How to Keep a Newborn Puppy Alive

I’ve joined a few Facebook groups for pet owners, and every few days someone asks about the care of newborn pups.  Ideally, you should research this before you have a newborn puppy, and before you breed your female.  But some people come into it accidentally–either they adopted a dog from someone else who was pregnant, or they didn’t know their female was pregnant.

Many newborn puppies do die.  Even the most conscientious breeders lose newborns.  Newborn puppies die for a number of reasons: cold, heat, infection, failure to thrive, matricide, suffocation, disease.  Many, if not most, newborn deaths are preventable through simple supervision.

I wanted to talk about the basics of neonatal puppy care, not from a veterinarian’s perspective, but an overview of the very basic things you can do at home to keep your puppies alive and safe.

None of this article is a worthy substitute for proper veterinary advice.  I only intend to outline how to accomplish some of the things your veterinarian will advise you to do.

Temperature Control

Newborn puppies cannot control their own body temperature.  They require the heat of their siblings and mother to stay healthy.  A cold puppy cannot eat or digest food, and will eventually die.  Keep your puppies warm by checking off this list:

  • Whelping box size:  Do not allow your girl to have her litter just anywhere.  Provide her with a safe box, large enough for her to spread out in, but not so large that the pups cannot find her or their littermates.
  • Heating pad:  Heating pads provide a spot for the pups to get, and stay warm.  Check that they do not malfunction, and purchase a heating pad meant for animal breeding.  Human heating pads do not handle the amount of filth and cleaning necessary for puppies.  Make sure the puppies have room to get off the heating pad in case they get too warm.
  • Monitor the temperature of the pups multiple times daily and provide heat as necessary.  The puppies’ area should be between 85 and 90 degrees during the first week, and then lowered to 70 degrees over the next four weeks.  They will huddle together when cold, and spread apart when too warm.

Weight Gain

Newborn pups should gain weight well from their first day.  Weigh them twice or more daily until their eyes and ears open, and then daily after that until they are at least 6 weeks old and clearly thriving.  Do not compare them to each other, but to their previous weights.

  • Use a scale that can weigh in grams for toy breeds.
  • You will not be able to express milk from their mother for up to 48 hours after birth.  Weighing the pups will be the only way to evaluate if she is nursing them.
  • If mother refuses to nurse, contact the vet.  Nursing mothers often require calcium supplements and may refuse to nurse without.
  • Keep good records in a notebook or excel spreadsheet.
  • If they do not gain weight from one weighing to another in the first three weeks, call your veterinarian. After three weeks, if they do not gain over 24 hours, contact your veterinarian.
  • Monitor your female’s nipples daily.  If she has hard, hot, or inflamed nipples, she may have an infection.
  • Some new mothers are neglectful.  They may need to be forced to feed their puppies, or locked into the whelping box regularly.
  • If you do need to hand-feed your puppies, many long-time breeders recommend the Leerburg Puppy Formula method.  This formula was developed by a long-time breeder and has proven success for some very knowledgeable breeders.

Congenital Defects

  • Puppies can be born with cleft palates and cleft lips.  With a cleft, they cannot suck properly to nurse.  Check every puppy at birth.  If one puppy is not gaining while the rest thrive, talk to the vet or an experienced breeder.
  • Exposure to chemicals during pregnancy may cause terrible congenital defects, such as failure of the abdomen to close or missing organs.  If your dog has been exposed to lawn chemicals during pregnancy, talk to your vet before she gives birth about this risk.  These defects are heartbreaking and emotionally difficult for the humans involved.
  • Some defects allow pups to live hours or days beyond birth, but eventually die.  Accept this as a cost of breeding.

Suffocation

  • Place a “pig rail” in the whelping box.  This allows puppies against the wall a space that their mother cannot crush them.  With large litters, sometimes the mom lays down where she can, and a pup is accidentally suffocated against the wall of her box.
  • While many use towels or sheets in the whelping box during the actual whelping, avoid using loose pieces of cloth in the box once whelping is over.  Pups can become wrapped or tangled and suffocate.  Use paper or pieces of heavy material cut to fit the box.

Matricide

While rare, matricide (murder by the mother) does occur.

  • Bitches lose a lot of calcium in the process of growing, whelping, and nursing the puppies, and one side-effect of this is aggression toward the pups.  A bitch with newborns that growls at or attacks her babies may require calcium supplementation.  Remove the puppies to a warm box, and call the vet, even if she is still laboring.  Ideally you discussed this before she went into labor and you have the calcium on hand.
  • They also will kill their pups under excessive stress.  If your female was left to give birth in a kennel run, with other dogs around her, especially intact male dogs, she may kill them out of anxiety over protecting them.  Do not allow your female to whelp her litter in the presence of other dogs if at all possible.  Provide her with a safe and quiet den.

Disease

  • Puppies can contract diseases brought onto your property.  When you have small ones, leave your shoes outside and change your clothes before checking on them.
  • Do not take other dogs from the household out if possible.  They may bring back minor diseases that will kill the puppies.  Even kennel cough is dangerous for little ones.
  • Do not allow visitors until the pups are 6 to 8 weeks old.  Visitors bring germs from everywhere.
  • Follow your vet’s de-worming schedule.  Worms take a huge toll on pups, and can kill them or cause them slower growth.

Talk to your vet.

If you have a bitch with small puppies or who is pregnant, and aren’t aware of all these points, talk to your vet.  You must be prepared for the most common whelping issues.  You also must find a good emergency vet, whether your own or another clinic, as issues never arise during business hours.

Need More Help?

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Have you had a litter of pups and experienced any of these issues?  How did they turn out, and what will you do in the future to prevent them?

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