Even though I grew up with dogs, there was a lot I didn’t know about how to take care of Ru when I brought her home. In many ways, I suspect it’s like being a new parent, in that there’s a lot of education that needs to happen. In fact, when I first brought my cat Panda home, she gained about three pounds because I assumed her constant screams for food meant I was starving her. Now I know she just thinks she’s always starving.
Some of my education came out of necessity, like as Ru’s allergies reared their heads and we began experimenting with types of food and various vitamins. Other types of education came from our vet, like how it’s important you brush your dog’s teeth weekly (who knew?). Here are the main things I’ve learned from our three years of dog-ownership:
1. Trim their nails
It’s not fun for them and it’s not fun for you, but it has to be done. And the truth is, the more frequently you do it, the less scary it will be for both of you. Ru’s nails grow so quickly, we actually trim them literally every week, and now it’s far less scary for her than it was at the start (especially because she knows she gets a cookie at the end). Start slow and bring lots of treats. Get your pup used to having their feet and toe nails handled, then just having a nail or two trimmed daily, then work up from there. I highly recommend investing in a nail filer if your dog is scared of the big clippers like Ru. It takes a lot more time (like, 20 minutes more time), but we never accidentally catch the quick like we do with the clippers, and she happily sits in my lap while I file away.
2. Brush their teeth
Imagine what your oral hygiene would be like if you didn’t brush your teeth for ten years. Oral problems are very common in elderly dogs because no one has protected their mouths from plaque. If you get on this bandwagon early, brushing every week from a young age, you’ll both be in the habit and massively reduce the likelihood of needing to pull teeth or do extensive (and expensive) surgery as they age. We picked up some delicious tasting doggy toothpaste (don’t use the human kind – too much fluoride for pups!), and Ru happily licks her lips and eats the stuff up as I scrub her back teeth.
3. Feed them the good food (but not too much)
Just like taking care of your dog’s teeth, while saving a few bucks on the cheap kibble can feel like a win when your dog is young, the truth is that can result in major health problems (and lots of money) as they get older. While feeding raw can be great if you have a smaller dog and plenty of spare cash, it’s hard on the budget and not totally necessary. Ask your vet or local pet store what they would recommend, or even do some research online. Right now we’re trying out Costco’s grain free bulk dog food, which is very affordable and surprisingly healthy! Additionally, portion control is essential. Work with your vet to figure out your pup’s target healthy weight, and work to determine what portions you should be giving to reaching and maintaining that.
4. Add vitamins to their diet
If you’re feeding your dog the best of the best food, this might not be essential, but for most of us, our dogs can benefit from a few additives mixed into their breakfast and dinner. My two favorites are fish oil, which Ru finds to be utterly delicious and is very helpful for maintaining a healthy coat and moisturized skin. We also use Prozyme, a powder vitamin that can be sprinkled over your dog’s food and provides many daily vitamins that pups would be getting if they were getting a fresh, balanced meal of meats, vegetables, grains, etc., but that disappear when dog food is actually processed. This may be TMI, but Prozyme is especially helpful for dogs with digestive problems like excessive gas or runny stool.
5. Keep them active
Regular exercise will help maintain your dog’s weight and general health, as well as providing mental stimulation. Not only is a tired dog a well-behaved dog, but frequent activity will help them stay healthier at an older age (just like with people). As your dog ages, talk with your vet about how much and what kind of exercise they should be engaging in.
6. Protect them from fleas and ticks
Fleas are straight-up disgusting, and protecting your dog from them also means protecting yourself and your home. As dogs play with other dogs, dig in the backyard, and roll in dead things on the beach (yum) they will inevitably pick up fleas. Some dogs, like Ru, have a very strong physical reaction to fleas that causes frequent infections, making it more important to protect them, but parasites, no matter the kind, are always bad for your dog. Flea medications are fairly affordable, about $20 a month, and it will help keep your dog’s coat and skin healthy and those icky bugs out of your life. Don’t skip this!
7. Visit the vet often
I know it can feel unnecessary to take your dog to the vet when everything seems fine, but isn’t your dog worth it? Make sure you stop in for a regular check-up once a year and to get caught up on rabies shots and other routine maintenance. If you don’t want to drop $60+ on a regular vet, do some research on local clinics at pet food stores, which tend to be extremely affordable or even entirely free. They can often even get you some basic prescriptions for fleas and other common ailments, or make recommendations to visit a regular vet if they see more serious problems.