Hand-rearing puppies

Fortunately it is very unusual for a mother to be unable to rear her puppies herself. Taking on the task of bringing up a litter of puppies is rightly daunting and it requires considerable dedication for the first 4 weeks. If you are placed in the situation of having to rear puppies by hand you should contact your veterinary practice for advice.

It is uncommon for puppies to need to be totally hand-reared. It is very rare for bitches to be unable to produce sufficient milk, but sadly if the mother has died, is ill, or has abandoned the litter it may be necessary to step in. If a foster mum can be found then this is ideal as the puppies will be brought up naturally. A foster mum could be a bitch having a false pregnancy or one that has lost her own litter or only has a few puppies. If you have a very large litter the mother may be unable to feed all the puppies and supplementary feeding should be carried out although the puppies can be left with their mother at other times.

A note of caution – if a mother is rejecting a particular puppy from a litter there is a good chance that she knows that it’s unhealthy and this is the reason for rejection. Although you can find nothing wrong with it and hand-rearing this puppy may be successful there is a high chance that you will not succeed.

New puppies should be introduced very carefully to a potential foster mother. The foster mum is more likely to accept them if they smell of her. This can be achieved by letting the puppies cuddle up on a piece of bedding that the foster mum has been sleeping on. Do not wash the bedding first as you want the scent to rub onto the puppies. After a short time the foster mum can be introduced. The introduction must be closely supervised to ensure the foster mum accepts the puppies and doesn’t harm them.

There are a number of milk products available which have been correctly formulated to replicate bitch’s milk. Cow’s milk and human milk substitutes are not recommended as the quantity of protein, fat and carbohydrate differ from that in bitch’s milk.

Recommended milk substitutes:

  • Welpi – designed especially for puppies.
  • Pedigree Instant Milk Substitute – designed especially for puppies.
  • Lactol – suitable for puppies but not species specific so the above formulas are preferred.

These formulas are available from your veterinary practice and you should seek advice on their use. It is essential to make up and use formula milk according to the manufacturer’s instructions. Signs of under nutrition include failing to gain weight, crying and inactivity, however over feeding can be just as dangerous. It is important to increase the volume given as the puppies get bigger.

Puppies should increase in bodyweight by 5-10% per day for the first two weeks of life (after the first day – it is normal for them to lose weight in the first day of life). Failure to grow at this rate may indicate underfeeding or ill health. It is helpful to weigh each puppy every day and to keep a growth chart so you can see that all the puppies are growing well. They should be weighed at the same time of day, e.g. just before a certain feed and you certainly need to take into account whether the puppy’s stomach and bladder are full or empty at the time of weighing. Carefully clipping a little fur from a part of the body and carefully recording this may be helpful.

Milk substitute should be made up fresh for each feed and warmed to 38°C / 100.4°F (body temperature) before feeding.

It is very important that you feed puppies very slowly, keeping their heads up to allow them to swallow. If you give milk too fast it might go down the wrong way (into the air passages) which could lead to pneumonia.

If you are trying to save a weak puppy it is safer to feed it using a stomach tube rather than giving milk via the mouth. This should not be attempted by an untrained person and involves passing a suitably sized tube through the mouth, down the throat and into the stomach. Milk is then placed into a syringe and injected down the tube into the stomach. A veterinary nurse will be pleased to show you how to feed the puppies initially.

For the first week of life feed normal puppies using a syringe with a teat attached. Nursing bottles can be purchased in pet shops and through your vets but these are not recommended until the puppy has a good sucking reflex.

Supplying colostrum

Colostrum is a special kind of milk that contains antibodies to protect the puppy during the first few weeks of life. Puppies that have inadequate colostrum are less likely to survive. Colostrum only works if ingested in the first 12 hours after birth. After this time the puppy’s stomach and intestine change so that they digest the antibodies rather than allowing them to be absorbed intact as is necessary. Also, after the first 12 hours, the mother begins to stop producing colostrums and switches over to producing normal milk.

So, if at all posible, try to obtain colostrum and get this into each puppy in its first 12 hours after birth. If this is impossible it can be substituted, to some extent, by a veterinary surgeon injecting the puppy with serum.

New born puppies need to be fed every 2 hours from birth up to 7 days of age. From 8-21 days this can be decreased to every 3 hours. The amount fed should be increased to compensate for this at each feed. At 4 weeks of age feeding every 4 hours is recommended along with the introduction of solid puppy food. Between 5-6 weeks you can slowly decrease the amount of milk provided and increase the amount of solid food as long as all the puppies are feeding well and gaining weight. By 6 weeks the puppies should be fully weaned, being fed entirely on puppy food.

The following equipment is recommended:

  • Syringes –  2ml for puppies.
  • Teats – assorted sizes available depending on the size of neonate.
  • Cotton wool.
  • A room thermometer – those sold for horticulture are suitable.
  • Another thermometer to measure the temperature of the milk prior to feeding is also needed.
  • Scales – it is vital to weigh the puppies accurately each day. The scales will need to weigh accurately to the nearest 5g and ideally to the nearest gram.
  • Sterilising Fluid – e.g. Milton, to keep equipment sterile. Equipment should be sterilised and stored without rinsing, then rinsed thoroughly just prior to use. As well as not being good for the puppy if ingested it may put them off feeding if they can taste it.

New born puppies need to be kept clean and dry. After feeding you should clean their mouths with warm boiled water and cotton wool, drying afterwards. More importantly you need to encourage urination and defaecation. This would normally occur when the dam licks and stimulates their genital areas. You can copy this by rubbing the area with warm, damp cotton wool. This should be carried out every 2-4 hours until 3 weeks of age when they should be able to urinate/defaecate voluntarily.

New born puppies are unable to regulate their own body temperature. They need to be kept in an enclosed controlled environment of approximately 25-30°C / 77-86°F, free from draughts. This can be achieved by thermostatic controls on a radiator, hot water bottles wrapped in towels, heat pads or infra-red lamps.

Heat pads should be designed for animals and be wrapped in towels or paced under vet beds. If used incorrectly they could burn the puppies as they generally reach temperatures of 52°C / 125.6°F. Infra-red lamps should not be placed directly over the neonates and must be at least 5cm away. Place a room thermometer in among the puppies.

Bedding should be soft and warm, eg towels, and needs to be easily washable. Newspaper is suitable to start teaching the puppy house training – again from 3 weeks of age. Soft, warm bedding should still be provided.

Puppies are able to crawl at birth so should be quite mobile although they will be sleeping for a while from the anaesthetic if born by caesarian. Standing occurs from 10 days. By 3 weeks of age puppies should be able to walk around. Puppies are born with their eyes closed. They generally open them between 10 -14 days.

Do puppies need socialising?

Socialisation is very important in all dogs. This period should start from 4 weeks of age in puppies. It is essential that puppies become used to being carefully handled and are acclimatised to everyday noises and situations, e.g. the vacuum cleaner, hairdryer, car and washing machine etc. This enables them to learn that these experiences are nothing to be afraid of.

It is also a good idea for puppies to meet other animals. Ensure that all animals introduced are fully vaccinated and that they will not harm the puppies. Puppies that are hand-reared generally do not have much resistance to disease until they are vaccinated so it is vital that all animals introduced to them are completely fit and well. Puppy socialising classes should be encouraged once fully vaccinated.

Puppies can be vaccinated from around 6 weeks. Early vaccination may be beneficial in hand reared puppies who will not have received appropriate protection from their mother’s milk (inadequate colostrum).

If’ you are at all worried or just require advice then please contact your veterinary practice. New born animals are very fragile and can deteriorate rapidly if their needs are not fully met. After the first day, each puppy should maintain or gain weight each day – contact your veterinary practice if this does not occur.