Pet health care primer: What you need to do and when

For pet owners, there are few things more exciting than bringing home a new companion. And while it’s fun to play with that new furry friend during those first months together, there’s also some business to take care of. Setting a pet up for a long, rich life is in your hands, so it’s important to know how to take care of his health from the start.

Whether you found your new pet at a local shelter or through a breeder, it’s important to have discussions about what veterinary care the youngster has already received. Many organizations and breeders make the effort to give puppies and kittens the necessary treatments in their earliest weeks of life, before they’re ready to go home with new owners. However, you should remember that those steps are only the beginning – it’s up to you to continue your pet’s health care.

Follow these tips to ensure that your pet’s health stays on track for life.

* Fix at four. Spaying and neutering are an essential part of responsible pet ownership. However, even pet parents who know how important the procedure is might not be aware of how early a pet can start reproducing. Because kittens can get pregnant as early as 4 months and puppies at 6 months, Best Friends Animal Society urges pet owners to keep the principle of “fix at four” in mind. That means, in most cases, that you should spay or neuter at 4 months.

You should always consult with your veterinarian, but if that seems young, keep in mind that, depending on the individual animal, it can be safe to fix at that age, and that younger pets can bounce back from the surgery sooner. Even if your pet is male, fixing is just as important, as he might be the cause of an accidental litter – and as many as half of the 70,000 puppies and kittens born every day are accidents, according to Best Friends Animal Society. For more details about spaying and neutering, and to find resources for having your pet fixed, visit

* Vaccinate regularly. Between 6 and 16 weeks of age, pets need a regular schedule of vaccinations. For dogs, vaccines for distemper, hepatitis, parainfluenza and parvovirus will likely be recommended by veterinarians; shots will typically be administered in three rounds, at 6-8 weeks, 10-12 weeks and 14-16 weeks. For cats, shots will generally include panleukopenia, rhinotracheitis and calcivirus and perhaps feline leukemia, depending on your vet’s recommendations. Some of those are part of a combination vaccine given at 6-7 weeks, 10 weeks, 13 weeks and 16-19 weeks. Rabies vaccinations are also essential for both cats and dogs, and should be given regularly throughout your pet’s lifetime.

* Keep up with preventive care. In addition to vaccines, you need to protect your pet from other threats to their health. Some of the most common concerns are ticks, fleas and worms. For both kittens and puppies, you can start fighting heartworm early, by beginning a program of heartworm medication at 6 weeks. If your puppy is older than 7 months and you’re not sure whether he’s been given heartworm medication in the past, you should have him tested before you start any prevention measures. Other worms, such as roundworms, whipworms and hookworms, can cause diarrhea and growth delays in your pet and are transmissible to humans. Luckily, they are fairly easy to keep in check with a regular deworming treatment schedule.

Keeping your pet free of fleas and ticks will make his life more comfortable and also help prevent diseases, such as Lyme disease. Combined flea and tick prevention medications make it easy to prevent both types of pests in one step. Some popular topical preventive treatments can be used on puppies and kittens as young as 8 weeks.

Owning a pet can be one of life’s greatest joys, providing you with a best friend and a constant companion. Make sure that you repay your pet’s loyalty by caring for him from the start and maintaining a healthy lifestyle that you can both benefit from.