Fri, 03/15/2024 - 6:26am

Milking It

What to do when dams have difficulty nursing

Why isn’t my dog producing milk for her puppies?


Whelping a litter of puppies is always stressful, but it is even more nerve-wracking when the mother’s milk is slow to come in and the puppies are hungry. Hand-raising puppies is a serious commitment, as the babies need to eat every couple of hours. The medical term for no milk production is agalactia, and there are several reasons that a bitch will not produce milk.

The most common situation is a very small litter or tiny puppies. Most bitches produce milk “on demand,” and the lack of stimulation by a singleton or weak puppies can result in the bitch not producing milk.

If the bitch is in poor body condition, not receiving proper nutrition, carrying a heavy parasite burden of worms, or dehydrated, her body will not be able to produce enough milk for the puppies. An infection in the mammary glands (mastitis) or uterus (metritis) can also interfere with milk production.


What should I do if my dog has no milk?


Most pregnant bitches in good body weight will have a little milk even before the puppies are born. By the time they are whelping, their body should produce oxytocin, which is a maternal hormone that stimulates contractions of the uterus as well as milk production.

If the milk is slow to come in, the first thing to do is ensure that the bitch has access to plenty of fresh water. Some mothers can be picky about the temperature of the water, so you may have to offer warm, lukewarm or cold water, and, in some cases, ice cubes. Take the time to see what she prefers.

If she is not drinking, try offering a bowl of warm chicken or beef broth. It’s a good idea to have some on hand before the puppies arrive. The extra nutrients will help and the salt will tend to make her thirsty.

You may need to have your bitch examined by a veterinarian to check for any infection of the mammary glands or uterus. The veterinarian may also administer injections of oxytocin or calcium to help bring the milk in.

Having the puppies nurse should stimulate the bitch to produce milk. You can put the puppies up to the nipples and let them try to nurse. The first milk produced by a bitch is called colostrum. It is more yellowish and stickier than normal milk. Colostrum contains antibodies that the bitch has developed and it is important that these be passed to the puppies. Even just a few drops to each puppy makes a big difference to their developing immune system.

If the bitch has no colostrum, there are some commercial colostrum replacements that can be ordered. Dairy farmers save and freeze colostrum to give to newborn calves, but it is usually not available to dog breeders. Most colostrum replacements are based on cattle formulas. It is best to look for a canine one.

Plasma is the part of whole blood that remains when the red blood cells are removed. It can be given to puppies as an immune system booster, especially if the puppies have not had colostrum. The plasma is administered orally or injected into the abdomen by your veterinarian.

Fresh-frozen plasma can be purchased to have on hand for litters. It comes in 10- to 12-milliliter plastic tubes. The recommended dosage is several drops at a time every three hours up to 3 to 5 milliliters per pound per day.

Prolactin is a polypeptide hormone produced by the pituitary gland that is essential for mammary-gland development and milk production. Metoclopramide (Reglan) is a drug commonly prescribed for treating nausea and vomiting, but can be given to induce milk let-down. An injection of metoclopramide is given and the puppies are removed from the mother for 30 minutes post-injection. The puppies are then put back with the mother and encouraged to suckle by gently “milking” the mammary glands. There is usually a response to the medication within 24 hours.

Herbal products can be helpful when a bitch is not lactating or producing enough milk. Fenugreek, milk thistle, motherwort and chaste-tree fruit are herbal products that have been used to boost milk production.


How do I know if my dog is producing enough milk for her puppies?


For the first seven days, newborn puppies should nurse once about every two hours. While puppies will lose a little weight in their first 24 hours of life, they should be gaining steadily after that. A good rule is they will double in weight every week.

If the puppies are constantly crying, it may be a sign that they are hungry. Puppies need to be warm, fed and stimulated to urinate and defecate. Even mothers that don’t have milk will clean their puppies so they are comfortable.

You can try placing the puppies on the hind teats. These are usually the largest teats with the best milk supply. If the puppies do not have a strong sucking reflex, you may need to supplement with tube or bottle feedings.


Which is better — tube-feeding or bottle-feeding?


I feel strongly that tube-feeding is an important skill for breeders to learn. It can be the difference between saving and losing puppies. Tube-feeding is quicker than bottle-feeding and you know exactly how much formula each puppy is getting. When puppies are too weak to nurse, they will have a hard time with the bottle as well.

Once you get over the fear of tube-feeding, it is actually quite simple and safe to do. Use a red rubber catheter of the appropriate size for the puppies, usually a #5. Measure on the catheter from the tip of the puppy’s nose to the end of the ribcage, and mark the catheter with a piece of tape. Attach the syringe containing the formula and lubricate the catheter by pushing out a little formula. Open the puppy’s mouth and slowly advance the tube down the left side of the puppy’s throat. You will see them swallow. Push a few drops of formula and watch. If all is well, give the rest of the feeding slowly in a continuous motion.

The recommended amount for each puppy is 1 milliliter of formula per ounce plus one. For example, a five-ounce puppy would receive 6 mls. Puppies need to be weighed and then fed every three hours.

Bottle feeding is the other method for feeding puppies when the momma dog has little or no milk. There are many different types of nipples and bottles. It might take some experimenting to see which the puppies like best.

If the formula is too thick to come out of the nipple easily, you can make the hole a little larger with a hot needle. However, the milk-substitute should not be so thin that it pours out without the puppy nursing. There is the risk of the puppy aspirating and drowning. After bottle-feeding, the puppies should be gently patted to help them burp and expel any excess gas.

Bottle-feeding has the same schedule as tube-feeding, which is every three hours. This can be very time consuming with a large litter. If the mother is not cleaning the puppies, you will need to rub their perianal areas with a moistened a warm cloth to stimulate urination and defecation.


What should I feed the puppies?


I have always used goat’s milk and/or Esbilac milk replacement when raising puppies. The goat’s milk has a nice fat content and is well tolerated by the little ones. It comes in fresh, canned and powdered forms. Esbilac is convenient to have on hand and is a good addition to goat’s milk. It is sold in canned and powdered forms.

A breeder-friend recently shared her formula recipe with me and it’s a game changer for either tube- or bottle-feeding. The puppies I was raising responded beautifully. They plumped up so quickly that I started mixing up the recipe for an older puppy that was recovering from a serious illness. It is like “Miracle-Gro” for puppies.

Here is the recipe:

1 cup goat’s milk

2 egg yolks (separated from the white)

1/2 cup plain yogurt

1-2 tablespoons Karo syrup

Add a portion of liquid puppy (or human baby) vitamins

Whisk together and store in the refrigerator. When kept cool, the mixture stays good for five to seven days.


Hopefully, the bitch’s milk will come in eventually. Even if she is not able to feed the puppies, try to let her stay involved in the process by keeping the puppies clean and providing warmth.


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