Caring for Orphaned Puppies

By Krista Williams, BSc, DVM; Ernest Ward, DVM

Emergency Situations, Puppies, Pet Services

Raising an orphaned puppy is a noble and satisfying experience. However, orphaned puppies are very fragile and raising them can be challenging. Do not be disappointed if you are unsuccessful with some or all of the puppies. The fact that you are trying to help is often reward enough.

What problems are common when raising puppies?

Several critical issues must be addressed in the care of orphaned puppies. Among these are hypothermia or low body temperature, dehydration or loss of body fluids, and hypoglycemia or low blood sugar. These problems are interrelated and may often occur at the same time in one or more puppies.

Close vigilance and prompt attention if any of these problems develop are essential to the puppies' survival. Of course, proper feeding of the orphaned puppy is also extremely important.

Why is hypothermia a problem?

Hypothermia or chilling in young puppies can lead to significant death rates. A puppy will lose far more body heat per pound of body weight than an adult dog.

"A newborn puppy cannot control its body temperature."

A newborn puppy cannot control its body temperature, and depends upon radiant heat from its mother's body to help maintain its body temperature. In the absence of the mother, various methods of providing external heat, such as incubators, heat lamps, or hot water bottles can be used.

Rectal temperatures in a normal newborn puppy range from 95° to 99°F (35° to 37.2°C) for the first week, 97° to 100°F (36.1° to 37.8°C) for the second and third weeks, and reach the normal healthy temperature of an adult (100° to 102°F) (37.8° to 38.9°C) by the fourth week of life.

A temperature below 94°F (34.3°C) can be life-threatening. Therefore, immediate action is necessary to provide the warmth the puppy needs to survive. A healthy newborn can usually survive hypothermia if re-warmed slowly. Survival will be based on how long the puppy was hypothermic and the health of the puppy prior to experiencing hypothermia.

During the first four days of a puppy's life, the orphaned dog should be maintained in an environmental temperature of 85° to 90F (29.4° to 32.2°C). The temperature may gradually be decreased to 80°F (26.7°C) by the seventh to tenth day and to 72°F (22.2°C) by the end of the fourth week. If the litter is large, the room or environmental temperature need not be as high. As puppies huddle together, their body heat provides additional warmth.

Caution: Rapidly rewarming a puppy with a low body temperature may result in serious complications or even death. Gradually warm a hypothermic puppy over thirty to sixty minutes.

How does dehydration occur?

Irregular or inadequate liquid intake or the exposure of the puppy to a low humidity environment can quickly result in dehydration.

Two common signs of dehydration are the loss of elasticity in the skin and dry and sticky mucous membranes (gums) in the mouth. The skin will fail to return to its normal position after being pulled or raised (it doesn't "snap" back into place) and the gums will feel ’tacky’ or clammy when touched. Testing their gums is the best measure of dehydration as very young puppies do not usually have the same skin elasticity as adult dogs.

An environmental relative humidity of 55 to 65 percent is adequate to prevent drying of the skin in a normal newborn puppy. However, a relative humidity of 85 to 90 percent is more effective in maintaining puppies if they are small and weak. Place a warm, wet washcloth in the puppies' box to help maintain a high humidity. Be sure to remove the wet cloth once it cools since a wet cloth can cause up to 25 percent more heat loss than air. A humidifier is also an excellent tool to maintain proper humidity for the puppies.

Caution: The environmental or external temperature should not exceed 90°F (32.2°C) when high humidity is provided. A temperature of 95°F (35.0°C) coupled with relative humidity of 95 percent can lead to breathing difficulties.

What are the symptoms of hypoglycemia?

Signs of hypoglycemia or low blood sugar include severe depression, lethargy, ’sleepiness’ or inactivity, muscle twitching, seizures and convulsions. If a puppy shows signs of hypoglycemia, a solution containing glucose must be administered. A few drops of corn syrup on the tongue can be lifesaving to a hypoglycemic puppy.

What do I feed my orphaned puppy?

If a foster dog cannot be located, total nutrition for the newborn orphans must be supplied by a canine milk replacer such as Esbilac® until the puppies are about three weeks of age. At this age, the puppies are ready to start nibbling moistened solid food. Cow and goat’s milk are both inadequate sources of nutrition, especially in protein and fat.

Preferred diets:

  1. A commercial puppy milk replacer - your veterinarian will give you specific recommendations based on readily available products. Canine milk replacer is the preferred method for feeding orphaned puppies. The milk replacer should contain optimal levels of the omega-3 fatty acid, DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), a nutrient that is important for the development of the puppies' brains and eyes.
  2. For short-term emergencies**, combine and blend uniformly:

1 cup of milk
1 tablespoon corn/canola oil
1 pinch of salt
2 pasteurized egg yolks (no whites)

**Note: the diet in #2 above is deficient in essential nutrients and is detrimental for long term use.

 

Is the temperature of the milk replacer important?

Since the newborn may have trouble generating enough heat to maintain its body temperature, the milk replacer should be warmed to 95° to 100°F (35 to 37.8°C) for best results. Test the milk replacer's temperature on your forearm (as you would for a human baby) before feeding. The milk replacer should be about the same temperature as your skin or only slightly warmer. As the puppies grow older (at four weeks of age and older), the milk replacer can be fed at room temperature.

How do I feed my puppy?

Spoon feeding is slow and requires great patience. Each spoonful must be slowly and carefully poured into the puppy's mouth to prevent any liquid from entering the lungs. The puppy's head must not be elevated, or the lungs may fill with fluids. Newborn puppies usually do not have a well-developed gag reflex to signal that they are choking or aspirating fluids into the lungs.

Dropper feeding accomplishes the same result as spoon feeding but is somewhat cleaner and generally speedier and more accurate than a spoon.

Nursing bottles made for puppies are the best choice, and can be used successfully in most situations. The size of the hole in the nipple is critical for success. If the bottle is turned upside down and milk replacer drips freely from the nipple, the hole is too large. Use of a nipple that is too large may cause choking or aspiration of fluid into the lungs. If the bottle is turned upside down and milk replacer comes out only after significant squeezing of the bottle, the hole is too small. Use of this nipple will result in the puppy becoming discouraged and refusing to nurse. The hole is the proper size when the bottle is turned upside down and milk replacer drips from the nipple with minimal squeezing. If you are having trouble enlarging the hole, heat a needle with a match and push it through the same hole in the nipple several times.

Tube or gavage feeding is the easiest, cleanest and most efficient method of hand feeding very young puppies. However, it requires proper equipment, training and technique to prevent putting milk replacer into the puppy's lungs. If food gets into a newborn puppy's lungs, aspiration pneumonia or death usually results. This is not a difficult procedure, so do not hesitate to ask your veterinarian about it if it is needed.

When and how much do I feed the puppies?

Commercial milk replacers have directions on their labels for proper amounts to feed and frequency of feedings. It is necessary to weigh the puppies accurately. The amounts on the labels are based on the puppy being fed only the milk replacer. Read the label carefully to determine whether the recommended amount is for daily feeding or per meal. Six or more feedings may be necessary if the puppy is small or weak (approximately every four hours). Hand feeding can generally be ended by the third week and almost always by the fourth week. By this time the puppy can consume food, free choice, from a dish (see below).

How do I get the puppy to urinate and defecate?

The puppy's genital area must be stimulated after feeding to cause urination and defecation. The genital area should be gently massaged with a moist cloth or cotton ball to stimulate action. This cleaning should continue during the first two weeks of life. If this procedure is not followed, the puppy may become constipated or develop a ruptured bladder.

When does the puppy start to eat from a bowl?

By three weeks, the puppy can start to eat food from a dish along with the milk replacer. A gruel can be made by thoroughly mixing a puppy food (canned or dry) with the milk replacer to reach the consistency of a thick milk shake. The mixture should not be too thick or the puppy will not eat very much. As the consumption of food increases, the amount of milk replacer can be gradually decreased. You may carefully place the puppy's nose in the gruel to create interest in the food.

Most puppies will gladly take to the mixture. You should warm the food slightly for best results and to enhance palatability. By four to four and a half weeks, the orphaned puppy can consume enough moistened solid food to meet its nutritional needs.

"By three weeks, the puppy can start to eat food from a dish along with the milk replacer."

It is better to avoid starting a puppy on a human baby food regimen. This creates extra work and can also create a finicky eater. Baby food will not meet the nutritional needs of a growing puppy, which are different from a growing human baby.

When should my puppy be dewormed?

Puppies are routinely treated for worms starting at two, weeks of age and continue every 2 weeks until they are started on a monthly preventative medication.  Fecal exams are important to identify parasites not treated by standard dewormers. The orphaned puppy requires frequent and regular veterinary visits to monitor its weight and provide all necessary medical care.

When is the first vaccination given?

The first vaccination is normally given to puppies at six to eight weeks of age. However, if your puppy did not nurse from its mother during the first day after birth, there will be no protective immunity passed to it. Protection from the mother occurs during the first few hours after birth in the first milk known as colostrum. If that is the case, the first vaccination should be given at an earlier age. Your veterinarian will advise you about the appropriate timing. Puppies that have not been able to nurse during their first day of life may benefit from receiving serum (liquid content of blood) from another vaccinated dog. This can be given orally if the puppy is less than 24 hours old, or can be given by injections under their skin.

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