There are a variety of internal and external bugs that, at best, make your dog miserable with itching, chewing, and scratching, and at worst, cause serious, even deadly disease.
Once common only in the southern states, heartworm disease is now common in most states. The heartworm larvae are carried and transmitted by mosquitoes, migrate to the heart, and grow up to 14 inches long, causing heart failure and eventual death, if untreated. The treatment itself can cause death in dogs with a heavy parasitic load or who were left untreated for so long that they were already ill before detection. The presence of heartworms is easily detected by a simple blood test, which should be part of your dog’s annual checkup. Thankfully, heartworms are easily prevented with daily or monthly medication, but even dogs on heartworm preventative should be tested yearly.
External parasites, like fleas, ticks, and ear mites, are the bane of many dogs’ (and their owners’) existence. In addition to the annoying and skin-damaging chewing and scratching, external parasites can also transmit serious diseases, like Lyme disease. As mentioned previously, you should check your dog weekly for the presence of fleas and ticks by parting the hair or ruffling it against the grain. You will usually find evidence of fleas, if they’re present, in the triangle above your dog’s tail. If you see little black specks, put a few on a wet paper towel.
If they dissolve and turn red, your dog has fleas. Ticks can be found anywhere on your dog’s body, but they are particularly attracted to the face, neck, and ears. Some species of ticks are very tiny, about the size of the period at the end of this sentence. In areas where parasites are common, keeping your dog on some kind of repellant is a good idea. There are a multitude of choices, from herbal sprays that you apply every time your dog goes out to once-a-month chemical treatments.
Along with heartworms and external parasites, there is also a host of internal parasites that can infect your dog. The most common intestinal parasites are roundworms, hookworms, and whipworms. Most puppies are born with roundworms and are routinely dewormed several times before they are weaned and sent to their new homes. Hookworm and whipworm eggs are distributed in the feces and acquired often by accidental ingestion, e.g., licking the paws after coming home from the dog park.
Certain species of worm eggs can survive in the right environment for years, waiting for a host to walk by and pick them up. You can minimize your dog’s chance of becoming infected by making sure you keep your yard scooped regularly, and walking him in areas that aren’t filthy with feces. Don’t let him drink from standing puddles, ponds, lakes, or rivers, which are often the source of protozoal infections.
Some of the monthly heartworm medications deworm as well as prevent heartworm disease, but your dog should have a fecal test to check for the presence of parasites once a year with the annual check-up, as well as any time the dog loses weight or condition, or has persistent diarrhea. Some parasites aren’t affected by the heartworm medications including common protzoans like coccidia and giardia. Tapeworms are another type of intestinal parasite that dogs get, usually from eating an infected flea or small animal. If your dog has fleas, there’s a good chance he also has tapeworms.
Good nutrition is a vital part of your dog’s health and longevity, and can even have an impact on behavior. From the big box store’s cheapest kibble to home-prepared cooked or even raw meals, there is a wide range of options when it comes to feeding your dog. What you choose to feed him will depend on your dog, your budget, the amount of time you have to devote to preparing your dog’s meals, and how much control you want over what goes into your dog.
Most people will choose to feed their dogs a commercial dog food, whether dry, canned, or frozen. When considering which dog food to purchase, completely disregard the advertisements you see on TV — after all, they’re trying to sell dog food — and do your own research. Read the label. Is meat listed as the first ingredient? Is meat mentioned several times? Good! Are there several sources of grains, like rice, corn, wheat (or their parts) mentioned several times? Not so good. Food is one area of dog care where you pretty much get what you pay for. Cheap dog foods tend to be full of cheap ingredients, like an abundance of grains and starches, which while filling and cheap, are completely useless for a carnivore’s specialized digestive system.
While you can’t pick them up at the grocery store while you’re doing your weekly shopping, premium quality and highly digestible kibbled diets are widely available in pet-supply stores, and are well worth the trip. There are even several dry, canned, and frozen foods that are completely grain free.
Homemade Dog Food
There is a growing trend among dog enthusiasts and pet owners to prepare their dog’s food at home from scratch. Some cook the food and include limited grains, while others feed a prey model diet in which the raw diet of a wild canine is mimicked. While there is little doubt that less processed, “real” food is healthier than heavily processed convenience food, the process of preparing meals is not to be taken lightly.
A fat dog is not a healthy dog. To reduce the chance of joint problems, keep your dog slim and trim. Your dog should look well muscled, but most breeds should have a defined waist when viewed from above. You should be able to fairly easily feel the spine and ribs.
In addition to the expense and effort involved, you also have to educate yourself about the nutritional needs of the animal you’re feeding and create a balance over time. This is definitely a do it right, or don’t do it at all situation, so if you do decide to try it, be prepared. You should also be prepared to defend your choice to skeptics and critics, and perhaps even your vet, but the devotees of home-prepared diets swear by them.
How Much to Feed
How much you feed depends on what kind of food you use, and the metabolism of your dog. You certainly cannot feed your dog according to the directions on the back of the bag. For one thing, they’re in the business to sell dog food, so they want you going through this bag as fast as possible. And, the dogs the food is tested on aren’t generally house pets; they’re usually kennel dogs, under more stress than the average pet dog.
You’re safe to start with about three-quarters of what the label recommends, then adjust up or down as needed to keep your dog in good condition. If you’re feeding a homemade diet, the general guideline is to feed 3 percent of your dog’s body weight, but you’ll have to adjust it for your individual dog.