Keeping Puppies and Kittens Healthy

Spring’s a wonderful time at a veterinary clinic—there are more puppy and kitten visits! While we love cuddling them, giving lots of treats so they love coming to us, and cooing over their cuteness, there’s a lot more that we do for them.

The first puppy or kitten visit should ideally take place within a week of adoption. Just like a new baby, you want to make sure they’re healthy. They’ll be checked for fleas, intestinal worms, ear mites, and other parasites. Some puppies are born with a cleft palate or umbilical hernia. I saw one whose Achilles tendon was damaged during birth, but went unnoticed until she was bigger and trying to run around. Heart murmurs can be heard, which might go away on their own or signal something more serious. A thorough physical exam is important for these little guys.

Bring along any paperwork you receive at the adoption to the first vet visit to determine which vaccines might be needed. Puppies and kittens need vaccines until they are at least 16 weeks of age, so even though they may have already received a vaccine, it doesn’t mean they don’t need more. Vaccines are given every three to four weeks because we don’t know just when antibodies from the mother’s milk wear off. Once those antibodies are gone, the puppy or kitten can make their own antibodies to the vaccines. By 12 to 16 weeks of age, all puppies and kittens should be making their own antibodies, so they need their final vaccine at the 4-month mark and then boosters yearly (or less frequently, depending on the vaccine) after that.

There are a variety of different vaccines that puppies and kittens need, and others given based on their lifestyle (where they play, where they spend time outdoors, etc.). Puppies need distemper and parvovirus vaccines starting by 8 weeks of age. These might be listed on a pet health record as DHPP, DHPPV, DA2PP, or DA2PPV. The D is distemper, a potentially lethal disease affecting the respiratory, digestive, and brain/nervous systems—it has nothing to do with the temperament of the puppy. A2 is adenovirus 2, which causes respiratory illnesses. One P is for parvo, another potentially lethal disease in puppies that causes diarrhea, vomiting, and severe dehydration. The other P is for parainfluenza, which also causes respiratory disease. The V stands for virus, as all of these diseases are viral diseases.

Kittens should receive FVRCP (or RCP) vaccines. The FV is feline viral. The R is for rhinotracheitis, a severe upper respiratory infection. C is for calicivirus, another upper respiratory infection that can also cause mouth ulcers and lead to pneumonia and death. Kittens also have a distemper vaccine called panleukopenia. It’s more similar to parvo in dogs, causing vomiting, diarrhea, a fever, and death.

Other important puppy shots are the Bordetella, leptospirosis, and Lyme vaccines. Bordetella is called kennel cough, which isn’t completely accurate. Kennel cough can be caused by any number of different viruses, much like a cold in humans. Bordetella is a bacteria that can lead to severe respiratory problems like pneumonia. The vaccine helps prevent the more severe secondary infection. Puppies who will go to puppy class, daycare, boarding facilities, dog parks, or are living in areas with other dogs should receive this vaccine. It’s often given as an oral vaccine, which goes down easily with a peanut-butter-coated syringe. Leptospirosis is a bacterial infection found in wild-animal urine, and is a potentially fatal liver and/or kidney infection. Lepto is found in the Madison area, and the vaccine should be given to all puppies regardless of their breed or size. Lyme is a bacterial infection spread by ticks, and is prevalent in Wisconsin. Most puppies should be protected with the Lyme vaccine. There’s a puppy shot that includes DHPP, Lepto, and Lyme vaccine all in one, which makes it easier on the puppy and their owner!

Feline leukemia (FeLV) is a vaccine recommended for all kittens by the American Association of Feline Practitioners. FeLV infection in cats under one year of age is more likely to cause severe illness, such as cancer, anemia, infections, and oral disease. At the one-year exam, your cat’s lifestyle will determine if the FeLV vaccine needs to continue. If they never spend time outside, there is little risk of them contracting FeLV from a cat bite. Kittens can get Bordetella, but it isn’t common—most vets don’t carry or recommend this vaccine. There are tick-borne diseases in cats, but currently no vaccinations against them.

Take a fresh poop sample to your vet when you get a new puppy or kitten. Almost all young animals are born with intestinal worms, and some may also have coccidia or Giardia, all of which can cause diarrhea, which can lead to dehydration and other problems. Many vets will send home deworming medication regardless of what is found in the poop, as some parasites are hard to find or not shed in poop all the time.

At the first visit, your vet will also discuss heartworm disease and start your puppy, and ideally your kitten, on a heartworm preventative. Flea-and-tick preventative should also be discussed and provided. These are things your pet should get year-round for the rest of its life.

In addition to vaccines and a physical exam, the new-puppy or -kitten visit is important for talking about behavior, potty training, diet, and socialization. It’s important to treat your new friend with love and positive reinforcement without yelling, hitting, or swatting. They’re just babies and don’t understand punishments. Veterinarians are great resources for potty training, proper diets, and which puppy classes are the best to attend. Socialization is very important, but interactions with people, other animals, and loud noises need to be done with treats and other positive reinforcements. Anything that really scares a pet in the formative months can lead to lifelong fear and anxiety.

Playing with little fur balls is certainly a wonderful part of being a vet, but providing them with the best start in life and educating their pet parents about their needs and how to keep them healthy really makes our day. We love answering questions about your new family member, so before you bring home the new bundle of joy, set up that first appointment.

Lori Scarlett, DVM, is the owner and veterinarian at Four Lakes Veterinary Clinic. For more information, visit .

Photograph by Brenda Eckhardt