Joan Merriam: New Year reminders | TheUnion.com

Joan Merriam: New Year reminders

Joan Merriam
Columnist

Here we are, beginning another year … a perfect time to offer up some reminders to help make 2018 healthy and happy for both you and your dog.

Spay & neuter

If you have a new puppy or an older dog that hasn't been spayed or neutered, you need to put this at the very top of your "to-do" list. There are a multitude of explanations people give for why they haven't altered their companion animals … but almost none of them are good explanations. The fact is, spaying and neutering has dozens of benefits.

Spaying your female dog helps prevent uterine infections and breast cancer, which is fatal in about half of dogs; neutering your male dog before he's six months old prevents testicular cancer, and blocks his urge to roam in search of a female in heat. Neutered males also tend to be less aggressive.

There's an old tale that says altering your pets makes them fat — but what makes them pack on the pounds is you, when you offer too much food, too many treats, and too little exercise.

Some people think it's too expensive to spay and neuter their dogs, but with so many low- or no-cost alternatives available in our region, that's no excuse.

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Altering your pet also helps reduce pet overpopulation, where literally millions of unwanted shelter dogs are euthanized every year simply because there are no homes for them.

Adopt or rescue

Unless you plan to show or breed, there's really no reason to search out and pay hundreds (or even thousands) of dollars for a purebred animal. Absolutely love Labrador retrievers or dauchaunds or greyhounds? There are rescue organizations all across the country that offer breed-specific dogs for adoption. Just do a quick Google search and you'll find them.

And don't buy into the falsehood that shelter dogs always have behavior issues: more often than not, dogs end up in shelters because their owners have been forced to relinquish them due to a change in living conditions, unexpected health crises, financial difficulties, aging or other personal troubles.

Finally, remember that mixed-breed dogs can often escape some of the genetic diseases like cancer or hip dysplasia associated with a particular breed.

See your vet

Just like humans need regular medical assessments to prevent little problems from becoming big ones, the same is true for your dog. Every dog should have annual veterinary checkups, even if she seems perfectly healthy.

A veterinarian can spot hidden health issues that can impact or even shorten your dog's life — issues like gum disease, tumors, heart arrhythmias or lung disorders, or bone and muscular conditions.

Older dogs especially need to have regular vet exams, simply because they can suffer from a host of age-related illnesses that a veterinarian can treat so your dog can live out the remainder of his years in ease and comfort.

Feed wholesome food

Sure, your local supermarket or big-box store has shelves and shelves of dog food, often at appealingly low prices. But before you pick up that bargain brand of pet food, look to see what's in that food.

Check the label for the AAFCO nutritional adequacy statement, showing whether the food provides complete and balanced nutrition. It should also include the life stage — puppy, active, senior, etc. — for which the food is designed.

The best dog foods are high in protein, low in carbohydrates, and free of cheap fillers and artificial preservatives. Unless you know for certain that your dog is sensitive to grains, there's no need to look for foods labeled "grain-free;" domestic dogs aren't strict carnivores, and can derive nutrients from fruits, grains and vegetables.

A good rule of thumb is to purchase the best dog food you can afford. For excellent and unbiased guidance on dog food choices, go to DogFoodAdvisor.com.

Play, exercise, and training

Dogs love to play, even in their senior years: to them, romping in a park or getting out for a walk is an adventure, not a chore. It's crucial that you offer your dog these kinds of opportunities, not just to keep them — and you — in shape, but also to prevent behavior issues related to boredom and inactivity. Remember, a tired dog is a good dog!

At the same time, all dogs need training. Even if you're not hoping to join a canine search-and-rescue team or equip your dog to be a service animal, he needs to be socialized and be able to obey basic common commands such as "sit," "stay," and "come."

The only way that happens is through training. And just like your own skills become rusty if you don't use them, dogs need to practice their training throughout their lives to reinforce what they've learned.

With all these tips in mind, you can make 2018 the best year yet for you and your furry friend.

Happy New Year!

Joan Merriam lives in Nevada County with her Golden Retriever Joey, her Maine Coon cat Indy, and the abiding spirit of her beloved Golden Retriever Casey in whose memory this column is named. You can reach Joan at joan@joanmerriam.com. And if you're looking for a Golden, be sure to check out Homeward Bound Golden Retriever Rescue .