By the time your bitch gives birth, she’ll usually have completed a 63-day pregnancy, give, or take a day or two. And she’ll be ready to start nursing her puppies – a period known as lactation. But did you know that the groundwork for a successful nursing period is laid down much earlier – starting when you’re planning for mating and pregnancy, and then during pregnancy?
Start with a healthy body condition
You should aim to start off her reproduction journey in an ideal body condition, but this doesn’t mean overweight. A healthy body condition score of 4 - 5 out of 9 or 3 out of 5, depending on which scale you use, will ensure she’s in tip-top condition. If she’s carrying too much weight, then that can mean problems further down the road and also problems with giving birth. Conversely, if she’s under-weight during her pregnancy, she’ll have trouble maintaining her milk production when she’s nursing, and the pups may suffer poor growth.
Maintain an ideal weight
This optimum body condition should be carried right through her pregnancy, ensuring that she stays at her ideal weight and isn’t too light or too heavy. Most bitches will be about 15-25% heavier by the end of their pregnancy than at the start. And after giving birth, she’ll weigh about 5-10% more than her pre-breeding weight. This might not seem like much when she potentially might have many puppies to feed. But in contrast to cats, dogs don’t need to have a reserve of body fat to feed their offspring during lactation. Instead, dogs are able to adapt quickly and increase their food intake to a much larger degree to enable them to produce enough milk for the puppies.
When nursing, a bitch’s requirements for energy and nutrients are directly related to her milk production. And this production will be directly related to the number of puppies she’s nursing. Lactation is the most demanding period in terms of energy supply in a dog’s whole life – it even exceeds the energy requirements of puppies when they’re growing. For this reason, not only can the bitch ‘switch on’ additional milk to meet the needs of her suckling pups - provided she gets enough food - but also her milk will be very rich, containing more than twice the protein and fat of cow’s milk. This is needed, as her puppies have a more rapid growth rate than calves – and in fact, more than children!
Energy needs during lactation
Mum will gradually increase the amount of milk she produces, usually reaching peak production in weeks 3-5 of lactation. The growing pups will require greater quantities of milk, so mum’s energy needs follow a similar pattern. At this point, her energy needs can be up to four times that of a normal dog. But after this period, as the pups start to wean, gradually her energy needs will fall, as the amount of milk she produces falls.
Choosing a food for late pregnancy and lactation
While mum’s milk production is adaptable to the number of puppies she produces and the amount of milk they need, there’s a caveat. While she can increase her food intake to meet her production needs, there may come a point where she physically cannot take in enough food to meet that need, which is limited by her stomach capacity and the frequency at which she’s able to feed. And therefore, we also need to consider the type of food she’s fed, and specifically, the energy content of that food. If she’s fed food with a low energy density, then she won’t be able to eat enough to meet her needs, and she’ll lose weight and her milk will drop off. Keeping a close eye on her body condition will let you know if she’s having problems.
But this is avoided by choosing a food for her in lactation that’s energy-dense – and this is usually achieved by feeding her a puppy or growth-type food. You’ll most likely have already introduced her to puppy food as her main food during her last third of pregnancy, when the puppies in her tummy are undergoing the most growth. So, this puppy food can be carried on through her lactation period. As the pups are weaning, they’ll also start to nibble at mum’s food, and so once weaned, they can carry on with the same growth food. Once mum has completely weaned, she can be transitioned back onto an adult maintenance food (unless her body condition is telling you she might need to lose or gain weight).
The importance of water
No discussion of lactation would be complete without discussing other nutrients that are important. Top of these, while seeming less obvious, is water! Water is required for milk production, and important in keeping mum healthy and hydrated. Her water bowl should always have clean, fresh water in it, and should be regularly topped up. She may consume many more litres of water than she normally would.
Other nutrients of concern
A good quality puppy food fed during lactation also provides other key nutrients that contribute to the rich milk that mum produces. These should include adequate amounts of good quality protein that’s digestible and utilisable, as this helps provide the building blocks for puppy growth as well as keeping up mum’s own reserves. Many puppy foods also provide a source of DHA-this is a type of fatty acid, which helps support brain and eye development. Some studies have shown that this can help with the puppy’s trainability. Including this omega-3 fatty acid in the puppy food that is fed to mum, will in turn boost levels in her milk.
Getting the right balance with minerals
During pregnancy, and particularly during the last trimester (40 days on), her requirements for the minerals calcium and phosphorus also increase, as the puppies in her womb are developing their skeletons. This skeletal growth continues after the pups are born, so it’s important that mum receives enough of these minerals to supply them through the milk.
However, it’s a delicate balance and it’s also important to avoid over-feeding of these minerals. Providing too much calcium, for example, by giving calcium supplements to mum on top of a complete puppy food, can have negative impacts and may increase the risk of her developing eclampsia. This is because, by supplying her with too much calcium, her body’s own ability to regulate its calcium levels is decreased, and she can’t then mobilise enough calcium from her own body stores late in pregnancy or lactation when she needs to.
The dangers of eclampsia
Eclampsia is more common during weeks 2 and 3 of lactation, but, less commonly, may also occur during the last few weeks of pregnancy. Signs can include anxiety, panting, whining, vomiting, tremors and even seizures. It requires immediate veterinary attention as it can be fatal. For this reason, feeding a complete, balanced food – usually a puppy/ growth food – to mum during her last third of pregnancy, and through lactation, and avoiding additional calcium supplements during this time, will help to support the delicate balance that’s needed.
An adequate supply of energy and other nutrients is helped by feeding a puppy food to mum in late pregnancy and lactation, but the way in which it is fed is also important. Although more energy-dense, mum might still not be able to get enough of the nutrients she needs in her normal one or two meals a day. One or two meals a day are often enough in the first half of pregnancy, but in the later stages, when the puppies are occupying more space in her tummy, she may need additional meals.
In lactation, many bitches may need to be fed free-choice, letting them decide when to eat and how much. This helps them to reach the energy intake they need for their level of milk production. Some bitches will be very nervous during lactation and may need encouragement to eat. Letting her choose when to eat, but having fresh food provided at all times will help her. If mum only has one pup though, free-choice feeding may not be ideal, as she may then gain too much weight. Keep a close eye on mum’s body condition and weight throughout lactation and make sure you adjust meal timings and amounts to keep her at her ideal condition.
Find a vet near you
If you're looking for a vet practice near you, why not visit the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons' Find a vet page.
Find a dog trainer or behaviouristOur online register helps you find accredited dog training instructors and canine behaviourists who have proven specialist knowledge, skills and experience.
Think your dog may be affected?
If you're worried about your dog's health, always contact your vet immediately!
We are not a veterinary organisation and so we can't give veterinary advice, but if you're worried about any of the issues raised in this article, please contact your local vet practice for further information