Breeding for Dog Owners - Caring for Newborn Puppies

By Tammy Hunter, DVM; Ernest Ward, DVM

If there were complications in delivery,  what do I have to do to care for 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 a 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 go to the bathroom. However, it is important that she continue to urinate and defecate normally. Do not be afraid of putting her on a collar and leash and taking her out for a short period if she refuses to go on her own. 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 discharges, or any other abnormalities.

What sort of problems am I looking for?

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 during birthing, it may be quite substantial, especially during the first twenty-four hours after whelping. Vaginal discharge should decrease significantly after twenty-four to forty-eight hours. If not, contact your veterinarian.

"If you find anything abnormal, call your veterinarian."

Check her teats (nipples) to make sure that 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.

Do I have to check the puppies?

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

Is it necessary to have a post-natal veterinary check?

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

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

This is common with pets that are closely attached to their owners. If the mother will not stay with her puppies, try relocating mother and puppies so she can be nearer to you.

"Puppies cannot maintain their own body heat for a week or two after birth."

Make sure the puppies are kept 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 too 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 85-90°F (29.5-32°C). The temperature may then be gradually decreased to approximately 80°F (26.7°C) by the seventh to tenth day, and to about 72°F (22.2°C) by the end of the fourth week.

It is not necessary to heat the whole room to these temperatures. Heating the area over the whelping box with the aid of a heat lamp is usually all that is necessary. 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 gives an indication 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. Electronic kitchen or postal scales allow accurate and regular weighing of puppies. This allows you to monitor their condition and progress. 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 subdued 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, may become anxious and start carrying them around the house. Placing a blanket over part of the top of the box or providing an enclosed crate may resolve the problem.

Some females are more anxious than others, particularly with their first litter. They may try to hide their puppies, even from the 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. Since stress can affect her milk supply and may cause problems with the pups.

I am told that some female dogs will actually 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 predator attack increases. The primeval protective instinct will sometimes surface in even the gentlest pet. This occurs in some breeds more than others. Killing the puppies and sometimes eating them is a method of averting a perceived danger. Other mothers will kill a puppy that fails to thrive, has a birth defect, or appears sickly. This is considered normal behavior and is not indicative of being a bad “parent."

I have not raised a litter before. How can I tell if there is a problem?

During the first two weeks of life, before their eyes open, puppies should feed and sleep for at least 90% of the time. If you are weighing the puppies regularly (once a day), there should be 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."

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 to mark each one on the abdomen (you can use various colors of permanent markers). You could also tie different colors of ribbon or rick-rack 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 that any supplementary food be fed at the correct temperature. One rule of thumb is to drop some of the warmed fluid on your arm. It should feel about the same as your normal body temperature.

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

I understand that the mother may develop infection or inflammation of the breasts without warning. Is this true?

Inflammation and infection of the breasts is called acute mastitis and can occur very quickly. This is the reason that mother's mammary glands should be checked regularly for any abnormal discharge, inflammation, tenderness, or hardness by your veterinarian.

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 twenty-four to forty-eight hours. Total milk replacement feeding either via a foster mother or with milk replacer products is necessary in these circumstances. Contact your veterinarian for advice.

Is this the same as milk fever?

No. Mastitis is an infection of the mammary glands. Eclampsia, or milk fever, is due to a depletion of calcium in the blood of the mother due to heavy milk production and is not due to infection.

Eclampsia occurs most commonly when the puppies are three to five weeks of age 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 characterized by stiff limbs and an inability to stand or walk. Eclampsia is an emergency situation and medical attention should be sought immediately.

I understand that milk fever is a very 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 beginning to move stiffly. This soon progresses to muscle spasms affecting the whole body, which can quickly progress to convulsing and seizures.

"Eclampsia is a true medical emergency."

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, and should factor into any decision about breeding an affected dog.

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

Related Articles