Frequently Asked Questions

Should I get a Dog?

Whether you're thinking of getting a purebred dog or a mix, you should take the time to do some research into dog breeds. If you're thinking of a mix, it will make your shelter search much easier if you have in mind "something like a lab" or "some kind of terrier." You will know more about dogs having gone through the search. And if you think you already know what breed you want, you may want to look at some of these resources anyway--you may find that the perfect breed is something you'd never considered before.

Questions to consider when you're looking for a dog:

And if you already have a few breeds in mind, don't forget to think about the job they were bred for. There are only a few breeds that were originally developed to be pets. Most dogs were originally bred to be hunters, herders, guards, or some other job w hich might be at odds with what you expect from a pet. If your garden is very important to you, you might not want to get a terrier; almost all of them will dig. If you don't have the time to exercise a dog, don't get a Dalmatian, any kind of Pointer or retriever, or most Herding breeds -- all of these dogs were bred to go for miles and miles without tiring, and even if there are no coaches to guard, no birds to find, and no sheep to fetch, they still crave the exercise and they'll find ways to let yo u know if they aren't getting enough. (My two herding dogs are particularly fond of loud late-night wrestling matches on any day when they don't get an hour or two of hard exercise. I've learned to make sure they get the exercise instead.)

What Kind of Dog Should I Get?

Factors to consider:

There is an enormous variety of dogs in shape, size, personality, and abilities. Different breeds will have certain characteristics for which they were bred. Ask breeders at dog shows and look them up in breed books for further information. You must consider several things before deciding on a dog:

Purebred or mixed-breed dogs?

If you are interested in a purebred dog, you should pick up a book on dog breeds (most libraries will have a good selection) and do some research, with the above questions in mind. There are some breed-specific FAQ's available. Finally, you should SERIOUSLY consider attending a dog show where not only can you potentially contact breeders, but you can see ADULT specimens of the breed you are considering. It's very important to remember that cute little puppies remain cute little puppies only for a matter of weeks. There is a long period of ungainly and rebellious adolescence finally followed by mellow adulthood.

If the dog's breed is not important to you, you should still consider the above list when choosing the dog. You do face a few more unknowns since a mixed-breed puppy (e.g., a "mutt") may or may not clearly exhibit what its adult characteristics will be.

Many people have strong feelings about purebred dogs, especially the characteristics of the breed. Other people feel that the "stereotypes" are overrated. Jon Pastor made some nice comments about the usefulness and caveats of typical breed behaviors: Are behaviors commonly ascribed to specific breeds based in fact or are they just stereotypes?

They are really a bit of both: they are informal statistical descriptions (i.e., stereotypes), and to the extent that they reflect reality they're also facts. "Stereotypes" -- or, more simply, "types" -- can be, but are not necessarily, evil: it depends on how you use them.

What Kinds of Healthcare Issues are there?

In General

Your dog cannot tell you when it feels sick. You need to be familiar with its normal behavior -- any sudden change may be a signal that something is wrong. Behavior includes physical and social behavior; changes in either can signal trouble.

If you familiarize yourself with basic dog care issues, symptoms to look for, and a few emergency care treatments, you can go a long way toward keeping your dog healthy. Never attempt to replace vet care with your own (unless, of course, you are a vet); rather, try to be knowledgeable enough to be able to give your vet intelligent information about your dog's condition.

You should know some emergency care for your dog. This is beyond the scope of the FAQ, as you really need pictures or demonstrations. Check a home-vet book and ask your vet about them. Some of these include:

There are a number of good books that cover basic care for dogs. These include:

Miller, Harry. The Common Sense Book of Puppy and Dog Care. Bantam Books, Third Edition (revised) (1987). ISBN: 0-553-27789-8 (paperback).

Includes a section on practical home care, listing major symptoms you should be alert for, and listing general criteria by which you can determine a dog's overall healthiness. Discusses major diseases and problems, gives sketches on what may be wrong given certain symptoms.
Taylor, David. You and Your Dog. Alfred A. Knopf, New York (1991). ISBN:0-394-72983-8 (trade paperback).
Taylor gives flow-chart questions to consider when deciding if symptoms are serious or not. Not as comprehensive as other care books, but a good start in understanding what you need to look for when your dog seems off. Includes illustrations of many procedures, such as teeth cleaning and nail trimming. Informative discussion of reproductive system, grooming, and dog anatomy.
An *excellent* resource that details all aspects of health issues for dogs, and one that every conscientious dog owner should have is:

Carlson, Delbert G., DVM, and James M. Giffin, MD. Dog Owners's Home Veterinary Handbook. Howell Book House, Macmillan Publishing Company, 866 Third Avenue, New York, NY 10022 USA (1980). ISBN: 0-87605-764-4 (hardcover).

This comprehensive book is a complete guide to health care of dogs. It lets you know when you can treat the dog, or when you need to take it to the vet post-haste. It lists symptoms so that you may inform your vet of relevant information about its condition. The arrangement of the material facilitates rapid reference. Illustration of key procedures (pilling, taking pulse/temperature, etc). Lists poisonous substances, including houseplants. A must have home veterinarian handbood.

Administering Medicine

There are many devices to aid in administering medicine. In particular, pill plungers are effective and available by mail order. A syringe with no needle is good for liquids. Ask your vet for some other ideas.


Open your dog's mouth and drop the pill down as far back as you can, on top of and in the center of the tongue. Close the dogs mouth and hold it shut while stroking the throat until your dog swallows. If it licks its nose, chances are that it swallowed the pill. Giving it a treat afterwards helps insure that the pill is swallowed.

You can try hiding the pills in a treat, say cheese or peanut butter. Pill plungers work well, also.


Tilt the chin up at 45 degrees, and place the neck of the bottle into the cheek pouch, between the molar teeth and the cheek. Seal the lips around it with your fingers and pour in the liquid. Large amounts can be given this way. Hold the muzzle firmly while the dog swallows. Bottles, syringes and eyedroppers can be used. Your vet can help you out here.


If you must administer eyedrops to your dog and it resists, try the following trick: stand behind your dog and hold the eye open to administer the drops. You don't appear as dominating this way.


Dogs can get allergies just like people do. However, symptoms involve skin problems rather than respiratory distress. Check the skin problems section over for possible clues toward allergies. A common culprit is fleas, but dogs can be allergic to many other things, including some types of food commonly found in dog food.

A good way to have your dog's allergies tested is with an ELISA test. Your vet should know about this test and be able to have it done at your request.


Although aging is irreversible, some of the infirmities of an older dog may in fact be due to disease and therefore correctable or preventable. It is important for any dog over six years of age to be examined thoroughly every six months.

In particular, you want regular blood work done on your dog. For example if kidney function declines, you want to know so that you can switch to kidney-sensitive diets.

A recently published book is

Hampton, John K. Jr., PhD, and Suzanne Hampton, PhD. Senior Years: Understanding your Dog's Aging Process. Howell Book House. 1993. ISBN: 0-87605-734-2.

Dental Care

Owners that practice good dental care with their dog will reap many benefits in the long run.

Typical problems

The most common cause of bad breath is excessive calculus and plaque deposits on the teeth. Bacteria live and feed in the plaque and produce gum and bone infection, pain, and bad breath.

Calculus is a crusty collection of food particles, minerals, and bacteria that forms at the teeth-gum borders.

Plaque formation eventually leads to gum disease, mouth odors, receding gums and bone destruction and infection. The rate at which plaque forms in your dog's mouth is mainly due to genetic predisposition, but can be slowed by daily oral hygiene using antiplaque liquid or gel and/or pastes and regular professional cleaning and polishing.

Pyorrhea (inflamed and infected gums) of the teeth is often the cause of kidney infections and endocarditis in older dogs. The pressure on the gums and infection of the teeth is quite painful to your dog.

Preventive steps

An antiplaque liquid or gel (Chlorhexidine) can be applied to the gum tissue with a cotton ball or swab. As an alternative, a soft bristle toothbrush or finger brush can be used with a non-foaming enzymatic toothpaste manufactured for dogs.

Treatments should be done daily or at least every other day, depending on the current problems. Only a few areas are particularly susceptible to plaque and calculus formation. The areas of greatest concern are the canines and upper back molars (side facing cheeks).

Chlorhexidine penetrates gum tissue and prevents bacterial growth, plaque build-up, gingivitis, and bad breath. In addition to the canines and molars, look at the front incisor teeth and brush away any accumulation of hair and food at the gum line if present.

To remove existing calculus deposits, your dog will require short general anesthesia and your dog's teeth will be cleaned with dental instruments along with an ultra-sonic machine that vibrates the calculus off the surface of the teeth. Calculus from under the gum tissue is carefully removed using a hand scaler. Finally, the teeth are polished to reduce purchase for new deposits. This can often be done when the dog is under anasthetic for other reasons, such as neutering.

Cavities, etc

Dogs do not commonly get cavities. When they do occur, it is more often at the root of the tooth rather than at the crown. Cavities can lead to root abscesses.

Abscessed roots often cause a swelling just below the animal's eye. Generally, tooth extractions are needed at this point.

Disease Transmission (Zoonoses)

Zoonotic diseases are those that can be transmitted from animals to people.

Any worm infestation has the potential of causing problems in humans. Standard hygienic precautions will avoid most of these. Things to watch for: babies getting infected when playing near or on contaminated soil or feces, working in the garden without gloves.

Rabies, toxoplasmosis, brucellosis, and tetanus (lockjaw) can all affect both dogs and humans. Again, simple hygienic precautions will avoid most problems.


Your dog's ears should be clean, slighly pink-gray and have no odor. Problems with the ear to watch for include:

The most common problems with ears are ear infections (yeast or bacterial). Ear mites are actaully pretty uncommon in dogs. In any case, any of the above symptoms are grounds for having the vet check your dog's ears out.

Ear mites are treated with medication. Sometimes a reapplication is needed. Some people have gotten rid of light infestations by cleaning the ear out and then coating lightly with baby oil or mineral oil.

Ear infections are a little harder to treat, usually requiring daily ear drops for a week or so, weekly drops for some time after that. Some dogs prone to ear infections need to have ear drops on a regular basis. Drop-eared dogs are a bit more prone to ear infections, as prick ears normally allow more air circulation.

An easy home remedy to *prevent* ear infections (will not cure an existing one) is:

2 Tablespoons Boric Acid
4 oz Rubbing Alcohol
1 Tablespoon Glycerine

Shake well. Put 1 small eyedropperfull in each ear. Rub it around first, and then let the dog shake. Do this once a week and you shouldn't see any ear infections. It works by raising the pH level slightly inside the ear, making it less hospitable to bacteria.

To clean out an ear that's simply dirty (some buildup of dirt and wax is normal, but excessive ear wax may indicate that something else is wrong), take a cotton ball, dip in hydrogen peroxide if you like (squeeze excess out) and wipe the dog's ear out. The canal is rather deep, so you will not injure your dog so long as you only use your finger to probe the canal. Clean all around the little crevices as best as you can. Use another cotton ball for the other ear. Dilute betadine can be used as well. Be sure to dry the ears out thoroughly.


If you are not planning to breed your pet or put it to stud service, or your dog's breeding days are over, you will want to neuter it. There are a number of health benefits associated with neutering, for either sex.

Technically, the general term for either sex is neutering; bitches are spayed and dogs are castrated. However, general usage is that bitches are spayed or neutered and dogs are neutered.

Neutering is *not* a solution to behavioral problems; training is. However with some dogs it can alleviate some factors that make it more difficult to train. But you cannot expect to neuter your dog and have it turn into an angel without any work.

Tip: let your dog eliminate before taking it in and again after getting it back. Many dogs, especially crate-trained dogs, will not eliminate in the vet's kennels during their stay.


Dogs are castrated. A general anesthetic is administered, the testicles are removed (oriectomy) and several stitches are used to close it up. The scrotum will shrink and soon disappear after castration. You will want to neuter the dog around six months of age, although dogs can be neutered at any time after this. For example stud dogs are typically neutered after they are too old to breed, and they suffer no ill effects. Some clinics may use a local anesthetic instead.


Bitches are spayed; this is an ovario-hysterectomy (uterus and ovaries are removed). She must be put under general anesthesia. A large patch of fur will be shaved (to prevent later irritation of the incision) off the lower abdomen. You may have to take your bitch back in to remove the stitches. From a health point of view, the earlier the bitch is spayed, the better. Ideally, she should be spayed before her first heat, this reduces the risk of reproductive and related cancer (e.g., breast cancer) later in life considerably; not to mention guaranteeing no unwanted puppies. The most dramatic rise in risk of cancer occurs after the second heat or two years of age, whichever comes first before spaying. After that, while the risk is high, it does not rise further.

Post-op recovery

You will need to watch to make sure your dog does not try to pull out its stitches, and consult your vet if it does. You might, in persistent cases, need to get an Elizabethan collar to prevent the animal from reaching the stitches. Puffiness, redness, or oozing around the stitches should be also reported to the vet. Some stitches "dissolve" on their own; others require a return to the vet for removal.


The cost can vary widely, depending on where you get it done. There are many pet-adoption places that will offer low-cost or even free neutering services, sometimes as a condition of adoption. Local animal clinics will often offer low-cost neutering. Be aware that spaying will always cost more than castrating at any given place since spaying is a more complex operation. Vets almost always charge more than clinics, partly because of overhead, but also because they often keep the animal overnight for observation and will do free followup on any later complications. Larger animals will cost more than smaller ones.

Pet Assistance has a program to help you locate low-cost neutering. There may be an 800 number, but the San Diego number is 619-697-7387. They can refer you to a veterinarian in your area who will perform low-cost spaying or neutering. Other low cost/coupon assistance: 1-800-321-PETS; Pet Savers Foundation at 1-800-248-SPAY. Most vets honor these coupons. Effect on behavior

There is an extensive discussion on the effect neutering has on a dog's behavior in the Assorted Topics chapter of the FAQ. In summary, no one really knows, and for every example presented, a counter-example can be made.


Dogs are not as good as people in shedding excess heat. You should take general care during hot and summer weather that your dog does not get too hot. Make sure shade and water is available and that there is some fresh air. DO NOT LEAVE YOUR DOG IN A CAR on a hot day! Cars heat up much more quickly than you think and that one inch or so of open window will not help. If you park in the shade, the sun may move more quickly than you think. A water-filled pump sprayer can help keep your dog cool. But your best bet is to prevent overheating.

Heatstroke is indicated by some or more of the following symptoms:

Wet the dog down gradually using cool, not cold water. Get it out of direct sunlight. Give it a little cool water to drink at a time. Cold compresses to the belly and groin helps. Get the dog to the vet. A dog that has had heatstroke before can be prone to getting it again.