Newborn Puppies – Now what do I do?

Claire Dunling

Welcome to the newborn puppy club! Boy, are you in for a ride, while newborn puppies can be lots of fun, looking after them won’t come without its challenges.

How do I care for the newborn puppies?

Mum will spend most of her time with the newborn puppies during the following few days after birth. The newborn puppies need to be kept warm and to be nursed frequently. You should be checked every few hours to make certain that they are warm and fed. The mother should also be checked to make certain that she’s producing enough milk.

Boxing clever

If the mother does not stay in the box, the newborn puppies’ temperatures must be monitored to make sure they are warm enough. If the newborn puppies are cold, supplementary heating should be provided. During the first four days of life, the environment for the newborn puppies should be maintained at 29 – 32°C. The temperature may gradually be decreased to 26°C by the seventh to the tenth day and to about 22°C by the end of the fourth week of new puppy care. If the litter is large, the temperature needn’t be as high, as new-born puppies will huddle together and their combined body mass provides the necessary warmth. Their behaviour will give a guide to whether they are comfortable: if they are warm and content they will be quiet and gaining weight.

Don’t panic missus!

If the mother feels the puppies are in danger or if there is too much light she may become anxious. Placing a sheet or cloth over most of the top of the box to obscure much of the light may help. Or, an alternative is a ‘close-able’ box. Some dogs, especially first-time mothers, are more anxious than others. Such dogs may attempt to hide their young, even from the owner. If the bitch continues to move her puppies from place to place, some attempt at confinement may be necessary. However, if this unsettled behaviour continues don’t delay and seek veterinary advice as the puppies are at risk if they are placed in a cold or draughty location. If the mother becomes too distressed she could kill her puppies as a means of “protecting” them from danger.

What are the warning signs I need to look out for?

Feeding puppies and sleep should take up about 90% of the time during the first two weeks. Any “mewing” type noises may indicate they are not thriving – most likely a lack of nourishment or an infection. If in doubt talk to your vet. Another good indication they’re thriving is weight gain. Postal scales or kitchen scales will usually suffice for this purpose. And if its a large and near identical litter you may need to use felt pen on the tum to keep track of them. Don’t rely on your memory though, keep detailed paper and pen notes, as you’re likely to be stressed and tired during this period.

Mother’s milk

When the milk supply is inadequate, supplemental new-born puppy feeding 1 to 3 times per day is recommended and should be performed when looking after large litters – more than 6 puppies. There are several very good commercial formulae available – check with your vet to find out their preference. Follow the pack directions carefully, particularly with regard to temperature. One method of testing the temperature of the feed is to drop some of the warm formula on to your forearm – a reminder of the human kids! It should be about the same temperature. The commercial products have feeding guide’s regarding amounts. Supplemental puppy feeding may be continued for looking after puppies until they are old enough to eat puppy food.

I have heard of milk fever, what exactly is it?

Eclampsia, or milk fever, is due to a depletion of calcium in the blood of the mother due to heavy milk production. It generally occurs when the puppies are 3-5 weeks old (just before weaning) and most often to mothers with large litters or with an abundance of milk as some mothers naturally have. Good mothers, especially attentive of their puppies, always seem to suffer more severely.

The mother has muscle spasms resulting in rigid legs, spastic movements, and heavy panting. This can be fatal in 30-60 minutes, so a veterinary surgeon should be consulted immediately. This is a major emergency situation, do NOT delay. If you suspect it, act!

Do puppies need a special diet?

Diet is extremely important for a growing puppy. There are many commercial foods specially formulated for puppies. These meet the unique nutritional requirements and should be fed until 12-18 months of age. Puppy foods are available in dry and wet format. Dry foods are less expensive in the long run and can be left in the bowl for the puppy to eat at will. Canned foods offer a change and are just as nutritious, but swapping can upset stomachs that are still learning to digest properly.

We recommend that you only buy food specifically formulated for puppies from a reputable brand – as they will have been properly and regularly tested to make sure they contain the right stuff. Adult formulations are not recommended since they do not provide the nutrition required for a puppy. Ads tend to promote taste rather than nutrition (selling to the human and not the dog), so be careful that their influence is not detrimental to your dog. Table food is not recommended at all; although often more appealing than dog food, balanced nutrition is not easily achieved. It also means that the puppy doesn’t come to expect table food later in life.

When should vaccinations begin?

Puppies are provided some immunity to canine diseases from their mother before and shortly after birth. Some of the mother’s antibodies cross the placenta and enter the puppies’ circulation, but most antibodies are provided in the mother’s milk, particularly the first milk or colostrum. These “maternal antibodies” protect the puppies against the diseases to which the mother is immune. This explains why it is so important to ensure that any booster inoculations are administered prior to mating.

Your vet will be there for you and your new puppies - they've seen it all many times before. So don't be shy, talk to them
John Campbell, Head Vet of Pet Drugs Online

Although very protective, maternal antibodies last for only a few weeks; after this time, the puppy becomes susceptible to disease. The duration of the maternal antibodies is quite variable depending on several factors. In general, vaccinations for the puppy should be started at about 6 to 8 weeks of age. Puppies should be vaccinated against distemper, hepatitis, leptospirosis, parainfluenza virus and parvovirus. 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 1-3 days after delivery. If, for any reason, the puppies do not nurse during this important period of time, their vaccinations should begin about 2 to 4 weeks earlier depending on likely disease exposure although some maternal antibodies are transferred throughout the whole of the suckling period via the milk. Your vet can make specific recommendations for each particular situation.

Do all puppies have worms?

Intestinal parasites (‘worms’) are common in puppies. Sometimes no signs are apparent but often poor condition, chronic soft or bloody faeces, loss of appetite, a pot-bellied appearance, loss of lustre of the haircoat, and weight loss are seen. Some parasites are transmitted from the mother to her offspring and others are carried by fleas. Some are transmitted through the faeces of an infected dog. Very seldom are these parasites visible in the faeces. Their detection depends on demonstration of their eggs under a microscope. Generally puppies are wormed from about 2 weeks of age and medication is usually supplied by your veterinary surgeon at the time of the post natal examination.

Consult your vet about a deworming programme for a litter of puppies rather than purchasing branded products over the counter. These are often effective yet may not cover the types of worms that could be present in your particular litter.

This post is an opinion and should only be used as a guide. You should discuss any change to your pet’s care or lifestyle thoroughly with your vet before starting any program or treatment.

If in doubt contact your veterinary practice

And always keep your vet's phone number handy - just in case!