Breeding for Dog Owners: Caring for Newborn Puppies

By Courtney Barnes, BSc, DVM; Tammy Hunter, DVM; Ernest Ward, DVM

My dog had a difficult birth. How do I care for her and the newborn puppies?

For the next two months, even if everything went smoothly with the birth, you have a lot of work to do! After the birthing process, clean up the mother as much as possible without upsetting her, using warm water and washcloth. Do not use any soaps or disinfectants unless instructed to by your veterinarian. Remove any soiled newspaper or bedding from her whelping box.

Normally, the new mother will spend most of her time with the puppies. For the first few days, it may be difficult to get her to leave the nest, even to eat or go to the bathroom. However, it is important to ensure she gets enough to eat and that she continues to urinate and defecate normally. If she refuses to go on her own, you can put her on a collar and leash and take her out for a short period. She will only want to be out for a few minutes, but during that time you can clean up the bed and make the whelping box safe for the puppies.

Before she returns to her puppies, check her nipples and vulva to make sure there are no problems, such as bleeding, foul smelling discharge, or any other abnormalities.

What sort of problems am I looking for in the mother?

Check the vulva to see if there is excessive discharge. This discharge is normally a greenish-black color. If she has not expelled all the afterbirths, the discharge may be substantial, especially during the first 24 hours after whelping. Vaginal discharge should decrease significantly after 24 to 48 hours. If not, contact your veterinarian.

Check her teats (mammary glands) and nipples to ensure none are swollen, red, hot, hard, or tender. The milk should be whitish, not bloody or yellowish (pus). If you find anything abnormal, call your veterinarian.

Should I check the puppies regularly?

It is recommended, particularly with a first-time mother, to check the puppies every few hours to make sure they are all suckling, warm, and content. Any puppies that are off by themselves, crying, or appear cold should be placed on the teats between the hind legs, as generally they give the most milk. Ensure they are suckling and are not being pushed away by the other puppies.

Is it necessary to have a veterinary check after the puppies are born?

It is important to have the mother and puppies examined by your veterinarian within 48 hours of birth. The veterinarian will check the mother to make sure she is producing sufficient milk and there is no infection. The puppies will also be examined to make sure there are no birth defects such as cleft palates. Any necessary medications or injections will be administered during this visit.

What should I do if the mother refuses to stay with the puppies?

This behavior is common with pets that are closely attached to their owners. If the mother does not stay with her puppies, try relocating mother and puppies so she can be nearer to you. Make sure you keep the puppies warm. Young puppies cannot maintain their own body temperature for a week or two after birth.

As long as the puppies stay close to their mother, the room temperature is not critical. However, if the mother leaves her puppies alone, they need to be provided with an external source of warmth. During the first four days of life, the environmental temperature where the puppies are kept should be maintained at 85°F-90°F (29.5°C-32°C). By the seventh to tenth day, the temperature may be gradually decreased to approximately 80°F (26.7°C), and by the end of the fourth week, decreased to about 72°F (22.2°C).

"If they are warm and content, they will be quiet and gaining weight; 
otherwise, they will be restless and crying."

It is not necessary to heat the whole room to these temperatures. Heating the area over the whelping box with a heat lamp is usually adequate. The larger the litter, the lower the environmental temperature needs to be, since the puppies will huddle together and keep each other warm. The puppies' behavior and condition indicate whether they are comfortable and healthy. If they are warm and content, they will be quiet and gaining weight; otherwise, they will be restless and crying.

Should I weigh the puppies regularly?

Yes! Weighing your puppies allows you to monitor their condition and progress. Use an electronic kitchen scale or a postal scale to get accurate weights. Puppies that fail to gain weight or begin to lose weight should be examined by your veterinarian as soon as possible.

Is it necessary to keep the mother and puppies in low light?

In the wild, dogs will find a secluded whelping place, usually a dark or sheltered spot. Some mother dogs, if they feel their puppies are too exposed, become anxious and start carrying them around the house. It may help to place a blanket over part of the box or to provide an enclosed crate.

Some mothers are more anxious than others, particularly with their first litter. They may try to hide their puppies, even from their owners. If the mother does not like the place you have selected for her, try to compromise. If she is still unsettled, contact your veterinarian for guidance. Stress can affect her milk supply and may cause problems with the pups.

I am told that some female dogs will kill and eat their puppies. Is this true?

In the wild, a dog with puppies is vulnerable to all sorts of predators. If the puppies become vocal and distressed, the danger of a predator attack increases. Killing the puppies and sometimes eating them is a way to avert a perceived danger. This primitive protective instinct sometimes surfaces in even the gentlest pet, although it occurs in some breeds more than others. Other mothers may kill a puppy that fails to thrive, has a birth defect, or appears sickly. This behavior is considered normal and does not mean she is a “bad parent."

How can I tell if there is a problem with the puppies?

During the first two weeks of life, before their eyes open, puppies should feed and sleep at least 90% of the time. If you weigh the puppies regularly (once a day), you should notice a consistent increase in weight. If any of the puppies appear restless or noisy, this may indicate a lack of nourishment or infection.

Weight loss in a puppy is a cause for concern. Therefore, keep careful records of your newborn puppies' weights. If all the puppies appear similar, you can identify the puppies using non-toxic, permanent marker pens in various colors to mark each one on the abdomen. Alternatively, you can tie different colors of ribbon or yarn loosely around each puppy’s neck to identify them. Companies now sell puppy ID collars made of soft Velcro for this purpose. If you are concerned about any of the puppies, consult your veterinarian as soon as possible.

How will I know if the mother's milk supply is adequate?

A contented litter of plump puppies is the best indication that the mother is producing adequate milk. Any puppies that appear restless and do not have fat tummies will benefit from supplemental feeding one to three times a day. Your veterinarian can supply the necessary food and feeders (special puppy nursing bottles). It is important to feed supplementary food at the correct temperature. Before feeding, drop some of the warmed fluid on your arm: it should feel about the same as your normal body temperature.

All commercial supplementary products carry detailed instructions regarding preparation and feeding amounts. Your veterinarian will advise you on supplemental feeding for your specific situation.

Is it true that the mother may develop infection or inflammation of the breasts without warning?

Inflammation and infection of the breasts (mammary glands) is called mastitis and can occur very quickly. For this reason, your veterinarian should regularly check the mother's mammary glands regularly for any abnormal discharge, inflammation, tenderness, or hardness.

If the mother does not produce milk or her milk is infected, the puppies will not be properly nourished. Puppies that are not being fed enough milk will cry constantly and fail to gain weight. If this occurs, an entire litter can die within 24 to 48 hours. Total milk replacement feeding is necessary in these circumstances, either via a foster mother or with milk replacer products. Contact your veterinarian for advice.

Is mastitis the same as milk fever?

No. Mastitis is an infection of the mammary glands. “Milk fever”, or eclampsia, is due to a depletion of calcium in the mother’s blood due to heavy milk production and is not due to infection.

Eclampsia occurs most commonly when the puppies are three to five weeks old, and the mother is producing the most milk. Eclampsia is not due to an overall lack of calcium; it merely indicates that she cannot mobilize sufficient supplies of stored calcium quickly enough to meet her metabolic needs.

Females that are particularly good mothers and especially attentive to their puppies seem to be more likely to develop eclampsia. Signs of eclampsia include tremors, weakness, and a form of paralysis called puerperal tetany that is characterized by stiff limbs and an inability to stand or walk. Eclampsia is an emergency, and you should seek medical attention immediately.

I understand that milk fever is a serious condition. How can I tell if it is starting?

Eclampsia is a true medical emergency. Initial signs are subtle. The female may be restless or panting a lot, and you may notice that she is moving stiffly. This soon progresses to muscle spasms affecting the whole body, which can quickly progress to convulsing and seizures.

"If you suspect eclampsia is developing, prevent the pups from suckling and contact your veterinarian immediately."

If you suspect eclampsia is developing, prevent the pups from suckling and contact your veterinarian immediately. Treatment involves injections of calcium and other drugs, often intravenously. If treated quickly, recovery is usually rapid and complete. However, milk fever may occur with each subsequent litter, so you should consider that factor when considering breeding an affected dog.

If you have questions or concerns that are not covered in this handout, contact your veterinary clinic directly for further information.

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