Feeding the Pregnant Dog

By Krista Williams, BSc, DVM; Robin Downing, DVM, CVPP, CCRP, DAAPM

I am getting ready to breed my female dog. What role does nutrition play?

Optimal nutrition for reproduction is important for:

  • Conception/successful pregnancy
  • Optimizing the number of puppies per litter
  • Providing the mother (bitch) with her best ability to deliver her puppies
  • Thriving puppies both before and after birth

The various stages of reproduction - heat (estrus), pregnancy, lactation and weaning - provide unique stresses to the body. Each provides specific nutritional concerns that should be addressed to maximize the health of both mother and puppy.

Are there nutritional issues that cause problems leading up to pregnancy?

Good nutrition sets the stage for successful breeding and pregnancy. A malnourished mother - both over- and under-weight - will suffer reproductive consequences, as will her puppies.

"Good nutrition sets the stage for successful breeding and pregnancy."

Obesity is the most common nutrition-related problem in reproducing dogs. Obesity can cause increased intervals between estrus cycles, decreasing lifetime reproductive capacity. Obesity can also decrease the number of eggs released at ovulation, resulting in smaller litter sizes. Obesity increases the risk of dystocia (difficulty delivering puppies). Finally, obesity can decrease milk production during lactation, negatively impacting puppy health and growth. An overweight or obese dog should lose weight before breeding. There are no specific nutritional requirements for a female dog during her heat cycle.

How should I feed my dog during her pregnancy?

Dogs are typically pregnant for 62 days, plus or minus 2 days. The pregnancy is divided into trimesters, and a healthy, well- fed dog will gain about 15-20% beyond her weight at breeding. Overfeeding can result in obesity at the end of pregnancy, increasing the risk for difficult or prolonged labor and extra stress on the puppies. Conversely, underfeeding during pregnancy can result in embryo loss, abnormal fetal development, spontaneous abortion or stillbirth, small litter size, and low birth-weight puppies that fail to thrive.

During the first two trimesters of the mother's pregnancy, her nutritional requirements are essentially the same as those for a young adult dog. It is important that she not lose weight or condition during this time, so monitor her weight and body condition, increasing food as needed. It is equally important that a dog not become overweight or obese due to overfeeding in the first and second trimester. Meal feeding is the best way to control body condition and weight gain during pregnancy.

"During the third trimester, after about day 40 of gestation, the puppies experience their most rapid development, which is also the greatest burden on the expectant mother."

During the third trimester, after about day 40 of gestation, the puppies experience their most rapid development, which is also the greatest burden on the expectant mother. The highest energy requirement for the mother occurs between weeks 6 and 8 of gestation. Her energy requirement may be 30-60% higher than normal adult maintenance rations, depending upon the size of the litter. The challenge during the third trimester, especially in the final weeks leading up to delivery, is the fact that the abdomen is filled with puppies, leaving little room for food in the gastrointestinal tract. A highly digestible, high quality puppy/ growth/development formulation is generally recommended during the third trimester, and multiple small meals may provide the mother with the means to maintain adequate nutrient and calorie intake. Do not feed a puppy food designed for large breed puppies as this will not have the correct calcium phosphorous balance to support the developing bones of the fetuses or healthy milk production in the mother. Folic acid and essential fatty acid supplementation may be beneficial to support developing fetuses. Consult your veterinarian regarding their use in your dog.

I have heard that lactation is even more energy intense than pregnancy. Is this true?

Absolutely. The mother's energy requirements actually increase after delivery and during lactation. At her highest energy need, 3-5 weeks after whelping, she may require 2-4 times the calories of a normal healthy adult. The mother's energy requirement will decrease and return to normal by about 8 weeks post-delivery - when puppies are completely weaned.

Once the puppies are born, the mother can increase her food intake, but the energy density of the food must be high enough or she will not be physically able to consume enough to sustain milk production, weight, and body condition. Periodic assessments of her body condition provide opportunities to fine-tune feedings. Just like the third trimester of pregnancy, feeding during lactation is best accomplished using a highly digestible, high quality puppy food.

Free-choice feeding during the first 3-4 weeks of lactation, unless she only has one or two puppies, provides many advantages. The mother can eat on her own schedule, she can consume smaller amounts of food each time she eats, and the puppies can begin sampling solid food as soon as they are able (at about 3 weeks of age). Free-choice feeding while nursing only one or two puppies is not advised because it allows the mother to make much more milk than she needs, potentially predisposing her to mastitis (inflammation of the milk glands).

Do I need to change how I feed my dog as she weans her puppies?

Restricting your dog's food intake before and during weaning can help taper off her milk production, making her a bit more comfortable. On day one of weaning, withhold her food, allowing the puppies to eat their food while they are away from their mother. They can all be together that night, and the pups will suckle a bit. On day two of weaning, the pups are separated from their mother and she is fed about 25% of her pre-breeding portion and formulation. Over the next 4 or 5 days, increase to her full pre-breeding portions. The puppies should not be allowed access to nurse during this time as that delays drying up milk production.

With a bit of planning and input from your veterinarian, you can create a nutritionally sound plan for pregnancy and lactation, setting the stage for producing healthy puppies.

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