Raising Puppies

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

Breeding, Care & Wellness, Pet Services

Raising puppies can be an extremely gratifying experience or it may produce disappointment and letdown. The following information is provided in order to increase your chances of success when caring for young puppies.

What do I do to 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 the owner because their mother will feed and care for them. In fact, in the vast majority of cases, the pet owner should not interfere with the mother's care.

The puppies should be kept warm and should nurse frequently. They should be checked every few hours to ensure they are warm and well fed. The mother should be checked to make certain that she is producing adequate and normal-appearing milk.

"The puppies should be kept warm and should nurse frequently."

If the mother does not stay in the whelping box the majority of the time, the puppies' body temperatures must be closely monitored. If the puppies are cold, supplemental heating should be provided but caution needs to be taken to avoid burns as puppies do not have the same reactions to heat as adult dogs do. During the first four days of life, the newborn puppies' box and external environment should be maintained at 85° to 90°F (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 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 if there is too much light, 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 an excellent solution. Some dogs, especially first-time mothers, are more nervous than others. Such dogs may attempt to hide their young, even from the owner. Moving the puppies from place to place may endanger the puppies if they are placed in a cold or drafty location. Dogs with this behavior should be caged or confined 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 are crying during or after eating, they are usually becoming ill, are not receiving adequate milk, or the mother's milk has become infected (mastitis)."

If they are crying during or after eating, they are usually becoming ill, are not receiving adequate milk, or the mother's 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, the mother and entire litter should be examined by a veterinarian 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 one to six times per day is recommended and should be performed routinely on any litter with greater 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°to 100° (35° to 37.8°C) before feeding. Its temperature can easily be tested on your forearm: it should be about the same temperature as your skin. 

Any milk replacer that is used 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. Goat milk is not recommended 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, an entire litter can die within 24 to 48 hours. Total milk replacement feeding using the mentioned products or adopting the puppies to another nursing mother is usually required. If replacement feeding is chosen, the feeding amounts listed on the product should be used. Puppies less than two weeks of age should be fed every 3-4 hours. Puppies two to four weeks of age do well with feedings every 6-8 hours. Weaning, as described below, should begin at three to four weeks of age.

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

Puppies are born with their eyes closed. Most puppies will begin to open their eyes within seven to fourteen days of birth. If there is swelling, bulging, or discharge underneath the eyelids, they should be opened gently. A cotton ball dampened with warm water may be used to assist opening the lids. If the swelling is due to infection, pus will exit the open eyelids and should be examined by a veterinarian immediately. If the eyes have not opened within fourteen days of age, 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. Careful and routine daily to weekly weighing should be performed to ensure the puppies 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 of the puppies should be able to walk, run, and play.

"At four weeks, all of the puppies should be able to walk, run, and play."

Puppies should begin eating solid food about 3 1/2 to 4 1/2 weeks of age. Initially, make gruel by mixing a milk replacer in puppy food soaked in water and 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, canned or dry puppy food should be placed 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 or no moisture added (usually by four to six weeks of age).

I have heard of milk fever. What exactly is it?

Eclampsia, or milk fever, is a depletion of calcium from 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 to mothers with 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 puppies need to be fed a special diet?

Diet is extremely important for a growing puppy. There are many commercial foods specially formulated for puppies. These foods meet their unique nutritional requirements and should be fed until twelve to eighteen 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.

"Diet is extremely important for a growing puppy."

You should buy FOOD FORMULATED FOR PUPPIES. Adult formulations are not recommended since they do not provide optimal nutrition required for a puppy. Advertisements tend to promote taste, color, and shape rather than nutrition, so it is important not 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, unless you follow a properly-balanced recipe developed by a veterinary nutritionist, the puppy's long term health will be compromised.

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 generally a good idea to avoid generic brands of food. It is recommended that only food with the AAFCO (American Association of Feed Control Officials) certification is purchased. Usually, this information is very easily seen on the food label. AAFCO is an organization that oversees the entire pet food industry. It does not endorse any particular food, but it indicates if the food has met the minimum requirements for nutrition, which are set by the industry. Most of the 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 my puppies receive vaccinations?

Puppies are protected against many canine diseases before and shortly after birth by passive antibody transfer from their mother. Some antibodies cross the placenta and enter the puppies' circulation. However, the majority of antibodies are provided in the mother's first milk known as colostrum. These maternal antibodies protect the puppies against the diseases to which the mother is immune during the first few weeks of life. This explains why it is often recommended to booster the mother's vaccinations within a few months prior to breeding.

Although very protective, maternal antibodies last for only a few weeks; after this time, the puppy becomes susceptible to disease. The vaccination program should be started at about six to eight weeks of age. This is the age when many maternal antibodies are beginning to die and the puppy becomes susceptible to infectious disease. Puppies should be vaccinated against canine distemper, hepatitis, parvovirus, parainfluenza virus, and rabies. Other vaccines are also available for certain situations, and will be discussed at the time of 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, for any reason, the puppies do not nurse during this important period of time, their vaccinations should begin earlier than six weeks of age, depending on likely disease exposure. A veterinarian can make specific recommendations for each particular situation.

Do all puppies have worms?

Intestinal parasites (worms) are very common in puppies. Symptoms of intestinal parasites include poor overall condition, chronic soft or bloody stools, loss of appetite, a pot-bellied appearance, a dull, 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 and 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, so their eggs must be detected by the veterinarian with a microscope.

"Intestinal parasites are very common in puppies."

A microscopic examination of the feces will reveal the eggs of most of these parasites. Generally this test should be performed at the time of the first vaccinations. However, it 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. Your veterinarian should be consulted for specific recommendations for your puppies. You should not administer any over-the-counter deworming compounds without first consulting your veterinary hospital.


Contributors: Krista Williams, BSc, DVM; Ernest Ward, DVM
© Copyright 2019 LifeLearn Inc. Used and/or modified with permission under license.

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