Caring for Orphaned Puppies

By Malcolm Weir, DVM, MSc, MPH; Krista Williams, BSc, DVM; Ernest Ward, DVM

Raising an orphaned puppy is a noble and satisfying experience. However, orphaned puppies are very fragile, and raising them can be challenging. Do not be disappointed if you are unsuccessful with some or all the puppies. The fact that you are trying to help is often reward enough.

What problems are common when raising puppies?

Several critical issues must be addressed in the care of orphaned puppies. Among these are hypothermia (low body temperature), dehydration (loss of body fluids), and hypoglycemia (low blood sugar). These problems are interrelated and often occur at the same time in one or more puppies.

If any of these problems develop, your awareness and prompt attention are essential to the puppies' survival. Of course, proper feeding of the orphaned puppy is also extremely important.

Why is hypothermia a problem?

Hypothermia or chilling in young puppies can lead to death. A puppy loses far more heat per pound of body weight than an adult dog. Provide a warm and secure area for the pups to live, such as a cardboard box with high sides (to prevent the pups from crawling out), lined with a flattened disposable diaper.

A newborn puppy cannot control its body temperature and depends on radiant heat from its mother's body to help maintain its body temperature. In the absence of the mother, you can use various methods to provide external heat, such as incubators, heat lamps, or hot water bottles.

Rectal temperatures in a normal newborn puppy range from 95°F to 99°F (35°C to 37.2°C) for the first week, 97°F to 100°F (36.1°C to 37.8°C) for the second and third weeks, and 100°F to 102°F (37.8°C to 38.9°C) by the fourth week - the normal, healthy temperature of an adult dog.

A temperature below 94°F (34.3°C) can be life-threatening. Immediate action is necessary to provide the warmth the puppy needs to survive. A healthy newborn can usually survive hypothermia if re-warmed slowly. Survival is based on how long the puppy was hypothermic and the health of the puppy prior to experiencing hypothermia.

During the first four days of a puppy's life, they should be maintained in an environmental temperature of 85°F to 90F (29.4°C to 32.2°C). The temperature can gradually be decreased to 80°F (26.7°C) by the seventh to tenth day and to 72°F (22.2°C) by the end of the fourth week. If the litter is large, the room or environmental temperature need not be as high. As puppies huddle together, their body heat provides additional warmth.

Caution: Rapidly re-warming a puppy with a low body temperature may result in serious complications or even death. Gradually warm a hypothermic puppy over 30 to 60 minutes.

How does dehydration occur?

Irregular or inadequate liquid intake, or the exposure of the puppy to a low humidity environment, can quickly result in dehydration. Two common signs of dehydration are

  • Loss of skin elasticity. When you pull or raise the skin, it will fail to return to its normal position (it doesn't "snap back” into place).
  • Dry and sticky mucous membranes (gums) in the mouth. The gums will feel “tacky” or clammy. This is the best measure of dehydration in puppies.

An environmental relative humidity of 55-65% is adequate to prevent drying of the skin in a normal newborn puppy. However, a relative humidity of 85-90% is more effective if the puppies are small and weak. Place a warm, wet washcloth in the puppies' box to help maintain a high humidity. Be sure to remove the wet cloth once it cools, since a wet cloth can cause up to 25% more heat loss than air. A humidifier is also an excellent tool to maintain proper humidity for the puppies.

Caution: The environmental or external temperature should not exceed 90°F (32.2°C) when high humidity is provided. A temperature of 95°F (35.0°C) coupled with a relative humidity of 95% can lead to breathing difficulties.

What are the symptoms of hypoglycemia?

Signs of hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) include severe depression, lethargy, “sleepiness” or inactivity, muscle twitching, seizures, and convulsions. If a puppy shows signs of hypoglycemia, you must administer a solution containing glucose. A few drops of corn syrup on the tongue can save a hypoglycemic puppy.

What do I feed my orphaned puppy?

If a foster dog cannot be located, total nutrition for the newborn orphans must be supplied by a canine milk replacer (such as Esbilac®) until the puppies are about three weeks of age. At this age, the puppies are ready to start nibbling moistened, solid food. Cow’s and goat’s milk are both inadequate sources of nutrition, and are especially deficient in protein and fat.

Preferred diets:

1. Commercial puppy milk replacer: Your veterinarian will give you recommendations based on readily available products. Canine milk replacer is the preferred method for feeding orphaned puppies. The milk replacer should contain optimal levels of DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), an omega-3 fatty acid that is important for the development of the puppies' brains and eyes.

2. Short-term emergency food: This diet is deficient in essential nutrients and is harmful when used long-term, but for short-term emergencies, combine and blend these ingredients uniformly:

  • 1 cup of milk
  • 1 tablespoon corn/canola oil
  • A pinch of salt
  • Pasteurized egg yolks (no whites)

Is the temperature of the milk replacer important?

Since the newborn may have trouble generating enough heat to maintain its body temperature, the milk replacer should be warmed to 95°F-100°F (35°C-37.8°C) for best results. Test the milk replacer's temperature on your forearm (as you would for a human baby) before feeding. The milk replacer should be about the same temperature as your skin or only slightly warmer. As the puppies grow older (four weeks and older), the milk replacer can be fed at room temperature.

How do I feed my puppy?

Spoon feeding is slow and requires great patience. Each spoonful must be slowly and carefully poured into the puppy's mouth to prevent any liquid from entering the lungs. The puppy's head must not be elevated or the lungs may fill with fluids. Newborn puppies usually do not have a well-developed gag reflex to signal that they are choking or aspirating (inhaling) fluids into the lungs.

Dropper feeding accomplishes the same result as spoon feeding, but is somewhat cleaner, generally faster, and more accurate than a spoon.

Nursing bottles made for puppies are the best choice and can be used successfully in most situations. The size of the hole in the nipple is critical for success. The hole is the proper size when the bottle is turned upside down and milk replacer drips from the nipple with minimal squeezing. If you are having trouble enlarging the hole, heat a needle with a match and push it through the same hole in the nipple several times.

  • If you turn the bottle upside down and milk replacer drips freely from the nipple, the hole is too large. Using this nipple may cause the puppy to choke or aspirate fluid into the lungs. 
  • If you turn the bottle upside down and milk replacer comes out only after significant squeezing of the bottle, the hole is too small. Using this nipple will result in the puppy becoming discouraged and refusing to nurse. 

Tube or gavage feeding is the easiest, cleanest, and most efficient method of hand feeding very young puppies. However, it requires proper equipment, training, and technique to prevent putting milk replacer into the puppy's lungs. If food gets into a newborn puppy's lungs, aspiration pneumonia or death usually results. This is not a difficult procedure, so do not hesitate to ask your veterinarian about it.

When and how much do I feed the puppies?

Commercial milk replacers have directions on their labels for how much and how frequently to feed. It is necessary to weigh the puppies accurately. The amounts on the labels are based on the puppy being fed only the milk replacer. Read the label carefully to determine whether the recommended amount is for daily feeding or per meal. Six or more feedings may be necessary if the puppy is small or weak (approximately every four hours). Hand feeding can generally be ended by the third week and almost always by the fourth week. By this time, the puppy can consume food, free choice, from a dish (see below).

How do I get the puppy to urinate and defecate?

The puppy's genital area must be stimulated after feeding to cause urination and defecation. The genital area should be gently massaged with a moist cloth or cotton ball to stimulate action. This cleaning should continue during the first two weeks of life. If this procedure is not followed, the puppy may become constipated or develop a ruptured bladder. Normal puppy stool should be soft, but not watery.

When does the puppy start to eat from a bowl?

By three weeks, the puppy can start to eat food from a dish, along with the milk replacer. You can make a gruel by thoroughly mixing puppy food (canned or dry) with milk replacer to reach the consistency of a thick milkshake. The mixture should not be too thick, or the puppy will not eat very much. As the consumption of food increases, the amount of milk replacer can be gradually decreased. You may carefully place the puppy's nose in the gruel to create interest in the food.

Most puppies will gladly take to the mixture. You should warm the food slightly for best results and to enhance palatability. By four to four and a half weeks, the orphaned puppy can consume enough moistened solid food to meet its nutritional needs.

It is best to avoid starting a puppy on a human baby food regimen. This creates extra work and can also create a finicky eater. Baby food will not meet the nutritional needs of a growing puppy, which are different from a growing human baby.

When should my puppy be dewormed?

Puppies are routinely treated for worms starting at two weeks of age, and this should continue every 2 weeks until they are started on a monthly preventative medication. Fecal exams are important to identify parasites not treated by standard dewormers. The orphaned puppy requires frequent and regular veterinary visits to monitor its weight and provide all necessary medical care.

When is the first vaccination given?

The first vaccination is normally given to puppies at six to eight weeks of age. However, if your puppy did not nurse from its mother during the first day after birth, there will be no protective immunity passed to it. Protection from the mother occurs during the first few hours after birth in the first milk known as colostrum. If that is the case, the first vaccination should be given at an earlier age. Your veterinarian will advise you about the appropriate timing. Puppies that have not been able to nurse during their first day of life may benefit from receiving serum (liquid content of blood) from another vaccinated dog. This can be given orally if the puppy is less than 24 hours old or can be given by injections under their skin.

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