Here are some helpful tips from our partners in pet
nutrition - Eukanuba on caring for your lactating
For eons, mother's milk has proven to be the best food for
newborns. Studies in several species have documented the mechanisms
that keep milk high in nutritional value regardless of the
condition of the dam. These studies verify that a lactating bitch
will produce a sufficient quantity of nutritious milk to support
her puppies even if her condition deteriorates. For conscientious
dog breeders, the challenge is to provide nutrition for the dam
that will allow her to not only feed her puppies, but also to
maintain her own condition.
It is normal for a bitch to lose some bodyweight during
lactation but, ideally, the amount lost should not exceed 10% of
her original weight. It is much easier to attain this goal if the
bitch is in good condition prior to whelping which usually reflects
the fact that she was in good condition at mating.
Excellent nutrition, though crucial, is not the only step that
breeders can take to insure a healthy dam after her puppies are
whelped. Clean, dry facilities are important. Daily exercise and
fresh air can make the nursing process more pleasant for the dam,
too. Daily examination of the dog's mammary glands allows early
detection of infection in the breasts allowing prompt
Of course, a plentiful supply of clean water is very important
to the well-being of the dam. Water consumed by the bitch is
important to the puppies as well because water turnover is very
high in the newborn puppy.5This function of nursing is often
overlooked by breeders. A consistent fluid intake by the puppy is
required to maintain blood volume and this hydration function of
milk is as important as the nutritional role.
Dog milk changes over the nursing period
One of the fascinating features of the nursing process is the
ability of milk to change over the lactation. For example, the
energy content of dog milk increases steadily for the first 40 days
of nursing then decreases by day 50, coinciding with the puppies'
ability to eat solid food. This allows an early start on shrinkage
of mammary tissue to help the bitch end her milk production. Fat
content in the milk varies over the lactation period as well. Early
in lactation, the fat level is about 2.4%. By the middle of the
nursing period, the fat level increases to about 5% then decreases
to about 2.6% near weaning. Calcium is high in milk during the
entire nursing period but continues to increase as weaning nears.
Magnesium, iron, and zinc all vary over the lactation stage.
It is important to note that the dam's nutritional level must be
very high in order to allow this normal variation of nutrients and
to provide optimal nutrition for the puppies. A specific example is
the so-called "toxic milk" syndrome, which can affect puppies
between 3 and 14 days of age. This condition may be caused by
uterine infection and/or mammary infection, but some cases respond
to zinc supplements suggesting that the disorder may be due, in
part, to inadequate zinc intake. This example illustrates the
necessity of a high nutritional plane to supply the various
nutrients required by the nursing bitch.
Failure to consume colostrum during the critical period when the
intestine is open to intact protein absorption seriously
compromises the immune status of the neonatal puppy. This occurs
either through the bitch's inability to produce colostrum or the
puppies' inability to nurse properly. Suitable corrective action
requires the manual collection of colostrum from another bitch or a
frozen source, then provision to the puppy via stomach tube.
Although much less desirable, colostrum from another species
(eg, bovine) may be used. The antibodies provided by cattle
colostrum may not be protective for the puppy, but other
nonspecific defenses may be utilized (lysosyme, lactoferrin, and
oligosaccharides). These nutrients protect the puppy against
bacteria by destroying the pathogen or protecting the puppies
intestine against bacterial toxins.
Milk intake of puppies
Most dog breeders are unaware of the large quantity of milk
produced by lactating bitches. For example, milk intake of Beagle
puppies is about 5.5 ounces per day each. With an average litter of
pups, a Beagle bitch will need to produce about one quart of milk
per day! Larger breeds will be required to produce substantially
more milk each day. Milk production decreases as puppies begin
eating solid food, but milk alone can support normal growth in
puppies up to four weeks of age. Regardless, the large amounts of
healthy milk required by most litters necessitates a very high
level of nutrition for a successful nursing process. This fact,
plus the reality that puppies are totally dependent on their
mother's milk for nutrition and hydration, makes the production of
large quantities of high-quality milk even more poignant.
Feeding the bitch during lactation
Milk production is an energy-consuming process and the energy
level in the bitch's food is very important to the lactation
process. It is recommended that, soon after whelping, the level of
metabolizable energy (ME) intake by the bitch be increased to 200%
of the maintenance amount normally utilized. In other words, the
bitch must eat twice the food she ate before she was bred. The
intake level of ME should be increased to 300% of the maintenance
level during the peak lactation period 3-4 weeks post-whelping.
Many bitches cannot consume enough calories to insure adequate
milk production and the maintenance of her body condition in one or
two meals per day. Total food quantity should be divided into four
or more servings per day to make the total ME more available to the
female. In addition, dog foods with minimum levels of 430
kilocalories ME/cup should be utilized to insure energy density and
adequate calories in small quantities of food.
Often, the easiest method of providing this large number of
calories plus the high digestibility required of the lactating
bitch is to offer a "performance" type dog food. Designed for hard
working dogs, these foods have very high energy levels in a dense,
highly-digestible matrix. The best choice uses fat as the primary
energy source. Since fat has over twice the calories per gram as
carbohydrates, this allows the nursing mother to get large
quantities of energy in a few bites of food. These "performance"
foods also have a balanced formula that will supply the nutrients
needed as the bitch's milk changes over the nursing period. Note
that the best way to compare foods is based on this "percentage of
calories method." Dogs eat to get calories so the most accurate
measurement is via a percentage of the calories in a food.
When a highly-digestible, performance food is fed to a nursing
bitch, no supplements will be required. Overall, this is the
simplest, least expensive method of feeding the lactating bitch and
provides optimal nutrition for the dam.
1.Lonnerdal B. Lactation and neonatal nutrition in the dog and
cat, in Proceedings. Canine Reproductive Health, North American
Veterinary Conference, 1997; 13-15.
2.Moser JE. The puppy from birth to six weeks. Vet Clin North Am
Small Anim Pract 1978; 8:79-100.
3.Oftedal O. Lactation in the dog: Milk composition and intake by
puppies. J Nutr 1984; 114:803-812.
4.Moser D. Feeding to optimize canine reproductive efficiency.
Probl Vet Med 1992; 4:454-550.
5.Lepine AJ. Nutritional considerations affecting canine
reproduction, in Proceedings. Canine Reproductive Health, North
American Veterinary Conference, 1997; 23-27.