suspect that his previous home gave him stuff to chew on like antlers. Or rocks.
Finally, if your dog has really bad breath, bring that up with your vet first (to make sure there's not an underlying health problem). Then, there are some products you can try to make it better. This little setup absolutely worked the very first time I gave it to Chance, but after that, he decided he hated it and will not play with it if it has the liquid floss on it. You can also try to avoid giving Puppy any food with fish in it--this makes a huge difference.
*A note on puppy teeth: If Puppy is very young, he's probably still losing his teeth. When I got Chance, he had one little puppy tooth left--a snaggly little canine next to the adult canine that had come in. It was supposed to come out any second now. It didn't, for six months. Apparently if they just don't fall out, Puppy needs surgery to have it removed. And just so you know, when a dog loses a tooth? It's pretty non-dramatic, in my experience. We were just playing with a ball one day, when suddenly he dropped the ball and started mouthing at something, then gently spit it out. Tiny bit of blood, absolutely no freak-out on Chance's part. If you're wondering what you're looking for.
Unless you're certain what age Puppy is, ask your vet's opinion. It will give you a ballpark, at least. I mean, I was told Chance was four months old when I adopted him. He weighed just over 20 pounds, and our first vet said she thought he was more like five or six months, and that he was probably pretty close to full-grown. I've had him for a year and he's 60 pounds, so we think he was probably closer to the four months I was originally told. But it's good to get a few opinions on Puppy's age, so you can have an idea of generally what to expect behaviorally and medically.
- Exercise & Weight
Ask your vet if Puppy is a good weight, then ask him to show you how to tell if Puppy is gaining too much weight. This is really important, because it's very easy to just keep giving Puppy treats and next thing you know, you've got a little butterball and it is REALLY HARD to get dogs to lose weight.
Also ask what exercise level is good for your dog. Your vet will be able to take into account age, breed, any current medical conditions, and general weight and prescribe an appropriate amount of exercise. DON'T THINK THAT JUST BECAUSE YOU HAVE A 4-POUND CHIHUAHUA THAT IT DOESN'T NEED EXERCISE.
*A note on supplements: Check with your vet what supplements your dog needs. Chance would sometimes be pretty stiff after a particularly vigorous trip to the dog park, and a friend recommended Cosequin DS Plus MSM, and it actually REALLY works for us. I don't know if it's absolutely necessary, but I noticed a SIGNIFICANT increase in Chance's ability to play for long periods of time without getting stiff.
- Flea & Tick Control
Definitely talk to your vet right away about flea and tick control. Fleas have become fairly resistant to the old tried-and-true forms of flea control, so new, more powerful ones are being recommended. My vet prescribed Trifexis (which also protects against heartworm), but said I probably didn't need to worry about tick control since I lived in Hollywood and wasn't going into the deep woods anytime soon. Well...one visit to my parents' house in Pasadena and Chance picked up a tick in the landscaped backyard. So our vet suggested Frontline Plus, but my newest vet recommended Advantix ii because it also protects against mosquitos that can carry disease. Chance alternates between Trifexis (on the 1st of every month) and Advantix ii (applied on the 15th of every month), and he has been completely flea/tick free (except for the rare occasion when I find one on him briefly when he's been outside playing at my parents' house).
*A note on fleas: I had heard so much about fleas but realized I had no idea what it looks like when a dog has fleas. So, they're super-tiny, maybe like the head of a pin? And they crawl around on your dog and sometimes they jump. If you're looking at your dog and suddenly you think you might be going crazy because you thought you saw something jump up maybe a foot in the air above your dog's back and then disappear--you just saw a flea. If your dog is white (like Chance) you may be absently scratching his belly one day when you see a speck of what you assume is dirt but then when you go to brush it off, it jumps away. These are fleas. If you feel like it, you can pursue them and pinch them between your fingers (apparently they do not have reflexes like house flies)--if you do that, and flatten them out, you will see that they really do look like this guy:
So. You need a prescription for Trifexis, which brings me to my final issue:
Prescription Medications for Dogs
- Only Purchase Emergency Meds at Your Vet's Office
If you need to start giving Puppy something that very night, you don't really have a choice but to get it from your vet. Fortunately, once you're out of your enrollment waiting period, your health insurance will cover most of prescription meds. The thing is...the markup on prescription meds is INSANE. So if you can avoid buying them at your vet? Avoid.
- Purchase Non-Emergency Prescription Meds (Like Trifexis) Online
Basically, do your online comparison shopping (take into account bulk discounts, per unit price, shipping, and tax--some websites don't charge shipping or tax!!). Find the best deal on whatever medication you're looking for. Put it in your cart, and start checking out. There will be a place to select "Contact my vet for prescription," and you provide your vet's info--sometimes just a phone number, sometimes address/phone/fax. Then you actually check out--including credit card etc.--and wait. Your vet will either approve or not approve the purchase (if it's not approved, your card doesn't get charged).
Sometimes, your vet's prices can be competitive (my vet charges pretty much the same amount for Trifexis that I can find online). But sometimes it can be insane--this is especially true for topicals like creams or shampoos.
- If You Have to Give Your Dog Pills, Buy a Bag of Greenies Pill Pockets
So my mom's dog won't be fooled, but I think she's a pretty weird dog--most dogs love Pill Pockets. Greenies makes them, and they come in different flavors and different sizes based on the pill you have to give, and they're basically delicious little treats that Puppy will wolf down in one bite and you don't have to struggle with making him swallow a pill.
That about covers most of what you need to be aware of to successfully get through your first vet visit. Remember to treat it like the biggest party ever, and don't let on to Puppy that you are nervous or are angry about how expensive it is or anything like that--you absolutely must make this a great experience for Puppy so he looks forward to seeing the vet instead of freaking out about it. Remember, your vet is not trying to scam you--yes, they're trying to make a living, but a lot of them also do a lot of low-cost or pro-bono work simply because they love animals and their job can be really stressful. Your vet will be your biggest ally as you endeavor to take the best care of Puppy you can.
Have anything to add on taking your dog to the vet? Even better, do you have a vet in the Los Angeles area you absolutely love? Leave a comment below!