Care and feeding a lactating bitch

Here are some helpful tips from our partners in pet nutrition - Eukanuba on caring for your lactating bitch.

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 treatment.

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.


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