Small dog with bow being petted at the kennel.

How to Tell if a Rescue Dog is Healthy Before You Adopt

Last updated on August 27th, 2023 at 10:18 pm

You may want to know if the rescue dog you have fallen in love with is healthy before you adopt. Since the shelter may only have limited if any medical history about their rescued animals, there is no absolute guarantee that your dog will be healthy.

However, most reputable shelters and rescue organizations do provide basic healthcare to the animals they care for. So, it will be important for you to find out what their standard medical care provides before you adopt. Here are some things to pay attention to and precautions you can take before bringing your new dog home.

Ask About the Shelter’s Medical Care Policy

Most reputable shelters provide basic medical care for all newly rescued animals. Find out what the organization’s medical protocol is before you take your new friend home. Often you can learn about this by finding out what is included with the adoption fee. The Marin Humane Society in Northern California provides great support which includes medical care. This is part of their adoption policy and fee. Not only do they provide basic medical care, but they also offer 30 days of pet insurance and dog food.

Many shelter’s will provide the following basic medical care prior to adoption:

  • Initial medical exam
  • Flea/Tick Treatment
  • De-worming if needed
  • Neutering or spaying procedures
  • Special diets for dietary problems and treatment for malnourishment if needed
  • Vaccinations (click here for more information about key vaccinations)
  • Behavioral evaluations
  • Other medical treatment for obvious problems as needed

Spend Time with Your Prospective Dog Before Taking Him Home

Most organizations have play areas where you can spend a lot of time with a dog to see if you bond. Spend as much time as you need to feel confident that your dog is healthy and will fit well into your home and life style. Check his coat and skin to make sure he does not have sores, ticks or fleas. If you notice that he shakes his head a lot, he could have an ear infection or a foxtail.

Watch him run to see if his gait is even and full of bounce. Talk to the staff on various shifts to learn more about what they have observed and know about his medical history during his stay at the shelter.

Make sure you find out which vaccinations he has been given and if he has been neutered or spayed if female. Watch for signs of physical problems such as excessive drooling, lack of interest in treats or food or if is poops seem normal when he eliminates. Also watch him run and walk and look for limping, poor energy, or signs of lethargy.

Check his eyes to make sure they are not red and watery or cloudy. Also make sure he does not have a cough, especially a loud, honking type of cough. This could be Kennel Cough which can be a serious illness if not treated. Even in a good shelter, Kennel Cough can be a problem as it is highly contagious.

Be sure to pay attention to his behavioral health as well. If he seems overly shy or anxious or can easily become aggressive, he could have an emotional issue that will need to be dealt with. Some dogs who have been in a shelter for a long time can become hyperactive or overly sensitive to stimulation and new people/animals.

If you notice behaviors that do not seem normal, check with the staff to get their assessment and recommendations about how to deal with any possible behavioral problems. See my post Do Rescue Dogs Remember their Stay at a Shelter? for more about typical behavioral issues in shelter dogs.

Be Prepared Before You Take Your New Dog Home

If you learn that the rescue dog you want to adopt does have some health problems, decide if you are passionate and equipped enough to help him through it. Things to think about:

  • Medical expense
  • Your investment of time and attention
  • Investment in dog training for both physical and emotional problems
  • Physical accommodations that may be needed in your home
  • Pet insurance
  • How other family members will respond and help

It is important to be realistic about what you are able to provide for a rescue dog. But most dogs can be helped and a lot of health problems are temporary. If the dog is a senior, he may need a little help getting up into cars or stairs. Some dogs have special dietary needs due to chronic conditions such as diabetes or allergies. But none of this has to be an insurmountable problem.

Find out as much as you can about your dog’s background, and be clear with yourself about what you are willing and able to handle. Hopefully, you can give a dog in need a really great home and a second chance despite possible health issues.

Prepare Your Home

To ensure the ongoing good healthy of your new rescue dog, make an appointment with a local vet for a full medical exam within a week after bringing him home. If you have other animals in your home, make sure they are all up to date on all of their vaccinations–Rabies, Leptospirosis, Bordatella, DA2PP, and seasonal flu. Get prescriptions for flea/tick and heartworm medications and start them right away even if they have been treated at the shelter. These medicines are usually administered monthly for life.

Buy a supply of dog food similar to what he was eating at the shelter, at least for the first 30 days. If your dog has special dietary needs, find out where you can continue to purchase his special food. Make sure that your new dog will have a comfortable bed where he can feel safe and secure. If he is in need of some special attention, make sure you can clear your calendar for the first several days to attend to his needs. Talk to your other family members to set up a family care plan if necessary. Be prepared to be on the alert for any health problems your new rescue dog may have. Some conditions may develop over time or not be obvious when you adopt him.

Pet Health Insurance

As an additional measure, I strongly suggest you consider purchasing pet health insurance. Your new dog may be healthy now, but you can never predict the future. And, any dog can have an underlying condition or physical issue that has not yet been diagnosed.

I decided to buy insurance for both of my dogs that covers them for accidents, chronic health problems, and disease. I bought a good policy, and I am so glad I did! has a great article about how to select pet insurance.

Two years after I adopted the pair of 6-year-old siblings, one of them, Georgia, developed a large mast cell tumor. I was shocked to learn that she had cancer. Fortunately, today, after several weeks of treatment, she is healthy and free of cancer. But this was only after a major surgery and several rounds of chemotherapy.

Thankfully, the pet insurance I had purchased covered all of it after minimal co-pays. Otherwise, I may have had to make some tough decisions about what I could afford. But my pet insurance saved me thousands of dollars, not to mention my sweet dog’s life! You can read more about this in my post How to Keep Your Spirits Up When Your Dog Has Cancer.

Black dog on couch witha purple bandana that says "Cancer Super Hero!"
Georgia after her final chemo treatment.

Do Your Homework, then Relax

I adore my two adult rescue dogs who are both a Pug-Cattle Dog mix. However, if I had known how much one of them tends to bark, I might have been more hesitant. But we are working on the barking issue, which seems to stem from some anxiety and a lot of pent-up energy. And now, I would not trade them for anything. They have so much good energy, loyalty, and love, that I have committed to working with them as much loved members of my household.

If you have done everything you can to ensure that your rescue dog is healthy prior to adoption, then relax and enjoy welcoming him to his new home. Even if he does have some health concerns, you are making an informed decision prior to bringing him into your home and your life. Be realistic, but also hold onto your compassion and goal to care for and love your new, best friend. Despite the extra work of adopting any new pet, the rewards usually outweigh the commitment, effort and cost of opening your home and your heart!

See more at Everything You Need to Know About Adopting a Rescue Dog.

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