Caring for newborn puppies

Puppies with identification collars sat drinking milk from mum

After birth, it’s essential that newborn puppies feed and are kept warm. Although their mother does most of the hard work, there are several things that you can do to support her and her brand-new litter of puppies. Raising puppies can be a lot of fun, and very rewarding, but it’s also hard work. It’s important to know how to keep the puppies warm, whether they’re feeding enough and signs to watch out for should they need a bit of extra help.

Straight after birth

Puppies are often born in their amniotic sac (this is a membrane that puppies lie in when they’re in the womb). Most mothers remove this by licking their puppies, breaking open the sac and cleaning it off. Some inexperienced mothers may not know what to do and will need some help. If a puppy is left in its amniotic sac, use a fingertip to break and remove the membrane. Once you’ve done this, it’s important to make sure that the puppy’s mouth is clear and that they can breathe.

Although puppies are born with their eyes closed, they will often work their way toward their mum, being drawn to her smell and warmth. In the early stages of life, a puppy’s mother should be able to provide all of the things that they need, e.g., milk and warmth. If they have these, your puppies should be content and will spend most of their time feeding and sleeping, which is vital for healthy development.

Is it ok to touch newborn puppies?

The first few days of a puppy’s life help them to bond with their mother and are important for their physical development. It’s OK to pick up puppies to check them, weigh them or clean out the whelping box, but try to limit how much you handle them. Puppies are susceptible to disease and the cold, so handling them too much could put them at risk or may even be stressful for them and their mother. Although you may want to give them a cuddle, you’ll get your chance once they’re a bit older. Handling them as they become older and more active is an essential part of their socialisation

Checking your puppies

When they’re first born, check the puppies over and make sure that their ears, eyes, mouth, tail and limbs are all ok. If you spot anything that’s concerning, such as signs of a cleft palate that could affect their feeding, then speak to your vet.

Once they’re born and are feeding, check on them regularly to make sure they seem happy. If any of them seem cold or are crying, try placing them back on one of the mother’s teats. Try to handle newborn puppies as little as possible, but when you do, a sign that they’re healthy is that they wriggle enthusiastically (unless they’re asleep!).

Weighing your puppies

As soon as your puppies are born, try to spot any unique marks that help you identify each individual puppy. It’s important to record each puppy’s birth weight so that you can monitor their progress. Make sure you weigh each puppy 12 and 24 hours after birth to check that they’re gaining weight. It’s a good idea to continue to record these measurements at roughly the same time every day for two to three weeks. Each puppy should steadily be gaining weight each day but contact your vet if they’re not or if they seem weak. How much weight your puppies gain in the first few days depends on their breed. Each puppy should gain roughly two to four grams a day for every kilogram of a grown adult dog of that breed. By around day 10, they should have roughly doubled their birth weight.

Puppy emergencies – when to call the vet

You should contact your vet for advice if you notice any of the following:

  • A puppy that is not feeding regularly
  • A puppy that seems weak
  • A puppy that is not consistently gaining weight
  • A puppy that seems restless and cries, even though it seems to be feeding OK

Puppies are very sensitive and delicate and can quickly deteriorate, so don’t delay in contacting your vet for advice.

How long can you leave newborn puppies unattended?

After birth, you should check on your puppies every couple of hours to make sure that their mum is looking after them, that they’re feeding and are warm. You should also check that there are no puppies trapped under their mother, as this could suffocate them.

How to keep newborn puppies warm

When puppies are first born, it’s important to keep them warm until they’re able to regulate their own body temperature, which is at around 3 to 4 weeks. Puppies may snuggle up to their mum to keep warm, but it’s a good idea to also have an extra heat source, especially if she needs to pop out to go to the toilet. You could use heat lamps, heating pads (electric or water-filled ones) or microwavable heat pads.

Whatever you choose, make sure that the heat source:

  • Is put somewhere that allows the puppies to move away if they get too hot
  • Doesn’t stop mum from getting up or moving around the whelping box
  • Doesn’t have wires or other parts that can be chewed by the puppies
  • Is ideally in the centre of the box to encourage the puppies to move away from the edges of the box where their mum can lie down on them and squash them against the sides

What temperature is too hot for newborn puppies?

When your puppies are born, it’s important that, initially, the whelping box is kept at approximately 29°C to 32°C. The temperature can gradually be lowered each week until it's at room temperature by week four. You can tell if the puppies are too hot or too cold by their behaviour.

If the temperature is just right then they will be quiet, feeding and gaining weight. If they are restless and crying, then the temperature needs to be adjusted. If they feel cold to touch, then it’s important that you place them close to their mum and increase the temperature. If they’re trying to move away from the heat source, then try reducing the temperature a little.

Looking after mum

After she’s given birth, try to clean up your dog using warm water and a wrung-out damp cloth. Clean up the whelping box by removing any soiled bedding or newspaper. It’s important to give your dog and her puppies some space and some time to bond and feed together, but it’s also important to take her out to go to the toilet too. When you take your dog out, make sure that the puppies are able to keep warm.

While she’s out, check your dog’s nipples and vulva. If there’s anything that you’re concerned about, such as a foul-smelling discharge, bleeding or her nipples appear swollen, hot or red, then call your vet straight away. Some post-whelping issues can be very serious, so it’s important that you don’t delay if you have any concerns.

A newborn puppy’s first feed

Puppies need to feed from their mum soon after they’ve been born. Their mother’s milk will initially give them everything they need to help them grow. Puppies are born blind, deaf and unable to walk, but they’re able to get to their mother’s nipples by wriggling on their bellies, feeling her warmth and finding their way to her nipple by scent. At first, puppies will drink their mother’s colostrum, which is the first type of milk that she produces. It’s highly concentrated with nutrients and antibodies, giving the puppies the best start in life.

Some inexperienced dogs may not know how to feed their puppies, but you can help show them how by laying her on her side so that her puppies can latch on.

How to help puppies latch on

Sometimes, some puppies may need a little bit of help to find their mother’s teat and feed. If one of your puppies needs help, wash and dry your hands and then pick them up and place them against one of her nipples, with their mouth resting on it. If they still don’t know what to do, try squeezing a little bit of milk out from the teat. This should help the puppy smell the milk and know where to latch on. If the puppy is still not feeding, you could gently put a finger into the corner of their mouth to open it up. Then place their mouth over the teat.

How often should newborn puppies feed?

Newborn puppies feed when they’re hungry, which is roughly every two hours. Feeding this often continues day and night for one to two weeks, gradually reducing as time goes by. For the first part of a puppy’s life, it’s important that you check on them every couple of hours to see if they are feeding ok. If you notice puppies that aren’t feeding or gaining weight, then speak to your vet for advice.

How long should newborn puppies nurse for in one sitting?

Puppies can feed for quite a long time and usually drink milk for around 45 to 50 minutes in one sitting. It’s a good idea to watch the puppies feed and make sure that each one is getting enough to drink and that they’re not being pushed away from the teats by larger puppies.

How to keep a weak newborn puppy alive

After they’re born, make sure the puppies are feeding enough. You can check in on them every couple of hours and take note of who’s feeding on which nipple. A dog’s front nipples (the ones closest to the dog’s head) produce the least amount of milk, so puppies that regularly feed from them may not get as much milk as their littermates. Puppies that are smaller than the others, or are not gaining weight as fast, could be placed on the rear nipples (closest to the back legs), as these produce the most amount of milk. If you notice that a puppy seems weak, or is not gaining weight, contact your vet for advice.

When to wean puppies?

When puppies are three to four weeks old you can begin to introduce them to puppy food. Weaning is an important part of your puppy’s development. When your puppy weans, it means that they move from relying on their mother’s milk for all their nourishment to enjoying solid foods.

Find out more about puppy weaning.

How do you feed newborn puppies?

Most mothers can feed their puppies without needing any help, but sometimes puppies may need to be bottle/tube fed. You might need to bottle-feed puppy if:
  • The mother isn’t producing enough milk,
  • The mother develops mastitis,
  • The puppy’s been rejected by their mother
  • The mother has died (find out about how to cope with the loss of a dog)
In these situations, you can either try to find a foster mother who is currently lactating, which may be difficult, or you'll need to give puppy formula. Your vet will be able to tell you which type to give, how to give it and when.

Can newborn puppies drink cow's milk?

No. Cow’s milk should not be given to newborn puppies and is not a suitable substitute for their mother’s milk. Cow’s milk and dog’s milk have different quantities of nutrients and calories and isn’t suitable for puppies. Puppies should ideally just have their mother’s milk, but some may need to be given specially formulated artificial milk. Always speak to your vet if you don’t think any of your puppies are putting on enough weight or if they're not growing at the right rate.

When do newborn puppies open their eyes?

Puppies are born blind and with their eyes closed. Their eyes usually begin to open between eight and 14 days after they’ve been born. They may not have good eyesight at first, but this improves as they continue to grow and develop. When they're first opened, a puppy’s eyes are usually a greyish blue, but they will become their true colour sometime after eight weeks old.

How to make newborn puppies poo

Puppies can’t go to the toilet by themselves until they’re around three to four weeks old. Until then, their mother licks around their genitals and bottom to help them poo and wee. You may need to help some puppies to go to the toilet, especially if their mother doesn’t know what to do, or if she's died (find out about coping with the loss of your dog).

Most puppies poo after feeding, so this is a good time to help them. You can do this by rubbing at their back end with a warm damp piece of cotton wool until they go to the toilet. Once they’ve gone, make sure you clean them with another piece of wet cotton wool. Check that their stools aren’t too hard or too soft and is of a usual colour. Similarly, their urine should be a pale-yellow colour, the darker it is, the more dehydrated they are.

Keep the whelping box clean

In the first few weeks after birth, your dog will clean up her puppy’s faeces, but she may need help to do this, especially if she’s a first-time mum, or she has a large litter. Make sure that you regularly change the bedding you use in the whelping box, to keep it fresh, clean and hygienic.

Find out why your dog eats her puppies poo.

When to worm newborn puppies?

Even if the mother is wormed, her puppies can still be affected by intestinal worms. A few days after the puppies are born, most breeders arrange a home visit from their vet to give the puppies and their mum a general check-up. While you’re seeing your vet, they will be able to recommend when to begin worming. Most breeders begin worming their puppies from around two weeks old and continue to worm them regularly until they go to their new homes. There are different drugs used in different ways and your vet will be able to give you an appropriate drug and a suitable regime.

When can newborn puppies have visitors?

It’s tempting to show off your newborn puppies to visitors, but it’s also important that you keep the litter safe. Visitors can carry viruses, bacteria or parasites on their hands or shoes, which can be a risk to your puppies until they have been vaccinated and wormed. Initially, visitors should be kept to a minimum. They should remove their shoes before going into the room that the puppies live in, and they must wash their hands before touching them.

When do you take newborn puppies to the vet?

Even though their mother does a fantastic job of caring for her litter (feeding, cleaning, keeping them warm etc.), it’s still important for her and her puppies to be seen by a vet within 48 hours of giving birth. Many vets will do a home visit as this will be less stressful than taking the puppies to the vet. Seeing the vet is not only an important part of their health care but can play a part in their socialisation too. Getting used to being handled and cared for by a vet can make a big difference in how they react to vets in the future.

Find out more about first visits from the vet after whelping.

Checklist of things to do

Where can I find out more?

You can find out more about breeding, pregnancy and raising puppies in a number of films available on The Kennel Club Academy.