Feeding Orphaned Puppies
Newborn puppies are relatively immature at birth compared to many other mammals, and large breed puppies are less mature than small breed puppies. The period of time they spend being nursed by their mother (bitch) helps the newborn puppy transition from in utero nutrition to solid food.
When puppies are raised on their mother's milk, their growth and health is influenced by:
- the nutrition of the mother during pregnancy and early lactation,
- the mother’s overall physical health and behavior, and
- good neonatal care.
The first few days of a mother's milk is known as colostrum. Colostrum is very high in protein and transfers important immune system elements. Whenever possible, newborn puppies should receive their mother's milk as it sets the stage for normal immune system function and protection from disease.
If the mother is incapable of raising her puppies herself, the puppies are considered orphans and some important needs must be met in order to ensure their survival. These needs include appropriate heat, humidity, nutrition, elimination, sanitation, and social stimulation.
"If the mother is incapable of raising her puppies herself, the puppies are considered orphans and some important needs must be met in order to ensure their survival."
Fortunately, most orphaned puppies can be raised successfully with a bit of care and attention to detail. Using a logbook to track their development is a good place to start.
What should I track in a logbook?
Maintaining a logbook about the orphaned puppies does not need to be complicated. The intent is to simply keep track of how they are doing so you can identify if there are any potential concerns with their development.
Tracking their weights, milestones, and routines are key, so be sure to record details of when their eyes open, when their teeth begin to erupt, their food intake, and stool consistency.
TIP: Individual puppies must be identified in some way, so consider colored collars or nail polish on a few front toenails.
How often should puppies be weighed, and how much should they weigh?
The birth weight of each puppy should be recorded, and weight should be taken every day or two for the first four weeks of life. Starting in their fifth week, you can switch to weekly weigh-ins. A digital food scale with capacity up to 5 pounds works best for these measurements.
Puppies should gain about 5% of their current body weight per day during the first 4 weeks. This means that body weight may double by 8-10 days after birth and triple by the third week of life.
What do orphaned puppies need for proper nutrition?
Water is a critical nutrient for orphaned puppies, just as it is for all other stages of their life. Normal water intake is relatively high for puppies, needing 130-220 milliliters (mL) of fluid per kilogram (kg) of body weight each day.
On average, the total fluid volume fed per day (including milk replacers) should be approximately 180mL/kg of puppy body weight. Mother's milk is highly digestible and very calorie dense. Compared to cow's milk, milk from a puppy's mother contains more than twice as much protein, which helps to explain why cow's milk is not ideal for feeding orphaned puppies.
Commercial puppy milk replacers are recommended as they are superior to cow's milk and home-made mixtures. The milk replacer you choose should meet several key nutritional factors. For every 100g of milk replacer fed (on a dry matter basis), there should be:
- 33g crude protein
- 42g fat
- 14.5g lactose
How do I feed orphaned puppies?
Most puppies will suckle on small pet nursing bottles, also known as pet nursers. When bottle fed, puppies will nurse until they are full and then reject the bottle.
Be sure the opening in the nipple restricts the outflow of fluid to one drop at a time in order to avoid a flow rate that is too rapid for the puppy. When the flow rate is too rapid, it can lead to aspiration, pneumonia, and/or death; and when the flow is too slow they have to work too hard to nurse.
When feeding, hold the puppy in a horizontal, head-neutral position as it would be when feeding from its mother. If the puppy is too weak to suckle, your veterinarian can show you alternative feeding methods and assist in tube feeding if needed.
TIP: Handling puppies during feeding contributes to critical socialization.
How much and how often should I feed orphaned puppies?
Orphaned puppies should be fed on a strict schedule, preferably every 2-4 hours. Puppies up to two weeks old can generally consume their daily intake in 4-5 meals per day. Small breed puppies should be limited to 10-15mL per feeding during the first week of life in order to prevent diarrhea.
Commercial milk replacers are labeled to help you calculate the total volume to be fed per day. To calculate the amount for each feeding:
- dilute the total daily volume of milk replacer to a final volume of about 180mL/kg of puppy body weight, and
- divide that total into the desired number of meals per day.
It is recommended that you warm puppy milk replacer to approximately 100°F (38°C) before feeding, but be careful not to overheat it. Cold formula, overly rapid feeding rates, and overfeeding can lead to regurgitation, aspiration, bloating, and diarrhea.
If the orphaned puppy develops diarrhea, reduce the formula volume. It is better to slightly underfeed than to overfeed neonatal orphaned puppies. Puppy milk replacer should be the sole source of nutrition until 3-4 weeks of age at which time the weaning process may begin.
The transition from formula to solid food is a gradual process, so be patient. Use a high-quality food formulated to support growth and reproduction. Introduce small amounts of semi-solid or solid food to supplement formula, and transition to solid food by 5-6 weeks of age.
What’s my role in helping a puppy to eliminate?
Puppies cannot eliminate (urinate or defecate) on their own until about 3 weeks of age. They rely on their mother to stimulate their reflex to initiate elimination. Orphaned puppies, on the other hand, rely on their caretakers to stimulate them to eliminate.
After feeding, you can stimulate their reflex to eliminate by gently stroking the area between the anus and vulva or penis with a warm, moistened cotton ball or soft cloth. Your veterinarian can help teach you this technique.
What are some best practices for proper puppy hygiene?
Orphaned puppies require you to pay strict attention to their hygiene for optimal health and development. Follow these best practices for proper puppy hygiene:
- Bottles and nipples should be cleaned and then boiled in water to sterilize them between uses.
- Never prepare more milk replacer than can be used within 24 hours and always keep it refrigerated.
- Discard formula after 1 hour if left at room temperature.
- Once or twice each week, gently wash the puppies with a moist cloth.
By paying attention to the details of feeding and hygiene, you can help orphaned puppies thrive.
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