Raising Puppies

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

Raising puppies can be a rewarding experience, though problems can occur along the way. The following information should help increase your chances of success when caring for young puppies.

How do I care for the newborn puppies?

The mother should spend most of her time with her puppies during the first few days after birth. For the first month of life, puppies require very little care from their owner because their mother will feed and care for them. In fact, in most cases, the pet owner should not interfere with the mother's care.

The puppies need to be kept warm and should nurse frequently. Check them every few hours to ensure they are warm and well-fed. You should also check the mother to ensure that she is producing adequate and normal-appearing milk.

If the mother does not stay in the whelping box most of the time, the puppies' body temperatures must be closely monitored. If the puppies are cold, you must provide supplemental heat, but be careful not to burn the puppies, as they do not have the same reactions to heat as adult dogs.

During the first four days of life, the newborn puppies' box and external environment should be maintained at 85°F to 90°F (29.4°C 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 external temperature does not have to be kept as warm. As puppies huddle together, their body heat provides additional warmth.

"If the mother feels the puppies are in danger or that there is too much light or noise, she may become anxious and not produce adequate milk."

If the mother feels the puppies are in danger or that there is too much light or noise, she may become anxious and not produce adequate milk. Placing a sheet or cloth over the top of the box to obscure much of the light may resolve the problem. An enclosed box is also a solution. Some dogs, especially first-time mothers, are more anxious than others, and  may attempt to hide their young. She may continually move the puppies from place to place, which may endanger them if they are placed in a cold or drafty location. If your dog shows this behavior, you should cage or confine her in a secure, secluded area. This type of mother has also been known to kill her puppies, intentionally or inadvertently, presumably as a means of “protecting” them from danger.

What are the signs that the puppies are not doing well and what do I do?

Puppies should eat or sleep 90% of the time during the first two weeks of life. If they cry during or after eating, it may indicate that they are ill, are not getting adequate milk, or the milk has become infected (mastitis).

A newborn puppy is very susceptible to infections and can die within a few hours of becoming ill. If excessive crying occurs, your veterinarian should examine the mother and entire litter as soon as possible.

Puppies should gain 5-10% of their body weight daily. When the mother's milk supply is inadequate to support this, supplemental feeding is recommended, one to six times per day. Supplemental feeding may be necessary for any litter with more than five puppies.

There are several excellent commercial milk replacers available. They require no preparation other than warming. These milk replacers should be warmed to 95°F-100°F (35°C-37.8°C) before feeding. Test the temperature on your forearm: it should be about the same temperature as your skin.

"Supplemental feeding may be necessary for any litter with more than five puppies."

Any milk replacer should contain optimal levels of the omega-3 fatty acid DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), a nutrient that is important for the development of puppies' brains and eyes. Goat’s milk is not recommended for puppies, as it is far too low in protein and fat. Supplemental feeding may be continued until the puppies are old enough to eat puppy food on their own.

If the mother does not produce milk or her milk becomes infected, the puppies will cry. If this occurs, the entire litter could die within 24 to 48 hours. Total milk replacement feeding, using the mentioned products, or fostering the puppies with another nursing mother is usually required. If you choose replacement feeding, feed the amounts listed on the product label. Puppies less than two weeks old should be fed every three to four hours. Puppies between two and four weeks of age do well with feedings every six to eight hours. Weaning, as described below, should begin at three to four weeks of age.

If the mother is unable to raise the litter, either through abandonment, illness, or death during birth, then hand-rearing will be necessary. This includes feeding them as above, keeping them warm, and in the first couple weeks of life, stimulating them to pass urine and stool. This is done by massaging the genital area with a warm, moist, cloth or cotton ball after feeding.

What should I expect from the puppies during the first few weeks of life?

Puppies are born with their eyes closed. Most puppies open their eyes within seven to fourteen days of birth. If you notice swelling, bulging, or discharge under the eyelids, the eyes should be opened gently. A cotton ball dampened with warm water may be used to help open the lids. If the swelling is due to infection, you will see pus; in this case, a veterinarian should examine the puppy immediately. If the eyes have not opened within 14 days, the puppy should be examined by a veterinarian.

Puppies should be observed for their rate of growth. They should double their birth weight in about one week. Weigh them routinely, daily to weekly, to ensure they are growing normally. Failure to gain weight may indicate a problem and the need for veterinary care. At about two weeks of age, puppies should be alert and trying to stand on their own. At three weeks, they generally try to climb out of their box. At four weeks, all the puppies should be able to walk, run, and play.

Puppies should begin eating solid food about 3.5 to 4.5 weeks of age. Initially, make gruel by mixing a milk replacer with a small amount of puppy food soaked in water; place this mixture in a flat saucer. The puppies' noses should be carefully dipped into the mixture two or three times per day until they begin to lap; this usually takes one to three days. Next, place canned or dry puppy food in the milk replacer or water until it is soggy. As the puppies lap, they will also ingest the food. The amount of moisture should be decreased daily until they are eating the canned or dry food with little to no moisture added (usually by four to six weeks of age).

I have heard of milk fever. What is it?

Eclampsia, or milk fever, is caused by depletion of calcium in the mother due to heavy milk production. It generally occurs when the puppies are three to five weeks old (just before weaning) and most often in mothers of large litters. The mother typically has muscle spasms resulting in rigid legs, spastic movements, and heavy panting. This condition can be fatal in 30–60 minutes, so a veterinarian should be consulted immediately.

Do weaned puppies need to be fed a special diet?

Diet is extremely important for a growing puppy. Many commercial foods have been specially formulated to meet the unique nutritional requirements of kittens and should be fed until 12–18 months of age, depending on the breed of puppy and body condition. To minimize developmental problems, large breed dogs should eat a large breed puppy food and then transition to an adolescent formula until they stop growing. Puppy foods are available in dry and canned formulations.

"Adult formulations do not provide optimal nutrition for a puppy."

You should buy food formulated for puppies. Adult formulations do not provide optimal nutrition for a puppy. Advertisements tend to promote taste, texture, and certain ingredients, rather than nutrition; it is important not to be influenced by these ads. Generic dog foods should be avoided. Table or human food is not recommended for growing puppies. Although the puppy may show a preference for table food, it will compromise the puppy's long-term health, unless you follow a properly balanced recipe developed by a veterinary nutritionist.

Discuss diet choices with your veterinarian. The diet 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. It is recommended that only food with the AAFCO (American Association of Feed Control Officials) certification is purchased. Usually, this label is clearly visible on the food label. AAFCO oversees the entire pet food industry. It does not endorse any food, but it indicates if the food has met the minimum requirements for nutrition, which are set by the industry. Most commercial pet foods have the AAFCO label. An ideal diet will have completed feeding trials prior to marketing their food (see handout “Feeding Growing Puppies” for more information).

When should vaccinations begin?

Puppies from a healthy mother have passive immunity to many canine diseases before and shortly after birth. Before birth, the mother’s antibodies cross the placenta and enter the puppies' circulation. Immediately after birth, the mother produces colostrum, or first milk, which is rich in maternal antibodies. These maternal antibodies protect the puppies against the diseases to which the mother is immune. This is why it is often recommended to booster the mother's vaccinations a few months before breeding.

"Although very protective, maternal antibodies last for only a few weeks; after this time, the puppy becomes susceptible to disease."

Although very protective, maternal antibodies last for only a few weeks; after this time, the puppy becomes susceptible to disease. The puppy should receive its first vaccines at about six to eight weeks of age. Puppies should be vaccinated against canine distemper, hepatitis, parvovirus, parainfluenza virus, and rabies. To provide strong immunity, several vaccines are required to complete the puppy vaccine series, ideally with the last one at 16 weeks of age or older. Other vaccines, including Leptospirosis, Bordetella, Influenza, and Lyme, are also available for certain situations, and will be discussed at the first visit for vaccinations.

Maternal antibodies are passed in the mother's milk only during the first one to three days after delivery. If the puppies do not nurse during this important period, their vaccinations should begin earlier than six weeks of age, depending on likely disease exposure. A veterinarian can make specific recommendations for each situation.

Do all puppies have worms?

Intestinal parasites (worms) are common in puppies. Symptoms of intestinal parasites include a generally poor condition, chronic soft or bloody stools, loss of appetite, a pot-bellied appearance, a dull and dry haircoat, and weight loss. Some parasites are transmitted from the mother to her offspring either in utero (while in the womb) or in the milk, while others are carried by fleas or other insects. Some are transmitted through the stool of an infected dog.

Very few of these parasites are visible in the stool. However, a microscopic examination of the puppy’s feces will reveal the eggs of most of these parasites. Generally, the stool is examined for parasites at the time of the first vaccinations, but a fecal analysis may be performed as early as two to three weeks of age if an intestinal parasite problem is suspected.

The Companion Animal Parasite council recommends deworming puppies for roundworms and hookworms every two weeks, starting at two weeks of age. Other treatment may be needed, based on the results of a fecal examination. Consult your veterinarian for specific recommendations for your puppies. You should not administer any over-the-counter deworming compounds or herbal dewormers without first consulting your veterinary hospital.

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