Raising a litter of puppies
So, the wait is over, your dog has brought a whole bundle of adorable pups into the world. She’ll be hungry, thirsty and absolutely exhausted, along with everything else, probably not at all ready to look after her new babies.
This is now your time to get to work and help out the new mum in every possible way you can, she’ll be very much grateful for it!
Raising a litter of puppies is an unforgettable experience, one that might fill you with excitement, or more than likely nerves if it’s your first time, but it’ll be rewarding nonetheless to see all those pups grow into healthy young dogs. Basically, you need to act as an extra parent to the puppies in the initial few days and then be around for a helping hand in the next few weeks.
We’re here to make things that little bit easier for you both, being your go-to guide for everything you need to know about helping to look after a litter of puppies to make sure everything runs as smoothly as possible before you wave off the pups to their new homes.
How to raise a litter of puppies the best way
In the first few days, the puppies don’t really do much, it’s literally just eating, sleeping and repeating. So, you must make sure that you know what you’re doing with their food and have got the place where they sleep all sorted.
Sorting out the puppy pen/whelping box
Your whelping box should already be prepared before the birth, which is the term for the comfy, denlike area where your dog will deliver her litter. We’ve got a full post all about how to get ready for your dog’s birth which explains how to prepare the whelping box in more detail. This box will then become the little pen where the puppies sleep, so it needs to be comfy, clean and at the correct temperature.
Use blankets, towels and bedding to create a comfy space for the puppies and new mum, and make sure you’re constantly on the lookout for soiled bedding as this will need to be removed instantly.
Keep it clean and hygienic by constantly wiping down the sides and floor of the pen to make sure that any nasty bacteria don’t get the chance to reproduce, as this could create potential illnesses and problems for the newborn puppies. As of yet, the puppies will have a weak, undeveloped immune system that can’t fight off illness as adult dogs can.
The next thing to consider when making the puppy pen perfect for the litter is to ensure that the temperature is managed and controlled. Newborn puppies don’t yet have the ability to control their own body temperature, meaning that it’s up to both you and the mother of the litter to help manage their temperatures.
Ensure that the puppy pen is in a warm environment. Any kind of draught will expose the puppies to the cold, which causes bodily stress and makes them more susceptible to health problems.
To be absolutely certain that their living environment is warm enough, use a heat lamp to raise the temperature, just ensure that there’s enough space in the pen for them to move to a cooler location if they do get too warm.
Stick the lamp high above so it’s not too close, preventing the possibility of it burning the mother and puppies. Placing the lamp in the corner of the box is also a good idea, allowing the pups to crawl in or out of the warm space as they wish.
For such tiny little creatures, newborn pups need a lot of food to keep them going. After all, they need the energy for exploring, playing and most of all, to grow into strong, healthy adult dogs.
The pups rely on the milk they get from their mother in their first few weeks, with the first few days being the most important. Straight after birth, the mother produces a fluid called colostrum which is bursting with maternal antibodies and nutrients that the puppies require to help their immune systems develop and strengthen.
Colostrum provides the pups with protection against infection and disease, so it’s absolutely fundamental that they get plenty in the first few days. This natural form of immunity will be lost when the puppies reach around 6-8 weeks old, which is around the time they’ll get their first vaccinations.
Once the puppies reach about 4 weeks old, you’ll be able to begin weaning them off the milk and onto solid foods. Keep this progression gradual. The pups will be starting to get lively, curious and most of all, hungry, so the solid food you choose needs to be nutrient-dense to fuel all that growing they’ve got to do.
Pick a puppy specific food, as this will contain the right amount of protein, fats, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals to support the litter’s ongoing health and growth right into their adulthood.
For example, Pure has recipes that are totally tailored for puppies, packed with every single thing they need in every bite to grow into healthy, happy dogs. With Pure, the recipes are catered to the dog’s lifestage, adapting as they grow older to invest in their long term health from the very start.
Feeding the nursing dog
Extra calories are needed for nursing dogs, so really, your dog needs to be given food whenever they seem to be hungry! Your female dog has all of these extra mouths to feed that are taking away a large proportion of the nutrients she would normally get from her food, so you need to increase her calorie intake.
A complete and balanced diet, such as Pure, is ideal for your nursing dog, bursting with nutrients and high-quality ingredients to keep those energy levels up and puppies happy and healthy.
The first few days are the hardest, for both you and the new mum, this is the point where she’ll be not only fatigued, but quite shocked and overwhelmed with all her new responsibilities too.
She’ll need to get to grips with nursing and caring for her new litter, and your main priority should be to be totally vigilant, keeping a sharp eye out for any problems. Basically, you want the mum and pups to be comfortable, eating enough food and looking healthy.
Take things steady in these first few weeks, try to limit any commotion and activity within the house, as the new mother will be exhausted, and the pups will still be too young to do much. At this point, the bond between the mum and her pups will be starting to form, so she feels a maternal relationship towards her litter.
Ideally, the puppies should start nursing quickly after whelping (the birth) has ended, and once they’re done nursing, check each puppy over to ensure they’re all looking healthy. If you’re a first-time breeder, you might want to consult your vet before the birth to make sure you know what to look out for.
We’ve got a full guide to your dog's labour and birth, what you need to know about whelping, what to look out for and how you can help the new mum.
Constantly keep track of the weight of the puppies in these first 2 weeks, they’ll be growing rapidly. Figure out the ideal weights of the puppies for their breed, and then gently handle them daily to check their weight is progressing healthily and that they all look like they’re doing well.
Also, it’s recommended to use a dewormer on the puppies at around 2 weeks of age to eliminate any possibilities of parasites harming the pups at such a young age. Puppies of this age have a much weaker immune system than adult dogs, so a parasite could cause serious damage.
Things are going to start ramping up from now and the puppies will start getting a little busy. Baby teeth will start to erupt, they’ll be trying to walk on their own four feet and their eyes will start to open.
Sight will still be pretty blurry, they’ll only really be able to recognise moving objects. This is where you can get start to get your own special bonding time in, the pups will start to recognise their humans as part of their family, along with their mother and littermates. Week 3 is a really important time for social bonding.
This is also where you can begin socialising the puppies, now being the time to start introducing the litter to a whole load of new sights and sounds that occur in normal day-to-day life.
They’ll become acclimatised to everything around them, so all these sights and sounds will start to be accepted by the puppies as typical things that occur in the household, so they shouldn’t fear them if they come across them later on in life.
Interestingly, one study found that letting your puppy watch TV can actually be good for them! You might be confused by this, but let us explain. So, puppies that are played videos between the ages of 3-5 weeks were reported to have a significantly less chance of experiencing neophobia (the fear of new things).
The puppies in the study that were exposed to things like TV and other forms of audio and visual stimuli were much more likely to approach new objects, sights and smells with no problems, whereas the puppies unexposed were more likely to develop an anxious, fearful response to new things over a curious response.
Constantly keep slowly introducing new things into their puppy pen, alongside new sounds, so the litter aren’t phased by too many new things all at once.
Although the pups will still need loads of attention from their mother, you can start to pick them up and cuddle with them individually more often than just their daily weigh ins, so they get used to that human bonding time away from their litter.
Again, keep continually allowing for one-on-one time with each puppy, allowing them out of their pen to see more of their environment, such as the garden, just make sure you’re always supervising them if they’re exploring.
This increase in time away from their mother and siblings allows for them to discover their own independence, helping to inhibit future separation issues and allowing the opportunity for the pups to bond with people, not just the other puppies.
As this is the time for constant socialisation, start to add even more things for the puppies to experiment with, like tunnels, obstacles, kongs, lickimats, tug toys and anything else you can think of really!
Around this age, the pups will be starting to develop their problem-solving abilities if given the chance, so obstacles, tunnels and kongs are really useful toys to introduce to get those tiny minds ticking and thinking about how to overcome challenges.
Also, this might be the stage where the pups start to wean off milk, with a slow introduction to more solid foods. Don’t go straight in with something too solid, just something more substantial than milk. Begin this introduction gradually until you make the full transition over to total solid food.
When the pups reach 5 weeks old, you might start thinking ‘where did those tiny little cuties go that didn’t do anything other than eat and sleep all day long?!’.
Chaos, carnage and curiosity are good ways to describe weeks 5 to 7, it’s a fundamental time for brain development, everything will be shaped by their environment. The pups will be inquisitive and willing to approach things and people with little fear, however, this is the time where their brains are malleable, so anything that encroaches fear on the puppies may shape how they perceive that for their entire life.
Basically, you want every experience the puppies encounter to be positive, as anything overwhelming, stressful or scary could have an impact forever due to how impressionable they are at this age.
Continue socialising your pups, ensuring everything is positive. Introduce them to loads of new people, give them loads of different toys and once they’re eating solid foods completely, try feeding them from different vessels. Plastic bowls, metal bowls, from your hand, communally, separate to each other and whatever else you can think of.
For example, if you communally feed the litter for the entire 8 weeks before they go into their new homes, some of the pups might be more prone to resource guarding behaviours. Essentially, if one puppy is a greedy guts, they might work out that they get more food if they can keep the other puppies away through aggressive behaviours, such as growling and snapping. If they’re successful, they’ll learn that aggression is the right way to go to get what they want. It’s best to chop and change between communal and separate feeding times.
Typically, week 8 is the final week that the pups have as one big litter, before they all go their separate ways into a new life with their new family.
As a breeder, you should microchip your puppy at this age, and some will give the puppies their first vaccination just before they go off into their new homes. Breeders must also send the pups away with a puppy pack.
What is a puppy pack and what should it include?
A puppy pack is essentially like a ‘goodie’ bag, filled with all sorts of things a new puppy owner will require. Realistically, the new puppy parent isn’t going to say no to any extra information and help, so the more detail you can provide in the pack the better. Even more so if you’re selling to a first-time puppy owner, they’ll be super grateful for all the tips and tricks you can give them.
What you put in this pack is up to you, but there’s a few things that are essential, such as:
- At least a weeks’ worth of the food they’ve been eating
- A puppy contract to protect both the buyer and seller and set out the terms of agreement
- If the puppies are pedigree, you’ll want to provide their pedigree certificate
- Certificates if they’re registered with an institution, like the Kennel Club or Working Dogs Club
- Health screening and DNA test certificates
- Record of the vaccinations if they’ve been given any
- Note of deworming products used and the dates they were given
- Any other medical-related things, vet visits, examinations
It’s also a good idea to provide some information on breed specific information, for example common health issues that the breed gets or even grooming tips if they’ve got quite a high-maintenance coat.
It’s not essential, but it’s also a nice idea to provide:
- Photos of both the mum and dad
- Photos of the litter during their 8 weeks after being born
- A toy or two, even better if it was their favourite
- A small bag of puppy treats
- A roll of poo bags
- A blanket or towel that smells of their mum or littermates to help stop separation problems
- A little note from you to say thank you and good luck
Now, even though this sort of thing isn’t necessary, it’s a nice touch that will make people feel reassured, happy and positive about their new journey when they leave with their latest family member.
Will there be any complications when raising a litter of puppies?
As with everything, there’s always the chance of encountering some issues. Even though everything should run completely smoothly, it’s always a good idea to have some awareness of what problems you might run into so you know what to do and expect.
‘Orphaned’ newborn pups
An orphaned litter of pups doesn’t necessarily mean that the mother has passed away, it often refers to the mother being unable to nurse, due to a physical problem such as a lack of milk production, or that she is sadly completely averse to nursing her puppies for behavioural reasons.
It’s quite common for the new mum to reject her litter if she is stressed, uncomfortable or injured.
This will be incredibly distressing for you, and whatever the reason is that the pups have been orphaned, you’ll need to take over. Ideally, you want the pups to get at least some of the colostrum (the first milk the mum produces) when they’re first born, as we know, this contains the most nutrients.
However, if the puppies don’t nurse instantly, see the vet immediately as they’ll be able to recommend how to bottle or tube feed the puppies yourself with a puppy milk formula. Your vet will show you how to feed the pups yourself, and they’ll need to be burped after feeding too. It really is like caring for a human baby!
Being a mother to a litter of pups takes more than just feeding them. As the acting parent, you’ll need to keep the pups warm, help with grooming and even help them with their toilet duties.
As mentioned earlier, using a heat lamp, alongside towels, blankets and bedding will help to control the temperatures of the pups without the heat from the mother if she has rejected them. The mum licks the pups to both groom and stimulate the pups to both urinate and defecate, which does probably sound pretty strange, we know!
Don’t worry though, you just need to use a fresh ball of cotton wool soaked in warm water and dab these areas to encourage the pups to go to the toilet. For grooming, use a clean, soft cloth and delicately stroke the back and sides of the pups.
Every breeder should be aware of the symptoms of mastitis. Mastitis is the inflammation or infection of the mammary glands (the glands within the breasts). This is not only painful for the mother, but it inhibits how easily the puppies can access milk.
It can be caused by some trauma to the teat, such as a scratch from puppy nails, a bacterial infection, a blocked milk duct or when too much milk accumulates in the teats.
Milk accumulation could happen due to sudden weaning or a sudden death of one of the pups, so the milk is being produced more than it’s being taken away. It not only can cause the mother to have extreme health problems, but it can cause significant issues for the pups as they aren’t getting all the nutrients they need, causing weight loss.
Look out for the mammary glands being swollen, sensitive to touch, discoloured (red, purple or even black), hot to touch and scabbed over. If your dog is suffering with mastitis, they’ll need to see a vet immediately and you’ll need to learn about handfeeding the pups.
As mentioned above, the puppies need to kept in a warm environment to prevent them from getting chilled. Low body temperature can cause many problems, impacting your dog’s already susceptible immunity.
It also affects their ability to digest food, putting a further toll on their bodies. If they do become too cold, you’ll need to try and warm them up gradually.
Watching your dog’s babies grow into strong, healthy dogs over the 8-week period is a rewarding, unforgettable experience that you and your pooch will go through together.
You might be sad to see the little pups go when they reach 8 weeks old, but enjoy the fact that you’ve raised them the best way and they’re going to love their new lives in their new homes.
- Exposure to video images between 3 and 5 weeks of age decreases neophobia in domestic dogs Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 126, (1-2), August 2010, 51-58, doi.org/10.1016/j.applanim.2010.05.006
- A model of puppy growth during the first 3 weeks Veterinary Medicine and Science, 6, (4), Nov 2020, 946-957, PMCID: PMC7738731