Pregnant dogs usually begin to lactate just prior to giving birth - anywhere from up to two weeks before, to the day of birth. For around seven weeks, she will continue to produce milk for her offspring. Here's what you need to know and how you can help.
Like any new breastfeeding mother, there are a few key things to consider to ensure lactation goes as smoothly as possible. This will ensure her babies are given the best start as they begin to acquaint themselves with the world.
But it's not all about the new puppies! A birthing mother has special needs of her own and will demonstrate various behaviours as a result of her experience.
Let's take a look at her needs and discover more about lactation in pregnant and birthing female dogs!
Stages of lactation
During the birthing process, known as whelping, the new mother will begin producing colostrum. This is a small amount of high quality milk full of nutrients and antibodies. Regular breast milk will flow once the colostrum has been consumed.
The production of colostrum is the same for mammal species, including humans, and provides the first line of defence and dose of goodness for newborn babies.
A new mother will continue feeding her pups for about seven weeks. Breast milk usually peaks in nutrient and antibody changes at around the third and fifth weeks. This explains the rapid growth and changes you see in puppies from birth to eight weeks when they have been weaned and are ready to find new homes.
As the pups begin growing their milk teeth, the mother will begin the weaning process.
Unless for medical reasons, or advised by your vet, substitute milk should never be given to newborn puppies. A mother's milk contains the most complete food form to give them the best start in life.
Specific needs of the mother
During lactation, but especially during the third to fifth weeks, mothers need a nutrient intake ranging from 3-6 times higher than normal doses. This is to ensure her pups receive the correct balance of nutrients and that she herself does not become deficient.
For example, calcium and phosphorus doses should be three times higher while protein will need to be six times normal values.
Various nutrients can be added to your dog's diet or you can choose to buy specially formulated food for birthing mothers. Your vet will be able to give you suitable recommendations.
Why does the mother regularly lick her young?
A birthing mother dog will instinctively and regularly lick her babies. Apart from cleaning and the importance of physical contact with her young, this behaviour is done for several reasons.
By licking them, the mother marks her puppies with her scent. This is important in teaching them about their primary carer. The mother will also lick her mammary glands (nipples) and her puppies interchangeably as a way of guiding them to her milk. Additionally, through licking, she will also help to encourage her sleeping pups to feed as and when she and her milk are ready.
The mother will also lick the genital and anal areas of her pups to stimulate and encourage her pups to relieve themselves and facilitate the removal of excrement.
Any new mother, human or animal, will experience exhaustion in the weeks following birth. As such, a birthing mother dog might struggle to keep an eye on all of her young. Lying down, it's possible for her to crush one of them.
You will need to be on alert to avoid any possible risks. To help, ensure your dog has a large enough space so that she is able to lie down with ample room and that it is also secure so her puppies can't wander off.
Has your dog ever given birth to a litter?