Feeding the Nursing Dog

By Malcolm Weir, DVM, MSc, MPH; Robin Downing, DVM, DAAPM, DACVSMR, CVPP

My dog is pregnant and is getting ready to deliver her puppies. I have heard that nursing her puppies will be even more energy-intense than pregnancy. Is this true?

It is correct that during nursing (lactation), a dog needs the greatest amount of energy calories of any life stage. Optimal nutrition for a dog having puppies is essential to support:

  1. Conception and a successful pregnancy
  2. Optimizing the number of puppies per litter
  3. Providing the bitch with her best ability to deliver her puppies
  4. Thriving puppies both before and after birth

The various stages of reproduction – heat (estrus), pregnancy, lactation (nursing), and weaning – provide unique stresses to the body. Each has specific nutritional concerns that should be addressed to maximize both mother and puppy health.

Dogs are pregnant for 63 days, plus or minus two days. The pregnancy is divided into trimesters, and a healthy, well-fed dog will gain about 15 to 20% beyond her weight at breeding.

"Meal feeding is the best way to control body condition and weight gain during pregnancy."

Overfeeding can result in obesity at the end of pregnancy, increasing the risk for difficult or prolonged labor and extra stresses on the puppies. Meal feeding is the best way to control body condition and weight gain during pregnancy. A high-quality puppy formulation designed for high digestibility is generally recommended during the third trimester, and multiple small meals may be the best way to make sure the mother can eat enough calories and nutrients.

The mother’s energy requirements increase after delivery and during lactation. At her highest energy need, three to five weeks after whelping (giving birth), she may require 2-4 times the energy calories of a normal healthy adult. The mother’s energy requirement will decrease and return to normal by about eight weeks post-delivery, around the time the puppies are completely weaned. Once the puppies are born, the mother can increase her food intake, but the energy density of the food must be high enough or she will not be physically able to consume enough to sustain milk production, weight, and body condition. Periodic assessments of her body condition provide opportunities to fine-tune feedings. Just like the third trimester of pregnancy, feeding during lactation is best accomplished using a highly digestible, high-quality puppy formulation.

"Periodic assessments of her body condition provide opportunities to fine-tune feedings."

Free-choice feeding during the first three to four weeks of lactation, unless she only has one or two puppies, provides many advantages. The mother can eat on her own schedule, she can consume smaller amounts of food each time she eats, and the puppies can begin sampling solid food as soon as they are able (at about three weeks of age).

Do I need to change how I feed my dog as she weans her puppies?

Restricting food to the mother before and during weaning can help her taper off her milk production and make the transition more comfortable. On day one of weaning, withhold her food, allowing the puppies to eat their food while they are away from their mother. They can all be together that night, and the pups will suckle a bit. On day two of weaning, separate the pups from the mother and feed her about 25% of her pre-breeding portion of her regular food, instead of the puppy formulation. Over four or five days, increase to the full pre-breeding portion. The puppies should not be allowed access to nurse during this time as that will delay drying up milk production. With a bit of planning and input from your veterinarian, you can create a nutritionally sound plan for pregnancy and lactation, setting the stage for both a healthy dog and healthy puppies.

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