Breeding for Dog Owners - Caring from Birth to Weaning

By Malcolm Weir, DVM, MSc, MPH; Ernest Ward, DVM

What should I watch for during the first few weeks after birth?

During the first three weeks of life, puppies require little care from the owner, provided the mother is doing her job.

Puppies are born with their eyes closed, but they open after one to two weeks. They should be opened immediately if you notice swelling or bulging under the eyelids, discharge, pus, or other abnormalities. Ideally, this should be done by your veterinarian, but if this is not possible, you should gently open the eyelids by massaging them with a cotton ball dampened with warm water. If the swelling is due to infection, pus will emerge as the eyelids open, and it is critical in this case to contact your veterinarian immediately. If the eyes have not opened by two weeks of age or if you are concerned about any discharges from the eyes, it is essential to seek immediate veterinary care.

You should monitor the puppies' growth. Most puppies will double their birth weight in the first seven to eight days. A digital kitchen scale is ideal for monitoring their weights. Be sure to record the puppies' weights so you can identify any changes as soon as possible. A puppy that fails to gain weight or loses weight is cause for alarm. Contact your veterinarian for instructions, as puppies that begin losing weight may perish within 48 hours if the condition is not reversed.

"A puppy that fails to gain weight or loses weight is cause for alarm."

As soon as the puppies' eyes open, they rapidly mature physically. By two weeks, they should be alert and trying to stand. They should be trying to climb out of their nest or whelping box by three weeks. By four weeks, the puppies should be able to walk, run, and play. A puppy that fails to meet these basic developmental milestones is at significant risk for death or permanent impairment. Notify your veterinarian if you observe any abnormal development in your puppies.

Should the puppies be treated for worms?

Common intestinal parasites are transmitted to puppies across the uterus before birth or through the mother's milk after birth. Puppies can be treated for worms as early as two weeks of age, but it is more common to treat them when they are three and six weeks of age. Accurate weights must be obtained for the puppies so that the proper dose of medication can be used.

How should the mother’s diet change?

The diet for all pregnant or lactating females should contain optimal levels of the omega-3 fatty acid DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), a nutrient essential for developing the puppies' brains and eyes. She should be fed a high-quality, energy-dense, nutritionally balanced diet, as your veterinarian recommends. Toy and small breed dogs often prefer canned foods, while the larger breeds often do better on dried food.

"She should be fed a high-quality, energy-dense, nutritionally balanced diet..."

The mother’s food should be increased two or three weeks before she is expected to give birth, ideally by increasing the number of meals instead of the volume of each meal. After whelping, food requirements increase further as she produces more milk and her puppies grow. Peak milk production will be approximately three to five weeks after the puppies are born. Depending upon the breed and size of litter, she may eat up to four times her normal maintenance ration divided into four meals a day. Adequate fluid is also essential, especially if she is on a dry diet. Make sure she always has access to clean drinking water. You will be surprised how much she eats and drinks while feeding her puppies.

To avoid intestinal upset, it is important not to change the mother's diet too suddenly, especially immediately after whelping. Eating the afterbirth, which helps to stimulate milk production, tends to cause diarrhea, which is the last thing you need with a nursing mother. After whelping, the mother may not want to eat much during the first 24-48 hours, after which she should regain her appetite.

Is it necessary to feed the mother milk or a milk substitute while she is lactating?

No. If she is fed an excellent veterinary-recommended diet, water is all that is necessary. Please consult your veterinarian before giving any nutritional supplements or vitamins to the mother dog or her pups.

How and when should I wean the puppies?

Weaning is transitioning a puppy's diet from its mother's milk to solid puppy food. Naturally, weaning begins as soon as the puppies start to develop teeth, typically at three to four weeks of age. Suckling then irritates or hurts the mother, and she will move away and leave her puppies for longer and longer periods. The sooner the puppies are weaned, the less the strain on the mother and the sooner she will return to normal condition. A mother weans her pups by regurgitating her food for them to eat. This is a natural maternal function and nothing to be worried about.

To help wean the pups, start by placing reconstituted puppy milk replacers in a flat saucer. A 50:50 mixture of milk replacer and water is recommended. Do not use goat milk or cow milk. You can dip your finger in the formula and wet the puppies’ noses and mouths. Repeat this process two or three times a day until they begin to drink the milk replacer on their own. This usually takes one to four days.

"The sooner the puppies are weaned, the less the strain on the mother and the sooner she will return to normal condition."

Next, try offering canned puppy food mixed with the milk replacer. As the puppies lap at the liquid, they will also ingest the food. Decrease the amount of milk replacer each day until they eat the canned food with little or no moisture added, ideally at four to six weeks of age. They should then be fed small amounts often, approximately four to six times a day.

If the puppies have been hand raised for any reason, you can begin the weaning process sooner. It is worthwhile to begin offering soft foods as soon as their eyes are open.

How long do puppies need a special diet, and how often do I have to feed them?

Weaning the pups onto a high-quality diet formulated for puppy development (available in dry and canned formats) ensures balanced nutrition.

By the time they are completely weaned from their mother, at about eight to ten weeks of age, they should receive about four meals daily. By three months, you can increase the quantity of food per meal and reduce the frequency to three meals a day. Most breeds then progress to two meals a day by six to nine months. Some slow maturing breeds, particularly the giant ones, may require more frequent feeding until nearly two years old. Different breeds develop at different rates, with small breeds, like Chihuahuas, maturing much faster than large breeds, like Great Danes. Your veterinarian will recommend when this transition should take place based on your puppy's breed and specific needs.

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