Puppy Precautions: Why Early Screenings Are Important

Plenty of literature is available to address the care and basic obedience training of puppies. Trouble is, most of it isn't breed-specific. And your retriever has less in common with a Yorky than a well-fed waterfowler does with an Olympic athlete.

A veterinarian and die-hard duck hunter, Dr. Michael Moss says these should be your priorities for a retriever's first half-year.

"Orthopedic issues such as hip and elbow dysplasia are some of the most common health ailments seen in retrievers," said Moss, a participant in retriever hunt tests and owner of University Drive Veterinary Hospital in State College, Penn. "These are good things to screen for in all dogs, but with retrievers it's especially important."

Moss recommends the PennHip method of dysplasia evaluation, which can be administered as early as four months to grade hip "laxity." The results determine whether a dog has a life of field work and exercise ahead or would be better suited as only a companion.

"Interestingly the numbers are consistent throughout the dog's life, regardless of age," Moss explained.

Screening your puppy's eyes should also be a priority.

"All retriever puppies are susceptible to retinal folds and other eye issues, and goldens are particularly prone to developing cataracts," he said. "Retrievers should have their eyes evaluated as soon as possible — at six to eight weeks — by a board certified puppy ophthalmologist."

These early screenings aren't just meant to determine the likelihood your dog will experience health issues down the road — retrievers that score poorly should not be bred.

"Many veterinarians will ask whether you hunt and make recommendations," Moss said. "But not all veterinarians are as proactive, and there are infectious diseases retrievers can be exposed to in their years afield."

Common diseases such as distemper and parvovirus are covered in every puppy's vaccinations, regardless of breed. However, the average pup won't be inoculated against certain illnesses frequently seen in hunting dogs. For example, Lyme's disease.

"The vast majority of cases could be prevented if only owners vaccinated at 16 weeks," Moss said. "With the vaccine and a monthly tick preventative, you get really good dual protection."

For many years the prevailing wisdom was retrievers ought to have their dewclaws removed, lest they become snagged on debris en route to a downed mallard. Lately, however, I've witnessed what seems to be an increasing number of working dogs with their dewclaws. So, what's best?

"Certainly duck dogs can live normal, healthy lives with their dewclaws," Moss said. "At issue is the fact dewclaws are easily snagged on reeds or brush, and if they tear one, your hunting day is ruined. There are arteries in that area and the bleeding is not easily stopped. Dewclaws must be repaired by a veterinarian, which is a lot more expensive than simply removing them at a young age."

What about those who argue removing dewclaws (and docking tails, for that matter) traumatizes dogs or affects their learning capacities?

"I don't know what research they're using, but there's nothing inhumane about removing dewclaws," Moss advises. "Two-day old puppies immediately forget it happened and typically fall back asleep."

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