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While few things are more delightful than a litter of newborn puppies, the prospect of caring for all of these brand new little lives can be daunting. But don't worry. Check out this guide to newborn puppy care to tell you what you need to know to raise a healthy, happy litter.
1. A Clean Environment
Newborn puppies will spend their first few weeks in the box or pen in which they were born, so it's important to choose wisely when preparing for their arrival. The space should offer enough room for the mother to lie down and stretch out comfortably without crushing the puppies, and she should be able to come and go freely while keeping the puppies contained. It should also be easy to access so that you can change out the bedding each day.
In these early days, mum will clean up her pups' waste, but if it's a large litter she may need help keeping up. Around the end of the second week or the beginning of the third week, the puppies will open their eyes and become more active. Once they start to toddle about, you can move them to a larger pen with room to play, and bathroom cleanup will require more of your attention.
According to the Kennel Club, puppies are unable to regulate their own body temperature until they’re three to four weeks old, so they may need a little help. Although the puppies will snuggle up with their mum and each other for warmth, it's best to use a heat lamp or heating pads during their first month of life.
A heat lamp should be placed high enough above the box to prevent any risk of burning the mother or her pups, and there should also be a cooler area that the pups can crawl to if they get too warm. Initially, the Kennel Club recommends keeping the temperature in the box at 29°C to 32°C. Lower the temperature gradually each week until the box is eventually at room temperature.
3. Nursing and Nutrition
During their first few weeks, puppies rely exclusively on their mother for their nutritional needs. Although she may be less active during this time, nursing uses up a lot of the mother's energy and her daily caloric requirements will be higher than normal, says the Kennel Club. To ensure both mother and puppies receive adequate nutrition throughout the nursing stage, the mother should be fed several servings of a quality puppy food throughout the day. Your veterinarian can recommend the type and amount of food to feed your nursing mother.
It's important to monitor the puppies' weight during this time. If you notice any of the puppies being underfed, you may need to keep an eye on them when it's time to nurse and make sure the smaller puppies latch onto the fullest nipples for feeding. Puppies who cry or whimper frequently may also be hungry and need more attention during feeding.
If the smaller puppies still don't show signs of healthy growth or weight gain, talk to your vet. It might be necessary to take over and bottle-feed them. The PDSA says it’s also important to watch the mother for signs of mastitis, an infection of the mammary glands that can interfere with milk production. Signs of mastitis include red and swollen nipples and reluctance to nurse. The mother may even snap at the puppies when they try to eat. If you notice these signs, contact your vet right away.
By the fourth or fifth week, the puppies will start getting their teeth and the weaning process will begin as the mother's milk production slows. Once you notice the puppies starting to sample mum’s food, it's time to provide them with their own dish of puppy food. To start with you may want to soak the kibbles in a little warm water first to soften them for those new, little teeth.
Young puppies are susceptible to disease and infection, so you'll need to keep a close eye on them. Newborn puppy care should include regular inspections to watch for signs of infection or poor health. Report anything unusual such as vomiting, diarrhoea, or a puppy who won't stand or eat to your vet.
Little puppies are also especially vulnerable to fleas and other parasites, says Blue Cross, so talk to your vet about appropriate parasite control. Although antibodies they receive from nursing will help protect them from illness in the early weeks, these antibodies wear off around six to eight weeks, which is when they will need to receive their first round of vaccinations. Make sure you, and all family members and visitors thoroughly wash your hands before interacting with these puppies to help reduce the risk of getting them sick from harmfulany bacteria that might be lying in wait on your hands. It’s also a good idea to impose a no shoes policy in the house or at the least clean/covered shoes only in order to help stop any harmful bacteria or viruses from being brought in from the outside.
By the fourth week, the puppies are ready to begin socialising with humans and other dogs. Weeks four to twelve are a critical window during which puppies need to learn about the world they'll inhabit so they become well-adjusted, happy dogs, says the PDSA. Poorly socialised puppies tend to grow into anxious dogs who may have behavioural problems. So whether you plan to keep the puppies or send them to good homes, it's important to cuddle and play with them, allow them to explore and play, and expose them to as many new experiences as possible.
Newborn puppy care entails a lot of work, but these first several weeks go by in a flash. If your puppies end up being adopted, you'll be saying goodbye to them in no time, an event that is often bittersweet. Enjoy the pups while you have them, and when it's time to let go, you'll have the satisfaction of knowing you gave them the best possible start.
Jean Marie Bauhaus
Jean Marie Bauhaus is a pet parent, pet blogger and novelist from Tulsa, Oklahoma, where she usually writes under the supervision of a lapful of furbabies.
Reviewed by Dr. Hein Meyer, DVM, PhD, Dipl-ECVIM-CA